The most impressive thing about Brooke Waggoner — and the list of impressive things is long and includes things like playing at the 2013 Grammy’s and recording/touring with the legendary Jack White — but the most impressive thing, I think, is that she has figured out a way to sustain a career in music at a time when everyone is complaining about how impossible it is to sustain a career in music. When I asked how she did it, her answer was, now that I think about it, pretty obvious: She treats her career like a career. She’s not afraid to get down to business when she needs to get down to business. Brooke told me that if the creative arts are going to survive, creative artists are going to have to get smarter. But here’s the good news: Brooke believes they already are.
When I caught up with Brooke a few weeks ago, I’d stepped into a broom closet to avoid the usual office ruckus, and Brooke was sitting on her couch in Nashville. The conversation meandered a bit, like all good conversations do, but included Jack White, emigration, and, of course, urinalysis.
This is our conversation with the incredibly kind and talented Brooke Waggoner.
Oh, that’s amazing.
Yeah. I live in Nashville.
I’ve been in Nashville about seven years. I grew up in New Orleans, in South Louisiana. Coming here was not a fully thought through thing. I’d graduated from college in Louisiana and decided I wanted to get into a music city. New Orleans has a great music scene, but it’s a little different for what I like to do. Little bit harder to get the singer-songwriter thing off the ground there. I felt like Nashville could make sense. I gave myself a three-year timeline. I was like, “I’ll just go hang out and see what it’s all about.”
I moved up here with this friend from school. We both wanted a change of scenery. I didn’t know anybody in town. I just started playing a ton locally. I’d been in a band in college, and I had a sense of the community that your local scene can be, how to book shows on a grassroots level. I just took the same approach on the solo side here in Nashville. I basically played everywhere I could play.
Yeah. I was working at a urinalysis laboratory.
It’s like the first place that hired me. I was really desperate. I just needed a job.
￼Everywhere else. It was like a blanket thing. But I went in for an interview at the lab, and the guy was like, “Well, this is great. Do you want to work next week?” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” That was about two months into me moving to Nashville; I started working at this lab.
I wanted to write in a way that was hopefully going to keep people on their toes so they never had a chance to notice how stage shy I am.
It was mostly phone stuff. Talking to patients and doctors and all these kinds of things. We worked with pathologists. There were a lot of specimens everywhere. Clearly, that’s what was going on.
For real. I’m doing like a 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. shift every day. Which was, yeah, really crazy with the added level of playing all these shows in town. I really wasn’t sleeping the first year. I viewed it as working two jobs. That said, that first year was so amazing. I think when you’re at that stage, in your early 20s, you just feel like you can do anything and everything, and there’s no risk. It’s kind of like just go make things and see what happens.
￼Yeah. I was 22 when I moved here. I started playing a bunch of shows. I had this really old keyboard. It was a 1970s Elisa. This thing was ancient. It was morphing and falling apart, but it had this really cool, huge quality of sound. It does some things that most keyboards don’t do.
So I was writing all these songs, a little paranoid about the fact that I was just a girl at a keyboard. I was like, “Oh great, this might be kind of boring.”
I used to deal a lot with stage fright. That was a really big problem for me, but I knew it was just kind of balls to the wall at that point. I had to get over this hurdle and make it happen somehow. I started writing songs that were pulled from my background in the world of classical music. I’d gone to college for music composition and orchestration. But with the band I was in during college, I really got into more of the performer/songwriter side of things. I wanted that kind of fine art approach to music. I wanted to infuse that into five-minute pop songs in Nashville. I was taking all of those elements and writing these songs. Really, my gimmick was I wanted to write in a way that was hopefully going to keep people on their toes so they never had a chance to notice how stage shy I am. Write a song in a way that’s like a step ahead, if possible. Maybe it will be my smoke and mirrors.
That was definitely a lot of what I was trying to do. Intentionally or unintentionally, that’s how I listen to music. I hear things more in movements, not just formulas. If you were to ask a pop songwriter if I’m a good songwriter, I’m pretty sure the answer would be no. I really don’t adhere to the verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge thing. ￼ Anyway, my first few years, that’s kind of what was happening. I ended up making a few more records, did a lot of touring, got married, and tried to figure out how to do all of this and be away from my loved ones. That took a little while. There were even some really dark periods of thinking, “I don’t know if I can do this in this way and have a healthy relationship with my spouse.”
It was really hard, honestly. Especially as a female. I don’t like playing the girl card, but that is the one area that’s been really hard to find this kind of ideal way to go about it. We’ve just been trying to forge a path. My husband is an amazing partner with me and makes all of it happen. We agreed, finally, that it was crazy to think I was done, and I started making Originator at that point. That was two years ago.
Around the same time I was making that record, I got a call from Third Man Records to come in and start recording. Long story short, I found out a few months into the recording process that we were working on Jack White’s solo album. ￼ ￼
Yeah. It was four women and Jack for months. I’m pretty sure it was this producer in town who recommended me for the gig. Jack was piecing together a female band, and one of the missing pieces was a female keys player. Somebody recommended me, he took a shot on me, and I just kept coming back.
Jack’s all about recording together. It was one big band with Jack. It was great. Very communal. He is an excellent leader as far as saying, “This is what I want; here’s what I’m hearing but put your own spin on it.” That’s such a fine line. ￼ It’s a testament to how much he’s put out there and how many people he’s worked with. I think Jack values what members of the opposite sex bring to music. It’s a different vibe and chemistry, and that can be really important. It was magical. That was like a perfect pairing of people. When we finished the record, he asked me to go on tour with him. I knew I had Originator in the bag. I was finished but decided to sit on it for a year. ￼
I went on tour for a year with him and did his big monster, crazy, rock-and-roll thing. That was all last year, 2012. We finished at the Grammy’s. That was the last gig. Then in March of this year, I decided to put out Originator. It’s been a really exciting year. This is the most independent release I’ve ever done, as far as the way my team looks. There’s no management. And things are really growing. I just signed a record deal with a Beijing-based label—this month, in fact. I’m planning to do a lot of touring in Asia next summer.
￼I started learning how to play piano when I was four. Classical pianos are a fairly big deal in my family. Everybody, at some point, takes piano lessons and learns how to read music. That’s really valued in my family, on both sides. My great-great-grandfather was a pretty famous classical pianist in Germany. That’s how that side of my family ended up in the States. He emigrated during the war. We have a little bit of Jewish in us, and it was definitely a scenario where he got out early. That’s kind of a crazy side story, but I think there’s just this general love and respect for music in my family, a deep belief in classical music.
When I was nine, my mom started helping me pick out my favorite songs on the piano. It’s a pretty big deal for somebody who’s only learned how to read music. It’s this radical concept when you’re younger to kind of figure out, “Oh, my ears can teach me just as much. I don’t need to rely on sight.”
I got so excited about that. It was a big missing piece for me. And I couldn’t stop writing music since that moment. I always knew I loved playing. I think there was a brief period when I thought maybe I would go the classical route and try to be one of these performers in symphony halls. But as soon as I discovered songwriting, especially pop writing, I knew I was destined for something else.
College is amazing for that. You start finding your own tastes. My tastes started morphing into all different kinds of music. I remember having this light bulb moment: “I could have a career doing this, and I don’t have to go some traditional route of hoping I get a record deal.” This was all pre-business knowledge. Then I moved to Nashville with the idea that all I needed to do was just write good songs and play shows. That was it. I had no other plan outside of that. Then it just became an education process. You start reacting to everything that’s thrown at you. You get better at things. Figure out what doesn’t work. It’s just constant editing.
I made my first record at a really unique time in the business of music. I remember we decided to allow my EP to be downloaded for free on my website. At the time that was sort of this new, “You’re going to give your music away” idea.
Yeah, maybe people don’t buy music as much as they once did, but they’re still buying experiences. They’re still buying a personal relationship with you.
Yeah. Exactly. Everyone was sort of learning, “Hey, if I give a consumer something, I can get an email address.” Things have been going 1,000 miles an hour ever since.
That job was so, oh my gosh, I just had to get out of there.
Yes, work with urine. ￼
That’s actually a really good question. I think that’s the big question we should be talking about with all artists. You never want to cut your vision short and be shortsighted about the possibility of something breaking out. But I can honestly say I’ve never envisioned my career like that. Maybe it was because of the stage fright, but I always just pictured myself maintaining a living—whether that’s scraping by or whatever it is. Just figure out a way to live and create. That’s it. That was the goal.
As I’ve grown, just in the seven years I’ve been doing this full time, the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you have to view it like a small business. That’s the only way to maintain longevity. I don’t think that means your creativity has to suffer. I think now, in the times that we live in, every musician and artist needs to understand business. There’s really no more room for, “I just make things.” It just doesn’t work like that anymore.
Everybody wants a piece of the pie, and the pie is tiny now.
You do the math. If you’re going to maintain something, protect something, or grow it, you’ve got to understand, at least on a basic level, how it works. You have to understand how to monetize.
In a weird way, I think the digital age is amazing for independent artists. Better than the golden era of record deals in the ’90s. ￼ ￼There was a lot of money being spent at that time, but you hear so many sob stories because it was a really traditional model. If that carpet gets pulled out from under you, you have nothing. Publishing is gone, and your team is divvying up the pie.
Now it’s much more independent friendly. Yeah, maybe people don’t buy music as much as they once did, but they’re still buying experiences. They’re still buying a personal relationship with you. If you’re willing to play that game on some level, it’s just market sense.
When I view what I do as a small business, it helps me put on that hat and say, “This is just better for the company to keep it moving.” Then I put on my creative hat and say, “I’m shutting all that out, I’m not answering emails, I’m going away, and I’m going to write amazing things.”
I think you’re seeing smarter and smarter artists. I think there are just so many creative people out there pounding the pavement and really trying to create a world for themselves.
No. I still make the majority of my money every month from internet sales, from digital purchasing. I think that’s kind of amazing. I need to tour as much as possible, but if I have a month when I can’t tour, I can still earn a living. Not everybody gets that luxury. I think a lot of it is choosing how we whine and what we’re whining about. ￼ I think a lot of it is just sort of that endurance test. There are definitely dark seasons. The money’s lower or you’re just kind of questioning what you’re doing. What’s been great, being a little farther down the career path now, is learning when it’s just a dark season and not the time to start questioning what you’re doing.
So as you can imagine, we’re pretty much stoked out of our minds to have Brooke’s music available on Musicbed. Not only is she recording and performing with some of the most influential musicians in the world, but she’s approaching her art (and her life) in a refreshingly pragmatic (and we think beautiful) way. Even with her career skyrocketing, Brooke’s biggest concern is still writing amazing music and spending time with the people she loves. And hey, those are the two things we’re all about. Keep an eye out for Brooke’s upcoming projects, and be sure to listen to everything she’s ever done.
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