'American Idol's' David Cook gets some help for new album
At one point on the road he's still on, leading from "American Idol" to the iPod promotions and summer shed tours of actual rock stardom, David Cook recently stopped for a bite to eat. In the car with him was Raine Maida, the Canadian singer and songwriter who fronts Our Lady Peace, a band Cook famously loves.
The 25-year-old newbie had seen the 38-year-old veteran perform numerous times back when Our Lady Peace was on the rise and Cook was still just a Midwestern kid making demos on the weekends. Now here they were, driving around on a break from writing songs for Cook's major-label debut.
"I had one moment with Raine when I asked him about the first time I saw him live," said Cook during an interview in the West Hollywood offices of the "Idol"-driven management company 19 Entertainment. "It was at this music festival in Kansas City called Rockfest. I was really engrossed in his performance -- he didn't look at the audience the whole time he was performing. Watching him that day, I would have been so apprehensive about meeting him."
Cook smiled his famous room-warming smile. "Raine goes, 'Oh, yeah . . . I had a 104-degree temperature. I was so dizzy, I couldn't look up,' " he recalled.
And so the eyes of the most charmingly ambitious Idol since Kelly Clarkson were opened just a little bit wider. For Cook, whose eponymous album will be released today on RCA Records, the biggest prize so far has been the friendships he's forged with mentors like Maida, artists whose influence shaped his own warm, inspirational sound.
"Had I not been able to write with people whom I not only respected but admired and looked up to, it would have been a much harder process," said Cook. "To be able to walk into a room and know that I was going to probably love any idea these people came up with made it so much easier. And it certainly helped that the people I admired the most seemed to be the nicest people and treated me completely as an equal and allowed me a little bit of confidence in a very unconfident situation."
Much has been made of Cook's status as the "heaviest" rocker "American Idol" has produced. His album's first single, "Light On," was co-written by Seattle rock titan Chris Cornell and flyover rock mastermind Brian Howes. He's already nabbed the authenticating spot of musical guest on “Saturday Night Live,” becoming the first Idol to do so before his first album was released.
And an iPhone application has been issued that allows fans to play "Light On" and trigger a simulation of that ultimate rock concert semaphore, the upheld lighter.
Yet Cook's specific loyalties within rock's vast landscape might be what's most interesting about him. Making his dream album, he's also refocusing attention on a little-considered corner of the genre: the literate but accessible strain that arose after the alternative rock explosion of the mid-1990s, fitting midway between the underground and the mainstream.
Chris Daughtry, Cook's predecessor in establishing rock as a viable "Idol" category, made a similar move when he gave props to his favorite band, Live, on the program. Cook has taken it further, not only competing on "Idol" with songs by Our Lady Peace and Collective Soul but also enlisting a focused list of co-writers for his album, including Maida and his wife, Chantal Kreviazuk; Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls; Better Than Ezra's Kevin Griffin; Nixons founder Zac Maloy and Atlanta hard rockers Injected.
"I think the collaborations I've been able to do just made this record," said Cook. "I just tried really hard to hold my own and not come across as some kid awe-struck with fear."
Cook's writing partners hardly represent the height of rock fashion; like the young singer-songwriter himself, they are a steady lot, making music that engenders loyalty from a core fan base instead of media buzz. To call them "post-grunge" reduces the regional breadth and continued appeal of these artists, who hail from nearly every point on the North American map and have made their bread and butter releasing steady-selling albums and playing summer rock festivals for more than a decade.
"His favorite bands are not necessarily mainstream artists that sell millions and millions," said Rob Cavallo, who produced Cook's debut. "But that's actually characteristic of a lot of artists that I've worked with and talked to. He seems to be a part of that scene."
Maida, who continues to make music with Our Lady Peace as well as co-writing hits with Kreviazuk for the likes of Avril Lavigne and Clarkson, sees his career and Cook's in a cyclical light. Our Lady Peace has sold millions of albums and remains a top Canadian live draw, but lately Maida has returned to the independent status Cook is just now escaping.
"I love the whole journey of it," said Maida by phone from his home in Toronto. "I wouldn't have been able to get here without being there first -- without selling a bunch of records and being able to play a lot of big places. My solo record came from having a studio record in my house, and I released it independently. Owning the masters is a big deal for me.
"David is coming through it from the other end. He made five or six records on his own. Now he's on a major label. And me, I don't have someone paying for my projects, and I love it. Life is like that."
Ode to brother
Maida's four co-writes with Cook are standouts on an album that's consistently well-crafted and thoughtful, despite having been made under sketchy circumstances while the singer was still on the annual "American Idol" tour. One track both writers and producer Cavallo single out is "Permanent," a ballad penned for Cook's brother Adam, whose continuing struggle with cancer has become a key element of his brother's public story.
"I purposely tried to be a storyteller on this particular song," said Cook of "Permanent," which features a spare production highlighted by piano and strings. "I made it known what I was talking about. But it's still written in a way that people can take what they want out of it."
That ambition to write songs with broad enough shoulders to support many interpretations is key to Cook's approach. Inspired to explore music by artists such as Maida, who themselves took up the lead of Pearl Jam and U2 in aiming for intelligence and depth within a mainstream sound, Cook is determined to make music that's both serious and fun.
"For me it's a writing style," he said. "I like to write more grandiose and metaphorical, and that doesn't really lend itself to 'Girls, Girls, Girls.' " He chuckled. "Great song, though. I love Mötley Crüe!"
Cook's ultimate goal, when he feels up to looking that far into the future, is to become a career artist who can tour on his own terms and write for himself and others. Not unlike Maida.
As for the Canadian rocker, he's just happy to have made Cook's acquaintance.
"On a personal level, I have a new friend," he said. "I admire what he's been able to do. In terms of Our Lady Peace and my own music -- the co-writing that I do helps me see different sides of the pop spectrum. . . . Every time I get to co-write with someone I learn from them."
Cook would certainly agree. But what's funny about his debut is that its best song might be the one he wrote entirely on his own: "A Daily Anthem," an energizing ode to the magic of -- what else -- a great power ballad. This song, which Cook wrote before he was famous, describes and establishes the bar he sets for himself.
"My goals have always been based on the premise hope for the best, expect the worst," he said. "I expect this record to be a solid record. I hope it's an important record. That's kind of how I operate."
Photos: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times