Jazz: Some think prohibition, seedy nightclubs and “cool cats” with their horns blowing away into the early morning hours—the countercultural sound of urban expression with a hint of whiskey. Few, however would associate jazz with morality or religion.
Alma Cook, a Chicago-based singer/songwriter and 2013 Columbia music alumna, offers listeners pop music with jazzy roots and a positive Christian message. Cook started writing music in 7th grade, making quirky acoustic indie-pop, but her music matured when she delved deeper into the sultry sound of neo-soul in her later college years. Once accompanied only by her ukulele and a foot tambourine, she is now backed by a nine-piece band.
In November, Cook embarked on her first tour, performing a string of solo dates across the Northeast with Philadelphia-based adult contemporary acoustic artist Kwasi K. Her new single, “For A Poet,” Cook’s first release since her 2012 debut album, Pass It On, is set to release on Valentine’s Day.
The Chronicle caught up with Cook after her Jan. 19 solo performance at Next Door Café, 659 W. Diversey Parkway, to chat about the local singer/songwriter scene, Christian music and her new single.
THE CHRONICLE: What has it been like performing solo as opposed to with a band?
ALMA COOK: Well, I started as a solo performer so it shouldn’t feel like much of an adaptation. I definitely prefer to be with a band. I’ve especially come to appreciate the ways I can express myself.
CC: When did you realize you wanted to pursue music?
AC: You know, I would not say music is something I have to do. A lot of people really, they cite it as this main passion and only passion, [and] I think that can be a mistake sometimes. My main passion is actually my message ... if I wasn’t expressing it through song, I would be doing it through something else.
CC: Which artists inspire you most?
AC: Corinne Bailey Rae is a big one. Amel Larrieux is probably my favorite singer right now. D’Angelo, and of course jazz singers as well. The classics—you’ve got Ella [Fitzgerald] and you’ve got Billie [Holiday].
CC: The Chicago music scene is more known for hip-hop these days. How is it treating singer/songwriters?
AC: People are much more interested in playing music than going to see it; that’s my impression, especially when I think of singer/songwriters. I think of everyone having something to say, like “I want to express myself,” not so much an eagerness to take in what others have to say. I don’t know if that’s unique to Chicago or one facet of singer-songwriter culture, but I’ve found that frustrating. I make a point usually to go to other people’s shows.
CC: Do you believe Christian music is limited to one specific sound or genre?
AC: That’s a hard question that artists like me have cautiously tried to answer. We have people saying, “I’m a Christian who happens to be a musician,” or “I’m both a Christian and a musician,” there are different ways of framing it. It is interesting to me [that] when you say “Christian music,” people think of a genre rather than a message.
CC: What can listeners expect from your new releases?
AC: I’m trying to sort that out. Well, Pass It On, my first release, is really, I view it [as] more of a demo.... Right now you can expect a bigger band. It’s a fuller sound, little bit funkier, a lot more neo-soul and R&B influenced.
CC: You have said you want to be a proponent of social change. What kind of changes would you like to see?
AC: The phrase “social change” is associated with a lot of political agendas and a lot of big agendas and that’s not really what I’m about. What I’m about is change in the individual. My goal as an artist is to start conversations. One-on-one conversations. Me and you or you and somebody else who’s listening to the music. I have faith that those conversations will begin to stir something within individuals. I want people to be asking questions.