Sometimes, being enthusiastic can get confused for being misinformed. It’s not “cool” to be passionate or jump aboard when we see a game-changer coming over the hills. In Will Joseph Cook, that idea has been launched firmly out the window, with the hooks and style to back it all up. Pop with personality is back, and there’s only one name who can tell you what’s ahead.
Words: Jamie Muir. Photos: Sarah Louise Bennett.
Will Joseph Cook has had an interesting morning. Waking up a tad late, he jumped into a cab with the sort of cabbie that you only see in the movies, the ones who’ve met the famous, dealt with the tricky ones and have a stacked number of interesting twists and tales from a lifetime of doing the job they love. “He commutes in from Ireland every week!” exclaims Will, delving into a 25-minute ride that he’ll be talking about for the rest of the day – that is if you discount the packed bag full of clothes he’s taking around with him, the quickfire ideas that keep coming about future videos and live set-ups and the fact that he’ll be out on the road once again tomorrow. There’s many a shining light in the life of Will Joseph Cook, and he’s only just getting started.
This all tends to happen when you’re sitting on the cusp of releasing a debut album, which in Will’s case bursts with a full deck of ideas, captivating hooks and feverish excitement – a modern day guide to pristine pop with indisputable charm. ‘Sweet Dreamer’ isn’t just another glistening moment in the sun, but a stamp in the ground for a generation’s pop maestro. A culmination of everything Will has listened to and loved across his 19 years on the planet; it’s a journey through classic 60s songwriting, modern 00s indie in full flight and a generation born on delectable bites of effortless euphoria. Pop with personality is once again leading the charge, and the skies have never looked clearer because of it.
“Pop’s a bit of a weird word, isn’t it?” points out Will. “Like the bands that I was really into and grabbed my attention were just the classic or defining indie bands of that time, so Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Phoenix – all of that stuff I still love dearly. They all had this mass appeal and were just good; they weren’t about being pretentious in the sense that you had to listen to it five times to get it. It’s unabashed, it’s exciting, the music is sick, and you can hear that they’re having a great time making it rather than seeing it as some sure-fire way to success.
“I think that’s been lacking a bit in music. I don’t really like stuff that’s one-dimensional or sombre or serious, because you wouldn’t want to hang out with a guy who’s like that in real life, would you?”
There’s no doubt who you’d want to be hanging out with at that party, and Will’s got a big enough table for everyone. Trading in glacial-smooth harmonies and dazzling portraits of life shot through a larger than life filter – Will Joseph Cook knows all about unparalleled blizzards of fun, something that he’s bore witness and jumped into since the very beginning.
Growing up in Tunbridge Wells is a pretty defining feature. Nestled in the shadows of London’s frantic commuter diary and Brighton’s more flamboyant coastal breezes, it’s the sort of town where everybody knows everybody. A contained retreat from the harsher pressures the world can throw at people and a natural surrounding for a childhood caressed by musical tastes and flavours.
Those early memories continue to stand out for Will, as diverse and encompassing as the collection of beats and sounds that ripple through his own moves today. “I had Neil Young and Joni Mitchell played to me while I was still in the womb,” explains Will. “My mum’s really into that classic songwriter stuff, and I remember clearly her singing Joni Mitchell to me in the car when I was younger. Then there’s this memory of me dancing to ‘Gangster Trippin’’ by Fatboy Slim, and my dad playing Eels for the first time. It’s a track called ‘Lucky Day In Hell’, and I was super young when listening to it.”
Looking back at those early years, Will recollects every moment with a fondness that radiates right off him. Music was always around and playing throughout the house, becoming almost second nature to everything he did – soundtracking every turning point and becoming an integral part of day to day life. Before he even knew how to be a musician, Will was already creating like one, a natural born drive to follow the voices he’d hear played out of the speakers at home.
“I had this conversation the other day with my mum,” notes Will. “She said when I was nine I’d written this song, and we’ve now found the lyric sheet and everything, called ‘Video Life’. It looks like another bullshit indie track with some dumb lyrics that I’d pulled together, but apparently, at the time I was saying ‘I have the song in my head, all the melodies and everything, I can hear it!’ but I just couldn’t play anything. So I decided to go and learn.”
Inspired by the brightly coloured figures he’d see written in the pages of magazines, and the vibrating shots he’d witnessed online, Will slowly built up his own scrapbook of influences and styles. Whether it was the off-kilter disco of Calvin Harris’ debut ‘I Created Disco’, or the opening calls of Darwin Deez and Vampire Weekend, that personable charm of pop twinned with indie heights found Will firmly signed-up to the three-minute bursts of unrivalled energy.
“It’s weird because they don’t feel that old in my head,” comments Will, wide-eyed as he takes a trip down memory lane with the bands and voices that lend a considerable degree of influence over the shimmering winks of ‘Sweet Dreamer’. “I remember the first time that I heard ‘Oxford Comma’ and it just hitting me as an instant jam. It feels so innocent and unadulterated and that’s what drew me in.”
Heading out to London and Brighton, Will and his dad took their passion to the stages and shows they’d been talking about back at home. Spanning across the cities on an almost fortnightly basis, it was an education for Will and an eye-opener in the sheer collective rush of playing live – feeding right into a passion for following in their footsteps and taking that slot he’d been seeing in front of him. Not just content with catching bands and diving into track after track, he wanted to be a part of it all, taking those bright lights and lining it up for himself.
“I wanted to go to gigs as soon as I could,” notes Will. “You kinda fantasise the lifestyle of music in general and what it means to be into it.
“I went to so many gigs with my dad when I was about 13 or 14, and this was about the time where I was writing and playing, and I put on some of my first gigs and got a glimpse at the feeling of what it is to ‘do it’. It was when I was watching Digitalism and they were playing the Kentish Town Forum, and it was a wicked show and all that, but when I was watching it, there was a slight annoyance that I wasn’t doing it myself. That was the moment that I decided that I wanted to it.”
If there was a time where a path started to emerge in front of him, it was now. Soaking in the spirit of guitar music, there really was nothing else Will could think of. School work? Grades? Finding a “real” job? That all seemed a step away from the world Will wanted to leave a mark on, and instead of compromising for the steps involved in learning, going to university and graduating – Will was fixed on earning another kind of degree. The ones they give out for nailing an array of pop bangers in a deftly swoop.
“It was inspiring,” remembers Will, “I remember at that time it all just affirmed to me that I needed to do this. I told myself I just have to do this or I’ll regret it, and I think I knew that from pretty early on. I remember having a careers meeting at school and I said that I wanted to be a musician, and I got slated so hard. It was this Russian woman who said, ‘You’ll never have a wife, you’ll never have a girlfriend’, and I was like, ‘Okay…’. I was sitting with all my other friends who had wanted to do all these clear and planned-out careers, and I just wanted to play and make music.
“It was just because I’d spent so long saying that I was keeping my options open and thinking about going to uni and actually, I didn’t want to go, I fully didn’t want to do that.”
What Will wanted to do, was take his record collection of blistering indie debuts and glistening classic pop and turn into something distinctly original and vibrant. Flowing with confidence and unrivalled passion for making music, his first forays from the bedroom to the stage saw him take in local nights in Tunbridge Wells – appearing at candle-lit performances in the local music lounge. Plying his trade, it helped craft the first stems of who Will Joseph Cook would become, bold and vivid in the sounds he’s creating.
Pondering back on those shows, Will knows how crucial they really were. “It didn’t come naturally, but I just went and did it. I would put on a show every couple of months and it was great, we used to fill a room with around 60 people in this small lounge with me just playing my guitar. It’s probably a good thing that I started there, I kinda got this sense of excitement and was encouraged by it all. It allowed me to do my own thing and not have that range of people judging from an early stage and gave me that room to grow a bit.”
At 18 years of age, most of us are rolling into the thrills of going out, sipping on enough WKDs to send us ‘round the bend without a hint as to what we’re going to do next. Yet for Will, it was the age where the pieces of a puzzle he had long been looking after began to take shape. A vision that continued to radiate throughout his own mind, it was one that needed to be shaped with him in the driver seat.
“I definitely wouldn’t enjoy having the clash of ideas that you get being in a band,” comments Will, leaning forward in his seat. “I think when you have a band, it kinda dictates what you have to do with each track, and it’s nice having complete free reign and being allowed to make what I want to with nobody will get annoyed by it.”
Bringing everything he wanted to create to the forefront with the help of longtime collaborator and mate Huw Worskett, the ideas that he once had brimming through his mind now had a canvas to paint it all on. Across two diverse EPs, Will’s dabbled into folk, electro, indie and bonafide pop allowed him to nail that pure sound that sears ‘Sweet Dreamer’ – the first stones laid in building the Will Joseph Cook skyscraper that’s grand opening is about to rip through the pop skyline.
“I think on EPs you gain a lot from them being more experimental, and not being a perfectionist,” states Will. “We recorded most of that first EP in his flat, and I loved those sessions, being able to work on arrangements and making music that would sound exactly like the sort I would listen to. That ability for me to say ‘I really like this’ and Huw being able to say then ‘This is how you make it’ was super important and I learnt so much.
“Being a perfectionist with those EPs definitely wouldn’t have worked with me – but with the album, I had to be a bit more brutal.”
Putting everything into practice, ‘Sweet Dreamer’ is the record Will was born to make, one that takes every sun-soaked daydream and turns it into a breath of fresh air. Immediate and surging with a rainbow of different flavours, it keeps close those memories of finding your favourite band in a local town hall, the feeling of bliss that comes when a hook catches your ear, and the connection felt when a song speaks to you. It’s a record that’s daring in its ambition and has the tunes to back it all up, flipping that idea of pop you may have had in your head and clearing out his own path.
It’s a momentous point that didn’t cause Will to falter. “I didn’t want it to be a long album,” he proudly defines, rising to the edge of his seat like he’s about to lay out the plans for a new work right in front of him. “I wanted it to be pretty condensed, after toying with the idea of making it more concepty or interludey – I mean, I just thought well, that’s not the type of music I write naturally and if I don’t need that, then why try and push it, y’know? I wanted it to say, here are the best songs that I’ve ever written, because those first albums that I talked about before from bands I loved when growing up, that’s what they were!
“Your debut album isn’t necessarily make-or-break, but it has to be an announcement or a statement of something that you love a lot, and I think that’s what ‘Sweet Dreamer’ is.”
What ‘Sweet Dreamer’ is above all else, is the sound of unabashed revelry enjoying a free dance in the sun and a welcoming party to the very core of what makes Will Joseph Cook so incredibly unique. Unafraid to delve into the furthest corners of the pop cannon, it’s a clear-cut message that pop can be undeniably rich yet playful at every instance. Take the digital blend of steel drums in ‘Plastic’, or the sensual grooves of ‘Treat Me Like A Lover’, both egging you on to try and not crack a smile. Vigorous and itching to get out of the gates, it’s a captured bottle of being young and carefree in the 21st century.
“At the start, it was just continuing what we’d done before; there was no deadline, so we just kept on recording. Some of these songs have been around for years and years, back from when Huw and I started working together in the studio. Stuff like ‘Alive’, ‘Take Me Dancing’ and parts of ‘Girls Like Me’ stem from quite a while ago and have come together over time. On the other side of that, though, are the last four songs which were all finished in the final couple of months, almost as a panic writing session. I remember being in the studio and just thinking ‘It needs to be better’, and working away at it.
“What’s cool about those tracks is that I was looking at the album and I was thinking about what it needed, and how I could cement what this album is – so I kinda wrote tunes to complement others and either solidify that sound or add something completely different. I wanted to add some tracks in that might throw people off a bit, and have it sit really well across an album. I kinda wasn’t until the end that I got my shit together but I think that’s how it should be, making music up until that point where you need to wrap it all together.”
With Will’s voice echoing throughout like a pillar to build these dazzling soundscapes around, ‘Sweet Dreamer’ is personified pop in comic book colours. It goes from orchestral gazes (‘Habit’, ‘Light Of The Day) to anthems designed for thousands to bellow in unison (‘Beach’, ‘Sweet Dreamer’); it covers every corner of the spectrum and with an unmistakable knack for character. These aren’t just three-minute swipes made up in a studio in Scandinavia, but the sound of a creative mind buzzing ideas onto tape and building a world around it that can only be pinpointed to one guy, and that’s Will Joseph Cook.
“I remember that last bit of recording being quite stressful. Like, I remember it was a vocal take, and I was writing the lyrics in the recording room and continually saying ‘This song will be good’,” Will tells. “Everything was done on it, and I was so determined that it was going to be a really good, but I just hadn’t finished the lyrics. It was when recording with Jack [Steadman of Bombay Bicycle Club fame], and so I was like, ‘Do you want to go out and have some tea while I get this all together?’
“The track ended up being ‘Biggest Fan’, so was well worth it all.”
After pouring so much emotion, so many years and so many hours of creating and expanding upon each element, Will’s emotions are understandably sitting at a juggling stage. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever made,” cracks Will, a grin sharply appearing across his face. “Having it all together with the opportunities it brings is amazing, but it’s also scary in the sense that it’s like a climax of everything that’s come before it. When we talk about years of writing and playing, you start thinking ‘Well, yeah! It has been years of working away’, but it’s a pretty sweet feeling.”
Will Joseph Cook is always looking to the next creative opportunity and sees every closing of a chapter as more time he can now spend on something new. It’s the sort of mindset that places Will head and shoulders above most, a knack for seeking out the next great flourish in a career that’s only primed to grow bigger.
And that’s what makes him so exciting and vital. A modern pop figure that could only come from this generation – everything he represents is an indicator of what’s to come. Like a guide from the future with the stripes of the past, it’s not often that one person could encapsulate the dynamic flicks of Peter Gabriel with the skinny jeans heartthrob pull of Jack Penate in one fell swoop.
Will Joseph Cook can be anybody to anyone, a champion of sticking to your guns and embracing every gorgeous moment that’s served up in life with tongue firmly in cheek. Taking pop firmly back into the realms of bright, Will is a man with the virtues of feel-good hooks placed firmly in his back pocket – and now the world gets to bare witness to it all.
“It’s not like because the music is fun and has mass appeal it has no depth to it,” elaborates Will. “I think what’s so great about it is that it has this appeal and if you want to go into it and listen to the lyrics and dive into that then there’s so much to get from it.”
When picking up ‘I Created Disco’, ‘Oracular Spectacular’ or Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut, Will Joseph Cook was clearing out the shelves for a classic of his own, and now it has pride of place in the record collection he’s been forming for years.
“It’s crazy,” comments Will, as he finishes up his final sip of tea. “Having a debut album out really legitimises you. To be in a position where your album could identify a year for someone when it comes to memories is just an amazing feeling.”
And just like that, Will Joseph Cook is off to colour in the rest of the world. The sky is wide open, the era of sweet, sweet dreaming has only just begun.
Will Joseph Cook’s album ‘Sweet Dreamer’ is out now.