Interview: Ellen Cook, a.k.a. Local Piano Songstress Ellen the Felon, Opens Up About Her Songs and Playing with Amanda Palmer



Those fans who will flock to the Pageant on Sunday night for Ben Folds' sold-out concert should consider staving off the start of the work week a little longer and stick around for Ellen Cook's after-show concert at the Halo Bar. Cook, a pianist and singer, performs around St. Louis as Ellen the Felon with drummer Matt Reyland. Her music is an amalgam of jazz piano confessionals, cabaret dramatics and equally seductive and snarky balladry.

Her set on Sunday night will be her second at the Halo Bar; the first came on November 16 of last year following a reunion set by the acclaimed piano-and-drums duo the Dresden Dolls. And even though Cook has high hopes for the performance, it will be hard to top her previous set. Dresden Dolls lead singer and pianist Amanda Palmer - one of Cook's musical heroes - joined her for an impromptu set during the after-show concert.

It was a bright moment in what has been, by any measure, a horrible year. In the early hours of Sunday, August 1, Cook and her boyfriend, Dave Hagerty, of the beloved local band Fattback, were struck in a hit-and-run. Hagerty died the next day from injuries sustained the accident. The loss to the St. Louis music community was immediate; the loss to Cook and Hagerty's family and friends was immeasurable.

But the trauma of that event hasn't slowed down Cook's drive or musical ambition. To hear her talk, the tragedy has only spurned her forward. In addition to performing original material, Cook, 25, hosts two open mic nights around town, on Monday nights at the Venice Café with Miles Long and every Wednesday at Foam with Langen Neubacher. Her role as host of the open mic at Venice is especially poignant, as Hagerty had hosted at the venue with Long for the past few years. "It's a little weird; I feel like I have big shoes to fill," Cook says.

Before an open mic session at Foam, Cook sat down to talk about her upcoming gig at the Halo Bar, her interaction with her idol and the therapeutic value of songwriting.

Christian Schaeffer: How did you get hooked up with these after-shows at the Pageant? Ellen Cook: Through Sleepy Kitty, because they opened up for the Dresden Dolls show. The Pageant was looking for a band to play the after-show. It was surprising; they asked a lot of other bands that probably have a bigger name than I do, but they didn't have a two-hour set. Matt and I have over three hours worth of originals these days.

So you fit the bill for the after-show. Totally. I've been listening to the Dresden Dolls since forever, since "Coin Operated Boy" came on the radio and I felt in love with it. Oh my gosh, to get to meet Amanda Palmer: So I'm halfway through my set and I look over to the end of the bar and there she is. I say to myself, "No, that can't be Amanda Fucking Palmer, that's gotta be one her stupid fans that dresses up like her and has weird eyebrows." And then I realized it really was her. That was incredible to get to play with her.

How did that come about? She was listening to our set. I was surprised to even see her out there. I walked up to her and said "Hi, nice to meet you. I'm your biggest fan." I could barely talk. So Matt and I take this little break and she's up there taking pictures, up on the stage, and I just went up and started playing one her songs, jokingly. And she just stopped and looked straight in my eyes and said, "Do you wanna play that song with me?" Uh, yeah! She said that it's been a while since she'd been on the drums, so she got up on the drums and played it and sang harmony. I think the song was "Miss Me."

And then I told her the back-story to my song that we played, which is called "Bang Bang Bang." It's a song I wrote shortly after the accident I had with Dave; it's about the guy that hit us, and she played that. She's really humble and awesome, kick-ass person. I hope that if I ever tour nationally that I can be as humble and neat and down-to-earth. She's not a bitch!

So they asked you to come back for the Ben Folds show. You seem to be jumping on these piano-based after-shows. Yeah, I have a heavy left-hand and I'm not out singing Sarah McLachlan stuff. How do you describe your own sound? I would say I'm like jazz, punk - very theatrical, passionate music. I've been writing songs for so long that I think I've pulled from every genre. I play by ear - I've been playing by ear since I was little. Someone told me after my set the other night that I was like Frank Zappa meets Fiona Apple. I like that.

How long have you been playing out? Off and on for three years, so not that long, but I've been playing piano by ear since I was 5 or 6. And I started writing songs when I was about 15. My drummer and I actually went to middle school together and have known each other for over 10 years now.

I have to ask how your health has been since the accident, and that's kind of a wide-ranging question. I've pulled strength out of places I didn't know existed. Had you asked me before all this shit went down how I would have reacted, I probably would have told you I would have shot myself in the head, or given up, or fallen down. But for some reason, I don't know: there's this fire inside of me now. I'm not scared of failing. I think I have a better understanding of death now, and I'm not scared to live. I'm not scared to take chances because of the accident.

Every piece of advice that Dave has ever given me, I'm actually running with it now. He used to always tell me that he wanted me someday to be playing by myself to thousands of people at a grand piano. He said that to me one night, drunkenly [laughs].

My health is fine; I'm OK. I broke my right arm. I had surgery on my arm. Other than that, that's about it. I had a broken arm and a few scratches.

You mentioned you had written songs about the accident as well. A lot. In fact, I almost just want to record them and put them away and call it a day. One of my friends said that, after [I play] these songs I write, it makes people sad or it moves them. I'm a very honest writer; there aren't a lot of metaphors in what I say.

Has that been a form of catharsis? Oh, definitely. When I go to my upright piano, it's like my office, my church, my therapy. It's everything. You can kinda see: I think I've written six songs since he passed, and the first one was, like, "I miss you." The second one was "Bang Bang Bang" - like, I'm gonna shoot this guy that hit us. There's one about me not giving up; there's one about dealing with the post-traumatic stress disorder.

It sounds like you've worked through the five stages of grief in song. [Laughs] Almost! Through the songs, yeah.