Comeback Kid: Music helped Emma Cook emerge from the cruel fog of a concussion

Emma Cook is playing the NAC Fourth Stage March 9.

For almost five years, the talented Toronto-based singer-songwriter Emma Cook thought she might not ever be able to sing again.

A falling tree branch changed her life seemingly forever.

“My career was in good shape. I had quit my day job and I had bought a car. I was touring back and forth across the country. I was feeling good and getting a good response.

“I had started writing an album and had taken some time off to have a child.”

One day in June, 2013, Cook stepped out of her home in Toronto on her way to embrace the day when the branch dislodged from a neighbour’s tree and struck her on the head.

She says she was not knocked unconscious but she was badly injured and bleeding profusely from a head wound.

“Things just completely blew up. I couldn’t do the music thing any more.” The half done album was shelved.

We are used to stories of athletes battling back from a concussion. But these injuries happen to other people as well.

Today Cook has returned to her career. She’s released an album and will perform in Ottawa at the NAC’s Fourth Stage on March 9.

But the road back hasn’t been easy.

“It was a lot to take on board. I didn’t know a lot about concussions until I had one.”

She was looking after a toddler at the time.

“We had to get full-time child care,” she said. “After a while I was well enough to stay home and look after her.

“I could do the basics, but I couldn’t go out. I couldn’t see anybody.

There was no real life going on beyond the bare minimum, she said.

“I couldn’t even try to play music. I don’t know how to describe it. I was in a fog for sure. In the beginning there were headaches and different things that go on.

After a while it became depressing.

“You don’t want to do anything. I didn’t feel like writing. I don’t know that I could have.”

About 18 months ago the fog began to lift. She wrote the first song for her new album Living Proof and finished work on the recording that had been interrupted by the accident.

That first song kind of broke the logjam. But it was still a slow process.

“I wrote it, then I left it for a bit. Then I started writing again.”

She was beset by questions: “Can I actually do this? Can I record? It was one step at a time and it kind of grew naturally.”

There are on-going issues.

“I have a permanent issue with my vestibular system so my balance is affected. I get dizzy. They have done some testing and there is something that has affected my inner ear. But they don’t really understand what it is.

“I still get dizzy in certain situations like when I look at a computer. I have learned to live with it but it’s definitely annoying.”

She is also hitting the road on a tour that will also take her to western Canada again.

“I had a CD release in Toronto this past Saturday night and a full house and great response seem to connect with it.”

She says when she started writing the album there wasn’t a specific theme she was developing. But that emerged.

“It kind of developed naturally. Because of my head injury there was a lot of loss for me through that time. It is sort of a sad album but I wrote it coming out the other end. There is a feeling of resilience and feeling of hope that we can get through a struggle and survive.”

On the road she is travelling with a keyboard player and a drummer and using software to pull some harmonies and some of the ethereal sounds. It gives the performance a fuller sound, she says, and a feeling of what her new album sounds like.

“I have never done this before but I felt like I had to do this this time.”

Her new music is more complex.

“I’m no longer just a girl with a guitar. It is a different sound and a different thing for me. I don’t play guitar on the album.  There is hardly any on it period.” She did start by playing guitar at age 13 entranced by the sound of Ani DiFranco.

“She was really my idol. I just wanted to do what she was doing. I taught myself how to play guitar so my style is similar to hers. She was young and travelling by herself and doing it on her own. She was really independent and just killing it. She gave me the feeling that I could do that.”

This new album, though, is all Emma Cook.

“I wasn’t really listening to other music a lot. I found it difficult. I could listen if I was by myself, but I have two kids so that wasn’t possible.

So, this album, I don’t feel there is any influence by anybody. It’s me.”

Music is often considered to be healing, something Cook agrees with.

“I would say that it is. I’m a big believer that pain and things like that are kind of held in your body. It helped me unlock some of that stuff. It hasn’t helped me get rid of all the physical stuff but I think it has gotten rid of all the emotional attachment to (the pain), if that makes sense.

It also allowed Cook to recover her confidence.

“If you had asked me then I didn’t think I could do anything again. I thought this was it. Music gave me the avenue to face that. When I played the first time, I was nervous and I did get dizzy, but I got through it. I’m playing more now and I’m fine. I don’t know if it was the music itself but I’m so attached to music and just that drove me to do it.”

Her family is behind her and that helps too.

“Nobody wanted to put any pressure on me, but everyone is happy I’m doing it again. I think it had to come from me.”

NAC Presents Emma Cook
Where: The Fourth Stage
When: March 9 at 8:30 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.