Entirely in keeping with the frank, confessional pop gems populating her imminent new album, ‘Bliss Land’, a chat with Hattie Cooke proves to be a no holds barred event. Roll up, roll up…
“I don’t know if you’ve seen, but I’ve been having a bit of a Twitter meltdown with some vinyl flippers today,” grins Hattie Cooke. There’s a mischievous glint in her eye, but she’d been genuinely angry earlier. An unopened vinyl copy of her freshly sold-out album ‘The Sleepers’ had appeared on Discogs at a vastly inflated price, and she hadn’t held back in confronting the seller.
“I said, ‘I hope your house gets flooded’, and then I thought, ‘Oh shit, my dad will see this’. He used to buy old 78s he picked up at car boot sales for 50p then sell them on. He knew what he was looking for. And he also bought and sold gramophones and phonographs, so our house was always full of musty boxes filled with mysterious objects. I’d listen to ‘The Laughing Policeman’, ‘Teddy Bears’ Picnic’… stuff like that. Al Bowlly is one of my absolute favourites.”
Cooke is not how you’d imagine, but that’s a pleasant surprise. Her music is elegantly icy synthpop with a revelatory streak, and her long-player, ‘Bliss Land’, combines the melancholy stillness of early 2020 lockdown with the nagging self-doubt of the freshly-turned 30-year-old. You’d be forgiven for expecting a sensitive, reticent singer-songwriter hiding behind a MacBook bursting with analogue synth patches. She’s resolutely not that.
“I grew up on a really rough council estate outside Brighton,” she explains. “People are always surprised to find out I came from quite a poor, working-class background. They don’t believe me when I say we were fucking broke! We just had wooden floorboards. I’m pretty sure the church had a whip-round and paid for us to get some carpet.
“I’m not embarrassed at all by where I came from. In fact, I feel a responsibility to make a point of it. There are so few working-class people in music these days. So I think that’s why I got so angry on Twitter. I’ve struggled to survive my whole life, and this guy has bought my record, hasn’t even played it – it was still perfectly shrink-wrapped – and he’s selling it for twice the price. And then he rounds on me, saying it’s my fault for not making enough copies. You know, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ It makes me so angry.”
And then we say hello properly, and she tells me a joke about Daleks. That’s Cooke in a nutshell – forthright and funny, but with an unmistakable streak of steel. If she was a footballer, odds on that she’d be a tenacious midfielder guaranteed at least three red cards per season (let’s keep things Brighton-centric here and idly compare her to Jimmy Case).
So was her family musical? Were there instruments in the house as well as piles of old vinyl?
“My dad played guitar, but only for fun,” she nods. “And my Mum used to go to prisons and sing for the inmates. So I was only 11 or 12 when I first picked up the guitar myself and tried to make stuff. And when I was 16 or 17, I started taking things a bit more seriously. My friend had a laptop with some basic software and said, ‘Let’s record you…’. I’d been writing songs all through my teens. They were terrible. Really bad. I can still remember some of the lyrics…”
Come on, then. Let’s have them.
“Oh, man, I’ve gone blank – ‘wearing your pain on your skin’? They were lame emo, self-harming songs. I have a book full of my old lyrics somewhere. Maybe it’s under the bed…”
It’s the first time she’s seemed remotely self-conscious, but she clearly has a vulnerable side. She talks of a decade playing pub backrooms, racked by nerves that persist to this day (“sometimes they’re borderline crippling”), and of her mixed experiences as a teenager studying on a scholarship at the Brighton-based BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music Institute). Yet she was far from being a “lame emo”. The press release for ‘Bliss Land’ coyly alludes to her “wild and unhinged” teenage years. Was she that out of control?
“Mental,” she confirms. “A lot of tequila. A lot of… interesting encounters with different people. Going to New York when I was 18, to marry someone I’d met on Myspace…”
“We were both fans of Johnny Flynn, who I’d met a few times because I dated Jeffrey Lewis for a little while.”
“Yeah, and I met people like Johnny, Laura Marling and Herman Dune through Jeff. I was commenting on Johnny’s Myspace when this other guy, Joe, found me and we got chatting. He lived in Buffalo. I wasn’t very happy at home so it was like, ‘This is my way out. I’m going to go to New York and get married and live in America and all my problems will be solved’. But then I got there and he didn’t really look like his picture.”
Did you realise immediately that it wasn’t going to work?
“Literally at the airport. You know how people hold up a card with your name? He’d just drawn a whale. I don’t know why. He was a proper weirdo and I realised straight away I’d made a terrible mistake.
“It was three months from hell – getting chucked out of his mum’s house, then his dad’s and then being made to live with his grandparents in the middle of nowhere. I got bird flu and couldn’t go to hospital because I didn’t have health insurance. It was absolutely diabolical. And I wasn’t able to come home because I couldn’t afford to get the ticket changed.”
“I’ve done a lot of crazy things in my time.”
Weren’t your parents concerned?
“They were, yeah, but I think they’d long since figured out they couldn’t control me.”
Cooke’s self-titled debut album was released in 2016, after a friend passed a six-track demo CD on to Nick Langley of Third Kind Records. The acoustic guitars, now augmented by the pre-loaded synth sounds of GarageBand, framed songs clearly alluding to this wayward streak. Exhibit A – ‘Happy Today’: “They all said she was selfish and lazy / They all said, ‘Get a job and grow up’ / Now that I’m certifiably crazy / They don’t talk any more like they did before.”
“I was in a rubbish headspace when I wrote it,” she admits. “I wasn’t a happy person. I was quite depressed. My living situation wasn’t great, I was a little bit estranged from my family and I didn’t have many friends. I was a bit down and out. And I have both a gift and a curse in that I’m painfully honest. I don’t really know how to be anything other than myself.”
Was this, perhaps, the reason her follow-up, ‘The Sleepers’, was such a curveball? A slick, John Carpenter-style soundtrack to an imaginary film about a global narcolepsy pandemic, it clearly reflected a passionate interest in the dystopian cinema of the 1970s. It felt more escapist than her first album. Did she need a break from writing about the intensely personal? After all, the 1970s obsession is an unusual one for a woman born in 1991.
“Yeah, but as a kid in the 1990s, my house was very much a relic of the 1970s,” she explains. “Places that have a lot of poverty tend to be 20 years behind the current vibe. I remember seeing films like ‘Logan’s Run’ and thinking, ‘Wow, this is really frightening, but kind of cool’. I wasn’t allowed to watch much TV. My mum was very protective about what we watched because she was a Christian, but for some reason those films slipped through the net – even though they had nudity and all sorts of weird stuff going on. So I definitely understand the 1970s aesthetic.”
‘Bliss Land’, conversely, is a record that could really only ever belong to post-lockdown Britain.
“Cos the whole world’s sittin’ still / Like summer days upon the hill…” she sings on opening track ‘I Get By’. It’s the perfect summation of March 2020 – the empty disquiet, the deserted streets.
“I was really scared,” she nods. “I have a history of depression and anxiety, and I’ve worked hard to structure my life to limit those things. I did an Open University degree for five years which finished in summer 2019. I thought I was going to get a job and start my life. But by March 2020 we were in lockdown and I couldn’t see my friends or family. This album is me trying to control my own sanity and stave off the madness.”
There’s a line on ‘Summer Time’ – “I spend my days walking round town / A glass of red in the afternoon to wash my medication down” – which seems to perfectly sum up that period as well.
“That song is actually 11 years old,” she says. “And that was my life. I used to walk around bumming drinks in the bars, waiting for men to talk to me so I could ask them to buy me a glass of wine. And taking antidepressants. Day to day, that was how I lived. I’m not on antidepressants anymore. I will occasionally still bum a drink from someone, though.
“But the song still felt relevant to the lockdown zeitgeist, because that’s all I’ve been doing – walking around, taking a bottle of wine up the hill. For the first four months I was probably drinking at least a bottle a day.”
Has she always had troubles with her mental health?
“Yeah, since I was five or six. It was like the classic scene in ‘Annie Hall’, where the kid is concerned about the universe expanding, and the doctor says, ‘Stop worrying about it!’. That was me. ‘What’s infinity?’. It’s so self-absorbed, isn’t it? But I’ve always had those weird thoughts, and I have to be focusing on something to keep them out.”
Hattie Cooke is brutally honest, both in her music and in conversation. “Couldn’t keep each other apart / Now I won’t even walk past your door”, she sings on ‘Lovers Game’, the wistful tale of a break-up. It’s a telling line.
“I had a relationship with this guy, it was only a year and it was a bit on-off, but I’d never been so in love with a person before and he broke my heart. Destroyed me. We split up in 2018, and even now I have little thoughts about him. I swing between wishing I could bump into him and really hating his guts.
“A lot of this album was ready three years ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to put it out there. It was too raw. I’m just glad I didn’t give him a credit. I almost had a little, subtle dig – ‘And thanks to YOU for making me write this amazing record, you DICK’. But no, leave it. Be cool.”
In January, Cooke turned 30, the age at which the bulk of the population are summarily executed in ‘Logan’s Run’. The single ‘Youth’ is a love letter to her adolescence, accompanied by a video in which a maudlin Cooke looks back at three decades’ worth of family photographs, from faded baby pictures and gauche teenage portraits to shaky snapshots of drunken nights out.
“I basically had a third-life crisis,” she confesses. “I feel like I’m not your typical 30-year-old. I’ve never had a real job. I’ve never been in a proper long-term relationship. I don’t have kids. I don’t have savings. Sometimes I have these waves where I think, ‘Shit. It’s OK to be a fuck-up in your 20s, but less OK to be a fuck-up in your 30s’.
“I’m trying to be a real grown-up now. But I want one or the other. Either I’m going to be successful with a decent career, or I’m going to go back to being a drunken loon. At the moment, I’m sitting between those two places.”
There’s a whiff of star quality about Cooke. The frankness. The honesty. The minimal number of fucks given. And although ‘Bliss Land’ is largely giggle-free, she professes to being in robust health for its release.
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” she insists, before returning to her mission statement of inclusivity.
While she’s grateful for being welcomed by the electronic music scene, she’s keen for others not to feel excluded. She’s a woman making electronic music and that’s still disappointingly rare. Why does she think the genre is so male-dominated? Is it the hardware and the wires and the cables?
“I think there’s a pressure on women to have the gear and to know how a modular synth works,” she nods. “And frankly, I don’t. It’s not about that. It’s another reason why there are fewer working-class people making music – they can’t afford the stuff they need.
“I don’t think music should be unavailable to anyone based on class, race, gender, geography or anything. I want to hammer this point home. You can be a woman, you can be broke, you can be black, you can be trans, you can be whatever. It doesn’t define what you’re doing. The music speaks for itself.”
Disagree at your peril. Or Hattie Cooke will come round and leave all your taps running.
‘Bliss Land’ is released by Castles In Space