Singer-songwriter Amy Cook was walking down South Congress Avenue in the fall of 2008 when she was approached by an excited fan.
'I saw him and he said, "Hey, I heard your stuff on MySpace and I really like it; you should come out with me sometime and play," ' she said. It might have been weird, or maybe even a bit creepy, if it was anyone but Austin's resident classic rock star, Alejandro Escovedo.
Cook, a fan of Escovedo's, had never spoken to the former True Believer before. 'It kind of came out of the blue, and the next time he rolled out of town I got a phone call and they asked me to come along and open the shows,' she said.
A lot of musicians dream about such an encounter, but Cook, over breakfast a few weeks ago, told the story with the same laid-back attitude she has when she talks about anything.
The tour went well, with Cook frequently joining Escovedo on stage during his sets. The two musicians clicked, and Escovedo agreed to produce her next album, ‘Let the Light In,' which is out Tuesday.
For Escovedo, the decision to work with Cook was an easy one. 'Her personality, what was coming across in those songs, was something I was very curious about,' he said. 'She's very charming and she's got this amazing, just beautiful, instrument in her voice, and once I met her, it all made sense to me and I became a huge fan.'
In addition to Escovedo, Cook enlisted the help of other notable Austin names for the album, including Patti Griffin and Ben Kweller. The centerpiece of the collection, 'Hotel Lights,' a bittersweet song inspired by a visit to New York's storied Hotel Chelsea, has enjoyed a good amount of radio play in recent months, but the feel of the song isn't indicative of the entire collection, which is an exploration of different styles, from raw blues rock to much lighter fare.
It was an intentional move on Cook's part. 'I experimented more with this record,' she said. 'I wanted to make sure I was doing something different every time. If anything, (the songs) are maybe too disparate, but that's OK with me.'
It's OK with her fans, too. On a Wednesday night two weeks before Austin's annual insanity that is South by Southwest, Cook was on stage on the second floor of Lamberts, the third show of a monthlong residency. The bar was packed, even by weekend standards. 'Where's my piano player?' she asked the crowd.
Another Austin music star, David Garza, who had played an opening set with his band, ran from the audience, hopped on stage and took his seat behind the piano. Cook played a slightly countrified cover of 'Jane Says,' by '80s/'90s alt-rock band Jane's Addiction. It was sweet and slow, a companion of sorts to the Cowboy Junkies' melancholy 1988 cover of 'Sweet Jane.' The cover got to the heart of her charm, a no-frills rock sensibility that Cook cultivated in Los Angeles, where she lived for 12 years before moving to Austin in late 2004.
Cook grew up in San Jose, Calif., and she downplays her early years, which included treatment for depression and cutting herself, a topic that was covered in director Todd Robinson's 2008 documentary 'Amy Cook: The Spaces In Between.'
'The movie was a weird, weird experience,' she said. 'I thought it was going to be like 'band on the road,' and all of a sudden it was really personal things about high school, about how my parents put me in a mental hospital, but it's not so dramatic for me, it's just (expletive) that happened when I was in high school.' She said the film makes her so uncomfortable that she still hasn't been able to watch the whole thing.
She moved to Los Angeles to attend Pepperdine University in 1993. 'I was that girl in the coffee shop. I did open mikes in Hollywood. I look back at it now, but it was terrifying,' she said.
While there, she also wrote songs featured on television shows including 'Dawson's Creek' and 'Veronica Mars.' After a while, however, the pace of life, especially the business culture, became stifling. 'Producers in L.A. are like, "I want to make a record for you," ' she said. 'It's always a favor, but it ends up getting twisted around.'
After leaving Los Angeles, she moved first to the West Texas town of Marfa, where she stayed for four months before heading for the community of musicians that Austin promised. Since then, she has found room to breathe. 'It's refreshing to be here. There's a different spirit here; people want to do something good and have a good time doing it,' she said.
Though it might seem like she maintains a high profile, Cook says that the slower pace of life in Austin is a good fit. 'L.A.'s a little cutthroat,' Cook said. 'I needed a change. I couldn't figure out who I was. I didn't know what kind of songs I wrote anymore.'
After five years in Austin, Cook seems to have rediscovered her inner songwriter. In a studio behind the Travis Heights house she shares with her girlfriend, Austin hotel developer Liz Lambert, and their three dogs, Cook flipped through a book of her drawings, psychedelic doodles that she puts on paper when she's stuck on a song. The walls are covered with posters, some of shows she's played and others of Bob Dylan, the Band and other musical icons. Above a desk is a shelf of books of poetry — Pablo Neruda and Anne Sexton are among her influences — that she draws on for lyrical inspiration.
Cook began writing the songs on 'Let the Light In' three years ago, when she was feeling overwhelmed by external forces of an ongoing war and a struggling economy. 'At the time everything seemed really dark,' she said. 'I didn't want to take myself so seriously; I wanted everything to feel a little lighter. It's not a depressing record.'
Unlike on her last album, 2007's well-received 'The Sky Observer's Guide,' Cook says she pushed herself out of her comfort zone on her latest effort. 'I let go of everything I expected I should be like and just tried to write something that I liked, that was true to me.'
Escovedo helped her stretch out, too. 'Alejandro understands how to get a listener involved in a song, to step inside and make you feel how you should feel,' Cook said. 'He'll come and barely do anything, and it'll change the entire thing.'
For Escovedo, producing the album was a labor of love. 'I really believe in her. There's not a lot of people that I see that I have that kind of belief in,' he said. 'I feel lucky to have done that record.'
Despite her rock star producer, Cook hasn't quite made the transition to career musician; she paints and does other work to support herself. This month, she'll be a step closer to that goal, as she goes on tour opening for Austin-based band the Heartless Bastards, but she concedes that even in Austin, it hasn't been easy. 'I don't think there's any place that's easy to make a living as a musician. The goal for me is opening slots, so I can get people to my shows in other places,' she said. 'It's a hard road to be on.'
She'll perform an in-store at 5 p.m. Tuesday at Waterloo Records, 600 N. Lamar Blvd. 474-2500, waterloo records.com .
She has a CD release show for 'Let the Light In' at 6 p.m. April 8 at Hotel San José, 1316 S. Congress Ave.
More at amycook.com .