The Naked Truth: A Conversation With Singer/Songwriter David Cook

Singer/songwriter David Cook’s list of accomplishments in the past 10 years is as long as it is impressive.

The Season 7 American Idol champion has released three full-length albums, including a new EP, “Chromance,” last spring; sold more than 2 million albums worldwide; broken several Billboard chart records; and just last month completed his run as Charlie Price in the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit musical, “Kinky Boots.” It’s a resume many artists strive for, but very few achieve.

But the 35-year-old Nashville, Tennessee resident who was raised in Blue Springs, Missouri, doesn’t look at his musical accolades in the “crowing achievements” spectrum that most artists might. For Cook, the real benefit of having the golden ticket to the Big Stage is the ability to harness that power of the platform to make a difference in the lives of others.

Cook’s work with ABC2, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that drives cutting edge research and treatments for brain cancer and brain tumors, as well as his participation in the Chris Evert/Raymond James Pro-Celebrity Tennis Classic to benefit at-risk children and their families, has helped raised millions of dollars.

The causes are close to Cook’s heart. Cook’s older brother, Adam, died in 2009 after having been diagnosed with brain cancer 11 years earlier.

“When you have a member of your family, or a close friend going through that, it becomes very finite in that moment that you lose them,” he said in an interview with ListenIowa. “Unfortunately, my story isn’t the only one like that. I wanted to continue to be a part of ABC from that moment on. That weekend has become cathartic for me and my family. We get to celebrate my brother and be surrounded by some incredible people and their families.

“I’ve said all the time that if the music goes away, and this is what I’m remembered for, I will take that any day of the week.”

Don’t think for a moment that his music has taken a distant second fiddle in the grand scheme of things, though; it’s still a driving force in Cook’s life. With the release of “Chromance,” and the stripped-down, bare bones renditions of his music he will perform for audiences during a fall acoustic tour that crisscrosses the Midwest and East Coast, Cook is eager to reach the masses.

ListenIowa caught up with Cook as he prepared to launch his tour Oct. 25 in St. Louis. Cook will wind his way into way Iowa soon thereafter, making an appearance at The Maintenance Shop in Ames on Oct. 28.

An acoustic tour can be interesting. You’re putting yourself out there.
The acoustic tour stemmed from putting out “Chromance,” the full band EP, where we went on the road, played that stuff, and then I went right into “Kinky Boots.” It’s a different vibe for me to go out on the road and break these songs down to their bare elements and get to sit back, take away some of the trappings and get to what they’re about.

When you were going through and vetting songs for this show, were there any that you thought would sound great acoustically that didn’t, or vice versa?
Most of the songs I’ve written have been on an acoustic guitar, or a piano, and so when the songs are in their infancy, they kind of live within that space. The exciting thing for me is that I’ve got that to lean on. Having said that, to get to really focus in on these songs in an acoustic space, it kind of forces you to experiment and try some things that you wouldn’t in a full band setting. The songs are still fleshing themselves out. Let’s do this: Everybody in Ames, Iowa, come to the show, and you can tell me afterward what songs are working and which don’t. (laughs)

Going unplugged can be daunting. You’re naked out there. Is that something that bothers you at all at this point?
Oh, it bothers me a great deal. (laughs) One of the juxtapositions of this job that strikes me is that, every time I go on stage, I’m gambling that everything is going to go well. Most of the time it does, and there are times when everything, for lack of a better term, just “shits the bed.” There’s that in every show. And not to minimize a guitar player’s role in a band in a rock band, but 7 out of 10 times he could flub a note and nobody is going to notice. With acoustic, yeah, you’re naked, and it’s unnerving. But I’ve always said that the time I go on stage and I’m not nervous at all is probably the time I need to stop doing it. Thankfully, I still get nervous every time I go onstage.

You don’t seem like a guy who is afraid of taking risks. Anyone who tackles Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” should be commended. Where does that sort of fearlessness come from in you?
(laughs) I don’t know if it’s fearlessness. I get as scared as anybody else. I just think I never really let that stop me from doing anything. I use fear as more of a motivator, and it allows me to focus on the moment more. I don’t think there’s been a moment, even before American Idol, that I wasn’t scared out of my mind. I remember Dolly Parton week, I did “Little Sparrow,” and I didn’t get the lyrics right to the song one time leading up the live performance. I was on the side of the stage having a panic attack, and the stage manager goes, “Look, if you’re going to go up there and mess up, just don’t lock your knees. I can’t have you passing out on my television show.” So I go, “OK,” and walk out there resigned to the fact that I was going to mess up. I was going to try, but I was going to mess up, there’s just no way around it. I go on and focus on not locking my knees, and it was the only time I’ve gotten the song right. That taught me a lot. Lean on the fact that you practice, you know what you’re doing, and let the chips where they’re going to fall. There are worse things in the world than messing up.

Talk about the experience on “American Idol” in the context of you, the artist, because, it’s a TV production and there are other things going on that viewers don’t see. Was that the real David Cook that viewers were seeing?
I think so. I tried hard to represent myself as openly and honestly as I could. And you’re right, it is a TV show, so there are going to be things that make it to air, and there are going to be things that are left on the editing room floor that are open and honest. I think in the context of going on the show, there’s the, “how in the hell as a pop/rock musician do I represent myself as a performer during Mariah Carey week?” You just do the best you can given the parameters. And that’s what I did. I just tried to stay as much in my lane and hoped the audience would connect with that. And for the most part, they did. I laid a few eggs, just like everybody else, but that’s part of the gig with a show like that.

What got you to American Idol in the first place?
I was living in Tulsa, Oklahoma after having grown up in Kansas City and gone to college at Central Missouri. I move to Tulsa after college, was in a band, and I was fine with that. I was a bartender, and was like, “This is my life, and I’ll be fine.” My little brother Andrew had wanted to audition for Idol for a few years, and when they (Idol) came through Omaha, he asked me if I wanted to come up and be moral support. I went up with him to hang out. To me it was a free vacation. We went to go register, and while standing in line, I kind of got talked into registering. I kind of stole his thunder.

What did they see in you at the moment?
The producer had walked by with a camera and was just randomly asking people why they were the next American Idol. I had a God-awful haircut, so I probably looked like a joke auditioning. So he asked me that question, and I gave some sort of smartass answer, and it worked out.

Are you glad you did it, then?
Absolutely. I had my hesitations on the front end. Not a discredit to Idol, but I just didn’t see it as my pass. It had just never occurred to me to audition. I made it past the first round, and my brother didn’t, so I said, “If you don’t want me to do this, I won’t, since it’s kind of your thing.” And he said, “If you don’t do it, I’ll kick your ass.” And I believed him. (laughs) So it kept going as a way to honor the agreement with my brother, then as it started to snowball, I saw it as a real opportunity to do something I’d love to do for the rest of my life. I haven’t regretted it for a minute.

You just wrapped up your second run in “Kinky Boots” on Broadway. What did that experience add to your development that you could take to the music stage?
What I loved about it (“Kinky Boots”) was that it was something completely different. It was taking a break from David Cook the solo artist, and becoming part of a collective, and getting to play a part. And now there’s freshness to this (performing as a musician), having taken a few months off from it. To be able to come back with some fresh eyes and fresh ears ultimately makes it more fun.

You started out musically on rock side of the equation but have expanded beyond that and added some spices to the stew. Where do you stand now with your musical leanings?
You know what? I don’t like putting myself in a box. Right now, the music that is speaking to me is the stuff that I’m putting out. I could pull a 180 tomorrow. I have no idea. I’m just going to put out the music that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I feel that I can go out onstage and sell these songs from a sincere place. People aren’t stupid. They get that. As long I can do that, I think there’s at least one other person who will come on that journey with me.

You’re in a good spot right now, it sounds like, with not a lot of pressure from the outside as to what music to make.
It’s not that I don’t hear it — I just choose to ignore it. (laughs)

The “Chromance” EP has a nice mix stylistically. Why the decision to go with an EP as opposed a full-length album?
I’d been pretty adverse to EPs in the past. Part of it was me just pissing in the wind, though. I like the idea, the romanticism of making records. As the industry shifts more to making singles, I just like the idea of having a record. To open up a CD or vinyl and read the inserts and know who is playing what, that’s romantic to me. I want to keep doing that. A writer friend of mine said to me, “What is an EP except for a short story? It’s a novelette.” I got into that vibe, and decided to see if I could do something within that realm. So it was literally someone saying something to me where the light bulb went off in my head, and suddenly I didn’t think EPs were a terrible thing. “Chromance” was me making a mini record, a more concise record. It forced me to attack each song harder, which forced me to dig in deeper for each song. It forced me to up my game, which was exciting.

What can Ames fans expect from a David Cook show?
Anyone who has been to one of our shows can attest that they aren’t scripted, and they change from night to night. Whatever show we play on Oct. 28 will be just for Ames because we’re not going to play that show again. Everything’s going to be stripped down, and I’m excited about further chipping away that wall that exists at the front of the stage between the performer and the audience and really try to make it a communal experience for all of us.

David Cook Fall Acoustic Tour 2018:
10/25 – St Louis, MO at Old Rock House
10/26 – Kansas City, MO at Madrid Theatre
10/28 – Ames, IA at The Maintenance Shop
10/30 – Milwaukee, WI at The Back Room at Colectivo
10/31 – Chicago, IL at City Winery
11/02 – Kent, OH at Kent Stage
11/03 – Ann Arbor, MI at The Ark
11/05 – Boston, MA at City Winery
11/07 – Ridgefield, CT at Ridgefield Playhouse
11/08 – Philadelphia, PA at World Café Live
11/09 – Rockport, MA at Shalin Liu Performance Center
11/11 – Norfolk, CT at Infinity Hall
11/12 – New York, NY at Sony Hall
11/14 – Washington, DC at City Winery
11/16 – Charlotte, NC at McGlohon Theatre
11/17 – Blue Ridge, GA at Firefly Music Series
11/19 – Atlanta, GA at City Winery
11/20 – Nashville, TN at City Winery