Whether you discovered Will Joseph Cook’s music through TikTok, Spotify recommendations, or through word of mouth, if there is one thing he wants to achieve with his material, it’s that it puts a smile on your face.
Emerging onto the scene in 2015, Will has been on quite the journey as a musician. Releasing his debut album, the critical-acclaimed Sweet Dreamer, via Atlantic Records in 2017, the 25-year-old from Tunbridge Wells realised the major label route wasn’t the avenue for him. As a result, he carved his own path and went independent. A decision he has never looked back on.
Will’s sophomore release, 2020’s Something To Feel Good About, further proved that he is the go-to guy for joyous, light-hearted indie-pop tunes and featured his biggest hit to date, the viral and chirpy “Be Around Me.” Two years on and Will remained creative, dropping his third and most recent studio album, Every Single Thing, in June 2022.
2023 has by no means been a quiet year for Will, however. He’s just finished headlining his first North American tour and has found time to release more new music. In March, he unleashed the soulful yet mellow “MF BASSLINE” ahead of his upcoming European shows.
In an interview with Principle, we learn more about the direction of Will’s new material, his first-ever US tour, life as an independent artist, and dealing with virality.
You have been putting out a lot of music over the past few years but more recently released your latest single, “MF BASSLINE.” Tell me about that song and how it came about.
It’s interesting. Like all my best stuff, it started out as a joke. It was when I had covid, my friend Ben asked me how I was doing and I was just feeling so wack. I made a beat and then I did like a freestyle over the beat about how bad I was feeling [laughs]. And then the bit that ended up sticking was the chorus. And I was like, “Actually there’s some really nice imagery to that.”
Do you know what a waveform is? It’s when you’re looking at a visual representation of yourself. If you put a baseline as a waveform, if you’re watching that, like anything lower than the baseline then the sub is not really audible musically to the human ear. It doesn’t even make much sense. It’s not like a pleasant sound to listen to. So I thought the metaphor of being lower than the baseline not even audible and not making sense and not being musical is kind of how I was feeling at that time. And I kind of picked the song back up like six months later.
When I wasn’t feeling together, I was having a bit of a depressive episode and I thought I just need to kind of exercise these feelings out of me. And it was just a kind of test of writing as honestly as I could because I feel like I’d never really been able to write that clear about the kind of raw feelings of frustration or depression. So I wrote about it at the moment. And that’s what that song is about. It’s not really reflective. It’s like, “Nah, this is how I’m feeling right now.”
You mentioned on your Instagram that this song is going to a part of a new era. Does that mean another project is fairly imminent?
Yeah, so I have a project that I’ll be finishing up in LA after this. I just returned from a US tour and had some time in LA at the end to finish off the tracks I was working on. But it’s not an album, it is a project. It’s not just a standalone song.
What is the rest of the material sounding like then? “MF Bassline” isn’t a massive departure from your usual stuff but it does take on a more soulful, R&B-leaning sound.
Yeah, for sure. I think it’s important obviously for artists to refine a sound and create something that makes people feel. I think I spent the last couple of albums really refining this very light on its toes, indie-pop aesthetic with a bunch of singer-songwriter heart and soul to it. Gradually, this newer sound was morphing into it as I was learning more jazz guitar chords and then finding out that the slowest songs have a more soulful edge to them. And then I think this was just kind of diving further down that rabbit hole. I would agree that it’s the biggest kind of jump in sound I’ve done in a while. I was listening to lots of soul and disco influences, lots of Prince basically. And then I was fusing that with my taste of like modern hip-hop stuff and seeing where that kind of fell because I didn’t wanna make something that just felt one dimensional, you know? I was trying to make it a bit of a collection of what I’m listening to at the moment.
You’ve been an independent artist for some time now. How has that been and how does it compare after being signed to a major?
It’s kind of hard to tell because I try not to be like one thing is better or worse. I try to just view it as one big creative journey. I think on the business side of things, there are obviously lots of reasons to have to take issue with major labels. Creatively, I don’t think I would be able to, well, I know categorically, I wouldn’t be able to do what I wanted to do if I was at the behest of a team of people, that are ultimately just focused on making money above everything else. As much as there are some awesome labels out there, they still have to answer to a corporate entity. I prefer being able to just make decisions for myself and to be able to kind of work with the creatives and make the decisions that I value the most rather than having someone steer my ship if you know what I mean.
I think it’s the righteous path and I don’t think it’s that unique to be doing it. I think there are so many success stories of literal household names. Probably one of the first big public ones was Chance The Rapper. And like for a long time, Rex Orange County was an independent artist just working through a distributor. There really aren’t the roadblocks that they used to be because it feels like labels are chasing after virality more than anything. that’s kind of almost easier to achieve from the outside than it is as a label entity. I think it’s cool. I love my independent life, but I try not to make black-and-white rules with it. Maybe there would be a point I would work with a label again. I’m not sure.
So, that kind of answers my next question then. Do you think you would ever sign with a major label again? Or are you happy with the way things are now?
I’m kind of open to any conversation because like I said, there are amazingly talented people out there who work within labels, and if the right one came along, then for sure. I’ve had offers from other major labels since leaving Atlantic. And my second album was the one that I did independently and that was more successful than my first one. There was a kind of flurry around that album of label interest again, and then on the last project as well, deciding where the home would be on that. No matter how amazing the teams are, I think just on a personal level and then maybe on a moral level, the way that the companies are structured is just inherently kind of unfair. If you have to give up 85% of your rights and pretty much hundred percent of your control over what you release and the kind of indefinite ownership of your material and creativity, then that’s a pretty huge trade.
I think it would usually be when artists that I respect on major labels that previously were independent, do deals, but on their terms because they’re already successful and the label is just adding fuel to the fire, if you know what I mean. So I could envisage something like that in the future, but I think you want to be the one who’s largely dictating what the deal would look like, you know?
You touched on your second album there. One of the songs on it, “Be Around Me,” went viral on TikTok. What was it about that particular track that you believe caught people’s attention?
Good question! I think there’s a multitude of things. I mean, it connected so broadly with people that I’m sure there are probably a few reasons. I do think there is a good amount of originality to it at the same time as having this kind of nostalgia throwback. The kind of doing a duet, but singing it myself, people were saying it was kind of reminiscent of “Teenage Dirtbag.” The bridge while he’s kind of fem voice in response to what he’s saying. I think it had like a nice dose of nostalgia while also feeling fresh.
I think it also played into it by complete accident. It played into the mechanics of TikTok really well, because it’s like a call and response as if it’s a conversational lyric. You could have one person could make a video doing the lower part, and then someone could duet that video doing the higher part, and you’d end up with these long chains of people dueting. So it was like really interactive in that sense. It describes a moment that a lot of people can really relate to, which is that kind of really exciting, but also kind of that anxious moment before solidifying your feelings for someone that you’re dating.
Is it weird not having any control when viral moments like that happen? You almost have to ride the wave unexpectedly.
You definitely have to surrender creative ownership of your music and the people that are gonna run with it. That clip became infinitely more famous than I am as a person, you know? I’m sure the vast majority of people that heard it have no idea who I am, which is just like the nature of going viral. Just like how most people don’t know who the person in the meme is or whatever. But also a huge number of people are gonna go on and discover that tune and fall in love with the artist and the album behind it. It’s hard to be annoyed by it when there’s just a huge way that people that are are discovering you as an artist through it. You have to just kind of let all the weirdness happen and you have to let all the kind of haters or people that misconstrue the message or are sick of hearing it or whatever. I think that’s just the nature of the beast, to be honest. It’s not something to get too hung up on.
You just wrapped up the US leg of your tour. How was it?
It was dope. This was my first headline run out there so it’d kind of been a few years in the making because I was hoping to have got out there sooner, but obviously, we had a global pandemic, which got in the way. It was just pretty wholesome. I made a point of wanting to hang after the shows and meet as many people that have come through as possible. There were just lots of wholesome and fulfilling conversations of hearing people’s own personal journeys with my songs and what they meant to them. That kind of stuff is really restorative because I think especially my journey, like you said, I had a viral moment and I’m a solo artist, I do a lot of stuff on my own. It’s a lot of creativity in isolation, and then that gets shared on the internet, which is kind of a parasocial thing as well. I’m not like being around lots of people, but just seeing the numbers going up.
Being able to actually meet people and have it confirmed to me that there are actually people that listen and care, it’s not just like a fluky bunch of numbers and that it’s not meaningless, this is what it’s about. I would say for me personally, it was like a restorative, fulfilling thing to do. I’m excited to kind of get back out. I’ve got some plans to maybe head back out before the end of the year.
Amazing! Because you’ve been making music for some time now, what has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned along the way?
I do feel blessed that I’ve been like making music as long as I have and there are so many things that I’ve observed. I started releasing properly when I was 17, 18, and now I’m 25. I think a lot of artists anticipate their own success, they think that they can predict what is going to do well and what is not going to do well. Whereas you kind of have to surrender all ideas of fantasies of what you think is the best song and what, how, and when you think you’re gonna connect with people. Because every single time I’ve had an idea of what’s gonna happen, I’m consistently proven wrong. I had no idea that “Be Around Me” was gonna go viral in the way it did. Prior to that, “Girls Like Me” was received well enough for a new artist when I was on Atlantic. And then I left Atlantic, and then the year that I left that song went viral on YouTube and got like 10 million views and it just happened completely outside of my control. It was just like an organic thing that happened.
I was speaking with my friend, another artist called Tom Rosenthal recently, and we were agreeing that there are many things that will kill you in life, but nothing will kill you quicker than trying to keep up with the virality of the internet and what’s hot and what’s not. You just have to stay creative, stay free, keep putting out stuff that you personally find brilliant, and then promote it in an authentic way. From there, the chips kind of fall where they may.
And lastly, what are you manifesting next for yourself in 2023?
There will be new music very soon. I’m shooting the visual for it in the next week. I’m going to be releasing a mini album, mixtape-type thing. That’s my creative project for this year. I have plans that I can’t announce yet but I’ll be going back to the States towards the end of the year. I guess it’ll keep rolling. You literally can’t predict anything. I have creative plans, but I don’t have career plans. Career plans just happen when things happen.