Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook’s career has spanned more than 25 years. Since the beginning of his musical journey with his self-produced album Tempest, he has managed to blaze quite the trail. Not only is he a globe-trotting guitar virtuoso, but he’s also a talented composer, producer and arranger and, recently, a filmmaker, too.
Ahead of his Ontario tour this month, Cook joined us for a conversation and live performance.
How does it feel getting back out into the performing world after a hiatus?
There were two hiatuses for me. With two years off [because of COVID-19], going back to touring was so wonderful. Even just playing with other musicians, as opposed to multi-tracking myself, that was fantastic. We went out and toured for almost a year, and then I went back into the studio for six months. I feel like my life is this weird oscillation between [being] extremely out in public every night in front of a thousand people, and then alone in my studio; I’ll emerge, eat food with the family, then I’m back alone. It’s hard to get used to these huge switches. You start wondering: Who am I? I feel like a vampire or something.
It’s quite a juxtaposition.
Didn’t Janis Joplin say something about that? “[On stage,] I make love to [25,000] different people, then I go home alone.” It’s that kind of thing.
I read a quote from way back when you started your career about how you would never make music for the public because they’re too fickle — they love you and then they don’t love you. How has that view changed? What have you learned about connecting with people through music?
It’s funny, because when I was a kid, I wasn’t thinking of a career — I just loved it. All of us musicians, you do it because you love it. As I got close to that point in my life where I’m trying to figure out what to do, I [decided to] go into music. There was this period where I was practising 10 hours a day and I was imagining myself on a stage. I think as I got closer and closer to getting out of Berklee and getting a job, I began to chicken out. I thought, Am I crazy? Nobody has a career as a concert guitarist. What kind of delusional person are you? I figured I’d be behind the scenes — a composer, a producer, a musical director. That’s what I did. I worked for all sorts of different people. I did that all through my twenties, and it was this weird happenstance that toward the end of my twenties, some music I had composed was being used as background music on a cable station, and any time one of my guitar pieces would play, their switchboard would light up. Somebody would somehow find my number and they’d phone me at home and ask if they could buy the album, and I’d go, “I don’t have an album.” At the end of that year I thought, Let me just make an album and see what happens. So, I recorded Tempest on my own, and towards the end of the project I started calling friends to get them to play drums or bass. I released it sort of as a pipe dream. Initially, I was going to manufacture 500 CDs and they said for pennies more, I could have 1,000. I was like, Oh my God, I’m never going to get rid of 1,000 CDs. I remember loading the boxes into the back of my car and thinking they were going to be in my basement for the rest of my life. They were gone in the first week. I had to borrow money to manufacture another 2,000 CDs, and they flew out the door instantly. Within a month, I’d gotten a record deal in the [U.S.], and by the end of that summer I was debuting at the Catalina Jazz Festival. I came back from that weekend — my first live gig — and my album debuted at No. 14 on the Billboard charts. It was this weird, surreal life change that I hadn’t planned. I don’t think I thought it through, and I certainly in my wildest dreams didn’t imagine any of that would happen. So, it actually took me a while to shift gears. I still had composing gigs. Now, I love it. In the rear-view mirror, you could think, Oh, it was fantastic! But really it was just luck — just luck.
And the public has really stuck with you.
Well, that part’s worked. That was the weird thing. I feel like I bypassed all those years of playing clubs and putting up your own posters. I didn’t do much of that. I might have played a few gigs in clubs and that was it — right into theatres. From there, to build an enduring career, that was rolling up my sleeves and figuring out what to do. We had to start touring all over the States, not just in California or wherever. And then we had to go to Europe and Asia and [figure out] how to do that. That part was work.
Is there a particular experience or memory that you’re particularly proud of, or one that stands out as a big moment for you?
I sort of feel like every day is a bit like that. I don’t know if other musicians feel that way, but if I’m walking down the street and see a street performer that’s actually pretty good, I sort of go… There but for the grace of God go I. We all feel like at any second, whatever you’ve managed to get in life can be taken away. I keep reminding myself to enjoy this. Maybe it’s the hundredth show you’ve done that year, but this could be your last. Enjoy it. Enjoy that audience. Enjoy playing with musicians on a beautiful stage with nice sound. It’s not always like that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.