Rachel Brooke's new album, The Loneliness in Me, is arriving in October and consists mainly of songs that she and her musician husband Brook Robbins have been working on writing through these recent months in isolation and recording with a group of hand-picked friends from various styles and background who all agree on bringing out a Country sound, making this Brooke's most fully Country release yet.
The title of the album, and the title track help set up an interesting contradiction in Rachel Brooke's music: the subject matter has somber or even sad elements, but the sounds that carry them are energetic, forthright, bright, and even promising. It's definitely a warm exploration of sadness that has a lot to convey to the listener.
Rachel Brooke previously joined us for our Tower Instagram Live show, which you can still watch right here, and she also spoke with Tower's PULSE! about why her rather cheerful goal is to write the saddest Country song ever.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Have you found phones to be any use for recording ideas or snippets of work? I keep hearing about moderately useful aspects of having a phone for working on music.
Rachel Brooke: Actually, I use my phone for that a lot. I pretty much use the built-in recorder since it does the job. I have hundreds of snippets of songs in progress, or covers I’m working out, and I just use the recorder. They do have apps. But for serious recording, I use my computer.
HMS: It’s amazing that you have all that on your phone.
RB: When it’s on my phone, it exists only as phone quality, and it’s good to reference, but I know that it’s not a “real thing” yet.
HMS: That sounds less pressurizing, knowing it’s a slush pile. That reminds me of the poet Emily Dickinson. She used to keep, basically, a shoebox full of paper scraps under her bed with ideas for poems. If she couldn’t think of anything to write that day, she’d pull out scraps and stick some together.
RB: Oh, yes! I do that. Randomly, when I’m writing, I’ll get ideas that I write down, usually just a few words. Then I look back on that stuff. That has happened many times. Actually the biggest example of that was “The Loneliness in Me”, that line for the album was a thought that I wrote down in my journal and I kept coming back to. I pulled it out of there one day and it came to life.
HMS: I love that. It’s like you’re waiting for the right time for something to line up. You can tell that something is going to happen with that thing, you just don’t know what yet.
RB: You are 100% right about that. That is how it works. I call them “bell-ringers”, because it rings like a bell in my head. I write it down if it rings, and if it still rings when I go back to it, I know. That’s how the song “The Loneliness in Me” happened, and that’s how the whole album happened. I just had to wait for the moment for it to be.
HMS: That’s wonderful. Did all your experiences of creating these songs happen during the last few months?
RB: A lot of the writing was in the past year, but a lot of the songs were snippets from the past two years. My husband and I worked on them to complete the full songs. Most of them were pretty recent, and all of them were put together in the past few months.
HMS: That makes it really fresh to our times. That’s great.
RB: We would sit at night, drink wine, and work on them. We didn’t just come up with ideas, we really worked on them. It was magical, almost, being very focused on the exact perfect phrases and melodies. It was really cool.
HMS: When there’s a lot of intention in songwriting, that’s really awesome. Some of the promo for this album highlights Nashville and Nashville sound. Is that a higher proportion of focus on this album than on other ones that you’ve done?
RB: When I think of the Nashville thing, I don’t know if I necessarily fit with that. When we were creating this album, it wasn’t something I really tried to implement into my music in terms of writing or recording. People tend to think of Nashville because it means “Country”. One of the songs, though, I play a little bit with the Nashville idea.
I respect a lot of the Nashville songs and recording artists a lot, but in my mind, it’s kind of “playing the game”, and I’m totally not that kind of person. I just want to create. I hope that it resonates with people, and if they think of Nashville and Country music, that’s great, though it’s not necessarily what I’m trying to do.
HMS: I get that. You said that one song on this album does reference Nashville, which one is that?
RB: “The Loneliness in Me”, the title track.
HMS: I was totally going to call that one out. Because the one song that does sound like golden age Nashville to me on this album, is “The Loneliness in Me”. The way it’s set up, the way it progresses, and the actual lyrics all work. Also, the use of spoken word and conversations. I didn’t see those things as a dominant thing in the other songs.
RB: I love those sounds and I want to get a taste of those things on the album, and that song is the one that does that. I am influenced by that stuff, so it comes out, but I’m not necessarily trying to do that.
HMS: It’s also a tradition and it’s fun to reference it. There’s a lot of humor in “The Loneliness in Me” that had me laughing even though it has heavier lyrics. That’s a direct reference to traditions.
RB: It’s a direct reference and it’s a direct poke at it. I’m making fun of Nashville, but I’m also making fun of myself, since it’s about not taking things too seriously.
HMS: That’s classic from the female performers in the Nashville tradition to be outspoken and talk about their lives, too, which fit the song. It reminds me of those great ladies, too, who really don’t give a shit and have plenty to say.
RB: I totally agree. They would talk about the more controversial things and that amplified them a little bit more, which was cool.
HMS: I don’t think anyone in any genre of music had heard women talk about their own view of relationships so much. That was really great. It’s like they gave permission to other types of music to do that, too.
RB: Yes, that’s so cool.
HMS: Did you record this album in ways that are different from your previous work to get a different sound?
RB: The way that this one was recorded was that I brought in a lot of musicians who are my friends for their different sounds. The people that I use on this record are all special, with their own flavor, and I wanted that flavor. I didn’t necessarily want it to be a standard Country record. I would rather do my own thing and have a little bit different sound, so I brought people with different influences and styles, but also know how to work that Country sound. They are kind of Country and a little bit not, and I hope that comes off as a different sound.
HMS: Like they each have their own artists nuance and flair?
RB: Yes, exactly. It’s not always 100% traditional, but that’s a good thing. The most important thing to me is being fresh.
HMS: There’s a zing and pop there in the Country sound that feels interesting and challenging on this album, and your explanation helps me track down where that’s coming from.
It’s more the evolution approach, asking: Where are these traditions coming from and how can we evolve them?
RB: Yes, I love Dixieland Jazz, but when I’m making new music, I have a strong feeling that it has to be new. I love all types of traditional music, but I have this urge that I have to try new things.
HMS: I heard a little bit about your background in Bluegrass. Were you brought up playing Bluegrass?
RB: Yes, I was brought up playing banjo. My Dad was a Bluegrass banjo player and that’s what we heard growing up, and 60s Folk music. That’s the kind of stuff he loved, so it’s what we heard. My mom ended up learning how to play bass, so they play together. My Dad didn’t get to pursue Bluegrass except at Festivals and on weekend gigs. When I was a teenager, I started to show interest in the guitar, and when I was about 18, he finally enlisted me in his band.
I learned to play music by playing in a Bluegrass band, and I learned on the fly. My Dad was not someone who would sit there and teach you every song. Those songs are very, very similar, and I learned hundreds of songs on stage, on the fly. I think learning that way really helped my brain be trained in that style of music.
HMS: It’s very much about patterns, and variations on patterns, right?
RB: Exactly. That’s where my first love of music came from, from my Dad and Bluegrass. We played throughout Michigan in my 20s. My brother played with us on bass, as a threesome. I threw a little Mandolin in there, too. It was a good thing. I learned a lot of stage presence from him. My Dad just passed about a year ago, and I’m noticing more and more of him in myself. I never noticed that kind of stuff before, but now I see what he’s passed down to me. He definitely has had a big influence.
HMS: I can totally relate to that. I can hear a lot of that in myself. I don’t believe it wasn’t there before, I just didn’t notice it before. You realize how they are still with you.
What did your Dad think of the directions that you have taken in music?
RB: We were different in that I leaned more towards Country, but I think he liked that we could play songs together and he knew a lot of the stuff I liked. He would support music no matter what it was. Before he died, I really wanted him to hear the songs, “The Loneliness in Me” and “On The Side of Love”. He was in hospice and it was kind of sad, but he did laugh at that part in “The Loneliness in Me” when I say, “I’ll be the richest girl in that cemetery.” He was dying laughing. I thought, “Well, I better keep that line.”
HMS: That’s one of those perfect Country lines that I kind of can’t believe no one has done it before. Good job on that one.
Is there an emotional difference between Bluegrass and County for you?
RB: I think so. When I think of the lyrics in Bluegrass music, it tends to repeat the same things. I love Bluegrass music, and even though Country can be repetitive too, I feel like there’s a lot more room to be funny, to be sad, to be happy. It seems like there are more things to sing about. In my opinion, Bluegrass is narrower in what you sing about. You can sing about weird stuff and fit Country music, like Porter Wagner. Like George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today”.
HMS: I was totally about to mention that song! Many big hits in Country music have been very quirky.
In the information about this album, I came across the term “High Lonesome”, which I haven’t really heard of before. Can you tell me a little bit more about how that relates to your style?
RB: I know the term from Bluegrass, and it might not be a well-known term. It’s old-school Bluegrass, lonesome in the mountains, kind of stuff. I think that a lot of it does come down to the influence of Bluegrass in my music. Whether it was intentional, I don’t really know, but I think it’s there.
HMS: I think it’s great. It reminds me of storytelling in music that focuses on an isolated individual.
RB: I used to play a lot of Gothic Country kind of stuff, but I think the High Lonesome is still there, even though this album isn’t as dark and lonesome as some of my previous stuff.
HMS: I definitely feel like this album has a brightness and energy to it, even when dealing with heavier subjects.
RB: That’s definitely what I was going for. I didn’t want this album to sound as laid back as some of my previous stuff. I didn’t want it to feel low, but I wanted it to have a higher frequency. I hope that comes across.
HMS: Why do you think that you tend to write sad songs?
RB: I think I just like it. As weird as it sounds, sometimes I just love to feel bad. I don’t know what it is, but it’s almost like I feel comfortable like that. I know myself better like that, there’s nothing to lose.
HMS: It’s the view from rock bottom? [Laughs]
RB: [Laughs] Yes! I don’t consider myself a sad person. I don’t feel sad all the time. When I’m writing, I feel good. I’m always striving to write the saddest Country song. That’s the truth.
HMS: That’s so great!
RB: I want to write a song as sad as “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. Seriously, I do. That is my goal and I’m not going to stop until I do. That song is the best, by far the saddest Country song ever.
HMS: That is a goal you need to pursue. The song, “The Loneliness in Me” is a good start down that road.
Are you into vinyl? I noticed this record has some pretty cool variants coming out. It’s got some gold-splatter, some purple.
RB: I love vinyl. I have released a lot of stuff on vinyl before in different color variations. There’s something special about a vinyl record, especially if it’s got some neat splatter. That’s another piece of the art. It can be expensive, but a lot of people love to collect it.
HMS: Tower Records has a motto, “No Music, No Life”, also written, “Know Music, Know Life”. We like to ask people which they prefer and how they feel it applies in their life.
RB: I think that I’m drawn to “No Music, No Life”. Music, for me, has been a huge part of life from an early age. That’s who I am. I identify myself with music. It might be different for a listener than for a musician. For a listener, it might be more, “Know Music, Know Life” because you are also experiencing music in different ways.