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Outside of the studio and offstage, Ian Cooke doesn’t care about timing. He’d rather take his time writing the perfect song, even if it means taking more than four years to put out an album. Cooke released his fiery, cello-driven debut, The Fall I Fell, in 2007, garnering plenty of acclaim. Now, he’s finally dropped his follow-up, the spacious effort, Fortitude, and it was worth the wait. Before Cooke’s release show Dec. 16 at the Curious Theater, we caught up with the singer-songwriter via e-mail to talk about what took so long, his recent brush with death, and the importance of never giving up.
The A.V. Club: Although you’ve always played solo shows, you’re no stranger to working with a full band. How prominent are your bandmates on this new release?
Ian Cooke: About half of the songs on Fortitude were written with the band in mind—because of the lengthy chord progressions and multiple melodies that happen simultaneously in a lot of these songs, the band members each play an important role.
AVC: What was the recording process like? Did recording half of these songs with your bandmates allow more ideas to flow in the studio?
IC: Yes, arranging the band’s songs was very collaborative and a lot of ideas came up in the studio. Sometimes the best ones were the last minute, first-take “experiments.” For instance, Sean Merrell came up with and recorded the drumbeat on the verses of “Bones” within a half-hour or so. I just adored it. Everyone contributed great ideas about how to structure the newer songs and how long we should have this part or that part carry on. I’m lucky to work with such smart and talented dudes.
AVC: Do you feel like it is more natural to play solo?
IC: I am the most comfortable playing solo. Don’t get me wrong, I love playing with the band and certainly have more fun doing so, but I love the challenge of having complete control [and] being the source of [every] sound. Also, I end up playing more solo shows because they’re just streamlined. I don’t have to worry about scheduling rehearsals, there is less gear to carry [and] there’s no one I have to split the pay with.
AVC: Beyond more collaboration, how does Fortitude differ from your 2007 release, The Fall I Fell?
IC: I would say that Fortitude is a step closer to prog-rock than The Fall I Fell.
AVC: You also play piano on Fortitude. How long have you been playing the piano, and how does it compare to the cello?
IC: I’ve played piano for about 25 years. It was my first instrument. I never stopped playing it, but it took the back seat when I started cello in middle school. I think Fortitude is more piano-heavy because I wanted to cover more ground, in a sense. Piano allows for a chord progression, a melody, and a harmony or counter-melody all to be played at the same time. Essentially each finger can be a voice. It is a lot harder to achieve this with the cello, [where you] can, basically, only play two notes at a time.
AVC: After you released The Fall I Fell, why did it take you such a long time to put out another album?
IC: Various reasons—aside from laziness, being in a relationship for a year and breaking my finger, I just wanted to take The Fall I Fell as far as I could. In that four years, I did a fair bit of touring, a couple of music videos were made, and I also recorded two songs for a Joanna Newsom tribute compilation called Versions of Joanna.
AVC: Are you happy that the new album was pressed onto vinyl?
IC: Yes. First of all, it looks awesome. As I mentioned, this album ended up with a bit of vintage, prog-rock flavor in both sonic and visual ways, so to see it in [12-inch] format feels really good. The cover art was inspired largely by Roger Dean, who painted several album covers for bands like Yes and Asia. We chose to press vinyl mainly because it outsells CDs these days.
AVC: So, you were recently in a van wreck. What exactly happened?
IC: I went on tour the week before Thanksgiving [and] had just played the kickoff show at the Larimer Lounge. I [drove] into some snow in eastern Colorado and drove through it for an hour or so. Then, just west of Sterling, Denise (my van) started to swerve. The road was icy and I lost all control. The van spun 180 degrees, slid sideways into the ditch-style median and rolled all the way over, landing back on her wheels. I was wearing my seat belt and, miraculously, was not injured in any way. All of my gear was tossed like a salad, but only a few of my vinyl albums were damaged. I was able to pick up the tour in Lincoln, [Nebraska], only missing two gigs. It gave a lot more meaning to the “carpe diem,” “never give up” themes of the album.
AVC: Now that you’re safe and sound, what are you looking forward to at your album release show on Dec. 16?
IC: Both solo and full-band performances including some guests who contributed some recordings to the album. Joshua Novak will open the night with a solo set, followed by Danielle Ate The Sandwich. We will play all of the songs on the new album plus some others. Perhaps we’ll [play] a cover together.
AVC: The event is being held at the Curious Theatre, which only has 175 seats. Why did you decide to release the album at this venue?
IC: The first album release show was at the Hi-Dive and it was a lot of fun, but I wanted to have this one in a venue designed more for a “sit down and listen” type of concert. I also wanted to be sure all ages are allowed. The Curious Theater holds roughly the same number of people as the Hi-Dive and I like that intimacy. We played there during the Westword Music Showcase in 2009 and just felt really good about it.
AVC: Following the release of The Fall I Fell, you saw plenty of local and national acclaim, but after 2009 or so, the “spotlight” seemed to fade. Why do you think this happened?
IC: Yeah, you really have to keep cranking things out in order to stick with people. Naturally, if you let [four] years go by without a release, things are going to get stale. I wish I were faster, but I’m a perfectionist and a procrastinator, so I guess I just needed the time.
AVC: Do you think Fortitude will give you another push toward musical success?
IC: Hopefully Fortitude will do well—I feel pretty good about it. I’m happy to be doing what I love and I’ll do it whether it makes dough or not. If I can make enough money on tour to eat and get to the next city, I consider that a success. I don’t think I can aim too high though. I’d love to do what I’ve done for myself here in Colorado on a national or even international level. That’s what Greater Than and Vinefield are helping me with, and I am excited and optimistic.
AVC: Speaking of optimism, what does the future hold?
IC: A lot of travel—I want to tour and play as many festivals as possible in 2012. I’m already writing new songs and I want to make recording a more frequent activity. I’m giving myself a two-year deadline for [my next] release, but my goal is to have another batch of songs done by this time next year. I’m thinking about assembling a collection of songs about dinosaurs—it would be educational, but, musically, a lot more interesting than kid’s music usually is; I want to get emotional with it and make it like a rock opera.