When David Cook moved to Nashville in 2012, the expectation was that this singer-songwriter from the Heartland would emphasize the rootsy side of his sensibility, and sure enough, he had immediate success co-writing country tunes, including the Top 20 single “Kiss You Tonight” for David Nail in 2014. But new album Digital Vein is something else entirely, with Cook’s powerful voice and dynamic guitar work knifing through vibrant soundscapes that boldly juxtapose man-made grooves and electronic textures.
“Working in Nashville opened me up creatively to trying different things,” Cook explains. “Writing for country acts has been freeing in the sense that I can bring out that side of my creativity, and it brought some freshness to the other side of what I like to do. So I ran with it, going into the creative process with the blinders off. I just wanted to try things, and there was no formula. Honestly, I didn’t even know if I was gonna make another record; I decided to just write and have fun and see what happens.”
As an experiment, Cook applied what he’d learned from working with Music City craftsmen in that time-honored narrative vein to the material he was writing for his own use. “It was fun and a new challenge to try to attack my own songwriting in that way,” he begins, then says with a laugh, “In hindsight, what the hell was I thinking trying to take this on? But it ended up being an amazing process, and it led to a record that I’d put up there with my prouder moments.”
Asked why he decided to title the album Digital Vein, Cook explains, “My last independent record, back in 2006, was Analog Heart, and after my major-label journey, with circumstances being what they are, this record is certainly a progression. I don’t think it’s very much like Analog Heart at all, but the process of putting it together was similar in the sense that I worked with a very small team, and I put a lot of myself into every aspect of it. It felt like a throwback in that regard, so I wanted the two records to be connected, if only in name.”
Analog Heart and Digital Vein bookend a tumultuous decade in Cook’s life and career, as, after fronting a Kansas City-based bar band for 10 years (“We’d be lucky to get 10 people,” he quips, “and most of them would be family members”), he accompanied his younger brother Andrew to auditions for American Idol, auditioned himself on a whim and wound up winning the competition in 2008. Released later that year, his self-titled major label debut album sold 1.5 million copies, and though the follow-up, 2011’s This Loud Morning, debuted in the Top 10, he wound up as an indie artist once again. As one door closed, another opened, and Cook forged a new career as a songwriter after moving to Nashville in 2012, but he continued to tour as well, as his personal songbook grew thicker. In 2014, he began the process that led to the recording of Digital Vein.
Cook recorded the new album in his home studio, working with his longtime friend and onetime bandmate Andy Skib, who engineered, and the rhythm section from his touring band, playing the bulk of the parts himself. “The whole thing,” he says, “was an experiment to see if (A) I could make a record this way, and (B) if I could enjoy doing it this way. I’m a control freak, and to have this level of control has been empowering. It was definitely a different process for me, but I can’t recall ever having more fun making a record.”
The project was funded in part by contributions from fans through a highly successful PledgeMusic campaign. “We’ve had an awesome experience with PledgeMusic,” says Cook. “The best part is that fans have become a bigger part of the process than in records past. The hope is that, by continuing to build those relationships, we’ll be able to hit the ground running, and ultimately get this music into more people’s ears. I was a little apprehensive about that dynamic at first, but it turns out that it’s a great way to humanize yourself to your audience. It’s nice to tear down that wall, because the end game is that people hopefully will feel more connected to the humanity in the record.”
Humanity pulses through Digital Vein, from impassioned opener “Heartbeat” to the haunting metaphysical question of “Where Do We Go.” On the first single, the rocking “Criminals,” written with Nashville song-smith Blair Daly, Cook presents his own take on the classic theme of lovers on the run, a notion that has long transfixed the American consciousness, from Bonnie and Clyde to Bruce Springsteen. “We started with a Wallflowers ‘One Headlight’ kind of groove and went down that path,” Cook points out. “It’s a story that’s been told before for sure, the idea of young lovers trying to beat the odds—it’s you against the world, and you’re gonna make it work, no matter what. That’s what I wanted the cover of this book to look like.”
There’s a duality on the album between ardently devotional love songs and others shot through with a dark undercurrent, enabling Cook’s subtly intense cover of the Chris Isaak classic “Wicked Game” to function not simply as a vocal showcase but also as a thematic link between these two vectors.
“Everybody goes through experiences of love and loss, and I’m no different,” says Cook. “In that regard, it’s natural to pull from that database for inspiration. But what I enjoyed the most was pulling from outside sources, like reading a newspaper article or seeing a painting that just hits a nerve. There are songs on this record that have to do with subject matter that I’ve never personally experienced, but things that have inspired me all the same. When I pay attention to the peripherals, it leads to records like this one.”
Another highlight, the languid yet propulsive “Better Than Me,” was written by Chase Foster, but Cook fully inhabits it, delivering the self-lacerating lyric knowingly and with beguiling nuance. “Killer song,” says Cook. “It had been on my radar for a couple years, and we were finally able to get it cut.”
The album’s most personal song is the poignant “Home Movies.” As Cook recalls, “Not too long ago, I had the chance to look over old photos with my family, and that brought back memories of my brother Adam. The experience got me in a certain mindset, and I consciously wrote that song about growing up and spending time with my older brother, who passed away of brain cancer in 2009. He’s been a part of every record I’ve made, but with ‘Home Movies’ especially, there’s a tangible aspect.”
Since Adam’s death, David has devoted himself to fighting the disease, to the extent that philanthropy is now as important to him as his music. “I think I would have been involved either way,” he says. “But seeing what he went through, and what his wife and his kids all went through, touched me deeply. And that’s another avenue where the fans have been insane. We crossed the million-dollar threshold last December, which is unfathomable to me still. Records are going to sell or not sell, but raising that money for cancer research puts everything in perspective—it makes you realize what really matters.”
Cook becomes reflective as he looks back on his journey, with its ecstatic highs and devastating lows. “I have no regrets,” he says of his Idol experience. “It has ultimately let me do some amazing things in the last seven years, culminating in this record. Who knows where I’d be right now if weren’t for all that. Prior to the show, I was tending bar to pay the rent, and I was a really bad bartender. So to have the resources that I have now—to be able to make a record this way—it’s huge. I’ve still got a platform and an avenue that most don’t. So, yeah, no regrets.
“Redemption is a weird term,” he continues, “but I don’t think that’s really what this record is. I see it as a different chapter. The best way I can sum it up is that, succeed or fail, I’m going to fall on my own sword—which is nerve-racking as hell, but it’s also super-exciting, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It may sound like lip service to say it, but I really do love this record, and if I loved it any less, I don’t know that I’d be putting it out. I’m treating this record like this is it. Every album from here on out could be the last one, so I’d better swing for the fences, and that’s what we did on this one.”