interview : Hollie Cook on her fab new album, the Slits, supporting the Stone Roses and being the daughter of a Sex Pistol
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Hollie Cook bounces into the room full of the effervescent energy that makes her two albums great slices of modern pop – a pop that is twisted and tinged with adventures into dub and the multi cultural crackle of modern music culture that exists beyond the boring mainstream that she calls tropical pop.
She has a boundless enthusiasm combined with the wisdom of someone, whilst still youthful, has been at the music frontline for some time.
Her second solo album, Twice , is the culmination of a few years making music, whether in a later line up of the legendary Slits- where she learnt the ropes from the late Ari Up -the magnetic frontwoman of the key band. Ari’s ghost like presence hangs over the album which acknowledges her former partner in crime.
Hollie’s music is the perfect reflection of modern UK in a series of multi cultural songs that stitch together the never ending stream of modern culture- the music that leaks out of all the windows of our brilliant modern British cities that assimilate the culture of the world and reinvent it for ourselves.
Hollie is the living embodiment of this modern world where all culture collides like manic atoms – her magnificently cool mother, Jeni was a backing singer in Culture Club and is a leading advocate of raw food and her father is the legendary Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols – one of the greatest ever UK drummers and very much a never ending presence in our pop culture tapestry.
Hollie, though, is very much her own person and her music is a fab mixture of bubblegum modern pop, cut and paste culture, great beats and a cheeky yet brilliant vocal delivery that somehow captures the zappy fun of modern life and also the darkness that lurks all around us. She is joined on the album by Dennis Bovell, Omar, George Dekker and Winston Francis. Her first epynomous album was a calling card and we loved it but the second is a huge leap forward and a slice of visionary pop like a London street version of the now international MIA and should be a huge pop record.
What can we expect from the new album?
‘There’s a lot of changes on it. There is a crazy amount of percussion influenced by Brazil or Africa. As well as African guitarists and Macedonian orchestras- all sorts – it’s crazy and colourful!’
Hold on! a Macedonian orchestra!
‘We sent it back and forth on the net to the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra to work on. The connection was through a friend who had worked with them and also my songwriter on this album Bart Corbelet who had worked closely with them when he did a project and a film-score and when we had the idea for an orchestra they were there.’
Was the album’s great diversity the original plan?
‘It was a supernatural progression with the way songs were going. With Prince Fatty producing it was also inevitable. It was an absolute dream to work with such a diverse array of influences and connections and it works with so many different types of musicians . The music is kooky like that! It was more a case of why not stick a something off the wall on a reggae song – it was important to be thinking outside the box.’
Is this musical diversity down to your mixed background-a black mother and white father and living in west London- one of the most diverse cultures ever on this planet?
‘I guess so. It doesn’t feel like that, well not in a calculated thought process kind of way. It was more normal, natural and interesting. It was a privilege to explore that with the album and not have to worry about being appropriate to get played on the radio. Actually, it’s funny I heard myself on the radio for the first time with a new song the other day and it was a funny thing to hear myself on the radio – a really nice feeling. There are some DJs out there who are doing good things for more diverse music and for the world music side of things. There was an African music special on recently and Dave Rodigan did a Jamaican reggae special so they do put the music out there now and then but not when you are driving at 2 in afternoon.’
Well, it would be too dangerous then to listen to some of the amazing music from the world instead of Coldplay again!
Are you a cut and paste version of world music- taking what you hear and threading it into your own music?
‘I suppose you if have to pigeonhole it and I have to be in a category then that would be it. I like world music but it is so vast and so much more than just one type of pop music.’
For me, you are what modern pop should sound like. This is the radio clash of a thousand city sound systems playing everything from pop to world – the cut and paste collage of modern culture.
‘That’s a lot to with the Prince Fatty production. He had such lovely way of bringing things unconventional together and making them palatable to people not used to sharing those sounds and if you strip the songs away they are pop songs.’
How do the songs come together?
‘Some of the songs are specially written for me by Bart . It’s a well developed musical relationship I can’t necessarily get my head around the way he creates songs, for the most part the rhythms start the idea off in a basic kind of way. Then we add the bass and guitar and we get them all and either bounce of them or get him to take them away and change them. It’s a case of what jumps out at me and we then get a vocal idea together and bring in Bart to elaborate on them and to work on them. He can hear things which I can rarely object to because he is a genius! (laughs). I would never put something out though that I was not happy with and I have to be able to find something to sing with the tracks.’
Did you start early in music?
‘It was something I wanted to do at early age. I was in bands at school from when I was 14 and it developed from there. I did attempt to find interests in other things that would be more beneficial and sensible career wise! My dad was saying if you choose music you must realise that it is not the most reliable of things to live from. It’s a very competetive industry and there are no solid guarantees that you are going to do well. I always had a realistic attitude to it though but I also had ambitions about what I wanted to do. I guess I got into it properly when I was 16 and then I started working with producers, trying things out.
I was was really into rock and punk at first and and I wanted to be in a band but my voice didn’t lean that way. It always sounded s better on poppy things but when I say pop I mean my kind of pop really…then I started in the Slits and that leant itself much more towards my way of singing.’
How did you end up in the Slits?
‘Tessa from the Slits has lived in West London for ever her daughter is roughly the same age as me and we hung out together and so did my parents. I’ve got photos of me from when I was 3 and they are all there. I always knew who Ari Up was even when she lived in Jamaica – she would just show up and leave quite an impression and I had the Slits album from an early age.’
Your music now is sort of in the space where the Slits were – multi cultural multicoloured pop…
‘The Slits were pop in a way weren’t they? They are really my biggest influence on where I am now musically. There was no bullshit. Ari Up was so straightforward, unapologetic, confidant and natural and hopefully it helped. At first I was self conscious and shy and she recognised that in me and encouraged me. Everything was so casual, it was a case of come and get onstage and sing some songs with us and it ended up being a full time thing- she would say, try the nice lovers songs you do so well and then she encouraged me to be creative and when I was worried about writing songs she was really empowering. She was great.’
Ari Up was a force of nature!
She could be scary!
‘She probably terrified a lot of people but after you get past the first 5 minutes she was a pussycat Really totally of the wall and nothing got past her- really’
She had lots of different accents!
‘Ha! that was depending on what she was talking about..’
The album opens with agreat song about her called, Ari Up
‘It’s a celebration song, it had to be done…I even got her name tattooed on me as a little phrase..’
Was she the coolest big sister you never had?
‘She was like a second mum. I was about 19/20 and first singing in the Slits and that is an important age with the transition to growing up and being around the Slits made a huge difference. It was a completely brilliant experience in music and life. I loved the way she was so adamant about the band not being a reunion but being unfinished business and a continuation and she didn’t think people young enough to be her daughter like me should not be involved. She was always vey conscious of what was going on in music and was very modern and listened to modern music. She was very into it and she was talented, she could write symphonies in her head.’
When she was ill with the cancer she kept it quiet didn’t she? She was the proud warrior, the lioness.
‘She didn’t mention the illness but when I found out it was the worst thing ever literally. I’m only just recovering from the experience now. I’ve experienced a fair amount of death in my life with my dad’s friends- the lifestyle does not necessarily agree with everyone. Ari Up, though, was a total shock. She was just so important in my life in so many ways. Even though I knew she was sick and I knew about it at least six months before the end it was not good- even when you kind of know inevitably what is going to happen. You cannot prepare for something like that and it knocked me flat and for a year afterwards I was completely devastated.’
I remember the last time I met her after a Manchester show and there was a funny mood backstage which is totally understandable now.
‘That was the last tour in early 2011? That tour was really interesting and it didn’t end very well. There was a strange energy and tension around things. There was a number of tensions which finally made a massive amount of sense when you realised that she was really very sick. It was such a dramatic and weird kind of end to a relationship. I think of the last time I saw her and things she was saying and what she was saying 6 months before she passed away. I thank god at the time I was as making my first album, I don’t know what else I would have done that would have got me through. I didn’t sleep for 6 moths. I got anxiety attacks. I don’t remember a lot of it. It was traumatising and such a shame. I wish she could hear my music now. I would have loved her advice because she had been there since my baby steps into music world.’
What else are you singing about on the album apart from Ari?
‘There’s a love song which is more abstract and ambiguous than a normal love song. The song was originally written about needing a real man to give me love but I put a twist in it and got rid of the man factor and based it on an idea love from within which was more more spiritual—(funny voice). It was easier to sing about these things than talk about them. You can really bare your soul when write songs. It’s the purest form of expression as it is very personal
I love melody and vocal harmonies, that is where my songwriting is influenced from. I also got a few lyrics lying around and when I make up tunes I just sing to get the sound of the word- usually strange words to get the tune. It doesn’t have to mean anything, it can be just the mood and atmosphere of the song without lyrics and it makes loads of difference.’
Do you like to play live?
‘I play a little bit of keyboard live. I’m not married to it because I love to dance as well. It’s a basic band line up so I can’t replicate the studio songs live anyway but its fun to interpretate them. It’s nice when you can develop a song live. We are going to tour later in the year. We are even playing a gig in Reunion Island which will be amazing! Touring really inspires me!’
That’s the positive way of looking at the M6!
‘This is my whole life and this is what I do.. I don’t know what I’m good at yet. I’m happy and comfortable with where my ambitions lie and I can’t think of anything else to get into. Maybe I would like to join the circus! It’s all the some thing, the same vein of interest! I like touring. I like moving about. I don’t like being in one place all the time.’
What’s it like being a young women in the modern music industry?
‘I think it’s fine. I don’t feel any special treatment or discrimination. Maybe I’m naive and I do hear of a lot people upset about what can happen. I’ve done massive tours where I have been part of an all woman travel party with a female sound engineer and tour manager and I don’t know if it’s power in numbers but no one fucks with you!’
Is it a different vibe travelling with all women- different on the road humour?
‘A group of women can be just as disgusting as a group of touring men…!’
Do you ever get that weird photo touching thing where they photo shop your face?
‘Not often but it happened to me recently and left me feeling quite self conscious- like what’s wrong with my face! To me it is a madness and it’s a shame that a whole kind of image factor has built up. We’ve all got our little hang ups and then it’s photoshopped by a magazine to make you look like an alien person with a weird nose. I appreciate I have a funny face and I don’t have much of a problem with it!’
It’s weird what is now defined as sexy.
‘The misshapes are a bit of character and are the most attractive part of people.’
Do you think that pop is too controlled now?
‘It always has been (laughs). I guess, though, it’s even more business driven these days with sales and marketing to certain audiences. I guess with the internet everyone has been able to access that as well. I wonder if it will all implode one day. That will be interesting.
How was it playing with the Stone Roses at Heaton Park?
‘Ian Brown and my dad had developed a good friendship in the last ten years when Ian had lived in that end of London before he moved back to Manchester. He was a fan of my dad and vice versa so we started hanging out and when I started working with Prince Fatty and Ian heard and gave me the thumbs it was up really encouraging – he is a big reggae fan as well so he was already aware of Prince Fatty and from there he cameto my first gig at the Jazz Cafe after the album release and they had already planned the big show but not announced it yet. So he came down and saw the band and then he texted my dad a couple of days later and said that he had really liked the band and wanted us to play one of the big gigs and I was like, oh my god, really!
It was one of those things – really big! I was massively overwhelmed by it for about 6 months. Everyone was looking to these gigs and everyone was going to them. On a very regular basis I had to talk about it because people were very excited and when I finally got there I couldn’t believe that I was actually there now. We soundchecked on the biggest stage ever and I was thinking it’s a long way to move from side to side and sing and run! During the soundcheck I thought it looks like a park- it doesn’t even look that big but when the people came in, it was like uh oh!
When we played I just got on with it. It’s funny when you normally do a support gig the audience is not there to see but it was a really friendly crowd. Everyone was so ready for those gigs and so up for it. I barely remember playing it now! I just thought this is happening and my coping mechanism kicked in.’