Interview: Megafaun’s Phil Cook on Directing the Blind Boys of Alabama

by Brian Howe on June 26, 2013

Phil Cook

Phil Cook

A true gospel music institution, The Blind Boys of Alabama, has a new record coming out this fall with unique ties to Durham. Not only was it music directed by Megafaun’s Phil Cook, it will also be performed by the quartet (with special guests) at the Hayti Heritage Center on Sept. 13 and 14, kicking off Duke Performances’ 2013/14 season. We called up Cook to learn about how he stumbled into this dream project, the famous friend who made it happen, and the contents of the album, entitled I’ll Find a Way.

We also asked about the status of Megafaun at a time when its members are so busy with personal projects.

The Thread: What was music directing the upcoming Blind Boys of Alabama album like for you?

PHIL COOK: If my life was a sports movie, this would be that weird thing where some guy gets mistaken for a famous person. My whole life, I wondered how the hell people got into the credits of these records with old legends that I love, because that’s where I wanted to be. And we all know it’s about who you know. Luckily, I have a very famous friend who really believes in what I do. But after the first day, I was actually surprised at how natural and great it felt. I worried that I was going to freeze or choke up, like it was too big of a game to get called in for. But we had a great rapport and the atmosphere was jovial.

And Justin Vernon of Bon Iver is your famous friend?

Justin is my famous friend who was asked to produce the record. We did it up in his studio outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

How did he hook up with the group?

Blind Boys’ career over the past ten or 15 years has been about collaboration. It keeps them relevant and shows how many people have been influenced by them; how malleable their voices are. Their manager saw Justin win a Grammy for Best New Artist and said, “All right, let’s see what this guy is doing.” He contacted Justin directly, who of course accepted right away, because that was kind of a lifelong dream of his.

Could you tell us about why Blind Boys of Alabama are so important?

Blind Boys Alabama

Blind Boys of Alabama

Their careers span over half a century. Oftentimes, religious music tends to be exclusive to a certain audience; it’s a self-contained genre in certain ways. But there’s stuff, once in awhile, that crosses over out of the church, and people are always coming back to it: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding. What’s great is when you have artists like the Blind Boys who are old men who overcame obstacles in their life just by the power of their voices. It’s pretty awesome.

As music director, what did you actually do?

Justin and I picked all the songs and the players. I kind of came up with the arrangement ideas and feels and tempos. But the players are so good, you want to leave some of that up to spontaneity and see what happens.

I’m trying to imagine Blind Boys of Alabama as produced by Justin Vernon—is there back-masked falsetto and stuff?

There are some arrangements that are shockingly traditional for us. We chose about half the songs to showcase Midwestern songwriters and singers as a reflection of where we grew up. Obviously, we’re able to count Bob Dylan among those, so we did “Every Grain of Sand,” which has definitely become my favorite Dylan tune, lyrically. Then we did something by Charlie Parr, who is from Duluth as well, and who is one of my favorite current performers. We also have a song by Field Report, which is Chris Porterfield from Milwaukee, who grew up in the church and has very Biblical imagery in his songs. I got to put a Washington Phillips tune on there, which I was so happy about, and Justin put a Nina Simone tune on.

Are there a lot of straight gospel tunes?

Oh yeah, there’s some incredible stuff: “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There,” “I Shall Not Be Moved.” We did a Stanley Brothers tune off of Almost Home, this a capella record with the Clinch Mountain Boys, “God Put a Rainbow in the Clouds.” We found a way to do this Ted Lucas song too, a cool record that my buddy William Tyler kind of re-released. It’s called “I’ll Find a Way,” the title track of the record.

Blind Boys are releasing the album with two shows at the Hayti Heritage Center in September—you’ve got some special guests lined up?

Reggie Pace

Yeah, we’re still trying to figure out some of that stuff. But Reggie Pace from the brass band Fight the Big Bull is going to be driving down from Richmond. Bon Iver will be here. I’m not sure what I’ll be playing yet. We don’t want it to be this packed all-star session; we want it to be all about them.

And these are some of the same people you recruited to play on the album?

Yeah, Reggie did all the horns and a ton of percussion—he’s an incredible percussionist. Then we have Mike Lewis on bass, who is in a ton of things, most notably Happy Apple.

This show has faint echoes of your Sounds of the South project at Duke Performances, with roots in Southern music and with you and Reggie together again.

That background is in all of us, which is great. Sometimes you can get your jazz blinders on. We always joke about it—not being able to eliminate notes and harmonies, always extending an adding. But the players I love are able to drop all of it and play a two-note chord for the whole song if that’s what it calls for.

And you’ve got a new album coming out in August, This Side Up, which already has a track streaming at Paste?

This Side Up

This Side Up

Yeah, I started playing with a trio, because my feet can’t keep time and I don’t want to practice drums with my feet; I want to practice with my hands. So I started playing with a drummer and a bassist, Dan Westerlund and Nick Sanborn. It’s really just these photographs of where I’m at. It’s three tunes I’ve recorded before and one that’s new. I always hear things bigger than what I’m playing on guitar because I’m a piano player. With the fingerstyle stuff, you kind of have this left-and-right-hand, orchestral sound. Trying to figure out what that means as a trio; what to eliminate and let the bass and drums take care of—that’s been really fun. We just did one practice, one show at Warren Wilson in Asheville, and then drove straight to the studio in a blizzard. Every damn time I record a record, there’s some crazy weather happening!

You Megafaun guys have so many individual projects going on lately; what’s up with the band itself?

I think right now what we’re doing is trying to get some projects done that we’ve had in our brains for awhile. Joey [Westerlund] has a full solo album he’s recorded that’s absolutely incredible—that’s going to come out on Spacebomb, Matt White’s record label. And Brad [Cook] has started producing Renee Mendoza from Filthybird, who’s making a solo record. It’s his first time producing.

And Nick Sanborn is working on his own Duke Performances project.

Yeah, we’d been touring so much and trying to make enough money off that, and while we take a hit not touring a lot, it’s been really good for all our souls. We realized that for six months or so, we were in total survival mode, in the trenches, moving forward with our heads down. It was crazy to give ourselves enough space to realize that we weren’t looking up and looking around. And seriously, Joey’s record is unreal—it’s like a complete universe. I’ve played it for people who are his oldest friends and they’re just blown away that it’s him.

Born to Sing from uiargonaut.com on Vimeo.

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