Interview: Aly Cook

You may have seen my review of New Zealand country/blues musician Aly Cook’s new album, Caught in the Middle, which is coming out very soon. I mentioned in the blog post that I interviewed her. In this interview we talk about her story as someone who previously worked in the music industry behind the scenes. A big thank you to Aly for taking the time to answer my questions!

Aly’s story is very inspiring and her music is so eclectic that you’re sure to find a song you’ll like. Check out my mini review of her album Caught in the Middle here.

You can stream the single “Red Dirt Road” that just came out on the 20th below:

Angie Moon: Tell me your story of how you got into country music.

Aly Cook: I guess that’s your influences and what you’ve grown up with. I guess as a kid, I grew up with things like Glen Campbell, stuff like that and then when I got into music myself as a kid, I got into Neil Young. And then people like Bonnie Raitt and Mary Chapin Carpenter, people like that later on, Lucinda Williams. 

I guess I’ve always been influenced by country and blues. I like the blues kind of thing too like Koko Taylor and Nina Simone. I had a sort of mixed influences across the board kind of feel.

Then I later on travelled to Australia as a young teenager and into my early 20s and listened to a lot of Australian rock bands, kind of where the rock influence I think came in. 

AM: What is the country music scene like in New Zealand?

AC: New Zealand of course is quite small, only about 5 million people. So a lot of us who are in the Australian country music scene are in the New Zealand country music scene as well. It’s only a 3 hour flight across to Australia and a lot of us go back and forth across to there. It is quite small because it is an island, but it’s quite a strong music scene generally across the board. But there’s still a few little festivals and things like that in New Zealand as well.

AM: What are the differences between when you play in Australia versus in New Zealand?

AC: Australia’s kind of an interesting development within its country music. It has this thing called the bush ballad, which a lot of Australia was originally colonised by Irish immigrants that got shipped out basically and that kind of put an Irish influence through a lot of the music. 

So they developed this thing called the country bush ballad, which has sort of Irish influences in it, if you like. So they’ve got a really quite a unique country sound that’s their own over there. And New Zealand, I guess the country out of here, there’s some roots kind of underground country that rises out of New Zealand as well. It’s much more so in Australia.

AM: What was the term? Bush ballad?

AC: There’s this whole Golden Guitar Awards, which is the equivalent of the CMAs for Australia. They even have a segment that’s called ‘The Bush Ballad’, which is about Australia’s heritage and the breaking in of the land. It’s the sort of thing you get from being in the antipodes, I suppose. Where we’re younger in terms of country than you would get in Europe, where it’s very ancient. It’s more new in New Zealand and Australia. So the bush ballad is kind of the tales of those first pioneers.

AM: What was it like working with Buzz [Bidstrup] of The Angels?

AC: He’s a fabulous guy. I first started working with him, he also runs a thing called Uncle Jimmy Thumbs Up, which works with music with Indigenous children and that’s where I first started working with him, going out and doing music in the Aboriginal communities and then Buzz and I started to write songs together and from there it sort of crossed into the studio. He’s definitely an amazing person to work with, that’s for sure.

I sort of punch myself when I’m there working in the studio and the guys, they’re such great musicians. It was a little daunting first walking in the door going, ‘Whoa’, you know? A lot of talent in this room. But then they made me feel very comfortable and played to what I was doing. Everything was focused around the feel of the song, the feel of how it was when it went down, rather than building tracks up, which is the way I’ve done it previously on my previous two albums. It was a new experience for me. Yeah, he’s great.

AM: What was it like to work with David [Nicholas], a producer/engineer who has worked with such legendary musicians?

AC: David Nicholas, he had a big career in England there for a while working at Real World Studios with some amazing people and again a fantastic person to work with. His knowledge base is so great. But again, it’s the same with Buzz [Bidstrup], it’s all about the feel of the song going down. 

He’s a very excellent engineer at recording bands live, you know? So that whole breaking up the band in individual rooms and you’re all looking at each other through windows and playing so you’re all isolated and all that sort of side of getting it all together and then the mixing. He’s a very good mixer. He’s mixed lots of international and top albums and just knows how to sonically make things beautiful. I mean, they have to have the magic in them in the first place, but he just brings everything out in the song. He’s really fabulous, easy to work with people, you know?

AM: Let’s talk about your upcoming album, Caught in the Middle. What was recording it like?

AC: Really magic. I had this fantastic band that they put together of really top guys. It was really magical. The songs just went down in just one or two takes. We do one or two takes and then we choose the best take. You know, that one’s got a better vibe than that one for whatever reason, but everything was only done in one or two takes. And then we just do minimal overdubs to things. A bit of backing vocals, little bit of instrumentation added, but most of it all went down at one time together. It’s really just beautiful and it’s a real privilege to work with them.

AM: I was reading your press release and I saw that one of the meanings of Caught in the Middle was because you’re caught between blues and country. Can you talk about that?

AC: Well, I kind of love the blues stuff, I kind of love the country stuff, but I’m quite broad in my like of music. I can listen to just about everything, you know. There isn’t much I don’t really like. And the blues side, I’m very influenced by kind of like what Bonnie Raitt does. I can’t play guitar like that, good god, I wish I could.

I love the mix in the middle. Country is such a wide genre and it’s definitely the album’s quite eclectic. It moves across both those genres and a couple of other different things as well. There’s a couple of interesting tracks on there that are neither thing, but they all kind of tie together because the musicians playing the songs are all the same musicians basically.

AM: Is there anything you wish people knew about country music, or any misconceptions [about it]?

AC: I think the biggest misconception is that the public will sometimes call country and western that whole thing, they don’t recognise that the genre is so incredibly wide, although country-alt is kind of bringing a new generation of people through, I think now, that are actually, you know, that mixing of blues and folk and country, Americana, roots. It’s a very wide genre. I think if anything’s a misconception about is that people think about a narrow, one element of it, which is this sort of old fashioned country and western, tend to tag it that way and then realising that it can be much more broad than that.

AM: Let’s talk about crowdfunding. I know that you crowdfunded your previous albums. What do you like about it?

AC: When I first crowdfunded the first album, it was really because I needed the funds to make the album, but what I discovered after one crowdfunding round was that it was about much more than money. It was the other things that, it was like a street team. 

Those people felt like they were part of your project. That’s really the special part of it is that you become very close to those people and a lot of my crowdfunders now have been across all three albums. So that stayed with me and then more people have joined them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. They advance buy your CD, some might buy a house concert or some might throw in 50 bucks and say give me a download. They’re pretty random about how they contribute. I’ve done more of a presale on this one, so I made it more about buying a CD. 

But I think it’s the people and from my crowdfunders I’ve had write ups in magazines, I’ve had got onto different radio shows, I’ve had festivals come my way. It’s much more than just raising funds to record, definitely.

AM: What advice do you have for people who want to do crowdfunding?

AC: You can’t just put it up and think that it’s going to happen. You really gotta work it. You’ve gotta engage with people. You can’t just go ‘I want some money, can you buy my album?’ You’ve got to engage them, get them interested in what you do and then ask them if they’d help you. 

It’s the art of asking. It’s the art of being able to say ‘Hey, I’d love it if you’d advance buy my CD. It would really help me out.’ And people do want to help you if you are just happy to ask them and then they get music back. 

And that music, they feel like they’re really part of it because they feel like they’ve been a part of making it happen, which they have been. So you just have to work at it and share it out with your social media, engage people, talk to people, get to know them. There was never a time really like there is now to do that with social media.

AM: What is the biggest challenge in crowdfunding?

AC: I suppose to get the funds that you need to do it. You got to be committed to do your project, I guess. And getting the funds you need to be able to record your album or do whatever you’re going to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an album, but might be a book or whatever you want to do. 

I think overcoming your own fear of what feels like begging, you now. It’s actually not because you’re actually getting music. Instead of them buying the music after it’s finished, they’re buying it before it’s made. Once you get that and your head’s set, then it’s easier to actually run a successful crowdfunding campaign because then you are quite confident about saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to make this music, can you help me do it?’

AM: What are your favourite songs on your new album?

AC: Well, it changes all the time. It’s been a difficult process. During the making of the album, the guitarist passed away and he’s on every track except for track 12, which is “Cold Wind”. For a while after the sessions, it made it really hard to listen to the songs. So I’m not even really kind of listening to them and enjoying them now, but I do love “We Hold Up Half the Sky” at the moment. It’s kind of an upbeat blues kind of rocky sort of song and it’s a woman empowerment song. I really do love that. 

And from a vocal delivery standpoint, I kind of quite like “Steal Your Love”, which is a cover, it’s one of three covers on there. That one is by Lucinda Williams and it’s the pre-release [track]. And also, track 12, “Cold Wind”, which was the song that Kay Bidstrup wrote for Glen after he died, but we kind of recorded it all around a piano and it was quite cathartic to sing it really because it had been written about him and so that’s pretty special to me as well.

But I do have my moments of liking different ones, I’m just really pleased with it, you know?

AM: I’m very sorry to hear the news about your guitarist.

AC: Yeah, it was not nice.

AM: What is your proudest accomplishment?

AC: My three kids (laughs). And then I think, just keeping going, you know? Like I haven’t let age define me that I shouldn’t be doing music. I’m now in my 50s and I’m really enjoying the music that I’m creating now as much as music that when I was younger that I did, you know? 

So I think continuing and inspiring others like I know that going and making my first album at 46 years of age. That was when I got my first album out, I know that I’ve inspired other people to go, ‘You know what, she did that. I can do this.’ And there’s been other people that have gone, ‘I can do what she does. I can do that.’ 

That to me is a good accomplishment through your actions. You actually inspire somebody else to follow their dreams. I think that that’s a pretty cool thing.

AM: That’s really inspiring, absolutely. It’s never too late to make it.

AC: No, I think that that’s a really good feeling when someone says, ‘I’ve looked at what you’ve done and you really inspire me.’ That feels like a big achievement when someone says that to you. You’re kind of like, ‘Yeah, that’s good.’ That’s what you should be doing. You should be making other people feel like they can do it too, you know?

AM: What did you do before music?

AC: I’ve always been in the music industry. So I’ve ridden horses quite a bit and I had horses on the side throughout the years. But I’ve always been in the music industry, I worked as a tour coordinator, as a publicist, as I still do today at a publicity company and I’m working on lots of other people’s releases right now as well as my own. So I help other indie artists get their stuff out there. And the years of doing PR for major acts have kind of helped that process I now do with indies, you know?

AM: What do you think has changed most about the music industry from a few decades ago to now?

AC: Well, that’s interesting because I have lived through that industry from the 80s right through to now and I think now is the best time ever. I mean, I couldn’t have imagined doing what I’m doing back then. I couldn’t have done it without a label backing me. 

I remember when MP3s came along and everyone freaked out about putting their music online and there was that whole ‘Oh no! Don’t put your music online,’ and I sort of bowled out and put my music online and thought, ‘Nah. I’m gonna embrace this,’ because it takes the power base away because you were at the mercy of getting a record deal to be able to make music. Now you can actually make music and you can put it out yourself and you can build your own fanbase and I think it’s fabulous. I do enjoy using the brick and mortar things that I’ve learnt over the years though with the modern. So using both I think is a good thing.

AM: I saw on your website that you do house concerts. What do you like about playing them?

AC: House concerts and that kind of vibe are my favourite kind of environment to be in. I love them. In a house concert, you can plug in your guitar and tell the story about the songs. That’s really me. From my songwriting perspective, I like to do that. 

Everything starts with just writing with the guitar and whatever, it takes it back to that sort of roots thing where the songs come from. And quite often, they’re really good. Quite often you’ll have like 20 or 30 people in the room or whatever and every one of them will buy a CD off you. 

So it’s like you might have just a small crowd, but it’s usually a successful night with a house concert. Again, I like it and that’s the crowdfunding family. You feel close to those people in the room and they get to know you and what your songs are about and what you’re about. It’s got a nice intimacy. I like the intimacy of it.

AM: What are your goals and future plans?

AC: Well I’d like to see this album do really well. I do like to get my songs in places they’re not allowed to be, so to speak. I’d like to be able to go, ‘Wow! I got my song there!’ I’m off to a good start today because “Steal Your Love” has been programmed onto iHeart Radio over here onto another commercial station in New Zealand. And it’s a first for me and it’s a privilege. 

That’s not actually a single, the single is actually coming out on the 20th, you know I was like, ‘Yeah! Great!’ Commercial radio actually liked my album track enough to programme it. So I’m like, ‘That’s great!’ So just to get my music out there and heard by more people. That’s probably my goal is to just grow my fanbase.

AM: How many countries are your fans in?

AC: Well, that’s interesting. Because they’re spread out. I’ve got fans in the UK, Ireland, Norway, you know, I’ve played in those places and Poland and yeah they’re kind of everywhere. I’ve gone across to Europe three or four times in the last 10 years and played over there as well. It’s been great too. So that’s the interesting thing about the internet, they come from everywhere.

AM: What did you like about touring in Europe?

AC: I love the European bands. I think the standard of bands and musicianship is great over there. Quite often you’ll pull up to see the charts and there might be one person in the band who speaks English and it’s really gorgeous and they get on stage and the next thing they’re singing your backing vocals in English and you can’t even tell, you know? They’re nodding at you off stage because you can’t say anything to each other apart from one or two words that you’ve learnt. I love that whole thing. Yeah, it’s great to travel away and play different countries and experience different cultures.

AM: What advice do you have for new musicians?

AC: Just work hard, you know? At the end of the day, it’s not an easy business to be in. Diversify. Learn about different elements of the music industry, and just work hard. It’s a really hard thing for artists to market themselves. 

Even though I’m actually a publicist that other promoters pay to promote their gigs and things like that, I still am using other publicists other than myself to promote my projects because it’s pretty hard to go, ‘Here’s Aly, she sings really well,’ or something, you know. You can’t say that about yourself. So you need somebody else to say it. 

So find somebody who is a good spokesman or a good mate who can get you out there and talk on your behalf. That helps to get a wee team around you, try to build a wee team around you that supports what you do and just believe in yourself and just work hard.

Aly Cook’s new album Caught in the Middle comes out on 27 September. You can find her on Spotify, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and her website.

Shout out to my good friend and Topaz level Patron, Patrick and my friend Matt.

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