Jesse Cook has discovered a formula for staying relevant in today’s shifting, short-attention-span music scene. Focus! Early in our conversation Cook introduced me to a video he recently edited for a track, “Hembra,” from his new album Beyond Borders. It was shot with the Panasonic GH4; a digital SLR that shoots 4K and retails around $1,500 Canadian, and a 4K drone. Think about that. In the recent past shooting a video came with writing a grant application, anticipation, rejection – a crew, a sound guy – big dollars. Cook has not only bought into the video game, but he also edits his shorts. Another broad learning-curve. To understand the man, this may be all you must know. He’s a voracious student of the arts, both technical and the personal expression and imagination.
You have been working on this project for a long time. Do you ever find yourself tiring of relistening to it?
I’ve listened to it a million times. First of all, I wrote all of the material, then arranged it, then recorded and then mixed it. I do all my own engineering. I then scrutinize the mastering and by the time I’ve been working on an album a year and a half, I’m not willing to let it go. People probably don’t know this, but mastering is the last stage where they take your mix and polish up a little bit. They make minute adjustments. For me they are huge adjustments because I’ve been working and slaving over this piece of music for so long. I really sweat the last part. They have to kind of pry the music out of my hands.
My son Jesse goes through the same agony except he’s into his eighth crack at mastering his new side with Sly and Robbie of Bob Marley fame – and he can’t seem to let it go either.
This is my 10th album and I’ve been around the caravan once or twice before. I also produce albums for other people. I am a composer and I've done a lot of this over the years. Still, the more you invest emotionally making the record and wanting it to be the best record you’ve ever made, the more the last few stages are painful. I’m proud of the way it sounds but at a certain point I kind of start losing my mind. I think most musicians are obsessive and to be an artist you have to be a perfectionist. And once you are a perfectionist, it’s trouble – you can’t let go of anything.
You record in your home studio.
I do all of my records at home. I’m more relaxed with it these days. I used to sweat it. Like I said about the mastering part, when I’m mixing I’m rather comfortable after doing this a number of times. This one, I think, sounds better than all of my other CDs. I make comparisons and say yeah, the trajectory is going in the right direction.
You must save a fair amount of money doing it this way.
It’s funny; I built my first studio at fifteen; I’ve always done this. The few times I went outside and hired someone, I worked with Al Schmitt, who has won twenty-two Grammys. Whenever they poll the top engineers and ask who’s their favourite, they say, Al Schmitt. This is a few albums ago, and I thought, I’m not getting advances from record companies to make records for that much longer because record companies aren’t going to be around. I should mix with Al. He mixes in that Capitol building in Hollywood – the round building. I sat and watched all of his tricks and came home and applied them.
I took pictures of the console. He doesn’t use EQ. EQ of course is equalization. He doesn’t use compression either. It’s kind of like building a house without a hammer or a saw. These are the basic building blocks of a good mix. He uses a lot of reverb. He has those old rooms down in the building’s basement with speakers at one end and shellacked walls. They are echo chambers. I actually went down and visited them because I thought I’d otherwise only read about in books and I’m here. I climbed down the ladder to the rooms and man, did they smell bad. Sixty years with the doors closed, bouncing sound – it stinks in there.
Keith Richards talks about using the basement of the chateau they holed up in in France recording Exile on Main Street and the unbearable heat and suffocating nature of the self-made reverb chambers too. There’s something about that old school sound. Your album is called Beyond Borders – anything we should draw from this?
We live in a time people are building walls again. For awhile we were tearing them down, but now we are building them again; that’s crazy. We should be celebrating cultural differences, not putting up walls between us.
There’s always been migration, and that will never change.
Exactly. As an instrumental artist I don’t have lyrics to talk about these things and what I can do is make music that is as welcoming as possible, and maybe that will get across. I tour a lot. We just got back from the US. I was in North Carolina, Florida and some of these states. I feel like maybe some of this music will seep in and make people feel better about things – the things that are not from America, but across the way.
Jesse, I hear your music, and I keep thinking – biblical. Jesse is walking the world in sandals.
(Big laugh) I’ve never heard it put that way. You are the first to say – can I quote you on that?
It harkens back to when Peter Gabriel began promoting world music to the west.
It’s always existed, but regarding bringing west this culture, Peter Gabriel had a significant influence on my life.
Did you attend WOMAD at Harbourfront?
Yes, I did. It’s a fantastic world of music out there. It’s funny how we celebrate sugar-coated pop music, and don’t get me wrong, I like pop music and am not down on it, but I feel like as much as I enjoy it, I long for sounds that are where I’m at all of the time.
To me, it’s why hip-hop dominates.
Because they keep experimenting?
Yes, they keep trying new things and making bold adjustments. Going back to the ‘80s, ‘90s, through today, there are so many creative and innovative artists.
You are right. Compared to other genres, they do push more than others. I’ll hear a Rihanna track and ask myself, “is that a Bollywood sample in there?” Sometimes we’ll be in the States playing different jazz festivals and I’m amazed at how conservative jazz has become. It’s sad because it was so ground-breaking. It was always about constantly breaking the rules. At some point it becomes a classic form of music.
The best time in recent history for jazz was the brief globalization period when you heard Colombia, Panama, and countries from afar integrate indigenous rhythms and instruments into the mix. This was happening at the same time as the dreaded ‘smooth jazz’ invasion.
I’m going to let you say that because it’s not my form of music and I’ll comment gently from the outside.
You did some travelling for this recording.
Yes, I went to Cartagena, and it was beautiful, and I did some filming. I made a video which I think is terrific. It was just my laptop – camera and friend, Juan and me. I used a 4K drone, and they let me fly it over the city and ocean.
What did you cut the footage together with?
Final Cut Pro.
You have a tour coming up.
Yes, we were in the States last week, and in a couple weeks you we will be starting in Victoria and will work our way across to Massey Hall in Toronto – sometime in November. Jessecook.com or Jesse Cook Facebook.
You’ve had a fantastic career, and you still have a hold on it.
Crazy! Its been twenty-two years and every year I think, that’s it. Are they going to care, am I’m done, is my career over? Then Beyond Borders debuts #1 on world charts across all platforms. I’m with eOne worldwide. They are great and like the ‘last man standing’. I started before downloading in ’95 and there were record companies and smaller labels within record companies and watched as they collapsed one into the other. I was with a label that was signed to Virgin, and Virgin at the time was distributed by Universal and it slowly collapsed. One company would close the door and switch off the lights, then the next.