Brooke Waggoner started playing piano extremely young, age 4 to be exact. But it sounds as though this songstress – who is still in her early 20s – has been making music for many years beyond her actual age, at least based upon the wide variety of elements incorporated into her new six-song EP. In some moments she comes off like a less confrontational Nellie McKay, whereas other times the wide-eyed wonder girl she truly is shines through. She has a sweetness and innocence, along with undeniable musical sophistication, which give her approach a uniquely intelligent warmth.
Compared with so many (too many?) uppity female singer/songwriters, like Tori Amos and Alanis Morissette, the lovely Waggoner doesn’t come off uptight at all. Instead, her new EP, Fresh Pair of Eyes, showcases a literary singer/songwriter with the musical depth of a seasoned film scorer. And listening to her unspoiled natural musical beauty may make you feel like you’re hearing pop music with a fresh pair of ears.
Staff writer Dan MacIntosh caught up with her over the phone after a recent concert in Philadelphia. And although it was starting to get late by then, Waggoner was nevertheless bubbly and chatty.
SSv: The first thing I noticed about your EP is that there are a couple of hyphenated songs. There’s “Wonder-Dummied” and “So-So.” Now, my wife has a tendency to hyphenate a lot of things…
Waggoner: Really? I’m a big hyphen fan. I’ve noticed that. I’m even toying with the idea of another hyphen title for the next record.
SSv: And why is this? Did you grow up in a sort of hyphenated family, with hyphenated parents?
Waggoner: No, not at all. I don’t say I make up words. But I feel like if I kind of do, the hyphen makes it okay. You can’t go wrong with a hyphen.
I want the music to be real nostalgic, just kind of reflecting on what my life was and what I think a lot of peoples' lives were and they've just kind of forgotten as they've gotten older.
SSv: It makes you look really smart, too.
SSv: Your degree is in music composition and your original ambition was to score films. Have you had the chance to do any of that work yet?
Waggoner: I’ve never scored for a film, but I originally went into to college with that sort of in mind. It’s definitely a road I would like to take in the future, to kind to go that route. But I also went into that major to basically do what I’m doing now and kind of orchestrate my own projects.
SSv: What came to mind when I was listening to some of the music on this EP was that you are kind of like a female Van Dyke Parks.
Waggoner: Oh, interesting. I’ve never gotten that. That’s cool.
SSv: Have you listened to his work or the work he did with Brian Wilson?
Waggoner: A touch. I’m not super familiar with it, but I have heard some of it.
SSv: He, Parks, does a lot of orchestration. He gets a big sound that is not your standard pop sound.
So, if he’s not a big influence, what would you say are some of your primary influences?
Waggoner: Well, I was definitely raised with all classical training, so little tiny ditties and themes of that kind pop out. It’s an odd thing, but a few of the songs – just the overall sort of vibe and feel – make me feel like I’m pulling some stuff from old Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. We kind of grew up on those as kids. As far as modern day stuff, I’m actually not a huge female artist fan, which is kind of weird. I love Jon Brion. I was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan; I grew up on E.L.O., that kind of stuff.
SSv: It would seem to me that the stuff you grew up on was not really the music of your generation.
Waggoner: Yeah, it definitely wasn’t. In fact, as kids we were pretty sheltered musically. We came from a religious, Christian family. It was sort of a lot hymns or things we’d hear on TV and movies and stuff. And movie themes always really stuck out to me. My dad is a big film score guy. He just kind of ate that stuff up. I didn’t really get into a ton of bands and that whole world until college. Anything that was sort of pop was stuff my parents got into when they were teens.
SSv: Were you one of those kids that as soon as you got away from your conservative upbringing, you went kind of wild? Or have you stuck with what your parents instilled in you as far as religious beliefs?
Waggoner: Yeah, I feel like I’ve kind of stuck with it. It’s definitely my core. I never went super wild, but it’s funny because I discovered the world of the whole kind of underground show when I was 18 and I got really into a lot of hardcore bands. And we would go and see As Cities Burn and all these crazy screamo bands, like, every night. We just ate it up. So that was a total 180 degrees from where I’d come from and I just found it fascinating and really got into the idea of playing live. I’d never done that before, besides piano recitals as a kid. The punk scene actually got me really interested in all that kind of ‘how to a live show’ that was accessible at the time. I’ve just tried to maintain who I am and sort of what I want to do musically in sort of a rock club setting. It’s do-able. There’s all kinds of people that come through this.
SSv: I wouldn’t have guessed you as a spiritual person, at least based on your lyrics. You don’t really write about your spiritual beliefs that much in your songs. Or is it just really well hidden?
Waggoner: I feel like there’s two semi-obvious ones on the EP. “Wonder-Dummied” is definitely sort of an anthem to that. I started playing by myself about a year and a half ago for the first time ever. And I dealt with major stage fright and all these weird issues, and kind of like a dependence on God. And that’s what that song was about; just to get me through the show. And the title track, “Fresh Pair Of Eyes,” talks about kind of pulling away from some of those things and missing that and trying to get back to that. It’s not blatant; there’s metaphors. But I’m a big storyteller. I like to tell stories as well.
SSv: Did anybody every try and push you into the whole Christian music market, once they found out what you believed?
Waggoner: A touch. In fact, it was sort of all I kind of knew at first so I investigated it a bit when I was 17/18. I actually went to a conference, like a Gospel Music Association thing. They did a demo critique and all told me the same thing, which was, “You belong in secular (music).” So I was immediately, “I don’t think CCM is my world.” Now I’m a bit grateful. So it was good.
SSv: Your last name, although it’s spelled differently, is the same as a famous country singer. Do people talk to you about Porter Wagoner and just assume you know him simply because your last names are spelled similarly?
Waggoner: It’s funny, the two worlds. I used to always get – in the classical world at school and stuff – the whole, “Are you related to Wagner?” It’s was always, “Oh, no no, it’s a totally different spelling. Not at all. I wish. But no.” I never got the Porter reference until I moved to Nashville and was sort of kind of learning a little bit about him just from that. But most people don’t ask if I’m related. But occasionally stuff comes up.
SSv: But are you related to anyone famous?
Waggoner: I’m not. I don’t really know how famous he was, but my great, great grandfather was a professional classical pianist in Germany. But during the war he moved to America and became a piano tuner. That’s pretty much it. No famous people in the family.
SSv: You live in Nashville, but you haven’t always lived there, right?
Waggoner: I moved there about a year and a half ago. I graduated from LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I pretty much grew up in South Louisiana.
SSv: You don’t sound Southern to me.
Waggoner: I know! I get that a lot. I was born in Houston, actually, and we moved around a bit. It was mostly the South. People sometimes question my Southern authenticity.
SSv: If not in your voice, where would you say your Southern-ness comes out most?
Waggoner: When I get really excited or worked up about something, the twang does come out. I’m also a big Southern food fan. I loved fried chicken and anything Cajun.
SSv: Were you in New Orleans when Katrina hit?
Waggoner: I was in Baton Rouge. I was in my final year of school there. It was wild. Our city just doubled in size over night.
SSv: You weren’t really hit by it, but people were transported there from New Orleans…
Waggoner: Right. We were out of power, though, for almost two weeks. And our campus became a bit of a hospital and they were helicoptering people in. We all kind of volunteered at the Red Cross. I’ll never forget it; it was a wild time.
SSv: Sometimes your piano playing reminds me little bit of some of the New Orleans style piano players. Did you ever listen to any of those players?
Waggoner: A little bit. I went through a bit of a jazz phase. There’s something kind of raw about it that I always loved. I have a few friends whose parents are professional jazz musicians. There’s just a really rich culture in jazz that’s always going to be there, which is really cool. Yeah, I guess a little bit of that pops out.
I like to think of it as pieces of childhood … all these things I was surrounded with as a kid. I want the music to be real nostalgic, just kind of reflecting on what my life was and what I think a lot of peoples’ lives were and they’ve just kind of forgotten as they’ve gotten older.