Words by Jesse Serwer, Photos by Justin Borbely
No. 1 on our Toppa Top 10 albums list for 2011, British singer Hollie Cook’s self-titled debut LP was the one record everyone on our highly opinionated team could agree on this year. Brilliantly produced and mixed by engineer Mike “Prince Fatty” Pelanconi and topped off with Cook’s intoxicating vocal presence and lovelorn lyrics, the LP had a transportive quality, evoking some of the best elements of past U.K. movements like Lovers Rock and 2 Tone while sounding fresh enough to warrant much wider exposure today. Though a new name to most, Hollie has a neat little backstory: she’s the London-born daughter of Sex Pistols drummer Paul Cook and a British-born mother of St. Lucian extraction, and played for several years in a reformed version of the iconic female punk-reggae band, the Slits, with her parents’ good friend, the late Ari Up. We feel so strongly about her future prospects that we’re declaring her our second annual LargeUp “Rookie of the Year” (and, for the second year in a row, the award’s going to a Brit). We recently spoke with Hollie via Skype about her unique upbringing, how her LP took shape, and what we can expect from her in the New Year.
Large Up: This album sounds like something that you maybe didn’t just record and put right out. How long were you working on it?
Hollie Cook: I’d been working on it for a couple of years but we weren’t really aware that we were, in fact, working on it at the time, if you know what I mean. I started working with [her producer] Prince Fatty in 2007, I believe. So I’ve been going to his studio and trying things out with him since then. It wasn’t really until a couple of years later that I sat down and compiled the work that we’d done and realized that we had a nice collection of songs. ‘Cause originally I was working just as a vocalist to feature on Prince Fatty songs and, when it came time to put together his second album, we sort of realized that [I was on] probably a few too many songs just on his album without me completely taking it over… He works with different vocalists like Little Roy and Winston Francis and Horseman and Natty as well, so it didn’t seem right that there were a good six songs featuring me. We realized from then that we should work on something separate that could be a whole piece of work. It’s been a while in the making, which has been nice because there wasn’t a huge amount of intent to begin with. It was just a very natural process really. It seemed like the right thing to do.
LU: How did you come to work with Prince Fatty?
HC: A friend of mine played me some of his early work when he was putting together his first album. He knew that I’d be super into it, so he played me a couple of songs and I was just really interested to meet him and see what he was about and see what he was up to. I requested to meet him. We tried out a song together which ended up being “Milk and Honey” and went from there.
LargeUp: You kind of have this haunted, ghostly type vibe through the album. Maybe not so much in the lyrics but in the sound and the feel…
HC: Yeah I get that. It just came out. That’s something that I’m into sound-wise so it is just part of my personality.
LU: It’s almost like a Specials “Ghost Town” type vibe—if there’s one song I would connect the whole album to, it would probably be that one. So tell me what you grew up listening to in your house. Was that era of second-wave ska and British variations on Caribbean music a big part of what you listened to growing up?
HC: I suppose that probably came slightly later in my musical interest. Growing up, I was listening to lots of different stuff. There was some reggae in there, I guess, The Cure and the Smiths and David Bowie and T-Rex, Madonna, The Beach Boys, lots of pop and rock really and punk and then reggae came. I suppose I got myself into that. And a couple of my parents friends really influenced me more with the reggae. I mean it was there but it came a bit later in my life. I liked Blondie and Diana Ross and the Shangri-las and Dusty Springfield and Janet Kay, Phyllis Dillon, Dennis Brown…there was lots of stuff going on.
LU: You imagine that kids naturally rebel against their parents. If your father is part of the most infamously rebellious band ever, how do you rebel against that? Do you embrace that or do you rebel against it?
HC: I suppose you embrace it. I embraced it. There’s really not a whole lot that you can do to rebel in situations like that. I could end up being really straight. The most rebellious thing I could have done was if I decided to be a banker or a lawyer or something but I’ve always been interested in the arts and knew from a young age that that’s the direction I was going to go in. So I gave up the whole rebel thing pretty early on in my adolescence. I didn’t have anything to rebel against, basically. My parents took me out with them a lot so I was a very socialized child with adults and I suppose the few times I tried to sneak out and come home late… I probably got in trouble for doing that once and then after that, it was like as long as there’s a reasonable amount of boundaries and a reasonable curfew involved then I could pretty much do what I wanted. I didn’t feel the need to misbehave.
LU: So what’s your mom’s background? Is she West Indian?
HC: Yes, her mother is from St. Lucia. She came over here in her late teens. My mother grew up in London and was hugely influenced by the punk scene. She was a bit younger but she was a punk also. She hung out and went to punk shows and night clubs and was also a singer, you know, and creative as well. They’re kindred spirits, my parents.
LU: When you were growing up were you closely connected to the Caribbean side of your family? Was Caribbean culture a part of your upbringing?
HC: Not really, to be honest. That again, came later in my life. I went to the Caribbean when I was really young and didn’t go back until my early twenties. And then when I did go back, I felt like I learned a lot more of myself, and the bit that maybe I was missing felt slightly more connected and understood myself slightly more, you know? My grandmother left that part of her life behind, I suppose, and it didn’t really filter through to my life. It was more evoked from a self-discovery.
LU: You grew up in Shepherd’s Bush? In Shepherd’s Bush, there is still somewhat of a West Indian community right? I know there’s the Ochi.
HC: Oh yeah, the Caribbean takeaway. That place is great, one of my favorites.
LU: Wasn’t the Greensleeves store in Shepherd’s Bush?
HC: Yeah, that’s right.
LU: How did you end up working with Ari Up?
HC: Ummm, she is a family friend. I’ve known her my whole life. She used to pop up every now and again. And once upon a time she popped up and was recording new material to put The Slits back together and she asked me along with a few of her other friends’ daughters, who are my friends who I grew up with, to come and record some backing vocals for a song called “Slits Tradition” on the Revenge of the Killer Slits EP. When I recorded that with her, she said when I do some live shows you should come and sing and it went from there. I was super up for it and wasn’t really sure if it would ever happen. But when it did eventually happen I was involved as much as I could be and then I ended up being a full-time member within a couple of years.
LU Were you playing in bands before that, or was that kind of an accidental situation?
HC: Well, yeah. I had been doing music for a few years up until then so it was always my intention and then that seemed like the best offer I’d had so it was a no brainer.
LU: What kind of music were you making on your own before then?
HC: This and that. I was a teenager, you know?
LU: Horseman is heavily featured on your album, and performs live with you at a lot of your shows. What has it added to your project to have kind of a veteran artist along with you on everything.
HC: It’s so nice. He is a legend and has had some hits under his belt. He is super-encouraging and super cool and it adds a fantastic dynamic to what I do. I guess I’ve got a light, smooth vocal and he brings up the rough cut.
LU: What’ve you been up to since releasing your album. Are you already working on another one?
HC: Yeah. I’ve started some work on my new album. It’s very, very early days. We’ve sort of just been playing out live and touring a little bit. And we’ll do some more next year. We’ve been developing a live show. We do a lot of sound systems and we’ve recently put together a band to play full live shows with and we’ll be touring next year as well as writing for the next album.
LU: What has been the general response to the album?
HC: It’s been super positive and nice. Some of it’s not been positive but I don’t really care. Whatever, so far, so good, I’ll say that.
LU: What’s been not positive?
HC: Oh, I don’t know. Some people don’t think it’s interesting or some people think that it’s unoriginal. You’re never gonna get 100% positive feedback whether it’s music or whether it’s you as a person, I mean come on. Not everyone is going to love what you do but that doesn’t matter.
LU: Do you think the sound that you carved out on this album is something that you are going to continue to with, or is that just one aspect of where you are trying to go?
HC: That’s just one aspect. There will definitely be elements of it on the next album. It will be slightly evolved from the first album but that’s normal, right? I don’t know, things just happen don’t they? I’m working on the new album with Prince Fatty again so…