Phil Cook’s Southland Mission is thoroughly a North Carolina album, so much so that at any of the junctures in its creation when it seemed he would exit the state, he was promptly pulled back in.
The latest step on this Tar Heel odyssey is a return to The Mothlight Thursday, Jan. 21, a venue the multi-instrumentalist folk rocker last played in April 2015 as part of Hiss Golden Messenger. That date coincided with the decade anniversary of moving from Wisconsin to Durham so that Cook could immerse himself in the N.C. music scene and its history.
The show also marked just more than a year since he had recorded his newest album in Asheville. But while label and PR descriptions, and even the insightful essay by Cook’s wife, Heather, vaguely refer to the location of those sessions as, “a studio in the Blue Ridge Mountains,” Cook himself makes it no secret that the mystery site is Echo Mountain Studios.
“I think it’s kind of the recording heart and soul of a lot of the important and relevant music that’s come out of North Carolina in the last 10 years, which is why it was a big goal for me to get there and actually make my record there,” Cook says. “It was really important for me to stay in North Carolina to make the record that I needed to make instead of leaving and going somewhere else.”
In the album’s infancy, such priorities weren’t as clear cut. Cook debated using his many recording connections and “bro deals” in the Midwest and also considered going to New Orleans, where he planned to recruit exclusively local players. A year later, seeking the time and solitude to work on songs that his modest house and parental responsibilities to his young son didn’t afford, he blocked off four days at a friend’s cabin high in the mountains of Ennice, N.C., situated on a breathtaking overlook. After following a road that crosses into Virginia before winding back into the state he’d just left, Cook set up his gear and recording equipment. Knowing he was needed back in Durham in less than a week, he embarked on an experience he likens to being in a sweat lodge.
Accompanied solely by his dog, and making no contact with the outside world, Cook repeated a cycle of recording for four hours, then taking a 15-minute walk. Each night, he ate a bowl of soup and slept between four and five hours, rising poised to resume playing. On the fourth day of total meditative focus, he listened back to his recordings — and what hit his ears brought him pure happiness.
“It was the first time I’d actually heard something complete that I did that completely came out of me, or came through me, and came out the other side. [I] listened to it as, like, an outsider,” Cook says. “It was the first time I was overcome with an emotion that I had made something beautiful — and made something that was so true to me as a human being and my existence on this planet. It was a really unifying moment for me.”
The experience convinced him that Southland Mission yearned to be recorded in North Carolina, at which point he says the only answer was to take it to Echo Mountain. Cook had previously been to the studio for separate Daytrotter sessions with his former band Megafaun and The Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as albums with Amy Ray (Indigo Girls), New York-based songwriter Doug Keith and Asheville country roots band The Honeycutters. Stoked to work with studio engineer Jon Ashley, one of Cook’s “favorite dudes,” he recorded the collection’s nine songs over a week in March 2014. He worked with a handful of N.C. musicians, including vocalist Amelia Meath of Durham indie-pop duo Sylvan Esso. Cook says she and his other in-state collaborators all gave him a particular spark when they previously played together, and that their mix of musical inspiration and fun personalities were essential in realizing his vision.
“The record radiates joy and that’s really what it’s supposed to do — have this kind of fist-pumping, triumphant feel to it,” Cook says. It’s the same with the record cover, inspired by the back of Taj Mahal’s The Real Thing. “If you walk into a record store and my record’s on the wall, I wanted to make it be like, ‘Hey, this is different than all the drab sh*t that’s next to it. Trust me: It’s totally a different vibe.’ You can tell. Then you bring it home and put the needle down and listen to it; it’s exactly what the cover says.”
WHO: Phil Cook and The Guitarheels with The Dead Tongues
WHERE: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN: Thursday, Jan. 21, 9:30 p.m. $10 advance/$12 day of show