NEW YORK — When he was on "American Idol," David Cook — as cool as a cucumber for much of last season — fought back tears after performing for a studio audience that included his brother Adam, who's fighting brain cancer.
It was a moment of raw emotion, winning Cook the sympathy of viewers who've also been touched by tragedy.
Cook's tears have flowed more freely in private. The 25-year-old rocker, who won the Fox competition in May, fueled his anguish over Adam's illness into the gut-wrenching ballad "Permanent," one of 13 songs on his namesake debut album.
After recording the track in two takes, "I actually called my dad and wept openly for about 10 minutes," he says.
"Anytime you can create something where what's in your head actually comes out the way you originally heard it, it can be pretty overwhelming and pretty heavy," he adds. "I just remember being completely knocked on my (butt) by this song."
Cook is hoping listeners have a similar experience when they listen to the rest of "David Cook," which comes six months after he snagged the "Idol" crown. Recorded in a span of 10 weeks, it's packed with power ballads that accentuate his anthemic voice.
"I wanted to come out with a record that was both heavy and delicate and had some eclectic-ness to it," he says during a break in rehearsals before a recent appearance on "Saturday Night Live." "So I feel like we've got this record that meanders and takes people on a journey a little bit."
Cook's path to stardom took the fast-track after he auditioned for "Idol." A working musician/bartender based in Tulsa, Okla., he auditioned for the talent competition on a lark: He joined younger brother Andrew on line for moral support, and was persuaded to try out, eventually facing Simon Cowell in the judges' chambers. Cook made it to Hollywood; Andrew didn't.
Once "Idol" started, Cowell was one of Cook's biggest critics, condemning him for lacking personality. But the boyishly handsome singer clung on each week, gaining momentum after a midseason makeover that included manly facial scruff and a much-needed haircut. He ultimately won over Cowell with rock-infused covers of pop songs (like Mariah Carey's "Always Be My Baby") that were downloaded by thousands of fans.
If only he could remember his big moment.
"I actually watched it back and was like, 'I don't remember doing any of that,'" Cook muses about the finale. "I can't tell you what it was like to stand up there and hug Archie (runner-up David Archuleta) after the fact."
While 17-year-old Archuleta controlled the tween voting bloc, Cook held sway over smitten fans — many of them women of a certain age — who delivered at the polls (the phones), propelling him to his title. Cook laughs off all that "cougar" love, claiming a lack of heartthrob appeal.
"I've never ever looked at myself or thought of myself as that," says the singer, whose bright hazel eyes, bee-stung lips and mussed hair add a sexy mystique to his nice-guy demeanor. "I'm just this goober who likes crosswords and plays music. And that's really what I am. The whole rock-star mythos thing, man, does not apply to me in the least."
If he had to chalk his success up to something, though, he'd say his emotional honesty made the ladies swoon.
"I didn't put up a front," says Cook, who dates former "Idol" contestant Kimberly Caldwell. "I wasn't trying to be anything else. I wasn't trying to cater to any particular person. I just was on the show, you know? And so, when I cried, it was real. When I laughed, it was real. And, I don't know. Maybe that hit a nerve with some people."
Following the "Idol" finale, Cook jumped immediately into writing sessions for his album. He recruited Grammy-winning producer Rob Cavallo and a team of songwriters including Chris Cornell, Brian Howes and Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls.
Cavallo compares Cook to big-voiced former Journey frontman Steve Perry, who dropped by the studio while Cook was recording.
"He really is an unbelievably gifted singer," Cavallo says of Cook. "There's no song on the record that he didn't sing in two or three takes. ... He can sing harmony to any of his songs automatically without even thinking about it."
Ironically, Archuleta is beating Cook on Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart. The pop singer's "Crush" sits at No. 22, while Cook's first single "Light On" has dropped to 89th place after debuting at No. 17 last month. It ranks at No. 18 on Billboard's Hot Adult Top 40.
Cook marvels at his own journey from nobody to reality TV star. But he understands that the transition to rock star will be a harder one to pull off.
"I mean, look, there's way better musicians out there than me, there's way better singers out there than me," says Cook.
"The problem is they never get the opportunity to do this. And I think that's what `Idol' represents. It's an opportunity. It's not a golden ticket. It's not a free pass."