Joanna Cooke – Interview, May 2018

One of my favourite things about Joanna Cooke, and there are many of them, is just how unassuming a figure she cuts. Meeting in popular Plymouth student café the Caffeine Club, we attract a couple of ‘looks’ for trying to find the quietest corner away from the building work outside but otherwise nobody even comes close to suspecting that I’m sat talking to a woman in possession of one of the most powerful and unique voices currently on the scene. Cooke is not a diva or an attention seeker by nature but she’s learning to understand the necessary evils of seeking the limelight, hence her agreeing to do this interview despite not being overly comfortable with the situation.

Sensing the need for a sensitive approach, I decide to open the conversation in the relatively safe territory of Joanna’s musical beginnings…. or so I thought. “So, basically, I wanted to be Mary”, it’s a strong and, frankly, unexpected start to proceedings but much like the general tone of Joanna Cooke’s songs, it’s a start that grabs your attention. “In the school play, back in the day, they wouldn’t pick me because I was a bit of a tom-boy back then. I wrote a letter and they made us flip a coin and I kept winning but they still gave the part to this other girl but then they found out that she couldn’t sing. So, they asked me to sing all her songs for her and said I was amazing. That was year 6, then I went to secondary school and I found myself hanging around the music department more than hanging out with my friends. I was listening to rock and metal bands but then I joined the Jazz band at school and we got to go on tour to loads of different countries. The band were playing the whole show but I was only singing one song and I still got to go so that was ace”.

So that’s that. The first 30 seconds of conversation and we’ve gone from religiously fuelled theatrical injustice through a metal phase and in to blagging on to a pan-European Jazz tour. A period of song-writing in a shared bedroom back at home and choosing the ‘wrong A-Level’s’ saw Cooke wind up at Truro College to do a music programme where she met Nathan Austin, her guitarist and partner. “I did a performance-based degree which I loved but then went back to the normal world while still trying to create music. I worked with (Dido Producer) Martin Glover and did some recording in London and then my manager Andrew (Ellis) and here we are five years later”.

Now, Ms Cooke is another musician who has chosen to base herself in Plymouth (not exactly a musical mecca…yet) despite hailing from Lyme Regis originally, so what brought her to Britain’s Ocean City? “Just working really. I was working and doing my music at home and I was getting really down about it, so I just decided to give the music a go through the Open Mics – Michael Collings from Britain’s Got Talent was stood outside the first one I went past! And then I just got lucky with the scene, playing alongside people like Jamie Yost, Calvin Thomas, Jack Cookson, Alice Gullick, Ali Hart and Andy Quick. I was playing catch-up, but I’ve done well to get as far as I have in that time”.

That brings us bang up to date with that past covered off but when Joanna Cooke gets up in the morning and, as a full-time musician, approaches the creative process, well, what gets her going? “Voices always inspire me - at College I loved Adele but I was a bit bitter at how young she was! Winehouse is an influence and, of course, the great female voices like Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. Basically, I look for emotion in the melody and a soulfulness. I write a lot of words and phrases and then lose them – my house is littered with ideas and books – but I have to capture things people say or stuff I see. I’m not the most prolific writer and that’s something I want to work on but I have to keep an eye on the quality – I’m too self-critical to believe that everything I write is good. I have to be in the right mood and because I’m self taught on the piano I have to do things a slightly different way”.

“One of the things musicians don’t always think about is the audience”, Cooke is on a roll now. “Musicians sometimes focus too much on the launch of a record and then they’re disappointed when they don’t have a million streams in a week. The internet has been great for me to get my music around the world but collecting the royalties for it is a different matter. The UK collection agencies don’t seem to work with the Australian and South African agencies so a big part of my week is spent chasing agencies around – when you have a number one in the Dance Charts you want to get paid for it!”

That unassuming nature has now settled in to just chatting about music rather than being interviewed and the conversation is flowing but where does Joanna Cooke want that flow to take her musical career? “I think if you work hard and do the right things then you can get ‘there’ but where is ‘there’, y’know? There are lots of different tiers of success and I know other musicians who would love to be where I am, a full-time musician, but I’m looking at the next level. I can stay comfortable where I am now, there are still plenty of venues that I haven’t played around here, but I want to experience more. I really want to play outside of the South-West and do some touring, I want to move in to playing more dedicated venues but it’s harder than I expected. You can’t just say, ‘Hi, I’m Joanna Cooke, here’s my CV, can I have a headline show at Ronnie Scotts?’ The best shot I’ve got is hitting up Bristol, Bath, Brighton and London to see what support slots I can get on. I want to play on bills with other musicians, test myself and see what I can pick up from others – I don’t want to just rest on what I’ve achieved so far”.
Ambition is no bad thing and that’s something Joanna Cooke has in spades but at the moment she spends most of her time behind an enormous electric piano, an array of percussion and with only guitarist Nathan Austin for support. In her wildest dreams, what would the ideal stage set up be for an artist whose voice needs to be unleashed and unrestrained? “I would love to get out from behind the piano, for sure. I’m working on something bigger for the end of the year with more people involved but I’ll still be behind the piano for now. I can’t say too much now but I’m starting to envision what things could look like, what they could sound like. I can’t wait for that day when I can get a band together. I went to Glastonbury once and paid for my ticket so I promised myself the next time I go I’ll be playing”.

Before we finish up and head out in to the night air, I just have one question to ask one of the hardest working musicians in the South-West who can’t see a week go by without packing it with shows; what are the venues still on her ‘to play’ list? There is a long pause before she responds “The Barbican Theatre is probably the one, locally speaking anyway. It seems like the place that all the good shows are happening at the moment and I’ve heard good things about the sound so that’s definitely up there. Other than that, I love playing festivals where the crowds are full of music fans, people there to listen and enjoy the music”. And that pretty much sums Joanna Cooke up for me – ambitious but not for the wrong things. Cooke is a quality over quantity musician and with her third EP on the way this year you have to expect it’s going to be great…no pressure. Interestingly, as we leave there are a few more looks which suggests we’ve been deep in animated and passionate conversation and that’s never a bad thing.

Live Dates:

25th May – Bridge Bistro, Wadebridge
26th May – Kindred Spirits Festival, Launceston
27th May – 5 Degrees West, Falmouth
28th May – Exmouth Festival, Exmouth
29th May – Peaky Blinders, Paignton
31st May – Millbridge Inn, Plymouth
28th June – The B-Bar, Plymouth w/Beth Rowley