Next to death, unrequited love is life's cruelest invention. Few things are as euphoric as the rush of endorphins you feel the first time someone truly steals the breath from your lungs -- or as soul-crushing as later realizing that the one you love doesn't love you. For Ian Cooke, this agonizing situation was especially torturous.
"It was difficult," he confesses. "When we met, we just really hit it off. I felt at peace in his company. We hung out all the time. He became my main companion. Even though it wasn't like we were dating or anything, it was nice. I could pretend."
Cooke's quandary was that he was hopelessly enamored of a guy who wasn't interested in any guy.
CD-release show, with Porlolo, the Wheel and Bella Karoli, 8 p.m. Thursday, April 5, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $6/$8 day of show, 720-570-4500.
For years, Cooke had kept his romantic feelings about his close friend under wraps, until he finally mustered the courage to lay it all on the line. While a typical hetrosexual male might have had an adverse reaction to hearing such a startling revelation, Cooke's crush offered up a rejoinder worthy of Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets.
"He was shocked at first," Cooke recalls, "but his main sentiment was, like, 'Thanks. It's nice to be admired.' It was a great exchange of words. He said to me at one point, 'Ian, I love your music. Of all the music that's available to me, of anything I can listen to, you're my favorite. I'm the most excited to hear what you're going to do next.' And that just, like...aaaagh...killed me."
Like countless artists before him, Cooke channeled his heartache into his music. The result is an extraordinary disc titled The Fall I Fell, produced by Bob Ferbrache at his Absinthe Studios. Over the course of a dozen songs, Cooke captures the pathos of his precarious predicament, eloquently purging his pent-up emotions and frustration.
"It's all about this situation that's been the lay of the land for me for the past six years," he says. "It's me kind of narrating and talking to this person and just spilling my guts out and saying, 'Thanks for enabling me to love someone so much. It sucks that you can't reciprocate, but thanks for being an awesome person.'"
Cooke is awesome in his own right. He was born in Australia while his parents were on a Fulbright teacher-exchange program, and then the family moved to Greeley. When Ian was entering kindergarten, though, the Cooke clan moved to Houston for a year, thanks to another exchange program. This time, they swapped houses with a Texan family whose house had a piano. "I immediately ran over to it and started pounding away," Cooke recalls. "I spent a lot of time after school messing around, trying to establish melodies. Figuring out the pattern of the keys was a pretty fun process. I would sing a note until I could find it on the keyboard and then keep at it until I could sing it and play it at the same time."
Seeing their son's musical aptitude, his parents hired a Russian instructor to give him piano lessons using the Suzuki method, an immersive technique that exposes students to music audibly before they're presented with its visual representation. The approach suited Cooke's learning style at the time, but it later hindered him a bit. "I couldn't sit down in front of a new sheet of music that I'd never heard before and just play it," he says. "The black dots didn't trigger a sound in my head. They were just a bunch of black dots."
By middle school, he'd made the transition from piano to cello, which became his constant companion. That was fortunate, because Cooke's classmates definitely thought of him as the weird kid. If they weren't teasing him about wearing his sister's cast-off periwinkle shoes -- which his mother assured him were unisex -- or how he wore his pants pulled high above his waistline, they were ranking on him for his hair, a canvas he used to express his individuality. "I was always experimenting," he says, describing one particular hair-raising episode. "One time, I had a part down the middle. My hair was puffy, so it made this arch with a crease down the middle. One kid was like, 'The top of your head looks like a butt.'"
Cooke was far too talented to remain the butt of jokes for long. After graduating from Greeley Central High School, he enrolled at the University of Northern Colorado, where his father was a professor. But two years of UNC's arts and music programs were enough for him.
"The music program was really intense," Cooke asserts. "I just couldn't handle six hours of practing per day. Playing the cello became this ugly chore that I dreaded. And a lot of it was that I didn't like playing music that wasn't my own. I learned a ton; everything I know I learned from playing other people's music. But I just felt too binded."
Soon after dropping out in 2001, he spotted an ad that Uphollow had placed for a cellist. Discovering that he and Ian O'Dougherty shared very similar sensibilities, he began commuting to Denver and rehearsing with the band. That summer, he packed up his gear and moved into a Bannock Street warehouse that he shared with O'Dougherty. Over the next few years, Cooke contributed to two exceptional Uphollow discs, 2002's Ten Fingers and 2005's Jackets for the Trip.
As time wore on, though, it became increasingly clear to everyone that Cooke needed to stretch his wings. Although he remained a de facto member of Uphollow, a couple of years ago he purchased a van and used that as home base while he began writing songs for The Fall I Fell. His primary company was his significant other: a cello he nicknamed "Roberta."
"When I was living in the van," he remembers, "I left it out of its case and realized that I had to be at work and I was late. So I freaked out and panicked and jumped in the front seat, not thinking about the cello being vulnerable. I started driving to work and had to slam on the brakes at a red light, and the cello case, which was standing up in the back of the van, fell on the cello and crushed it."
Cooke wound up replacing Roberta (not long after, his van was crushed, too). Personifying instruments isn't uncommon for musicians -- B.B. King has been naming his guitars Lucille since the '50s -- and often, the gear takes on a life of its own. "I always liked the cello because it was very much like a person," Cooke explains. "It's kind of the same size and shape as a human -- more than other instruments, anyway. It's supposed to be the instrument that sounds most like the human voice. I always liked that, thinking of it as almost alive, kind of like a puppet, I guess, where you can make it talk."
Oddly enough, Cooke has developed a unique, expressive vocalese that emulates the fluid modulations and tonality of a cello and incorporates some of its rhythmic inflections. If Sufjan Stevens had been weaned on nothing but recordings by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach and "Eleanor Rigby," his take on chamber pop might sound something like Cooke's work. But as it stands, Cooke makes Stevens's elaborate compositions seem almost prosaic.
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There's no shortage of highlights on Fell. "Music," the album opener, is superb; in it, Cooke declares that "music can make meaningless things seem so significant" in a voice that evokes the nasal timbre of a certain Muppet and with a melody that vaguely recalls Supertramp's "Logical Song." His Beatles-esque harmonies on "Vasoon" are mesmerizing, and on "Flood," Jme White's electro manipulation is eargasm-inducing, while the contributions from Fell's other players -- drummers Justin Ferreira and Sean Merrell, O'Dougherty on guitars and programming and violinist Kelly O'Dea -- are equally stellar.
The album's most dramatic and captivating moment, however, comes on "The Rot," which closes the disc. Over a driving beat, Cooke creates tension with a brooding cello line, then ardently repeats the refrain "Get out the rot, you've got to get steady/Get out, get out, get out." Uttering the phrase like some kind of mantra, his voice dripping with exasperation, it's as though he's summoning the will to overcome his heart-wrenching despair once and for all. Then suddenly, just past the halfway point, the clouds part. As the song quietly resolves to the original progression and melody of "Music," we listen as Cooke finally gains a sense of closure:
"I intend to demonstrate through this verse and dexterity/That it's not a choice to make, and either way, it aches the same/I never want to suffer this much again/So I'll sing and finish, and then I'll spread all the sounds, deliver them to everyone."