David Cook, 'Idol's' Middle Child, Grows Up

"Success is cyclical anyway, and no matter what happens, man, if I can do this and make a living, awesome"

Credit: Jason Davis/Getty Images for Barefoot Wines

We're in Season 14 of American Idol now — which, if you do some easy math, incredibly means that David Cook's watershed win marked the halfway point in the series' history. ("Yeah, I'm the middle child," he jokes.) David's season was historic in many ways: It was the first season in which contestants were allowed to play instruments, which was hugely game-changing, and not only was David the first rock artist to win the show, but his creative cover songs redefined what an Idol could (or even should) be.

David's influence on the show is still being felt — he even mentored last season's finalists, giving them pointers on how to modernize '80s songs — but seven years, two LPs, and more than 1.6 million album sales later, he's as humble and self-effacing as ever.

"S---, I don't know," he shrugs, when asked if he thinks he altered American Idol history. "I don't know if that's my definition to make… I guess one would hope, however many years from now, if the show's still on the air, that I left something there in the pot for people to remember. But it was never my intention. It's never really crossed my mind too much."

A lot has changed since Season 7, and while recording and ceaseless touring keeps David from watching much television these days, he's well aware that Idol is not the same show that gave us the fabled "David vs. David" showdown of 2008. "I try to watch enough to keep up, but I can't name all that many contestants. However, I can name all the judges," he says. "You watch these shows, especially with the judge turnover, and the storylines become about the judges instead of the contestants. So it's harder for the American public to invest in [the contestants] as artists. I benefitted from the fact that when I came off the show, there were people invested who wanted to see what was going to happen, wanted to see what kind of music I was going to put out and what kind of music Archie [runner-up David Archuleta] was going to put out. And [Idol] seems to have strayed away from that format. I honestly feel like if these shows doubled down on the contestants and allowed the viewing public every week to really, truly invest in these contestants, the contestants' success would become the show's success, just like it did with Idol in the beginning."

David's victory years ago marked another seismic Idol shift that can't be ignored: He was the first in a long line of what are snarkily dubbed in the blogosphere as "WGWGs," or "white guys with guitars." But when asked about that label, David chuckles, then bristles.

"There's nothing like manufactured outrage, huh?" he says. "It's dumb. Yeah, we are all white men. And yes, we all play guitar; that is another fact of the group. But I think to lump us all into one pile based off those two things is more than a little dismissive. I mean, look what Kris Allen does; it's not the same thing as what I do. Look at what Lee DeWyze does; it's not the same thing. Look at Phillip Phillips; it's not the same! We're all our own artist, we're all our own kind of musician. I don't know if it's the incessant need to put labels on things or what, but man. I think Kris Allen's new album is fantastic, such a great record, and then that 'white guy with a guitar' label gets thrown around and it runs the risk of causing people not to tune in to that record, which should be heard. So I think it has a detrimental effect. Jesus, we're all just putting out music, and if you like it then listen to it and if you don't like it then don't listen to it, but I think to lump us in preemptively is, again, kind of dismissive."

As for any other criticism that David gets as he tries to make his way in a post-Idol world, he just says with a smirk: "There's a phrase I'm not sure I'm allowed to say, but it's 'everybody's got an opinion and they're like a certain body part; most of 'em stink.' I could sit here all day and just kind of hang my hat on everybody else's opinion, but that wouldn't be productive now, would it? I'm looking forward, and [my new] record is forward, and that's where I'm at. Success is cyclical anyway, and no matter what happens, man, if I can do this and make a living, awesome. I get to be a musician for a living. That's pretty rad. So everything else is ancillary; it's side noise. I've said from the beginning that if I woke up one day and really didn't enjoy doing this anymore that I'd stop doing it. And so far, it's a good living and I get to do something that I love to do, and I get to travel. There's not much to complain about."

David is in a very good place right now, indeed. He recently relocated to Nashville, where he's been embraced by the songwriting community, starting an official working relationship with Warner Chappell and co-writing country star David Nail's "Kiss You Tonight" single. He also has "two or three other songs on hold right now; my dance card's pretty full with co-writes," he says happily.

And David is finally getting around to releasing the long-overdue follow-up to his last album, This Loud Morning; while he still can't confirm a release date, he says he's narrowed down the new album's title to two options and hopes to "get it out pretty quick." Creatively freed from major-label constraints, he seems more satisfied with the new recordings — which include the propulsively grooving "Criminals," blue-eyed-soulful "Better Than Me," and widescreen anthems "Broken Windows," "I'm Gonna Love You," and "We're Not in This Alone" — than he was overall with This Loud Morning, his final release for RCA Records in 2011.

"I think This Loud Morning was such an undertaking, and I did put a lot of pressure on myself, so much that I think I might have missed out on some of the fun," he admits. "I think I might have mentally gotten in my own way a little bit, as far as just the process of making that record and being able to walk into a studio every day and enjoy it. I mean, Jesus, this job's supposed to be fun! But I've had a blast making this [new] record, and I've even, God forbid, actually enjoyed some of the business side of it, trying to get this record off the ground and out to the public. I think just being able to experiment with really no deadline and no pressure — I started this record not sure if I was even going to finish it — and just being able to try things and be creatively free, was huge. That's what it's all about."

David has always been famous for his aforementioned covers — on Idol, he made history with "Billie Jean" and "Hello," and in his touring days since, he's rocked audiences with remakes of everything from Billy Joel's "Movin' Out" to "Dogman" by King's X. His forthcoming album is likely to include an official studio version of one of his biggest concert crowd-pleasers, his cover of Chris Isaak's "Wicked Game." But interestingly, when he reflects on his earliest influences, his tastes are more on the King's X end of the hard-rock spectrum. The first concert he ever attended was Styx, Night Ranger, and Ted Nugent ("I remember that Nugent came out in a loincloth and shot a bow and arrow at one of the spotlight towers and then went into 'Cat Scratch Fever,' and I thought it was badass"), and it was a chance encounter with a member of Motley Crue that not only inspired him to make music, but gave him a valuable lesson about how to treat his own fans.

"I went to a rock festival in Kansas City… and I got a chance to meet Tommy Lee in his autograph line after his set," David recalls. "And you know, he's signing and doing his thing, a quick hello and move on, and me and my buddy get to talking to him. And he's just the nicest dude. He, like, stopped the line and talked to us for five or six minutes, just about whatever. I walked away from that thinking that was so rad. He didn't have to take the time for us. It just got me so amped-up at the idea of being a musician. I don't know what about it actually triggered it, but I just remember walking away from that like, 'OK, I'm in 100 percent.'"

Years later, David's obviously still 100 percent invested in his music and his diehard fanbase. "I just try to put out music that I'm proud of, that I get excited about, because I feel like if I can't get excited about it, how in the hell am I going to go onstage every night and get other people excited about it? I think you try to take the time to talk to people as often as you can, and be cordial and accessible and appreciative. And I guess I try to always think about that Tommy Lee moment: 'What Would Tommy Lee Do?' Ha, I need that on a bracelet. I'm just super-appreciative. I can remember very vividly how few people were coming to my shows before all this, so the fact that people are still coming, this many years later, is awesome."

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