Before the Grammys, before the tours; before the followers, attention and trips overseas, Peter Wilkins’ musical journey began with weekly trips to play piano at South Side churches. In the near-decade since, the artist better known as Peter CottonTale built a career based on music directly influenced by those Sundays. He helped Chance The Rapper find his sound and won three Grammy awards, as well as working with a cross-section of talent, both local and not, that is increasingly well-known. “I MD for people—just to explain, I music direct. I’m able to bring other people’s musical ideas to life,” says CottonTale at his new studio in Logan Square.
CottonTale is ready to tell his own story. “It’s like when you’re painting something for somebody else, you’re kind of like a step back from the painting so you’re able to see a lot of the colors. But when I’m painting for myself now, it’s a relative thing to me. It’s new and I’m finding ways to innovate off of that.”
His first opportunity to open up to the world comes this Tuesday, as he opens for the Theaster Gates-curated “Black Monastic” show. CottonTale again finds himself comfortably in the midst of Chicago collaboration; the event, part of Red Bull’s Chicago Music Festival, features locals Kiara Lanier, Ben LaMar Gay and Joshua Abrams. To start the night, CottonTale teams up again with Nico Segal and his jazz outfit, The JuJu Exchange, and a full choir of friends join for a one-time performance of “Catch Peter Presents Praise Break.”
CottonTale’s upcoming full-length project will be the public’s first full look at his ability to tell his own story. It’s a process that isn’t the easiest. After releasing the first single, “Forever Always,” in June 2018, he backed up and held the album. With Chance the Rapper’s “The Big Day” dropping this summer, he knew he couldn’t devote the right amount of attention.
“I felt like that awhile ago. I felt like I was coming into my own artistry, and then I dipped down into not even liking it, and then I dipped back up into ‘Okay, I should write for some choirs?’ and then I’d be like ‘What’re you doing, bro?’” says CottonTale. “It felt crazy, then it didn’t feel crazy, then it felt crazy, then I felt like I finally got to a place where it felt stable. Because I’ve been writing on songs and writing vocal parts or writing a lot of choir stuff, even got to words in the last couple of years on stuff, I just decided to focus.”
His music has always been a reflection of life, a celebration of its lighter moments, but always approached with a distinct, relatable angle. There’s also a thread of faith that serves as a throughline for much of his work throughout his career, and has become more prominent. On the surface, songs like “God Is Love” and the sentiments of much of Chance’s “The Big Day” project may seem like a logical outgrowth in the wake of Kanye’s oversized, gospel-laden “Jesus Is King” album. But CottonTale’s religious understanding has been a longstanding tenet of his work. The fact that his project is due this month, as West has turned the larger music industry in his direction, is just part of the larger plan, as he sees it.
“It’s actually funny, because God has a way of timing things correctly,” CottonTale says. “Because it’s been a couple of years of writing and trying to find a path. I went through some waves, and then this is what the waves came out to look like.”
For anyone who grew up in and around Chicago listening to rap post-millennium, Kirk Franklin Sundays on WGCI are a warm memory. That’s to say, soul and gospel have never been far from Chicago rap and neither has the idea of working together. Combining those aspects, CottonTale has turned his studio into another incubator for young talent that goes hand-in-hand with his monthly Jam Night events which invite musicians from across the city to play with names known and not yet known. It’s clear there’s plenty to do moving forward, regardless of perceived success. Clout doesn’t move culture, community does. And CottonTale is in the center of it.
Tuesday at the Garfield Park Conservatory, CottonTale gives those in attendance a peek into the culmination of a lifetime’s work. With a hand-chosen choir backing him and good friends following his lead from the band, the setting couldn’t be a more comfortable place to take the big step to the front of the stage.
“Hopefully, it won’t be too big of a jump,” CottonTale says of the new music and upcoming performance. “As far as the introduction of me goes, hopefully people will pick up on me and my friends and the community vibes, and pay attention to Chicago and already feel like it’s familiar.”
November 19, doors open 8pm, Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 North Central Park; 18+. Free with RSVP; sold out.
Jake Krzeczowski is a multifaceted writer/publicist/media hired hand from Chicago, who has been instrumental in telling the stories of the Chicago Renaissance. Having covered artists like Chance The Rapper, Saba, Jamila Woods and many more for the likes of Billboard, Entertainment Weekly, The Sun-Times and others.