Robert Cook has always loved holiday music: The first LP he ever bought was a collection of classical pieces which featured the Nutcracker Suite. "I'd always wanted to write a Christmas song," he says. That eventually turned into an entire Christmas record, It's Christmas for Christ's Sake: Holiday Songs for the Misbegotten. "This was an opportunity for me to write some songs that were a little off-center, to say the least." In other words, you'd be unlikely to hear any of these songs at the mall, and that's a good thing.
Cook, in his 60s, has been playing music for decades and writes between 30 and 40 songs a year, but, being self-taught, always considered himself a kind of "closeted songwriter." Then, just a couple years ago, while somewhat reluctantly playing at an open stage, he befriended Michael Hickman, owner of Electric Eye Recorders in Polish Hill.
Hickman produced It's Christmas, as well as another full-length — also released this year — called Tomorrow's Yesterdays. ("I can't believe I've made two CDs after going on Medicare," Cook says with a laugh.) Tomorrow's Yesterdays is full of catchy, loose Neil Young-esque rockers, and It's Christmas follows in a similar vein.
The record is bookended with a melancholy song about Thanksgiving ("November Sky"), and a more cheerful one about the miseries of winter ("January in Pittsburgh"), giving it a less specific vibe: One could listen to this in March without feeling too silly. And, unlike nearly every holiday album in history, It's Christmas is made up entirely of originals. "A friend once said, ‘You should play covers!'" Cook says with a grin. "But I'm not very good at taking advice."
True to his 1960s roots, Cook doesn't shy away from serious social and political issues — "Five Minutes to Midnight," for one, warns of impending ecological collapse. Even his more explicitly Christmas-themed tracks touch on some of the darker aspects of the season. In the hands of a less honest musician, all of this might seem heavy-handed, but Cook approaches his songwriting with a kind of un-fake-able sincerity. After all, he notes, "Christmas isn't necessarily a happy time for a lot of people. But it's also a time of hope."