(First published in Electronic Sound magazine #78, June 2021)
HIT OR BLISS
Noon on a Thursday, and Hattie Cooke has already wished waterlogged carpets on an unsuspecting Discogs seller. It’s typically frank behaviour from a Brighton singer-songwriter whose third album Bliss Land is a perfectly-formed collection of heartrendingly confessional pop gems
Words: Bob Fischer
“I don’t know if you’ve seen,” says Hattie Cooke. “But today on Twitter, I’ve been having a bit of a meltdown with some vinyl flippers…”
She’s smiling, and there’s a mischievous glint in her eye, but she’d been genuinely angry earlier. An unplayed 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 (“I hope your house gets flooded”) in confronting the seller.
“And then I thought ‘Oh shit, my dad will see that’. He bought and sold old 78s, so he would go to car boot sales, buy things that were 50p, and 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’, ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’, stuff like that. Al Bowlly is one of my absolute favourites.”
She’s not how you’d imagine, but it’s a pleasant surprise. Her music is elegantly icy synth-pop with a confessional streak, and new album Bliss Land combines the melancholy stillness of early 2020 lockdown with the nagging self-doubt of the freshly-turned thirtysomething. You’d be forgiven for expecting a sensitive, unforthcoming 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 just outside Brighton,” she explains. “Mile Oak. People are always really 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 my whole life to survive, and this guy has bought my record, hasn’t even played it – because it was still perfectly shrinkwrapped – and he’s selling it for twice the price. And he rounds on me, saying it’s my fault for not making enough copies. You know, who the fuck does he think he is? It makes me so angry.”
And then we say hello properly, and she tells me a joke about Daleks. That’s Hattie Cooke in a nutshell: forthright and funny, but with an unmistakeable streak of steel. If she was a footballer, she’d be a tenacious midfielder guaranteed at least three red cards a season. Let’s keep things Brighton-centric here, and boldly compare her to Jimmy Case.
Was it a musical family, then? Were there instruments in the house as well as piles of old records?
“My dad played guitar, but he just did it 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 first I 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 had a book full of old lyrics. It’s somewhere. Maybe 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 it’s borderline crippling”), and of her mixed experiences as a teenager studying on a scholarship at the Brighton-based British Institute of Modern Music. And 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 and 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, and 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 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 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 the three months from hell: getting chucked out of his mum’s house, then his dad’s house, then being made to live with his grandparents in the middle of nowhere. Then I got bird flu and couldn’t go to hospital because I didn’t have health insurance. It was absolutely diabolical. And I couldn’t 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?
“Yeah, but they’d long since figured out that they couldn’t control me…”
Her self-titled debut album was released in 2016, after a friend passed a six-track demo CD onto Third Kind Records’ Nick Langley. The acoustic guitars, now augmented by the pre-loaded synth sounds of Garageband, framed songs that clearly alluded 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 that album,” she confesses. “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 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 that, perhaps, the reason The Sleepers was such a curveball? Her second album was a slick, John Carpenter-style soundtrack to an imaginary film about a global narcolepsy pandemic. And while it clearly reflected a passionate, personal interest in the dystopian cinema of the 1970s, it felt more escapist than her debut. Did she need a break from writing about the intensely personal? The 1970s obsession is an odd 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. And I remember seeing films like Logan’s Run and thinking ‘Wow… this is really frightening, but kind of cool’. I wasn’t really 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 an album that could only belong to post-lockdown Britain. “The whole world’s sitting still, like summer days upon on 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 – that 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 record is me trying to control my own sanity and stave off the madness.”
There’s a line on ‘Summer Time’ that seems to sum up that period as well. “I spend my days walking round town / A glass of red in the afternoon to wash my medication down”.
“That song is 11 years old. 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 anti-depressants. Day to day, that was how I lived. I’m not on anti-depressants any more, but I will occasionally still bum a drink from someone…
“But it felt relevant to the lockdown zeitgeist. Because that is 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.”
She wasn’t alone, I tell her. Has she always had troubles with mental health?
“Yeah, probably since I was a small kid. Five or six. It was like that 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, aged five: ‘What’s infinity?’ [Laughs] 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.”
She 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 Games’, the wistful tale of a broken relationship. 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 broke 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 record 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 on the album! I almost had a little, subtle dig: ‘And thanks to YOU for making me write this amazing record, you DICK’. But no, just leave it, be cool…”
She turned 30 in January 2021. The age at which the bulk of the population are summarily executed in her beloved Logan’s Run. The single ‘Youth’ is a love letter to her adolescence, accompanied by a video in which the maudlin, adult Hattie looks back wistfully at three decades’ worth of family photographs. From faded baby pictures to gauche teenage portraits to shaky snapshots of drunken nights out. It’s heartbreaking.
“I basically I 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 twenties, but less OK to be a fuck-up in your thirties’.
“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.”
Without wanting to be patronising, there’s a whiff of star quality about her. The frankness. The honesty. The minimal fucks given. And although Bliss Land is largely giggle-free, she professes to be 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 community, she’s keen for others not to feel excluded. She’s a woman making electronic music, and that’s still disappointingly rare. Why is the genre so male-dominated? Are the blokes all drawn to the hardware and wires?
“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. And I don’t think that music should be unavailable to people based on their class, gender, geography, race 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 anything about what you’re doing. The music speaks for itself.”
Disagree at your peril. She’ll come round and leave your taps running.
Bliss Land is out now, on Castles In Space:
Electronic Sound – “the house magazine for plugged in people everywhere” – is published monthly, and available here:
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