12 years on the road playing gigs

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Canadian songwriter Scott Cook has been living out of a van or a backpack for the past 12 years, playing more than 130 shows and a dozen festivals every year since 2007. He talks to Rebecca Ryan about life on the road and his upcoming New Zealand tour, which includes a gig at Oamaru’s Grainstore Gallery on January 4.

Q After 12 years, does touring still inspire you? Do you still enjoy being on the move so much?

Yeah, touring’s still a thrill; I would’ve stopped if it wasn’t. I get to check in on friends all over the world, and I still get to see plenty [of] places I’ve never been, like New Zealand for example! But I’m also feeling the pull towards a different chapter of life lately. I mean, I haven’t stayed put in one place for more than a month at a time, for going on 13 years. I’m starting to feel the limits of that, and see how I could be more effective with a home base.

Q Is Edmonton still home? Or is the road your home?

The road’s been home to me, and it’s been a good home. It forces you to rely on the kindness of strangers. It teaches you to let go of unnecessary stuff. And it teaches you to carry home inside yourself. But I also still maintain a strong connection to Edmonton. My parents live there, my bandmates live there, and my sweetheart lives there. She’s coming along on this tour of New Zealand, but I’ll be moving into her house later in the year, if she still wants me around.

Q Does “the road” become a subject for songs?

The road certainly has been a muse, and an ever-unfolding theme. Even in this newest album I’m working on, I’m finding the subject opening up in fresh ways.

Q Do the people you meet and the places you go sneak into your songs, too?

Of course! They also make it into the liner notes. My latest album Further Down the Line comes in a 132-page book, with a bunch of road stories and pictures from my travels, and I’m currently working on the book for the next album, with more of the same.

Q How have your travels informed your music?

Travelling, meeting different people, and hearing their stories has been the biggest source of inspiration for my songs. It’s widened my circle of belonging, to where I think of the whole world as a family, even if we are a dysfunctional one. I’ve tried to learn to speak in a public voice, to sing songs that have room in them for everybody.

Because I play storytelling songs, I don’t perform much outside the English-speaking world. In Taiwan, where I am now, I’m performing for a mixed audience of foreigners and English-speaking Taiwanese folks. In Europe, I find most people in the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, and parts of Germany can understand the songs, but east and south of there, I start to notice the language barrier becoming a problem.

Q How many times have you played in Australia? When did you first start going there?

I started touring in Australia in 2014, and I’ve done eight tours there since then. The Aussies have been incredibly kind to me.

Q And, most importantly, how is it that you’ve made it to Australia so many times but not to New Zealand until now?

I’ve wanted to tour in New Zealand for ages, because I hear it’s incredibly gorgeous, and all the Kiwis I’ve met are such great folk. But the visa process is really tricky. Basically, you need a registered entertainment company to vouch for you, and it’s really hard to find somebody like that if you haven’t toured in the country yet. Australia has liberalised their visa requirements somewhat, and I’m hoping New Zealand will follow suit. Compare that to Canada, where nowadays you don’t even need any special visa to come over and perform.

Q Some of folk music’s greatest songwriters wrote protest songs, is there still room for protest music today?

Hell yes. And there are still great protest songs being written. But the corporate media isn’t interested in them in the way they once were. Thankfully, we’ve got our own channels now.

Q I’ve heard you have described yourself as an “unrepentant dreamer”, what are you dreaming about these days?

I’m dreaming that the human family can find the courage and understanding to save itself from extinction.

Q Honestly, have you ever heard of Oamaru before? Do you have any other plans while you’re in the South Island?

Sorry to say, I hadn’t! This tour was booked by the artistic director of Auckland Folk Fest, and only after I got the itinerary from him did I start to get a grasp of the geography. We’re flying into Christchurch, then driving down to the southern tip and making our way up-island from there, with our first stop at Whare Flat Folk Festival.

Q What are you looking forward to most about playing New Zealand?

Same as always, it’s seeing the country and meeting the people that I love the most. It’s what’s kept me on the road all these years.

See it, hear it

  • Scott Cook, with Kate Owen
  • 7pm, January 4
  • Grainstore Gallery, Oamaru
  • Tickets $20 from undertheradar.co.nz