Musician Amy Cook stands with her back to the “hippie trailer” and giant pecan tree that anchor the outdoor garden at Austin’s Shady Grove restaurant. An unlit American Spirits brand cigarette dangles from her lips as she finishes loading her van with an array of items: boxes filled with promotional merchandise, cases of Topo Chico mineral water, her guitar and the other musical equipment she hauled to her Unplugged at the Grove performance with guitarist Jake Owen.
“I’m heading to Marfa tomorrow, just to get out of town for a while,” Cook says, closing the van’s back door as she lights the cigarette.
Moments earlier, Cook and Owen played a lazy-afternoon-on-the-porch kind of acoustic set to a grove of KGSR-FM radio listeners, many of whom were familiar with some of Cook’s singles played by the station. Many others in the crowd were just pleased to hear that the Belleville Outfit show opener could carry a tune. But soon enough, they were swaying to her music and applauding whole-heartedly.
After Cook and Owen floated through tunes like the delightfully cheery “Bright Colored Afternoons” and the mystical, hypnotic melody “The Answer,” in which Cook’s satin-nectar vocals are wonderfully displayed, the grove crowd threw in a request or two, and murmurs of “great lyricist,” “pretty voice” and “the next big thing” swam through a sea of admirers.
Cook let it all wash over her like an ethereal dream, gracious and graceful. This is the Amy Cook many Austin music scene devotees have come to know and love. Her live performances captivate a crowd, her tender, dulcet voice reminiscent of the Sirens of Greek mythology.
But despite her lulling voice, poetic lyricism and willowy stage presence, Cook is not a naïve musical newcomer detached from reality. Her songs, while often breezy and chockfull of nostalgia-evoking lyrics, are drawn from her own experiences and are often hauntingly laced with the harsh truths of life.
“Her music is really honest and bare-boned, in a good way. She sounds like she’s been there without being cliché,” Owen says. “She doesn’t sound exactly like everybody else, but there’s an equality in her voice. And her lyrics aren’t too far in to the symbolic realm; they’re organic and easy to relate to.”
Cook’s is music to wake up to on a simple, lazy Sunday morning, to fall asleep to beneath the stars or to sing along loudly with on a road trip to the beach. Part Shawn Colvin, part Nick Drake, part Leonard Cohen with a little bit of Patty Griffin twang thrown in for good measure, this chanteuse is Austin’s answer to the lackluster of the modern music industry.
WEST COAST GIRL
Though some of Cook’s more recent original songs reveal a rustic Texas influence, complete with slide-guitar rhythms and silky violin swells, many of her compositions bare her West Coast roots, and it’s not uncommon to be drawn in by her mentions of California waves, cool saltwater, shaking earth and the summer’s smoky haze.
Raised in San Jose, Calif., Cook was as much inspired by her parents’ musical preferences as she was by the miles of nearby shoreline. Music of the 1960s and ’70s, the Kingston Trio, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and even early Kenny Rogers were family fundamentals.
“My dad really loved folk music. He liked to impress people with the big stereo speakers he had and how they could blow out a candle when he blasted Simon & Garfunkel,” Cook laughs. “I guess that’s where it all started for me.”
She plucked her mother’s guitar out of storage when Cook was a mere seven years old, and like many burgeoning musicians, she sang in the church choir and later took voice les- sons in high school.
“Music was just always around,” she says. “I remember finding the little hippie chord book my mom had and going through it with the guitar. I guess I just knew since I was a little kid that music was going to be a big part of my life.”
With a strong sense of her own destiny, Cook headed to Los Angeles after high school, where she attended Pepperdine University and majored in English literature, the best course of study for someone who wants to be a songwriter, she says. Her college years enhanced her already notable lyrical skills, and before long, Cook was living the life of a Hollywood songwriter, busking on Santa Monica Boulevard and booking gigs at the famed Hotel Café. She even broke through a barrier that has become increasingly more difficult to crack for blossoming musicians and had many of her original songs featured on popular teen TV shows of the time, including “Felicity,” “Laguna Beach,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “Veronica Mars.” (Later, after befriending actress and musician Leisha Hailey, Cook landed her most notable TV engagement, with her song “A Million Holes in Heaven” getting play on Showtime’s “The L Word.”)
“When I lived in L.A., I thought there was a certain career level I had to reach, and it was such a struggle to attain that,” Cook recalls. “You can get so jaded by the industry, and I just got sick of waiting around for a record deal. I got to a point where I decided it just wasn’t for me anymore.”
Cook’s inspiration comes from a variety of sources, though she acknowledges that she draws heavily from her own life experiences and sometimes her family. Adopted as a baby and raised as an only child, Cook is no longer remarkably close with her adopted family, though their mark on her music has weathered that tumultuous relationship. Eventually reunited with her birth family, Cook maintains an amicable bond with them, and even wrote the layered, guitar-drenched melody “Pearl” about her grandmother, who is also a lesbian.
But as a listener, it is evident that one single something has influenced her music to date more than any other: Marfa.
After leaving L.A. in search of more organic life experiences, Cook headed to the simple yet magical, art-driven West Texas town of Marfa, where big Texas skies and rugged canyons provide a mesmerizing backdrop for nighttime stars and vast desert plateaus. It was in Marfa that she would create “The Bunkhouse Recordings,” a celestial treasure of a record produced by Hailey that Cook refers to as “just me and a guitar under the stars.” It is an intimate, shining piece of work that will forever tie her to that high desert country. Her destiny, however, would lay in Austin.
“Austin is a great place for music and it feels like people are more supportive here,” she says. “Living here, I’ve garnered a real appreciation for life and I feel at home here. I think it’s really changed me for the better.”
Also drawing her to Austin was her partner, Liz Lambert, the easy going and creative entrepreneur and hotelier who changed the face of South Austin. The two had met in Los Angeles through friends, and quickly became inseparable.
“I think Amy’s really singular and special. She’s also very irreverent, which I love. Plus, I think that she is constantly working to be better, which is always attractive in a person,” Lambert says.
WHEN THE DAY IS DONE
Only about a year after laying down “The Bunkhouse Recordings,” Cook would release another album – “The Sky Observer’s Guide,” another Marfa-influenced record that crosses the line between poetry and music, and hints at Cook’s musical influences like Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel and local roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo.
“Alejandro is one of my favorites, and one of the things I love about him is that he’s not a huge rock star; he’s famous but he has integrity and a good career, and he makes great music,” Cook asserts. “Those things have become more important to me. Do I want to be a rock star? I don’t know. I don’t think I believe in ‘the big break’ anymore, but I want to play music for people and make a living doing it. I don’t need to make a killing; I just want a career that feels like it matters.”
Previously a one-woman show, Cook worked with musicians Brad Rice, Nina Singh and Bobby Daniel on “The Sky Observer’s Guide,” and the added instrumentation provided for a fuller, edgier sound than that of “The Bunkhouse Recordings.”
Adding a few other musicians to the mix, including guitarist Owen, Cook now performs with the band under the name Amy Cook & the Look, a catchy and appropriate title created by Lambert. The group is currently working on another record, one that Cook says will likely surprise some fans familiar with her fluid style.
“I think I keep incorporating different things I like in to my music,” she contemplates. “I’ve never been really comfortable with the stuff I’ve written previously. I’m moving in to a place where I feel like I want to play more music like what I’ve been listening to. I feel like I’m kind of growing in to my own skin.”
HEART-SHAPED AND TIGER-STRIPED
For Cook, who belted out “The Bunkhouse Recordings” in two days and wrote “The Sky Observer’s Guide” in about three weeks’ time, developing this new record has been a very different kind of process. She says she has a catalog of dozens of songs she’s written, so her selection methods have been more tedious. But, considering she has gotten in to a habit of playing and recording songs daily, bedroom-demo style, Cook says she’s enjoying the more involved process of making the new album.
Though Cook says it’s still too early to really say what the new record will sound like, she reveals that the through line remains love songs, and finds it appealing to write tunes that she can perform solo but that can also be transformed with the backing of the band.
She’s already made some new tracks available for free download on her MySpace page, an effort that enables her to make her music available to just about anyone, and watch the online world react immediately. Despite their acoustic nature, these songs show the growth of Cook’s songwriting, and her vocals are as effortless and angelic as ever, though many of her sharp-tongued lyrics tap in to the more acerbic aspects of her personality, making for some alluring juxtapositions.
Fans will get a big-screen glimpse in to Cook’s wistful world when filmmaker Todd Robinson’s documentary, “The Spaces in Between” is released. The film follows Cook across 2,000 miles of dust and desert on a two-week tour, and has already been heralded by folk-rock legend Jackson Browne as “a great film about life on the road. Not just as a musician, but as an artist.”
As for the new record, Cook hopes to release it sometime this winter. In the interim, she’ll keep booking live gigs in and around Austin, and will continue to compose her own brand of lullabies, ballads and folk tunes.
“I really just love writing, recording and playing live,” she says. “I like being on the road and staying in cheap hotel rooms. It’s a great life I have. I mean, nothing is guaranteed, but this is the best time in my life, for sure.”