Singer-songwriter Nancy Cook, of Frisco, started her career writing “a lot of dysfunctional love songs,” but after more than 30 years of making music, her lyrics and her approach to crafting melodies have evolved.
“I’ve got eight independent albums now, and when I first started writing songs — I wrote my first one when I was 21, I’m in my late 50s now — when I first started writing songs, it was always lyric-driven back in the beginning,” Cook said. “I’d come up with lyrics that had something to do with personal experience … and then I would try to craft a melody to go along with those lyrics.”
Cook continues to use that writing procedure about 50 percent of the time, she said, but has really fallen in love with her guitar over the past decade.
“It’s interesting how guitar playing has taken on a different dimension,” she said. “Fifty percent of the time, I come up with a melodic idea on my instrument, then wrap my voice around that and then figure out what kind of words that melody suggests.”
The Frisco musician will bring her combination of songwriting styles to the first Dillon Farmers Market of the season on Friday, June 6, and to The Next Page bookstore for an intimate evening on Wednesday, June 11. Both shows are free.
The road to Summit
Cook started playing paid gigs when she was in college, transitioning to full-time performing in Florida after finishing school. She dreamed of Colorado after coming here to visit, but life threw a wrench in her plans and she ended up in Connecticut.
“After two months, I decided New England wasn’t my thing,” she said. “I got offered a really reasonable housing situation in Boulder. I sold whatever I couldn’t fit in my car and, in ’79, drove to Boulder, where I only knew one person. I was 24 and at that point, Boulder was a jumping music scene.”
A half-dozen clubs around town had live music seven nights a week — solos, duos, trios, rock ’n’ roll and country bands.
“Even on Monday night, there would be live music,” Cook said. “It was insane; it was wonderful. At that point, there were virtually no other women doing what I did, having the balls to get up onstage all by myself on a guitar and just sing and play. I got a loan, got a PA and started working. I had plenty of gigs, and it was a really cool thing.”
And then, in about 1988, the bottom started to fall out of the Boulder music scene for a lot of reasons, Cook said, one of them being that the baby boom generation had grown out of going to the bar seven days a week and was starting to settle down and start families.
“The clubs didn’t have people to fill them up anymore, and the insurance had gone through the roof because of drunk driving laws, so the first place they slashed was entertainment,” she said.
Cook was able to find work through a booking agent in Summit County, playing primarily in Breckenridge, and commuted for a while before making the move permanently. She said after nine years in Boulder, she was ready for a change.
“I found a place to live in the fall of ’88, and this has been home ever since,” she said.
Lyrics then and now
The lyrics have changed as Cook’s life circumstances have changed. When the songwriter was living in Boulder, the words of her songs revolved around relationship troubles, and she said a few of her fans were none too happy when she gave up that story thread.
“When I quit doing that, there were people who were really pissed off,” Cook said. “They said, ‘I want more of that my-baby-stomped-on-my-face stuff.’”
Cook said her latest album release, “Focus,” is probably the best example of where she’s at currently with her writing. Part of the evolution has been the adventure of co-writing with other musicians, her guitar students and even non-musicians who have come up with song ideas.
“There’s a song called ‘I’ll Never Forget to Remember You,’” she said. “One of my students was mourning the death of her sweetheart who was killed in Afghanistan, and she asked me to help write a song. So that was interesting to go into very, very deep emotional territory that were not my emotions; they were somebody else’s.”
Relationship themes still pop up in Cook’s songs, but she said they aren’t generally about somebody doing someone else wrong or the other genre she’s sick of, “I need you so bad my whole life will fall apart if you aren’t there.” Instead, she writes more about appreciating her partner, a topic that’s easy to broach from her own happy relationship with her husband. A “spiritual mutt,” Cook said she also occasionally explores her spirituality through song, and another chunk of her repertoire is just strictly fun, goofy songs.
“I wrote a tune called ‘Good Time Girl,’ and it’s about flirting on the interstate based on an experience one of my best friends had,” she said. “It’ all depends on the situation.”
Cook’s career has taken her all over the country and around the world, but these days she mostly splits her time between summer gigs in Colorado and a winter job in South Padre Island, Texas, where she windsurfs with her husband. Other destinations depend on whether the show meets certain criteria.
“When I am either accepting or pursuing a particular gig, there are three questions that I ask about the gig,” Cook said. “I generally say yes to the gig if I can say yes to two out of three questions: No. 1, does it feed my checkbook so I can pay my bills? No. 2, does it feed my soul? Halfway though that gig, am I going to be really happy I’m there? No. 3, is it local? Do I have to drive to hell and back to do this gig?”
Other musician friends used to joke about driving eight hours to a gig for $35 and a coffee house bagel, but these days, with her home paid off and a life led simply, Cook said she’s no longer scrambling for money or freaking out about meeting obligations. She said she’s looking forward to the Dillon Farmers Market show, which she has been playing for close to a decade and calls “a triple-header” on her checklist.
“It’s local, they take good care of the musicians and I really enjoy the gig,” she said. “And I have high hopes for The Next Page, too. I haven’t played it yet, but they are wonderful people. … I’m really grateful to still be doing this. I’ve been playing music for over 30 years, and I still get to get out there and do it, and that makes me really, really happy.”