Brad Cook has been making and recording music since he was a kid growing up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Throughout his 20-plus year career, he's toured with people like Sharon Van Etten and produced records by Bon Iver, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Hiss Golden Messenger, Waxahatchee, Whitney, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Ani DiFranco [Tape Op #12], and Snail Mail. This year sees the release of DeYarmond Edison's box set, Epoch, the band Brad was in with his brother Phil, Joe Westerlund, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon in 2005 and 2006. We had a chance to sit down with him at his Durham, North Carolina, studio, to talk about his early days in audio production, why he hates touring, and how to keep artists comfortable in the studio.

In your projects, you don't have one job. You're not just the bass guy or the horns guy. Why do you enlist the help of others for a job that you could easily do yourself?

A number of things. One, I work with a wide range of artists that come to me with a wide range of needs. I fell into this job accidentally; I didn't pursue being a producer. It was a job that somebody asked me to do, and people continue to ask me to do. I find that it changes all the time with what people need, and there are some records I work on where I might want the actual sound, style, or performance of another musician. I might be more curious to hear what they have to offer. I've been doing this long enough where I know what I would do, but my curiosity is going to always outweigh my ego. I don't believe that there's a finite way to accomplish anything. A good song can live in a lot of different ways. I'm not as fast of an engineer as I'd like to be, though I understand it. I do engineer records still.

Especially in the last couple years, I've found myself attracted to parts of engineering, but I can always move faster when I have someone dedicated to that position. I feel we're able to flow better as a team when I'm not trying to do everything; I don't feel that produces the best result all the time. That's the root of it. I love community, I love having a team of people floating around. I want the right energy in the room as often as possible.

How do you define the role of a producer?

Mostly, I see it as a functional role; hopefully to provide perspective to the artist. Sometimes that can be a real musical task, like helping someone find their sound, or a sound in general. Other times there are records I make where I don’t touch an instrument. I sit in the room the whole time and have conversations with the artist, but they know what they want. They need to be able to have a conversation with someone and check their gut. Whether they think they’re right, or they think they're wrong, they need something to go up against. I don't see it as a power role; I don't think the producer knows more than the artist. I rarely feel like it's anything other than, "How can I help provide the resource that you need to do what you're trying to do as an artist?"

When you started out, was it like that too? Or did you have to come to that conclusion over time?

I arrived at that conclusion. I had played in bands for a long time. I had my own band, for a long time, that I was one of the main songwriters and singers for. Eventually, I decided that I was ready to not take up that space [anymore]. Probably ten-plus years ago now, I started to feel a little bit embarrassed being on a stage and taking up space as another white dude singing songs. I felt like I could do anything else but that. I took a break from music and eventually I started [producing]. My brother [Phil Cook] asked me to produce his first solo record, [Southland Mission]. Another friend of mine asked me to produce a record. I don't know why that started happening, but once it started happening it was so natural. I never asked anybody to [let me produce], I would just get asked. Each project would be so different that I would find myself grateful that I'd played a lot of these roles before. I've been a session player with great musicians in the room. I also know what it's like to share your songs with people for the first time. I did that for a long time, too. It fell into my lap, and it became something that defined itself over time.


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