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Interview: Hollie Cook

Interview: Hollie Cook

Interview: Hollie Cook

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"Last time it just happened but this time we really worked together"


“It’s like Narnia!” exclaims Hollie Cook, comparing author CS Lewis’ fantasy world to her producer Prince Fatty’s small-looking-on-the-outside, large-on-the-inside studio in Brighton. The comment is classic Cook, whose music projects exude the same heady cocktail of wide-eyed innocence and bewitching knowing charm. The daughter of Sex Pistol Paul is working with Fatty on her untitled second vocal album, due for release in September. The tracks are all laid but still being tweaked and they’ve just worked out the running order because “it’s helpful to have an idea in mind of what the songs are all going to sound like next to each other.”

Hollie Cook

Cook’s eponymous first record came out of her voicing on some rhythms that engineer, selector and live mixer Fatty liked to play out. United Reggae’s preview of the follow-up suggests it’s the product of a lot more conscious experimentation with her dreamy lovers rock inspired template.

There’s a song bearing a haunting lyric about being “afraid to win or lose” on an up-tempo Roots Radics style rhythm that isn’t nearly as contradictory as that sounds. There’s even a deeply personal ode to a departed friend where Hollie invites us to “Come Let Her Fire Blaze” in the choral manner of the Celtic ambient group Clannad (“I asked her to sing like a nun” explains Fatty). It’s a careful fusion of dub and disco. “Is the world ready for a reggae disco album?” Fatty asks and we have a brief nerdy discussion of whether the steppers beat was reggae meets disco or not.

And for fans of her covers of The WhispersAnd The Beat Goes on and ODB’s Got Your Money, Hollie’s voiced an extraordinary rendition of Kraftwork’s The Model - with a bassline very similar to the Twinkle BrothersNever Get Burn (played, fittingly, by Twinkle bassist Dub Judah). You can listen to a roughly recorded snippet above. Sadly this one won’t make the album. You have to hear it when Prince Fatty and Cook play live (they’re in Brixton this Saturday)

Hollie says she hasn’t done many interviews lately, and United Reggae is equally unprepared, not knowing she would be at the studio when we visit. But sat on the leather couch, she fielded our made up questions well, even when they took the odd psychological turn…

How has your second vocal album been going?

Very well. It’s close to completion now. Yesterday we were driving myself crazy figuring out a running order – the basic rough outline of how it’s going to be. Now it’s close to being finished I’m starting to feel a bit… well... sad the process has to end. I just really like making albums. It’s fun. I like the whole process of it. So the end is in one way a big relief and a really nice thing to celebrate but at the same time it’s like you’ve had this baby that you’ve raised and now you have to let them fly off into the world on their own!

A flying baby? Is that how you’d describe the album?

(laughs) Sure.

On the Hollie Cook in Dub album you had very little to do. Was it exciting to get back into vocals again?

Yeah! And as you can tell… (gestures around at all the vintage equipment) being here is interesting! (laughs) I live in London so I’m getting out of London for a week or two here and there. This time it’s been nice because we’ve known we were making an album whereas before we were just having fun making songs then realized there were a bunch of them that were good enough to stick together into one little musical piece. This time we were like “There’s an album and we’re making it” and I’ve come down and there’s intention and I’m stuck in. Just the intention feels really solid.

This time we were like “There’s an album and we’re making it”

Do you feel any pressure at all in following up a successful first album?

I did before I started working on this one. But then at the same time in a selfish way, no, because I’m happy with how it’s gone and I had a good time doing it. Every now and again you think about the fact that it is a little bit weirder because people have heard stuff that you’ve done before as opposed to it being a brand new thing with nothing to compare it to. It’s going to take some getting used to for some people. Some people might instantly like it. Some people might not like it at all compared to the last one. But either way – cool! The pressure thing pfft!

So if YOU were comparing it – how does it compare?

Oooh interesting! It’s err… oh I haven’t even thought about comparing it really. It’s completely different and completely separate in my mind and it sounds different. It’s kind of not the same but it is the same because it’s still the same people working on it but we’ve all sort of moved forward a few years. I think we all got weirder and a bit more fun because life has been a bit weirder and a bit more fun and it’s just a reflection of that.

Prince Fatty, Hollie Cook and Dennis Bovell

You’ve been putting some quite fun looking pictures of you, Dennis Bovell, George Dekker and the crew in the studio on your Facebook and Twitter and so on.

Yeah, it has a massive personality because there are so many personalities involved in the way it has been made, so I think that really comes across.

What kind of life experiences have you put into this album?

Interesting. You know, like, grief to love to more grief, funnily enough, to confusion to personal improvement. I’m still so in it as opposed to reflecting on it. I suppose if I – when I – finally sit back and listen to it all song for song for song… there’s been a lot that I’ve been through personally. Some of the songs, when you hear them it will be obvious. Which is different. Because I prefer to be quite ambiguous when I write but there is a song on there that it is quite clear what it is about. 

I prefer to be quite ambiguous when I write

Would that song be about Ariane? (Ari Up from the punk group the Slits who recruited Hollie in 2006 when she reformed the band. Ari died from cancer in 2010)

Yeah! There’s a song that is blatantly about her. It has her name in it so for me that’s an extremely exposed way to express how I’m feeling. I’m not normally up for that. Because when it is something so personal it’s such a weird thing to willingly share with a bunch of people you don’t know! But at the same time that’s what draws people to lyrics and melodies and whatever.

You sometimes play the Slits song New Town at festivals and it’s like you suddenly transform back into something completely different from your past.

It was a big part of my musical experience and [experience] as a performer. So it’s nice to be able to somehow incorporate that into what I’m doing now and to honour my time with the Slits. Because I wouldn’t necessarily be making the kind of music I am now without having had the experience with them. And playing Slits songs is so much fun and they’re such good songs. So it kind of breaks it up a little bit but doesn’t seem too out of place with everything else in the set.

Ariane was eulogised in various broadsheet newspapers for expanding the possibilities for women wanting to present themselves in popular music. She made it easier for women in general to be more things in public. Do you feel female artists have more opportunities now image-wise or are there still limitations imposed?

She was everything and anything in public! (laughs) That’s always kind of a tricky one. I guess all the opportunities are out there and maybe it’s more about encouraging your own mindset and confidence to not even think that there was something standing in the way of those opportunities. Confidence in women to do what they want. I know so many strong and ambitious women who are all doing everything that they want to do so it’s always been natural not to see limitations based on sex. That’s not my world that I live in but I can see how that’s a question that’s challenged. Fortunately for me, no! (laughs)

I know so many strong and ambitious women who are all doing everything that they want to do

Do you see any limitations for you in what you want to do in your life and your work?

Pfft! No, I don’t. No one should really. I’m fortunate but no, I’ve never felt there were limitations. The only limitations would be coming from myself and confidence issues which I manage to completely overcome.

What advice would you give to people suffering from confidence issues?

(laughs) Don’t take it serious!

What does a typical day involve recording the album at this studio?

Come down, listen to tunes, have a chat, have a coffee. Some days the band are here and we try a few different things out. Some ideas have been around from pretty much the end of the last album and been worked on and evolved so it has really been like a completely continuous thing. It’s kind of just like this really!

(Prince Fatty is playing tunes very loud in the adjoining party room – for the first few minutes of the interview he was playing the extended discomix of Gregory Isaacs Mr Know It All and now he is playing an extended dub version of the Stars rhythm)

There’s always something going on. You have to step out every now and again! (laughs)

Do you feel sealed in here – does the outside world vanish away?

Only after about five or so hours. You completely forget that there’s a world out there for a really long time and then all of a sudden you’re like “Why do I feel so crazy? Oh, I need some daylight and some oxygen!”

All of a sudden you’re like “Why do I feel so crazy? Oh, I need some daylight and some oxygen!”

How do you pass the time during the waiting stages?

Oh there’s always something to do. There are always ideas to work on. Music to be listening to and band rehearsals to be had and artwork ideas. We’re never bored.

Is it all work work work in here? Don’t you ever get to play cards or something?

Oh no! It’s all play play play. All the time. We’re playing games 24-7. Sometimes I go in that room there and do a bit of yoga. In between vocal takes I’ll do some stretching!

You mentioned listening to tunes. Obviously you’ll be listening to stuff you’ve recorded but do you also have listening parties for other people’s music to get inspiration? Does someone come in with a game-changing record for you to hear?

Yeah that’s happened in here with a few different things. Generally what’s cool is if there’s other people around and they bring music ideas to the table. Like Bart, the French guy we write songs with who is a wonderful man. I sit with him and get him to play me new weird stuff that I wouldn’t necessarily have heard before. Old weird stuff generally but it’s new to me! Generally nameless things! I’m like “Make me a playlist!”

I’m glad you brought up Barthélémy Corbelet because he wrote songs like Milk & Honey on the first album I wanted to ask if he was involved. How does your writing intersect with his, Fatty’s, Dennis and other people on the project?

It just does! We’ve spent a lot of time with each other over the last five plus years. I think it’s interesting for him to play me music that he likes to hear and see my reaction and what I really latch on to. He’s quite thoughtful like that. He knows my voice and he knows the melodies I like. He’ll have an idea and bring it to me and we’ll work on things together. Or I’ll have an idea and I’ll get stuck and ask him for advice on a lyric or a more fitting melody. It’s been super-duper interactive this time. Last time it just happened but this time we really worked together. It felt really nicely collaborative. Last time was really a group of songs that came about from getting used to working with Prince Fatty. I wanted to do some singing and he had some songs hanging about that his friend Bart had written that he hadn’t really done anything with. So it was like “Why don’t you try out a few of those” and they ended up being Bodybeat and Milk and Honey. That process started a long time ago but it’s been a much more intense version of that.

It’s been super-duper interactive this time

When I told my friend I was coming to meet you she said “Hollie Cook! I want to be her!” Do you see yourself as a role model for people?

(laughs) No, I really don’t at all! That kind of thing is really far out to be honest! (pauses) I’m a bit stumped on what to say there…

(at this point Fatty starts turning up the volume on The In Crowd Mango Walk in the next room as if to rescue Hollie from the strange question by obscuring her answer)

I suppose…Knowing how I felt about certain artists growing up you know that for some people there is a certain amount of aspiring to be like that person or want what they have. So I get that but, and I don’t know if it’s really clichéd to say this but you don’t really relate to the same if you’re on the other end. That’s really great and fine and it’s really flattering if not slightly worrying! (laughs) But it’s totally cool. That’s awesome. I’m up for that. I just needed a minute to think about it! I can handle it. (laughs some more)

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