John Mayer and Zac Brown Helped Clay Cook Find His ‘North Star’
Writing for Clay Cook’s new album ‘North Star’ began over a decade ago. Actually, it was exactly 15 years ago at the Berklee College of Music. The Atlanta native wasn’t used to Boston’s cold winters, the fast-paced life or everything else a college freshman goes through 1,000 miles away from home. He started to pen the title track, but wouldn’t finish it for a few years, until a friend named John moved with him from Berklee to Atlanta.
John ended up going through the same thing there. “It’s super-duper hot here, and then in the winter time it never snowed, so he felt like he was missing seasons all together,” Cook tells Taste of Country thinking back on the experience. “We pulled that song back out, and finished it.”
John, of course, is famed pop-rock icon John Mayer. That song is now the title track of Cook’s latest album, because Mayer never included it on one of his own (the two wrote several others that have become hits). Their friendship, forged over pouring their hearts into song, is strong-ish. Cook says his current bandleader, Zac Brown, and Brown’s regular songwriting partner Wyatt Durrette were more influential. In fact, Durette was the first person the talented musician and high harmony singer for the Zac Brown Band wrote with after Mayer.
“You could equate it to virginity at a certain point,” he says on album release day, talking about the anxiety of that first appointment. “If you hadn’t been naked in front of another human being in 12 or 13 years, you know, no matter even if you had sex before, it’s still an intimate thing.”
‘Restless Man’ is what the two came up with, and it’s one of the finest moments on ‘North Star.’ The song is about divorce, abandonment and the family spin cycle. Like many songs on the album, Cook says he wrote this while he was going through his divorce, but he’s not necessarily the restless man.
“A lot of it just came out of Wyatt’s imagination, too. Wyatt had dealt with divorce as well, years ago,” Cook shares. “He always writes such happy songs with Zac … I think this was just a good place for him to talk about that stuff in song.”
Introspective folk-rock songs make up much of ‘North Star,’ with the exception of a Les McCann cover called ‘Compared to What.’ This track is a pleasant deviation from many of the themes on the album, and Cook says he included it for that reason. Plus, the collection needed a little more tempo. Brown encouraged him to cut it after watching him perform it years ago.
“It’s not a singer-songwriter’s song, that’s for sure,” the former member of the Marshall Tucker Band and Sugarland‘s stage band says. “It’s kind of a beat poem. And it has a lot of stinging truths to it that still resonate even though it’s not the ’50s or ’60s anymore.”
‘Man on the Side’ is another Cook wrote with Mayer. Their relationship soured soon after they found fame. “In hindsight, it was just kids being kids,” Cook says. “We were 20 years old, and both had pretty good sized egos and knew we were both good at what we did. Personally, we just didn’t treat each other very well.”
Things are better now. They’re respectful and friendly, but Cook’s full-time bandmates are his closest friends. No one involved with the Zac Brown Band is afraid to speak their mind, which the singer suggests is what attracted the frontman to them in the first place. Well, that and their superior musicianship. During long bus rides, things can get heated.
“But we don’t ever get mad at each other, that’s for sure. The only time it does get heated is when somebody puts on a news channel and something comes up,” Cook reveals. “And usually it gets heated because we’re all pissed off at the news or — every now and then — a subject will come up and two people have extremely different views on something.”
Cook adds that no one in the band ever says anything publicly that the others won’t support, or at least stand behind. They respect each other’s views, and they know things could be much worse.
“I’m surrounded by pretty smart guys who really care about what they do,” Cook insists. “It’s not like we’re 20 years old and uneducated … Everybody has been in so many bands at this point that it’s just a really nice place to be.”