In the music room at the Franklin School of Innovation in Asheville, Cary Cooper pulls up her left sleeve to reveal a tattoo on her upturned forearm. The classroom is full of inspirational quotes from famous songwriters such as Taylor Swift and Jack White, but the circle of elongated black print on her skin spells out the most important advice she has to offer her students: “Sing the song that only you can sing.”
The folk-pop singer-songwriter has taken those words to heart since relocating to Asheville from Texas in 2014, trading in her touring schedule for the teaching gig at Franklin. “I felt like I needed to be quiet for a while, give my heart a chance to rest and see what it wanted to say,” explains Cooper. She shares the results of that rediscovery, Case of the Hopefuls, at an album release party and benefit for the school on Thursday, Nov. 30, at The Altamont Theatre.
The cover of the new album matches the décor of Cooper’s classroom: bright primary colors and upbeat design elements of birds and a fortune cookie. “Most people who know me think I err a little on the side of Pollyanna,” she says with a smile. “Even when facing some really difficult things in life, I tend to find the silver lining.”
As an example, Cooper points to the launch of her solo musical career. Before 2008, she had toured with her then-husband, Tom Prasada-Rao, in a duo called The Dreamsicles. Although Cooper was already a skilled singer at the time, she didn’t have Prasada-Rao’s instrumental chops, so she left him the accompaniment duties for their tight harmony vocals.
The onset of the economic recession made touring as a two-person act economically unsustainable. “I realized that if I was going to continue to have a music career, I was going to have to figure the whole instrument thing out,” says Cooper. Her subsequent hard work to pick up the guitar, ukulele and piano paid off with songwriting awards at competitions across the country and a role in the nationally syndicated 2011 TV documentary series “Troubadour, TX.”
Cooper employs all three of those instruments throughout Case of the Hopefuls, with further musical support by producer Michael Crittenden. Recorded over an intense three-week stretch this summer in Grand Rapids, Mich., to coincide with Cooper’s teaching duties at the Interlochen Center for the Arts, the arrangements are constructed lightly, giving plenty of room for her delicate melodies and overdubbed harmonies to shine through.
That stripped-down approach marks a big change from the production of Cooper’s 2013 album, Zuzu’s Petals. “That one took almost a year to make, and we were aiming for a superslick sound,” she says. “I just decided that this record felt really personal to me. I wanted the sparseness to bring an element of power that might get masked with a whole bunch of other parts.”
Although the music throughout the album clearly bears the fingerprints of Cooper’s folk-pop background, several songs directly reference the inspiration she’s gained since moving from Texas. “Swannanoa,” for example, employs Johnny Waken of Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys on musical saw and Chris Rosser of Free Planet Radio on dotar, while “Blue as the Moon” puts the twang of a mandolin at the front of the mix. “I wouldn’t necessarily call it an Appalachian feel, but those songs were definitely influenced by being in this area,” says Cooper.
The band bringing Cooper’s album to life for The Altamont Theatre performance reflects the musical connections she’s made during her time in Asheville. Rosser is featured on dotar and keyboards, Michael Hines plays upright bass and fellow Franklin teacher Bryan Clendenin contributes mandolin. Two of her songwriting students, Rain Lupia and Nikki Forbes, provide backing vocals. Cooper also pays tribute to her Texas roots through her choice of drummer: Her 16-year-old nephew, Shep Cooper, is traveling to Asheville specifically for the performance.
Singer-songwriter Gary Jules of “Mad World” fame — whose son is one of Cooper’s students — joins the release concert as a special guest. “One of the first shows I saw in Asheville was Gary Jules doing a benefit for the school his son used to go to,” Cooper says. “Now it’s come full circle with this concert for Franklin.”
But Cooper is even more excited for the chance to showcase several of her current students at the concert, each of whom performs a song they’ve written since the start of the school year. The most rewarding moment in music, Cooper says, is when students find their song. “When they stumble upon the perfect way to say something and then get to play it in front of people — it’s the coolest thing to know that’s going to stick with them.”
WHAT: Cary Cooper’s album release party and benefit for Franklin School of Innovation with Gary Jules
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, 18 Church St., thealtamonttheatre.com
WHEN: Thursday, Nov. 30, 7:30 p.m. $10 advance tickets/$15 day of show/$25 VIP.