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More Than a Musician: An Interview With L.A. Singer-Songwriter Alma Cook

(LA Trend) — With no shortage of filmmakers, musicians, and artists, it’s no secret why Los Angeles is one of the top creative capitals of the world. And while the celebrities are the ones who attract the bulk of the attention, we here at the LA Trend want to highlight some of the lesser-known creators who really make the City of Angels a global artistic hub.

In this installment, we take a look at the life and work of singer-songwriter Alma Cook, whose craft dissolves the barriers that separate music and politics, using the universality of the former to heal the divisions caused by the latter.

A native of Madison, Wisconsin, Alma knew from an early age that music was something that would never leave her alone.

“Music is like a boyfriend I keep breaking up with and running back to. The truth is that I couldn’t stop writing songs if I tried! I’m almost embarrassed to say this because it sounds so self-aggrandizing, but when the next song calls out to me, I lose my ability to focus on anything except finding the right metaphor and rhyme and rhythm and melody. My time becomes slave to the music. It’s always been that way, too; I remember sitting in high school chem drawing in the margins of my assignment, unable to do the classwork in front of me because I needed to find a good rhyme for my pre-chorus.”

Instead of quashing the urge to make music and focus on more “practical” matters, Alma decided to follow the call of her muse and let rhythm ‘n’ harmony take her away. She sharpened her musical skills at Columbia College in Chicago and, after graduating, regularly performed at various clubs and festivals around the country. She even opened for such musical artists as contemporary gospel musician Jonathan McReynolds and Christian rapper George Moss.

LA Trend Alma Cook

Refusing to rest on her laurels, Alma capitalized on her early successes and released her first EP, Pass It On, in September 2012, followed by her single, “For a Poet“, which charted at number 2 on Rádio Nova Portugal in December 2014. Also in 2014, Alma released her first full-length album, Tactics, which was produced by bassist Chris Thigpen. His father Cornell Thigpen—who has performed with the likes of Mary J. Blige, Chaka Khan, Stevie Nicks, and Patti LaBelle—played organ on the song “Hotshot.” Since then, Alma’s style has evolved into a more sophisticated-yet-accessible form, as evidenced by her Courtship EP, and her singles “Surefire” and “So Close”.

A bit of a musical chameleon, Alma has the unique ability to seamlessly blend various genres and styles, as seen by the wide variety of musicians she’s played with. No doubt this is the result of the melange of influences that have contributed to her signature sound.

“Early on, Corinne Bailey Rae was my idol of idols. Her grace was matchless, and her songs were some of the earliest covers I played live. Crazy to look back on that time—it felt like I was just playing dress-up, making up background vocal arrangements for my friends to sing! These last several years, I’ve been swimming in the music of The Internet, Tom Misch, and Anderson .Paak. Lizzo is amazing, too, though I can’t say her style has seeped into mine much.”

The world has been extremely chaotic for everyone these days, but Alma hasn’t let that stop her from making music, and instead uses the turbulence of the times to fuel her work.

“Candidly, I’ve had more than one chaotic year in a row. In a short span of time, I was fired from a job I loved, was evicted from the community house I’d built my life around, was dumped by the man I thought I’d marry, and lost a close friend to health failures. By the time the U.S. locked down and the painful summer of social unrest began, I was already weary. Though my focus for the last several (too many!) years has been finishing up my next record, I definitely have some new songs in the queue that chronicle this bizarre point in time. What you can expect from me in the future is a very ‘zoomed in’ look at this era: the vertigo and claustrophobia and loneliness we’ve all felt as our worlds shrunk. I’m also exploring the tense relationships between friends across political divides.”

And that’s something that sets Alma apart from many of her singer-songwriter contemporaries: she’s not afraid to dive into that deeply personal, even painful, bog of feelings and experiences that other musical artists might treat with kid gloves or avoid entirely. Her lyrics are never shallow, nor do they play it safe; they’re raw and unflinching, and perfectly encapsulate those rugged gray areas we’re all too familiar with yet too often pretend aren’t there.

However, the fierce intimacy of her words is tempered by a smooth, soulful voice that provides just the right amount of poetic light needed to guide you into the misty corners of the human condition that her lyrics call their home. And carried by her perfect melding of pop, jazz, neo-soul, spoken word, and folk, Alma’s music provides listeners with a body of work that’s as stylistically wide as it is emotionally deep.

But because Alma, like the greatest artists, is always voracious for new ideas and challenges, she’s also spent much of her time recently working with Braver Angels, an organization dedicated to ending political polarization.

“One silver lining from 2020 was connecting with Braver Angels, a cross-partisan nonprofit that seeks to ‘build a house united’ in increasingly divided times. I’m privileged to sit as co-chair of their music committee, where we’ve been working to leverage the creativity and cultural capital of artists to spread what we call patriotic empathy. We also have a growing community of songwriters that meet regularly to play their new pieces, get feedback if they want it, and discuss the role of music in the political realm.”

In this time of division, Alma recognizes that music can perform a role that aims higher than mere diversion or entertainment. And while many musicians have created explicitly political music, for Alma, it’s not so much about writing songs that push an agenda that makes the art form such a unifying force; rather, it’s the ability to bring us together around a universal, deep-seated rhythmic impulse that we all have, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we are.

“At a concert, no one is thinking about whether or not they agree with their neighbor about tax policy or school choice. Listeners are literally united in how they nod their heads and move their feet to the rhythm, and they’re poetically united as fellow captives to the song’s story. We all come through the door with vastly different human experiences, but a song about infatuation, breakups, depression, brotherhood, or perseverance will ring true for all of us. I’m with Chloé Valdary when she says that dancing together is the key!”

But of course, for Alma, it always comes back to her love of making music, for which she has big plans.

“After I finish my next album, I’d love to do a collaborative lo-fi record with Chris [Thigpen]. The dream would be to feature some of my favorite neo-soul and R&B vocalists—we’ll see!”

As most people would guess, turning music into a reasonable living doesn’t happen overnight, nor does it come easy, as Alma makes clear in her advice for those looking to make a career out of the aural arts.

“There’s no shortcut to excellence. Put the hours in and become exceptional at your craft, because the best marketing strategy is a good product. If your goal is simply to be famous, admit that to yourself and act accordingly. But if your goal is to become a great musician, the advice is simple: practice. It’s not sexy and it won’t get you a million likes right away, but LA is home to the best musicians in the world, and you won’t earn their respect if you can’t hang.”

However, for those who believe they have something worth sharing with the world and are ready to brave the punishing journey of becoming a professional musician, Alma swears by one resource to help aspiring musical artists take their craft to the next level:

“More broadly, one of the most helpful tools for recording artists like me is SubmitHub. The platform makes it easy to submit new releases to Spotify playlists, bloggers, radio stations, and record labels, guaranteeing that the person on the other end will listen (or your money back)! You’ll get a ton of rejections, but dollar for dollar it’s the best PR resource out there.”

And while living in Los Angeles isn’t a prerequisite for budding performers, composers, and songwriters, there’s no denying the fact that the City of Angels offers a cornucopia of resources and contacts not found in many other places around the world—at least, if you know how to properly navigate the L.A. music scene.

“You’ve got to find your people. For singer-songwriters, there’s unfortunately not a good culture of open mics or even live shows, and the idea that a heavy hitter is going to ‘discover’ you playing on the Santa Monica promenade is a bygone fantasy. Scour the internet for good teammates—which depending on what you need could be an engineer, producer, music director, or instrumentalist—and build a genuine relationship.

I’m biased, but my engineer Raz Klinghoffer is one of the best producers in the business if you’re looking to make pop music. The guy could literally take an off-key voice memo and turn it into a Top 40 hit. 

Songwriters should also check out the LA Songwriter’s Collective. They’re a genuine, talented bunch, hosting live events, outings, coaching, and workshops. Can’t wait until we can all meet again in person!”

However, if living in Los Angeles isn’t an option for people who want to make music for a living, don’t despair; as the ever-increasing prevalence of digital technology and remote working is making that path easier than ever, so much so that making the move to L.A.—or any other major creative hub—will be considered optional in the near future. 

“My bet is on Austin as the nation’s next big music hub—but does location even matter anymore? The internet has been the great equalizer for independent artists, helping voices get discovered in every corner of the world regardless of whether there’s a record label in their town. Right now, LA is home to the country’s greatest session players and tour bands, but with the rest of the world moving toward remote working environments, I’m not sure why we’d expect the music industry to be an exception.”

Being known as a talented singer-songwriter is a worthy goal for anyone, but Alma has her sights set on something higher and grander.

“I cringe at the idea of being known exclusively for my music. To lots of people, especially my nameless and faceless listeners in South America and overseas, I’m just a singer, and that’s fine. But I’d rather be known as ‘the musician who also ______.’ Who also has some interesting ideas about philosophy and theology. Who also podcasts with Braver Angels. Who also challenges people to listen to each other better.”

For more information on Alma Cook and her latest projects, check out her official website, and click here to listen to her music. And be sure to follow her on Twitter!

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Joe Garza | Editor

Joe Garza is an LA-based writer and musician. With a deep passion for the arts, his interests include screenwriting, reading, composing, and playing guitar and piano.

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