As the daughter of Sex Pistol‘s drummer Paul Cook and Culture Club backup singer Jeni Cook, there’s no question of how British born Hollie Cook got into music. The promising young artist, who is also the god daughter of Boy George, has always loved performing, and her sound, which she describes as “tropical pop” is a catchy blend of reggae and pop-infused refrains. From 2005-2010, upon the reunion of the 70s band The Slits, Cook dropped out of college to perform with the group, which she claims influenced her sound. “They were a predominantly punk band and from a punk era, but the worlds of punk and reggae were very much integrated in London at that time…They took those two counterparts, and made their own sound. From there, and working with them, I moved even further into the reggae side of things, and realized that it was a very comfortable place for my voice.”
Cook immediately garnered our attention with the eclectic and groovy sounds of her new album Twice, which came out last May. After a lengthy tour of the US in October, she returned to New York City for a one night performance on January 8th at the Highline Ballroom. She sat down recently with The Untitled Magazine about her music, her parents, The Slits, and how she came up with “tropical pop.” Check out the full interview with Hollie Cook below.
Indira Cesarine: It must have been an incredible experience growing up in such a musical family. What were your first recollections of music as a child?
Hollie Cook: It’s funny, because I’m very aware [of it]. I feel like it’s a special way to grow up, but it’s also my “normal.” It was nice in the sense that I had my parents around as a kid. My dad would take me to the park to feed ducks and stuff. Anyway, all of my really early musical memories are from being in the back of the car while my parents drove, listening to whatever albums they were playing. Or being at parties. My parents were young when they had me, and they were still very social. All of their friends had kids as well, so they would bring us with them. There was always music around. My first batch of shows was seeing my dad play. When I was about nine he played with Edwyn Collins who had a huge career in the 90s, and I got to go to festivals and on tour. The Sex Pistols rejoined when I was ten, so I went to a few shows with them as well. Those are my first live experience memories – seeing my dad.
IC: And your mother, she was in Culture Club right? Did you guys sing together a lot when you were a kid, like when you were in the car?
HC: Yeah! A hundred percent. My mom sings everywhere. She sings everywhere all the time, which is really cute. She was in the really early stages of Culture Club, and when she realized that it was going to be a big thing, she decided to take a backseat and do something different. She decided not to pursue the career on a professional level so much. She’s still a huge music lover, and we sing a lot together. I get my vocal ability from my mum. My dad is tone deaf (laughs)! He’s definitely got more of a rhythm thing. I mean, he can sing, but it’s not his forte. So thank goodness for my mum giving me the voice.
IC: And the reggae influence, where did that come from?
HC: That came from myself, actually. Although I grew up listening to so many different types of music, reggae wasn’t really one of them. Which is bizarre, because both my parents were also huge reggae fans when they were growing up. But for some reason, it didn’t filter into my childhood. When I was about 14 or 15, I had a group of friends, and we were all listening to old ska records and sneaking into a club in SoHo – it’s called Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues – that played old ska and blues music. From there, I started to lean more towards those sounds. I was a big Phyllis Dillon fan, and then I got into Marcia Griffiths, Horace Andy, and Dennis Brown. I never actually expected to end up singing reggae. Then I was in The Slits for a long time, and their sound had a huge reggae influence. They were a predominantly punk band and from a punk era, but the worlds of punk and reggae were very much integrated in London at that time. They took those two counterparts, and made their own sound. From there, and working with them, I moved even further into the reggae side of things, and realized that it was a very comfortable place for my voice, literally, and also emotionally and spiritually. I found that it worked out well as a true form of expressing myself through music.
IC: Did you always want to be a musician?
HC: I always wanted to be a musician or at least some kind of performer. As a kid, I took ballet and tap classes and was super into theater. I actually went to a performing arts school. My parents could see that it was something I was leaning towards; I was always putting on shows for whoever would pay attention. So I knew that that was probably where I would end up. I thought I was going to be an actress, though. Then through theater I found that music was something that was more comfortable. I was very shy. Well I reckon I’m still quite shy, but I was definitely awkward and weird from the age of ten until I was about twenty, and I almost backed away completely from doing music. I tried out a few other things, but it just felt really boring and unnatural. I was always most happy doing music.
IC: Growing up, what sort of music did your parents play? With your dad being in the Sex Pistols, one would assume lots of punk, but I imagine there were other musical influences?
HC: I did listen to a lot of punk. I grew up loving the Buzzcocks, Bow Wow Wow, X-Ray Spex, and Siouxsie Sioux. I loved all the females; I was super into that, and I was a big Debbie Harry fan. There was also T-Rex, David Bowie, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Dusty Springfield, and the Shangri-Las. Everything was thrown in there. My parents are extremely eclectic like that, and my dad had a big—both my parents actually—had a big motown collection. It was really kind of schizophrenic. On my own as a kid, I was super into Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, TLC, etc.
IC: A wide range! What about Boy George? He’s your Godfather. How often did he enter the picture?
HC: It was infrequent, to be honest. He popped up every now and then. I do remember him from when I was very young, between the ages of like, four and eight. I remember moments of him at our house. A lot of my parents’ friends were kooky, so I was always drawn to that. I was super into his whole vibe. He moved [to the U.S.], and then he went wayward for a little while. It’s been actually really wonderful in the last three to five years – he’s been back in London a lot more, and he heard my album and was super supportive. He’s really gotten in with the Godfather duties in the last couple of years. He’s so encouraging, and he comes to my shows. It’s very cool!
IC: Have you ever performed together?
HC: We performed together recently for the first time, which was a weird full-circle of sorts. He was doing a BBC radio session with Culture Club and BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. They performed Colour By Numbers in its entirety, and they were inviting guest vocalists. They invited me, which was extremely cool. We got to sing together with an orchestra. It was kind of unbelievable and surreal. I felt out of my depth, and super overwhelmed. It was a lot, but it was really fun.
IC: Was it in-studio?
HC: It was in the BBC Philharmonic studio, so we had an audience. It was really, really cool. We also did another event together earlier in the summer for a big festival in Liverpool. He just jumped on stage with me and did a couple of backing vocals. That was one of the first times we’ve done that, so it was really special.
IC: With him re-launching Culture Club right now there’s potential for some collaborations moving forward, I’d imagine.
HC: We did try to make that work. They’ve been recording for a while and they asked me, but our schedules just didn’t meet, unfortunately. But I know there’s room in the future for some other stuff we could do together for sure.
IC: I heard that David Bowie used to babysit you, is that true?
HC: It’s a stretched out truth! I met him once in New York when I was with my dad on tour. I very vividly remember meeting him and knowing full well who he was. I don’t know why I seem to remember it being in a hair salon, but it was 15 or so years ago and I was kid, so I don’t know. Anyway we were hanging out, and I think it had been many years since David had seen my dad. My mom and I were doing our own thing while my dad was busy working, so he invited us the next day to visit the Guggenheim with him and Iman, which never ended up happening. He was just really friendly. But I’ve told this story to a journalist and for some reason it’s completely morphed and mutated into something different.
IC: He’s like, what’s that girl on? Babysitter?!
HC: Right. Super weird!
IC: Everybody knows how the media kind of exaggerates sometimes.
HC: Yeah, I’ve learned these things!
IC: So tell me a little bit about The Slits. How did you get involved with them?
HC: The Slits were around in the 70s in London. They took a huge hiatus for the entirety of the 80s and 90s. I guess they split up (they were all quite horrified by the 80s, I think). Ari Up went to Jamaica, had a life there but still played shows and made music over this time as a solo artist. Then she decided she wanted to get The Slits back together and make an EP. As a fan I was very aware of who The Slits were. Ari was a hurricane in our lives. She’d just show up out of nowhere, for a day or so here and there, so I have all these memories of her just suddenly being around. And during one of those times, she wanted all of her friends’ daughters to come and sing on [the EP]. I was at college and had an exam, I think. My mom called me and said, “I’ve just been on the phone with Ari. She’s in a studio in East London, and she wants you to go over there now and sing.” It just so happened that it was around the corner from where I was, so I popped over. I hadn’t seen her in about 5 years, but it felt like yesterday. She was never one for big reunions and its cuteness. She was like, ‘Oh, hey, yeah, blah.’ It was like I’d literally just popped out for a coffee and came back. I sang on this song called “Slits Tradition.” She had all of the next generation of girls singing on it. Then she asked me to come and sing some shows and play with them. I was kind of like, ‘Yeah, yeah, it’d be really cool,’ thinking it was not something that would follow through. But she followed through and I ended up doing some rehearsals. Then I played about two shows, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the best thing in the world.’ I’d never been in a band before outside of friends at school, so to be hanging out with The Slits and all their power and glory made a huge impression on me. I just kind of kept doing it, and kept doing it, and eventually – I was at school doing music at the time – the school of the Slits that I was also doing alongside it seemed to be a little bit more fun. It was a way more beneficial learning experience because it was the practical thing. My parents were really cool and they supported me leaving school to run away with The Slits for like, four or five years. It was invaluable to me being here now as a solo artist.
IC: How old were you when you did that?
HC: 19, 20? It was perfect timing. It was that bizarre transition from teenager into young womanhood.
IC: So instead of going into university, you decided to just run off with The Slits?
HC: Yeah, I went on tour! The school of life!
IC: That must have definitely been more interesting than school! Now, I heard a lot about how you describe your sound as “tropical pop.” Tell me about how you came up with that? I’ve never heard somebody refer to their music as “tropical pop,” precisely.
HC: Yeah, I mean, nor had I. But to be honest, I love the fact that people pick up on it in such a strong way, because it was extremely flippant actually. I needed to fill in the genre on my Facebook page and I thought “tropical pop” sounded fun and frilly and exciting. It was just something that was different. Reggae is perfectly fine, and that is essentially what it is, but if you read [tropical pop], it makes you sit up a little bit more, and maybe want to hear it a bit more, or not. But it was really just a casual thing. I’d never heard anything like it before either, so it just seemed appropriate.
IC: I like it! It’s a very colorful way of describing a genre of music, and it’s original. So, do you remember the first time that you performed live? At home I imagine you guys were performing quite a bit, but I mean really performing, like getting on stage.
HC: Um, yeah. Well, I made a stage for myself – I have no recollection of this – but when I was about three years old, we were staying in a hotel over Christmas (our whole family used to go to this hotel around Christmas time in Devon England). The lobby had a huge central staircase. And out of nowhere, I just got up on the stairs and decided to start singing to everyone; I got an audience together. That was the first time, apparently, that I performed in public.
IC: And you were three! That’s a great age to get the ball rolling. It’s definitely your life calling. So going forward to your music. I read about how you had funded your album twice with PledgeMusic? Is that right?
HC: Yeah. It wasn’t the full-funded original style that Pledge was set up for, but it was definitely very much along those lines. The album was already half-made, at zero. Then we set up Pledge, which is actually a really interesting and fun way to carry out your projects. It gets quite interactive, and it’s almost encouraging and reassuring – because you know we’re all so insecure, us artists. Suddenly, you realize people are basically investing in your work. They believe in it enough to help you fund it before it’s even being made. It’s a really special thing. I’m on a fully independent music label, so shit’s tight!
IC: Yeah, I know, and it’s expensive to produce and deliver an album!
HC: It really can be. So to have a platform that makes it fun, you can give out personal touches that you wouldn’t necessarily do. You create more of a relationship with your fan base, I think. I made funny videos for people – a bunch of video edits of old movies, kind of like makeshift music videos, but to really out there choreographed musicals from the 70s. It was really obscure shit. My friend is a weird little filmmaker, so stuff like that was cool.
IC: So where are you at now, with your new music and your performing?
HC: It’s been really fun practicing the new songs. I’ve been working with a band from California. We’ve been kind of rehearsing across the pond, just back and forth – I work with a band in London and a band in America – so we’ve been communicating the last two months. They’ve been rehearsing on their own without me. We had a rehearsal the other day, and we weren’t sure how it was going to go. They were like, ‘Oh my god!’ And I was so pleasantly surprised. They’re really, really wonderful musicians. It’s just going to be no frills. I like to keep it super simple. Just me, my band, and my voice.
IC: You just put out a new track, “Postman.” What was the inspiration behind the song and video?
HC: The inspiration came from the fact that I have a dear friend, who is a really fantastic director and filmmaker. He lives in L.A. I have worked with him before, but again digitally from overseas. I had a few days in L.A., so I stole him, and was just like, ‘Please, can we hang out and make something fun?’ We had no real direction, but I just love working with my friends when I can. I’m lucky enough to have many friends in creative fields, so we just jumped in a car and ran around L.A., which is one of my favorite cities. There are shots of me performing at one of my favorite clubs [there] with all of my friends, so it’s fun – me in L.A., doing shit that I love. It is a little, sort of, biography type thing.
IC: A portrait of a singer. I love it. What can we look forward to next? Any plans for 2015?
HC: The exciting thing is that there is no plan!
IC: You’re just going with the flow…
HC: Going with the flow! I’m just going to write more music. I like taking these moments and opportunities to be inspired. I love traveling, so I feel like I don’t want to commit to a new album at this point. I think I’m just going to do a few small projects. I don’t know what they are yet. I’m making it up as I go along, every day…
– Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Watch Hollie Cook on set with The Untitled Magazine in our behind the scenes video:
BEHIND THE SCENES WITH HOLLIE COOK
Photography and Video Direction by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Fashion Editor: Indira Cesarine
Makeup by Paul Venoit
Hair by Anthony Joseph Hernandez
Video Capture by Patricia Gloum
Video Edit by Patricia Gloum
Music “Postman” by Hollie Cook