A self-managed country singer-songwriter, Cook has crowd-funded her three albums. With the release in September 2019 of the third, Caught In The Middle – kicked off by the taut single ‘Red Dirt Road Trip’ – she was again touring in Australia and playing the famed Tamworth Country Music Festival where she had picked up the international award from the Independent Country Music Association of Australia for her work internationally in supporting independent Australian and New Zealand artists.
In my review of Caught In The Middle I wrote, “If we let her go, the Australians will claim her as their own. And that would be a real shame. She’s ours and one of the best in the broad territory of country-soul, country-rock and ... whatever she turns her hand to, in fact.”
But maybe it’s already too late?
Australian awards are not unknown to her. In 2017 she was given the International Country Music Artist accolade in Tasmania and she has been a magnet for supporting talent, including multiple ARIA-award winning producer Buzz Bidstrup (formerly of the Angels) who produced and played on Caught In The Middle.
Although Caught In The Middle spent three weeks in the New Zealand Top 10 album charts in October 2019 (debuting at No.6), Cook remains largely unheralded in her homeland. This is despite an APRA nomination for country song of the year in 2005 for ‘I Wonder’, and twice being a finalist for Next magazine’s New Zealand Woman of the Year (2011, 2016) for her contribution to the arts.
Cook has long been a supporter of New Zealand musical talent. In the late 1980s, after championing numerous musicians, Cook heard Tama Renata’s recordings, which had hit brick walls at record companies. She decided to form her own Te Aroha Records (with Renata’s friend and engineer-producer Reid Snell at Harlequin Studios in Auckland) to get his album out there.
After six months of hustle she struck a deal with Jayrem Records and Tama’s Workshop album was released, even though Te Aroha had to pay for the manufacturing and promotion themselves.
Cook was blooded early in the business end of the music industry but the hard work didn’t deter her as music had always been her life.
“Dad was an opera singer in his earlier years,” she says, “so he was always rattling the walls with his bass-baritone voice, and the amplifiers he was building for people’s huge home stereo systems and amps for music.”
Cook learned classical piano from age nine and heard her father’s Glen Campbell and Glenn Miller big band albums. “It always has been [music for me],” she said, “and will always be, if I have my way.”
She went to the same local primary school as her friend and “soul sister” Sharon O’Neill, whose tours she would later promote and who appeared on two songs on Caught In The Middle.
“My time with fellow Māori performers had an influence on my harmonies and melodic music structure.”
Cook got into performing and promoting by watching and listening. “I’ve had a few [mentors] over the years and learned lots, and got going on the guitar a bit more thanks to Tama. And my time with fellow Māori performers definitely had an influence on my harmonies and melodic music structure.
“In 1991 I got to tour a few dates with BB King and I saw how he would perform two hours then spend time signing stuff for his fans backstage. They would wait at the door and he would have us show them in, 10 at a time. It was very cool to see the looks on their faces.
“I said to him I was amazed he did this and BB said, ‘If they are waiting at the door to get glimpse of me, they have all my albums and come to every show they can, the least I can do is say thank you.’
“I think about that when I think about the people who bought my album in advance to enable me to make it.”
Keeping that faith with her audience and backers has been a platform in her solo career, which started with her 2011 album Brand New Day with co-writer and producer Alan Jansson (OMC’s ‘How Bizarre’, the Proud compilation which included the Sisters Underground hit ‘In the Neighbourhood’).
Cook’s second album, Horseshoe Rodeo Hotel, was released four years later after international touring and finding a second home and a distribution deal in Australia. Again recorded with Jansson, it was her songwriting and production breakthrough.
By that time, she had played Tamworth five times and been nominated five times as best female singer at the New Zealand Country Music Awards.
With guests Brendan Dugan, Graham Brazier, guitarists Kara Gordon and Fats White (Brent Hayward), Nik Brown of the Warratahs on fiddle and bassist Paul Kingery of Three Dog Night, the songs on Horseshoe Rodeo Hotel bridged authentic country and classy pop.
As before, there was also emotional depth in her writing. The folk ballad ‘Sassenay’ is about a young New Zealand airman dying in France; in the widescreen and dramatic ‘Kimberley’ she addressed her Australian audience with evocative sonic allusions to didgeridoo and clapping sticks. It was picked up and used in a tourism ad for that region.
The single ‘Midnight Cowboys’ from the album reached No.1 on the Australian country charts in November.
The album entered the New Zealand music charts at No.13 and enjoyed five more weeks at No.19. It deserved better, but country music struggles for attention, as she told Eleanor Black for Stuff that December:
“Most New Zealanders think Keith Urban is famous for being married to Nicole Kidman. On a success level he’s got more Grammys and US platinum albums than Lorde and Neil Finn put together, but the average Kiwi could not tell you the name of one Keith Urban song as we are just not exposed to his music.”
With little radio dedicated, or even open, to mainstream country-rock or country-pop of the Aly Cook kind – and even less television exposure available – she has created a career outside of her homeland.
Which explains why, when Caught In The Middle rolled around in 2019, her touring in Australia was extensive but there were only a few New Zealand dates. And it also explains the song ‘Red Dirt Road Trip’, which she co-wrote with Kay and Graham Bidstrup.
Her own material nudged into Celtic-influenced melodies and there were more touches of country-soul.
Her own material was stronger; it nudged a little into Celtic-influenced melodies and offered the feminist anthem ‘We Hold Up Half the Sky’. There were more touches of country-soul than before, and she also included a sensual, languid cover of Lucinda Williams’ ‘Steal Your Love’, a piano ballad treatment of Kasey Chambers’ ‘Am I Not Pretty Enough’ and a version of John Prine’s ‘Angel from Montgomery’. Whether courageous or foolish choices, she pulled them off.
Caught In The Middle had been crowd-funded by more than 150 fans from over a dozen countries, from the United States to Sweden.
The album was recorded at Asquith Studios, Sydney, which Cook described as “another amazing setting on the edge of the Australian bush.” She treasured “being woken by the kookaburras, and feeding the rainbow lorikeets by hand between recording times.”
Afterwards, she said, “I feel finally that I have a sound ... I am really excited now to share these songs with the world, as I know in my heart and soul that I gave every ounce of what I had on an emotional level to every song that I delivered.
“On a personal and spiritual level, this is by far the best recorded work I have achieved.”
The evidence was all there and gave her that entry into the New Zealand charts at No.6.
Ambient Light’s Tim Gruar concluded his review of Caught In The Middle with, “I said at the start that Aly Cook was a country artist. By the end of this album I find myself doubting that. I’m also wondering why she’s not better known by the trendsetters on radio and in the media.
“Her voice is veracious and poignant, [Cook is] a skilled songwriter that makes music worth a listen, and returning to again and again.”
But as has been the case in Cook’s career, there was more acceptance across the Tasman: ‘Red Dirt Road Trip’ spent five weeks at No.1 in the Australian Country Songs Top 40 and at the end of the year was still there at No.9.
Her song ‘Southern Christmas Stars’ (not on the album) was No.3 on Tasmania’s Country Charts, and was widely interviewed on Australian radio. Cook has also been nominated for the Fair Play Country Music Red Carpet Music Award to be held in Holland in November 2020.
Very few contemporary New Zealand country artists could claim anything close to her successes in Australia, and yet still many would ask, “Aly who?”