Growth & Joy: The Infectious Energy of Peter Cottontale
All roads lead back to Peter Cottontale. At least that’s what anyone in Chicago music will tell you. The city, a launch pad for artists like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Towkio, and Joey Purp, pushes musicians forward in sound and live performance, and Peter has been a part of them all. Whether on-stage or in the studio, Peter Cottontale has been consistently transforming artists’ musical visions into reality for years. Now, at the point where he is experimenting with solo music, it’s his own vision being realized and Cottontale is confident of his purpose and abilities.
Peter is chameleon-like, adapting his style to the artist with whom he is working, possessing uncommon musical fluency. Cottontale studied music from an early age, but didn’t come from a strong foundation of music at home. “I remember my dad invited me to a George Clinton concert one day and I was like, ‘The President?’ That’s how much I didn’t know.” While he attended arts-focused schools, he found avenues outside of the classroom to develop even further. “A lot of the Chicago after-school programs helped hone me and [other musicians].” These programs exposed Peter to a variety of musical influences, instruments and styles, critically useful for a premier producer in the making.
As a student, Peter possessed a unique interest and aptitude. His school offered programs like Logic and Reason for him to experiment with, and at lunch he would attend the electronic music class, even though he wasn’t enrolled. “We had electronic music class. I never took it, but I was in there.” I ask him for clarification. “I snuck in there. I was sitting in that bitch during lunch time. Hell yeah”
While he and his friends were soaking up information by whatever path was available, Peter began subbing classes for college-level teachers while he was still in high school. “I was in another school called Music Net on the South Side of Chicago – they do music ear training and stuff like that. I was teaching there. As a kid, I would get paid two bucks to sub. Another teacher was in college and I was in high school, so I could be there at those hours.” Peter considers these arrangements normal, but his college-level instructors comfort with handing him the keys to their classrooms, even as a teenager, demonstrates his precocious ability to learn and his uncommon understanding of music.
These skills in teaching and musicality are the foundation upon which Peter has become the go-to music director for the front lines of the Chicago Renaissance. While most people understand what a producer does with recorded music, a music director takes on a more expansive role in both the recording studio and live settings. For many of the top-tier artists in Chicago like Towkio and Chance The Rapper, Peter will be the person that they bring in to configure a special arrangement for a TV performance, or a new tour. The music director is the translator of the artist’s vision in different settings, and it suits Peter perfectly. “If I was a kid in 7th grade and knew about that title, I probably would’ve aimed for that title, because I think that was the culmination of what I was learning to do. Arrange music.”
Peter is humble when I bring up the swath of artists with whom he’s worked and projects on which he has collaborated, but his current résumé is one that most people would be satisfied with over the course of an entire career. Artists can’t stop working with him, and the results speak for themself. His musical talent is the obvious reason people love to work with him, but just as important is the intangible, infectious personality that makes him so called upon. “Sometimes, it’s just about putting some good energy in a room.” Peter’s bright demeanor and laid back nature make people comfortable, cultivating a healthy recording environment. He’s a person with many friends that he cares about, and his kind nature gives the artists he works with room to breathe.
Constructing creative environments doesn’t only happen in the studio, but in live environments as well. Peter thrives when shaking things up, leveling the playing field among artists, with no room for egos. This manifests as the regular “Jam Night” held by Peter and fellow SOX Member Stix. These events the biggest names in the city share the stage with anyone who cares to come up. Through ‘Jam Night’, Peter and Stix facilitate organic music moments that can’t be recreated– Chicago’s talent celebrating together.
Up to this point, Peter’s wild success in music has been in supportive roles, culminating in his Grammy for Best Hip-Hop Album with Chance The Rapper on Coloring Book. He’s become a regular fixture on late-night television, along with his Wrecking-Crew-like group of friends Stix, Carter Lang, and Nico Segal. His production credits are wide ranging, and he’s at the point where his fingerprints are recognizable on songs he’s touched. He’s not sure if he has a ‘signature sound,’ but he’s confident in his understanding of songwriting. “It’s really about what purpose a song serves.”
Writing with meaning is fundamental for Peter, a devout Christian for whom music and spirituality have always been closely tied. He grew up in a religious home, playing in churches on Sundays while in high-school, and continues to do to this day. I ask if his religious perspective has made the success in his life easier to process. “Perspective comes when you get to a higher plateau. In our case, I think we’re more on the climb.” It’s difficult for him to talk of perspective, which requires a sense of having arrived, because he feels like they have so much more to do. When I ask him further what religion brings to his life, he responds with, “growth and joy.” “The fellowship, and the foundation of joy through that. I’m never too down for too long.”
This idea percolates throughout his music, rooted in gospel tradition and paired with modern styles. “Art reaches back a lot because we don’t know the future.” Peter’s new solo record takes his stylistic foundations in gospel and hip-hop to build out songs that reflect on “non-particular events, but particular emotions.” The description is accurate; it is hard to discern narratives from the music, and yet it will evoke specific scenes and emotions from life when you listen to it.
That ability to evoke an emotion, to transport the listener to a time in their life, is the crux of Peter’s success. He’s a transformative person in every aspect, able to inject joy into a room and find a song’s purpose. It’s the reason artists in the city rely on him, and the reason wise listeners know his name, and this solo work represents the moment where he can display something more personal, seen completely through his own lens. It’s an exciting moment.
The album is almost complete and due to arrive this year. While he’s been a part of huge projects before, he feels a different pressure in approaching a solo work. “I wish it was as easy as, ‘Oh you did a project before bro, it’s gonna be easy.’” He laughs. “No. Hell no” But, he’s confident that every track on the album has a purpose. He’s built the core and arranged all the pieces, and now it’s time to focus on cohesion and finishing touches. And, while he’s already done so much for Chicago music, his solo album will push the city’s sound forward in profound ways. “If you want to make history, you got to push the envelope. Not saying you got to do something crazy, but what’s your new idea? Because it’s going to be hot, or not. Try it out.”