Elizabeth Cook: Aftermath

The word Aftermath conjures images of disorder, damage, rubble -- the consequences of destruction. But for Elizabeth Cook, it’s rooted in the kind of renewal that can only spring up from the ashes of scorched earth.

“There’s another old farming term for it that means the cutting of the second growth,” she says when asked to define Aftermath, the name of her fifth album, out September 11. “After a fire torched a field, the aftermath is what would begin to grow back, and sometimes, they would turn that under to nourish the soil. The cutting of the second growth. I consider it reflections on this last chapter of my experience.”

Since making her formal Nashville debut with her 2002 album Hey Y’All, the Florida-born singer-songwriter has won over fans (including famous ones like David Letterman), rock and country heavyweights (legendary producer Don Was helmed 2010’s Welder, which featured Dwight Yoakam, Buddy Miller and Rodney Crowell as backing vocalists), radio friends (she hosts her own show, Apron Strings, on Sirius XM’s Outlaw Country) and critics alike. But success didn’t come easy, and Cook faced a series of devastating changes in the years leading up to 2016’s Exodus of Venus: her marriage unraveled, she landed in rehab, and several close family members, including her father, passed away.

Exodus was the first stop on her journey to heal, but with Aftermath, Cook continues to write her way through catharsis by bravely revisiting her most precious and painful memories. “Bones,” the psych rock-tinged barn-burner of an album opener, deals in truth vs. metaphor (“I wear your bones around my neck” is a direct reference to a necklace containing her parents’ ashes), and “When She Comes” is a throwback to that brutal period after rehab when her “impending death on a hotel room floor” was the stuff of painful gossip. Aftermath has its rambunctious high points, too -- “Bayonette” is an immediate crowd-pleaser with its “Brand New Key”-channeling charm, as is “Thick Georgia Woman,” her unapologetic ode to the strength of Southern femininity. Aftermath isn’t just regrowth, but the blossoming of Cook’s most honest, intimate exploration of herself in song yet -- one that continues to teach her as she looks back on everything she poured into it.

This is your first album since Exodus of Venus, When did you start writing the songs that wound up on Aftermath?

There’s been a lot of change since Exodus. I feel like every record has been getting written my whole life: my life’s like probably a thousand storylines, so some of those develop faster than others. When I’m ready to close the book on one of those storylines, I can write a song about it. Some of those storylines, like “Daddy I Got Love For You,” that was like, three different songs, and one of them I’ve had for ten years -- one part I’ve had for six years, and the other part I just wrote on the fly one day because I was sick of having these parts with nothing around them. I found a lot of lyrics and things I’d written down to put in there. That felt good; it felt like a good way to wrap that story up.

Even between 2010’s Welder and Exodus of Venus, you faced so many changes between those albums. How has music been a refuge for you, and how does Aftermath embody that in terms of working through this? Did this healing begin with Exodus of Venus?

For sure. Exodus of Venus was the first album where I felt no longer responsible to the shiny blonde country singer. I really let myself shine through, and not through any filter that I felt obligated to. That was a big turn for people that had followed me from Welder, because I really got into, and rolled around in, a lot of the dark stuff. “Bones” is a song that I wrote to my parents to let them know that I’m okay, because they were older when they had me, and they knew that I would be younger when they died, and they worried if I would be okay or not. It’s sort of my song to them, because I do wear their ashes “around my neck,” and so, to let them know I’m alright, that I’m through it and I’m going to probably maybe -- I’m going to live as long as I’m supposed to, and everything’s gonna be okay.

The album isn’t without its softer moments, including “Daddy I Got Love For You.” Are there any points where you’re listening back through Aftermath that felt really vulnerable?

I don’t know why I have such a fearless filter. I will tell the person checking me out at the grocery store some story, or some deep thought I had in the parking lot. I just process through people a lot, but these days, I think that I had to acknowledge what I was doing, and I had to come face-to-face with it and know that, okay, this is a choice: am I going to be defiant, am I going to be “Half-Hanged Mary,” or am I going to go down this hole and become this dark old lady? What am I gonna do? Going through these songs, they give me the opportunity to figure that out. The only time that I have regret, or concern, about something that I’m sharing, is when it is so vulnerable. Vulnerability carries fear with it: when I’m singing a certain line and I’m really in it, and I get sort of swept away by it, and that’s distracting me, sometimes I think, well maybe that’s too much, because I’m getting caught up in a moment myself where I’m thinking about this way too hard to be onstage in front of people. I’m always kind of straddling that line onstage a lot. Am I about to go crazy in front of people? That’s kind of what they pay to see me do, but that’s really walking a tightrope.

Is Aftermath a new threshold for you, in that regard?

Yeah. I think as I’ve developed the musical language over time to express some of these things in a more poignant way, it’s harder and harder to deny what I’m saying. Early on, I was part of that Nashville machine: I was in my 20s and doing everything that I thought I was supposed to do, just trying to be a good girl, but I wrote what I thought would please people -- and that’s such a shitty thing to do in a way. It’s pandering. And it’s not true. And it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

You found a great creative match in Butch Walker, who produced Aftermath. What made him a perfect fit for this album?

His energy. That’s such a basic word to use. I listed him in the liner notes as being the person who provided all the sonic flourishes, because I really don’t even know what to call all that he does. I always wanted a producer to take the songs that my band and I are presenting and help us interpret them further -- don’t just get a good clean recording of this song with the vintage mic and all the stuff I don’t give a fuck about, help me elevate what I’m saying and what we’re playing, here. Butch does that in spades. It was just so fun to have somebody continue to go wild and run with it. I don’t want to work with anybody who’s not an artist at what they do, and I want a producer that can do what Butch does.

You recorded Aftermath closer “Mary, the Submissing Years” -- a spin on John Prine’s “Jesus, the Missing Years” -- in Nashville. What led you to this inspired take on his classic?

I heard that song, and I thought it was so delightful, and hurtful, and everything that John Prine can do in a song. I wanted to write about the other people around [Jesus], because I thought, well, he went off and did all this cool stuff, but he’s not the only person in the story. What was everybody else doing? I thought about his mother Mary: what was she thinking when he was in Italy? She’s probably like, what the fuck? I wanted to write a song from his mother’s perspective. It was a very intimidating idea to have, but I felt really strongly like I’m challenged to do this with myself, so I’m going to try and do it one day. I carried it [for] a long time because you just don’t write a parallel song to a John Prine song. I told Butch I had nine songs -- I really had, like, six -- so I isolated all of December 2018. I didn’t see a soul. I spent Christmas day completely alone. (I ate four corn dogs. It was awesome.) I had one month to finish writing the album. I was getting everything out. I keep a file on a lot of things that I’m interested in that I think I might write about one day, so “Mary, the Submissing Years” had a file with some things printed out from the internet. There’s very little to find on Jesus’ mother, but I sat down on the morning of December 23 at my kitchen table with my notes, and I printed out John’s lyrics, and I wanted to mirror them all the way down. I wrote it in about six hours. Then I was done. I cried and cried.

Survival is the thematic backbone of Aftermath -- going back to resilience, even getting down to “Mary the Submissing Years,” she kept going in her own story, and it’s not lost on me that this is a through line of Aftermath. Is Aftermath your testament to survival, a reminder of all you’ve lived through?

It is. It’s totally autobiographical all the way to the end there, where I just take peace in resting, and accepting. Just accepting. Giving it all a rest. Because yeah -- there’s all those injustices, her defiance, what her life was. I just wanted to point it out. I think I wanted to point out and consider that other people are also having a very intricate experience, not just what they’re sayin’ in your scene. I think it’s important for us to be able to do that and be able to step into someone’s skin as a matter of our own survival. I wanted to try and get in her skin.

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