Emma Cook’s Days of Wonder

By Norm Wheeler
Sun editor

If 2011 continues to be as full of excitement, exhilaration, and adulation as its first weekend, Emma Cook is headed for quite a year. On the evening of Sunday, Jan. 2, Emma packed The Loading Dock restaurant/bar in Traverse City with almost 200 of her closest friends for the release party of her new CD, “Days of Wonder”. The fruit of a semester off from the University of Vermont, and an autumn of intense work with Patrick Niemisto at the Holy Wah Studio near Maple City, Days of Wonder is a harvest of Emma’s crystalline voice and emerging songwriting skills.

“I’ve been singing my whole life since I was a kid,” Emma explains. “My Mom (Sue Wood, who works at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor) plays piano. I started singing in the high school vocal group North by Northwest at Glen Lake in 9th grade. Nobody knew I could sing until I entered an 8th grade talent show. My Mom played piano and I sang “Stairway to the Stars” in front of a middle school audience. I tied for first place, and performing was really exhilarating!”

Emma counts among her musical influences “the younger Ben Folds, Brandi Carlisle (whose phrasings you can hear in Emma’s voice), and Chris and Thomas, a duo my friend (and guitar-playing collaborator) Will Hendricks recommended.” Emma’s parents (her Dad Gary Cook is also a musician) took her to Blissfest every year. “I was inspired by Seth Bernard, May Erlewine, and Donna the Buffalo. I’ve also been to the Hiawatha Music Festival, Wheatland, and Dunegrass, so I’ve seen great bands and singers perform a lot.”

Songwriting started for Ms. Cook when all members of North by Northwest were assigned by Mr. Niemisto to write and perform a song. “I really took to it,” Emma remembers. “Mine was called ‘The Brainwashing Song’, and I performed it for 60 or 70 kids at school, a really big group of my peers. I really liked it — it’s fun to write and perform, it lets me be creative and has become my creative outlet.”

At only 20 years old, Emma is evolving a songwriting technique. “It’s always different,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll think of a chord progression and then try to find words that match. Sometimes the lines in my songwriting notebook suggest something and I try to find a musical way to express them. I’m pretty visual — first I write it in my head, but I want a copy to look at so I don’t forget the moment of inspiration. Then several drafts follow, and I have to feel really happy with it before I’ll perform it. My second set at the Loading Dock was mostly new songs I liked and feel confident about.”

“Days of Wonder” also features Hendricks on acoustic guitar, John Kumjian on percussion, Pat Ivory on dobro and electric lap steel guitar, Rowan Niemisto on lead guitar, Ingemar Johansson on nykelharpa, Lisa Johansson on flute, Drew Aron on classical guitar, Patrick Niemisto on bass, percussion, acoustic guitar and mandolin, Gary Cook on octave mandolin, Sue Wood on piano, and yours truly on flugelhorn and trumpet. Emma plays piano, acoustic guitar, marimba, xylophone, and percussion, as well as singing the vocals with her magical, mesmerizing voice. Sometimes she sounds like May Erlewine, sometimes Corinne Bailey Rae or Nelly Furtado or Brandi Carlisle, but Emma always puts her own distinctive styling into each performance. Her songs range from the introspective to the playful, from love songs to carpe diem epiphanies. They are full of joy and youthful exuberance, and for a debut production this CD is outstanding. (It is available at the Cottage Book Shop in Glen Arbor and the Cedar City Market. A couple of songs are on MySpace, or you can request a CD by emailing emmacookmusic (AT) gmail.com. A webpage is in the works.)

And that’s not all. Emma’s music will take a brief hiatus this winter and spring, because on January 21st she is flying to Chennai and then on to Auroville in southeast India! As a student at the University of Vermont, Emma enrolled in a program through UMass that will send 25 students to live in an “intentional community” (“like an ashram,” she says) to earn credits in Environmental Studies with a focus on Sustainability Studies. “For three and a half months we’ll be doing yoga six days a week and working on a farm while also taking classes with faculty who live there,” Emma explains. “Then I’m going to travel for six weeks and be back in June.”

Emma Cook is a pragmatic girl. “I would like to pursue a career in music, and I’m working toward that happening. But I’m not yet confident that it really will, so I’m going back to school at the University of Vermont in Burlington for another year and a half to finish up. Then I would love to just go on tour!”

You can experience Emma Cook’s talent next summer at Boonedock’s when she will perform every week with Goodboy. In the meantime, buy “Days of Wonder” so that Emma Cook’s voice can warm your winter.