Brooke Waggoner has accepted her limitations. Whether the self-imposed creative limitations in the studio on her new album, Sweven, or the obvious time constraints that come with being a new mother, Brooke’s noticed a sharper focus and creative burst even with harsher boundaries in place.
For her fifth studio release, Brooke shifted gears from a planned album of instrumental piano tracks to fully-realized compositions. The approach presented new challenges for an artist already renowned for her musical intelligence, which is why we’ve marked Sweven as one of 2016’s most important early releases.
Stereo Subversion: We’ve talked a few times over the years, and it’s hard not look over that span and wonder what that journey feels like looking from the macro level. When you’ve played such incredible places and made music with Beck and Jack White——
Brooke Waggoner: It’s definitely been a journey. Everyone that you listed is someone I’m a huge fan of. I respect the careers of these people, not just the music they make but how they treat the people they work with and the way they’re doing business. I think that’s important to note.
But I don’t know if there’s been a pinnacle moment or a highlight for me. They all feel like wonderful touchstones along the way. I mean, I’m incredibly thankful that any shred of anything I’ve ever done has put me in the same room as any of those guys. [Laughs] But it’s also funny with this kind of work. I feel like there are people I admire just as much who you’ve likely never heard of, so it’s just this interesting thing when it comes to fame versus people who aren’t famous.
How are you going to make this interesting just on piano alone? How do you make it beautiful and emotional and gripping?
SSv: This is your fifth studio release, right?
Brooke: Yes, including the EP.
SSv: When you’ve had several rounds to say what you want to say, is there always automatically more to say waiting in the queue?
Brooke: That’s a good question. I feel most at home and most comfortable playing and recording. The thing I have to work for typically is the peformance side, how to make something that is unique to that setting every single time. That’s certainly a type of creativity I don’t feel as well versed in. When it comes to writing, that feels very at home for me. I don’t know how good it’s going to be, but I’ll always be making and writing things. So I don’t get too anxious about that place. It’s literally something I’ve done since I was a kid, so it doesn’t feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, is this the last song I’ll ever write that I can get behind?’ There’s no anxiety behind it like that. There are some bands or artists who are built more that way.
I think I’m learning more. This is the first album that I’ve produced. Well, I take that back. I produced Go Easy Little Doves, but that was a really different record. On this, I was working in my studio which I now have up and running. It’s a new place to be. Not sure if it’s part of being in my 30s now, but it was just a wonderful feeling of comfort, of knowing more who I am and what I want to make. Not caring as much of what people think — not in this negative, balls to the wall kind of way [Laughs] — but just feeling like this is something that I really like and knowing there are no rules to this.
SSv: Is that not the way it was for you in the past?
Brooke: I think early on when I was pretty green, I felt really intimidated by people who refused a lot of accolades. There’s all this stigma around things, but I don’t really care anymore. That’s really freeing to make things. So I think I went mining in a different way, maybe from a production standpoint, but the writing felt very natural. It was a cool season to make something.
SSv: Do you remember that moment when you stopped caring?
Brooke: I was making this record while I was pregnant. That was a much bigger emotion than anything I’ve ever made record-wise. It was the responsibility of moving into parenthood that really changed my perspective. It gets you out of yourself in a really healthy way. Suddenly I was more concerned about, ‘Am I going to be a good mom?’ than ‘Is this a good record?’ [Laughs]
In a way I think it balanced me really well. I didn’t have time to overthink it. I still don’t have time to overthink things now. Being a parent is really time-consuming and it’s really helped me hone my time management skills. Is this meeting important? Should I take this or should I not? I think even before I had my son, I was getting into that headspace. It collided in a really great way.
SSv: From what I’ve read, the album was finished in 2014, which means you sat on it for a year? Is that right?
Brooke: Yeah, I absolutely did. In the early part of 2014, I went to New Orleans just to work on some instrumental music. I’ve got a buddy down there with a studio with a piano I was really eager to get my hands on. I went down there and recorded all this instrumental music and I thought that would be the next project. Then I did a really cool tour in China for three weeks, a solo tour. After that, I got really inspired to make something with the instrumental project I’d worked on, to add some lyrics and make it into this fully realized record.
I dove into that at the end of the summer in 2014. I finished it literally the day my son was born.
Brooke: Yeah. So I haven’t exactly been sitting on it. I mean, we’ve been mixing and mastering and getting all this cool content to go along with it. I’ve got some cool art stuff that will come out with this. There’s going to be a remix project in the spring. So I’ve been building my arsenal of stuff I want to unleash. But I’m definitely looking forward to getting it out next year.
SSv: What was it about that piano, by the way?
Brooke: It’s a Kawai piano, which is a great brand. You never see it in a studio. Usually you’ll see a Yahama or Baldwin or something, maybe a Bösendorfer if you’re lucky. A Kawai is what I learned on as a kid. My mom has a Kawai upright. My buddy told me he got this amazing new upright and I should come check it out, and I was really curious. It was just amazing. It was this wonderful, magical instrument. I felt really at home and it created an environment of comfort where I could really let loose and just make some piano music.
It is a really different headspace than just songwriting, obviously. How are you going to make this interesting just on piano alone? How do you make it beautiful and emotional and gripping? So that was the foundation and then I ended up layering lyrics on top of it. An interesting side note, if you listen to the new record through that lens, you can hear some of the songs and maybe think, ‘Oh, maybe that could have been just a piano piece.’ Maybe it wasn’t intended for a story or lyric.
SSv: Did you enjoy that challenge?
Brooke: Yeah, it was really different because it was so locked in. I already had the piano and I would just play them over and over on a loop. Then I would place phonetics that felt appropriate for whatever piece I was focusing on. It was a really different way of doing it. Normally I’m writing music and lyrics at the same time on the piano, so it’s got some room to be molded, but this was definitely different. It was good though. It was a new confine.