"It's not some immeasurable thing that I must conquer, but it's more a question of whether I can do it or not." Will Joseph Cook is posing the question all musicians have asked themselves: "Can I make my next song my best?
"There was definitely an energy of that when I was writing 'Be Around Me'," he tells me from his bedroom. The third single off Something To Feel Good About, it's addictive falsetto and awkward-yet-endearing lyrics whet the appetite of starved fans who had to deal with news of a delayed album in September. A crowd Cook didn't expect he'd be enamouring was one of the most frantic on the internet. More than a month after its release, influencers and wannabe influencers were recreating his song on TikTok, catapulting him to the home page in front of the internet's most engaged audience. Had he just found his next best song?
Understanding the psyche behind what might strike a chord on social media is something he actually considers. "I don't think it's a soulless pursuit or writing for success. It's just something that comes afterwards." The virality coursing through the veins of his discography has been consistent since his first EP You Jump I Run, but only now is that subtle nuance bubbling to the surface. "I think the actual reason that the clip from 'Be Around Me' has done so well is that it's a reduced down recipe of what that song is. It's a moment of awkward pillow talk where relationshippy things slip out and you're both like, 'Is this alright?' It's the transitional moment and you know what? It's cute." That ability to capture intoxicating moments is what marks his progression as a songwriter with Something To Feel Good About.
If streaming numbers are anything to go by, Cook's current magnum opus is a song called "Girls Like Me". The lead single off his debut album, 2017's Sweet Dreamer, it's a pristine slice of dance music that helped get Cook's young face in front of industry giants like his eventual label Atlantic. "I feel like 'Be Around Me' is the big brother of 'Girls Like Me' or something," he laughs. "These new tunes will definitely dwarf that song now. I can feel the motion in the ocean."
Signed by the age of 17, Cook was the perfect candidate to amalgamate YouTube's pop darlings with A-list radio. Soon he'd released a debut album, become the subject of thirst tweets and gain a diehard following who certainly didn't want to wait three years for his follow-up record. But what happened in that space between albums transformed Cook's approach to songwriting, collaboration and presence as a musical personality.
"I think on my first record I was dead set on not writing songs with anyone else," he admits. "Because I was young, people assumed I didn't write my tunes anyway. So I felt hell bent that I was going to be the only credited voice on the album." Having something to prove is synonymous with an artist's first album and nothing makes a statement quite like an entirely self-written album. But once he began writing his second, he realised he'd missed out on the potential of collaboration.
Momentum began to build when he and Paul Dixon penned the first song for the album, "Driverless Cars". A funky and infectious pop song packing blown out bass drums and a feel-good ending, this already sounded different to anything he'd made before. "I knew I had the blueprint of the album. It was laid back but still cool and it still banged. It felt like that was what the rest of the tunes had to live up to." Competing his songs against each other isn't something Cook is afraid to do. "It's fun to explore that and figure out If I can outdo my popness, you know what I mean?"
While he's still extremely proud of his first record and the opportunities it afforded him, there was something much more fluid about opening up his creative space to producers and musicians who could bring new flavour to his process. "I'm finally admitting to myself it's better to have a good keys player get the chords down rather than me hamming it up. Everyone's a MIDI master until someone turns up with a piano grade."
Carrying less weight in the recording and performing process freed space in his diary to come back to centre and focus on his musical identity. A textbook extroverted introvert, Cook's very calming demeanour when we speak is heavily contrasted with his cheeky personality in his music videos. With an affinity for cross-dressing and keeping humor at the core of all his music videos, he's almost custom built to be loveable. Despite this, only over the past years has he started to align his music with his natural character.
"I was chasing musical feelings that sounded cool rather than actually working through my life with music as a soundtrack. It's time to be reflective. If there were a way to sum up the title of the album, it's that it should almost have brackets after it. It should be, Something To Feel Good About (In Spite of Everything). This sounds so cheesy but whatever, it's about finding the hope and optimism in these rough moments. I wanted a utility in the album."
You can write a song that's as miserable as you want but for Will Joseph Cook, you've got to make sure there's a hug at the end of it. "The closing track, 'Last Year' is that but on steroids," he elaborates. "The lyrical perspective is something I'd never done before. I think if you listen to it, it's quite obviously a letter to myself. I can't imagine not writing that song because I feel like it was rounding off all the bad things without dwelling in them. It's about losing family members and losing friends and losing relationships only to realise you're not doing well either. It might not be everybody's favourite song on the record but for some people I think they'll really attach themselves to it. I played it to my family and they weren't sure if I should put it out. I lost all my grandparents last year very quickly and they felt it was a lot to share."
A personal favourite off the album for him is "DOWNDOWNDOWN!". It's angry, it's despondent and totally disassociated from its surroundings. Centred around hooking up with someone for the first time after a massive heartbreak, it documents a moment he didn't feel present in the room. "I was trying to put distance between myself and what was actually happening. I just wanted to be anywhere but in those feelings I'd been feeling." During lockdown he'd revisit the song in order to regulate his mood. Now he's hoping it can do the same for other people.
He doesn't like to critique his own songs, but if he had to do it with his first album? "I'd just say it isn't that refined. I can hear the excitement in the fact that I was 18 and using this synthesiser I'd never touched before." Rather than a shiny new synthesiser, what got his creative juices flowing for album number two was stepping out the studio and listening to other music.
"Someone sent me this album by an artist called Okudaxij. I bumped it like four times in a row and I was like, 'Oh, this is the fucking shit. This is so good!' I ended up messaging him and telling him I loved it. We were back and forth on Twitter DMs for a while until I just flew out to L.A where he's based. I was there three weeks making music and that's where we recorded 'Wayside' and a bunch of others. Coincidentally, I met Matt Parad on that trip who is the main producer I collaborated with on the record. Meeting both of those people was so pivotal to this album."
The unflinching vulnerability of Okudaxij's 2018 album Bless You served lessons in songwriting for Cook. "Same goes for MUNA," he points out. "That second record shows how great they are as lyricists. Having somewhat of a friendship with those artists, I can confirm the music is so true of themselves. That's the point of music. Sometimes I'll ask myself what I should write about but instead I should be asking how I'm feeling at this moment."
It'd be a bit far-reaching to say he stopped connecting to his older songs, but they certainly didn't reflect his mood, his lifetime or the story he'd carved out for himself. Now he'll often find himself listening back to Something To Feel Good About, exercising a bit of self indulgence and resonating with what he hears. "I find that so funny when you're listening to your own tunes and you're like, 'Man, I'm relating to this so hard. This is really saying what I'm feeling, man,' he laughs.
"Thematically as well, the album is a bit of a day and night story. It's front loaded with a lot of turbo drive. They're all based around daytime—a party, falling in love and rushes of emotion. The second half is a lot more like entering into nighttime—a bit more sobering, but more reflective. People always say music helps you get through things but I'd always liked it just because it was fun to listen to. Turns out 'the feels' is a real thing. But it's still a joyous album, I promise."
The way the new record is built into these two contrasting themes was always the plan. However, in order to get music in front of fans as quickly as possible, he released the daytime half of Something To Feel Good About in September. These songs were written to fall in love to. They sound like all day sunsets, being young and taking risks, so the last thing he wanted was to deprive these songs of their "moment in the sun".
Being able to put out songs as and when he feels like it is a novelty that resonates with his hunger to be contemporary. Before starting the campaign for his second album, he released "Hey Brother" and "The Dragon" through The Orchard in order to get them in front of his audience as fast as possible.
"I wrote 'The Dragon' around a certain time when stuff was going down and I knew I had to release it right then. We didn't have any album release date, I just wanted to put out music when it felt relevant. With the way music moves now you can release the same amount of music but be so much more creative in sharing it if you have enough breathing space. Dropping an album all at once almost feels like a waste."
So, which facet of music does Cook think are doing things the right way? "It seems to me like artists in hip-hop and rappers in general are doing best out of anyone. Inherently, that music has to be put out in the heat of the moment. They'll often have a bunch of contemporary references to what is happening now and that's what lends itself to catching what is trending. But I don't think that should be any different for a singer-songwriter. I want to operate like that. I know it's cliché but Bob Dylan was reactive like that. Even Bowie was putting out an album every year."
Frustrated with the hoops you have to jump through and ridiculous hierarchies at a major label, Cook decided to release Something To Feel Good About independently on his own imprint, Bad Hotel. This meant leaving Atlantic—the dream major label status for so many young artists. "Everyone that signed me was no longer there anymore," he laments. "I didn't own my music. I had the offer to do the second album but I knew I would so much prefer to not have to pander my creative ideas to a group. Now I don't need consensus to do shit. I can just do it. It's almost like being in a little speed boat or something, as opposed to this big lumbering ship.
"I think the stupidest thing about labels is that they obsess over first week impact and various arbitrary accolades that more often than not don't translate into what's best for the artist."
I can dart around and do more tricks now. I have people that I make videos with. I've got my live agent, I've got independent press and independent marketing. What do you even need a label for at that point other than just money? You could get a loan from the bank, it would be the same shit." This freedom means even the little achievements feel bigger than anything could have before. With the pressure off his back and his creative process rid of excess noise, he knows that every tweet he gets, every play his songs receive and every listener he reaches is because of the blood, sweat and tears he put into it.
"I think the stupidest thing about labels," he continues, "is that they obsess over first week impact and various arbitrary accolades that more often than not don't translate into what's best for the artist. I couldn't give a toss whether someone listens to my songs on week one or week 52. I like being able to act impulsively and jump on moments when it makes sense." From our conversation, It's be easy to assume he still holds a lot of disdain for his old label, but that simply isn't true—he's just so excited to be doing things on his own terms. That being said, that doesn't mean he isn't afraid to make a couple jabs at the industry's reaction to a year without live music.
"All the small and independent venues are fucked," he puts it bluntly. "When I say small, I mean anything under 5,000 capacity. I'd rather just get a busking license, head to Vauxhall Park and sell some vinyls. The livestreams have become a useful tool but they are in no way the same thing."
Having already cancelled what would have been his first live performance this year - a hometown show in Tunbridge Wells - Cook realises there's no point in rushing things. However, He does point out a silver lining to the live music industry having to reinvent itself. "The thing with touring and the live scene now is it's kind of like this volcano has exploded," he begins. "It's destroyed everything in its path but after some time, the soil is super fertile. It's not as much adapting as it is an opportunity to rethink it. Only a couple of businesses control everything and that doesn't suit an industry like this."
While we're discussing the uneasy ground of the music industry, Cook feels like we missed something: "Could we talk a bit about how artists use social media?" A bonafide TikTok star and avid social media user, he's figured out his greatest tool as an independent artist is this huge market. He'd shied away in the past simply because he wasn't completely sure what kind of artist he wanted to be. "Now I'm much more open online and it's training this muscle that gets my point across."
Listening to both his albums, it's obvious he's not just spouting out clichés. The consistency in songs like "10X MORE FUN" and the title track "Something To Feel Good About" paint a picture of a more assured artist who's knack for addictive songwriting isn't wearing a mask anymore. "I feel like the virality in my music is overdue. That's not me saying I'm underrated or anything like that. It's just that I think it's intrinsic to the tunes." He isn't lying. His music is shamelessly enjoyable and sits between genres while remaining accessible.
"There's a purist argument that you're watering down your music by revealing the personality behind it but that definitely isn't it. If anything I'm adding more squash to the drink."
"There definitely is a disconnect between how an artist sees themselves and how their audience sees them though," he warns. "I feel like a lot of artists would relate to that. I used to have a frustration that I had this personality but people weren't seeing me that way at all. There's a purist argument that you're watering down your music by revealing the personality behind it but that definitely isn't it. If anything I'm adding more squash to the drink. Not to get too zeitgeisty but the reason I resonate with the albums I do is because of the authenticity. It feels like you know the artist in some sense and it adds so much weight."
One thing is present throughout the two conversations Cook and I have throughout quarantine—he's excited. Whether it's the wind in his sails from a successful single or giddiness to finally get this album out, his nonchalance when it comes to charting is explained by his obsession with listenability. "Lots of people have got in contact with me off the back of 'Be Around Me'. And the best part is that it's free marketing. Tik Tok actually does cut out the middleman. Some labels, artists and partnerships have got in touch and it's definitely opened up a lot more opportunities in the US." With such a devoted audience overseas, it's only a matter of time before he's picked up and shown off across the Atlantic. "A Bermudan sensation, maybe?
"It is strange to have label interest again," he confesses towards the end of our conversation. "It really has been so enjoyable doing this record independently but seeing these doors open up again just lets me know my way is working." I can't find a hint of regret in his voice. Going independent and doing things his way were catalysts that inspired his metamorphosis. While Sweet Dreamer was by no means a disappointing album, the honed artist that pulled himself up by his bootstraps has crafted something worth investing in with Something To Feel Good About.