Rachel Brooke’s The Loneliness In Me is the set ’em up Joe, take ya’ to Fist City, Katy bar the door, walkin’ the floor record your hillbilly heart’s been yearning for. It’s country music for the discerning, Americana for the accessible, and hardcore for the believers. The daughter of a bluegrass banjo picker, Brooke grew up in Northern Michigan and as a teenager developed a taste for Hank Williams records and the darker disciplines of the honky tonk arts. Beginning with her self-titled 2008 debut and culminating with 2012’s charming and twisted A Killer’s Dream, Brooke has echoed the heroes and heroines of yesteryear while cultivating a unique and personal style for the 21st Century. Her first full-length solo effort in eight years finds Brooke alive and well, over the moon as a mother, and as capable a songwriter as found on Music Row in any era. The Loneliness In Me should find its way onto your turntable when it lands on October 23rd!
AI- You got started playin’ in your dad’s band as a kid, right?
RB- Yep! That was like my first introduction to playing in a band. I started playing music, though, as a real little kid when I was about 5 on piano. And then my dad, he played music growing up and I always heard it. So yeah, since I was a little kid, I guess I started kind of taking an interest in music. And then when I was about 18 or so, I started playing in my dad’s band.
And that was like bluegrass, hillbilly-type stuff?
Yeah, it was bluegrass. My dad was a banjo player, and we mostly played all those bluegrass standards. He also liked folk stuff– like 1960s folk stuff– and we played some of that. And, yeah, hillbilly kinda stuff too.
I’ve seen the term Gothic country thrown around a lot when it comes to what you do. When did you start getting into that style?
I really liked Hank Willims Sr. I really started getting in to him when I was about 17 or 18 years old. I listened to him all the time! And, oh, I just couldn’t get enough of it! Eventually, I started to go through some of my own hard times, I guess. And so that sad stuff came pouring out. So probably my late teens, early 20s is when I started to really write some of that kind of stuff.
I think it was probably two, two and a half years ago, I ran across A Killer’s Dream, which I think is a fantastic album and really illustrates what you do. Even though you’ve been involved with other projects– with Lonesome Wyatt, you also did The World’s Greatest Anchor acoustic EP a few years back, and then of course Modern Mal with your husband– this new album, The Loneliness in Me, is your first full-length solo release in quite some time. I’m gonna guess that becoming a mother had something to do with that? Why is now the time to be gettin’ back into it?
(Laughs) You are correct on that! I don’t know if you have kids or not, but it is a huge change when you have a little baby. Of course, I loved every single minute and still do, but songwriting and music and bein’ on the road definitely takes a back seat when you have a little baby. A lot of it had to do with that, but then again, honestly, it was tough because I struggled with finding inspiration to write. I didn’t know what I was going to write about anymore, you know? It took some time to readjust to my world, but eventually, I struck gold in there somewhere! So I’m happy that I finally did!
I do, I have one, and she’s about to be four. I absolutely understand what you say when it changes everything. It changes your priorities and your focus. But I find that surprising when you say not having anything to write about. On this album– you write songs like I just wanna write period! “I’d tell you, I love you, but you ain’t worth the fall,” “The ghost of you comes back to me, but only when I drink,” “Singin’ sad songs and still dreamin’ about wolves…” Yeah. You struck gold. Definitely. And I have to say that with this album, there seems to be a sophistication that would lead me to believe that you’ve also turned a corner as an artist.
I think so. At least, I think I have. I feel that a lot of my stuff before was, yeah, it was inspired by a lot of sadness, but this stuff was inspired by life. Livin’ life. I feel like that’s more honest in a lot of ways for me. Sometimes when your life has changes and you have to adjust, it’s hard at first. But I actually feel like it’s a lot more honest now.
Do you think that being a mother and being able to look at the world in a different way has allowed you to restructure how you feel about writing?
Yeah, it has. It definitely has changed the way I look at things, but I still feel like I’m the same person. I’m not as naive in the world. I’m seeing it in a different way. Like I see the world as bigger– [but] in some ways a lot smaller, you know? I guess it’s more I feel like it’s not skewed.
I’ve spoken to other artists in different stages of embracing sobriety and something that I’ve asked them is, “Did you have a fear of when you became sober that you would not be able to perform or write at a level that you wanted to?” And I feel having had the experience myself that when children come along, that’s also a fear that you have– will I be able to be and do what I was before? I feel like the song, “I Miss It Like It’s Gone” tackles that to a degree.
Yeah, it does. That’s exactly what that’s about too. It’s true. I worried a lot about, not necessarily worried, but I knew that havin’ a child was gonna change my life in a lot of ways. It was scary because for my whole life, music has been a huge part of it. So the thought that something could potentially change– like my inspiration, my lifestyle– who knows what I’m going to be able to even sing about anymore? It was very scary! And then once I became a mom, it was like, “Now, I don’t want that to end!” [That’s] basically what that song is about too. I don’t want anything to end, and I almost miss it like it already is gone– music, motherhood, all that kind of stuff. I love it all! I don’t want any of it to go away.
I also think once upon a time, people thought that was the case– once you decide you want to have a family, you have to leave the road, you have to stop playing music. I think that’s a philosophy that has been completely debunked, especially in the 21st Century, as far as it comes to artists and what you’re capable of doing.
I totally agree with that. I look at Loretta Lynn. She had a big family and she had to sacrifice a lot, but she did that for her family! I try to look at it like that. I want my son to grow up and look back and think that, “Wow, that was pretty cool that my mom took chances!” I think that matters more in the long run– when he can look back and maybe be proud of his mom instead of me being full of regret and resentment. Not that I would be, but it could happen. So I think it’s important for him to see his mom in an empowered position too, you know what I mean? At least, I hope he’ll see that one day.
That’s a fine way to put it, that empowered position. With the songs, did you do most of the heavy lifting? Or were you co-writing with your husband Brooks [Robbins] at all? Was there anybody else involved with it?
It was my husband and I both writing. Yep. I would say that we’re a really, really good team. There’s a few songs that I pretty much wrote by myself, but the majority of the songs were about equally written. I would probably come up with an idea for a song, I’d have a few little sparks of lyrics or phrases or something, and then we’d sit down and we’d write it and we’d try to finish it out together. We work really well because it’s almost like I see what I want in a song in a picture form in my brain. I’ll explain the picture, and then my husband, he’d help me come up with just the right way to explain it.
It was a very extremely collaborative kind of thing, like down to the very word. It’s pretty cool. It’s really, really cool. We actually haven’t written together very much, and this was kind of a first of both of us. But we really like it– at least I really like writing with him! Cause he’s good! I like to pull from him and vice versa.
And I was going to ask that question because you had the Modern Mal album [The Misanthrope Family Album] you did. Did you guys write that one together?
We did. Well, I wrote, I think, two songs completely off that one, but he mostly wrote the lyrics. That was mostly his thing with a lot of me just adding little elements here and there. That was more of like a him thing. Now this is obviously more of my thing but with him helping me.
With that particular album, I know that you guys had talked about how much you had used your love of the Beach Boys and Pet Sounds as sort of an inspiration for that record. Does he lean towards that country arena like you do?
Yeah, he actually does. It’s funny because we’re both huge Beach Boys fans, we both love Lou Reed, and a bunch of cool, weird stuff– but we both love country music! That’s how we found each other, really, was through country music. And he might not sing it, but he loves it! Our favorite is Johnny Cash. Number one, Johnny Cash! We love him! In both of our minds, he is the ultimate country music. We try to be like Johnny Cash as much as we can!
Do you consider yourself a country artist? ‘Cause I know that word gets thrown around a lot, and it’s tough to be genre specific, especially in 2020 when you use the word country. There’s so many breakdowns and there’s so many offshoots– but at your core, do you consider yourself a country artist?
I do. I do 100%. I think that’s a good thing about country music. You can sway this way and you can go this way a little bit, but I consider myself country. That’s why I released Modern Mal under a different name. That’s why when I work with Lonseome Wyatt, it’s a little bit different. But when I do my stuff, I try to stay country because I love country music, and I feel like I’m meant to play country music. I think that my life has been brought up on that path, and I’m just followin’ along with it. I think it was meant to be. Yeah, I embrace country music!
I just got done having this exact same conversation with Charley Crockett— that he embraces that identity of a country artist. But something that he does and that you do, especially on this new album, is that you manage to maintain a traditional sound while being progressive with it. Like, yes, it’s got a classic style to it, but it also sounds of today.
That’s exactly what I wanted to do! I have this thing inside of me that as much as I love traditional musicians and people who purposely recreate that old stuff… I love listening to people who do that traditional stuff, I love it so much– but me, personally, I can’t do that. I have too many influences that need to speak. So when I write and when we record, I can’t help it. I can’t help it! I want to try new things. I want to see how things sound. I think that’s why it sounds the way it does– like newer but still pretty traditional. Because I am a traditional person, I feel like, as far as music goes, but I can’t help it. I gotta have the extra stuff on there!
Tell me what the plan is going forward. I know that 99.9% of the people that I’ve spoken to since March have no idea what’s going to happen and what they’re going to do as far as touring, as far as live shows. Of course, albums are still being released. What about you? Do you have any plans post album release?
My goal with this record is to get back out there again. I’ve been kinda missing for a little while, so I was hoping to let this album bring me back out there a little bit so I can tour in the spring and summer, hopefully. I’m hoping that it’s gonna open up. I have good feelings about it. It’s gonna change. We can adapt though. We have in the past and we probably will continue to do so. But I have good feelings and I’m hoping that I can tour with this one, maybe in the spring and summer. If for some reason it doesn’t work out that way, I’ll continue to do what I can online and then I’m working on a new record too.
Oh, really? And this’ll be a Rachel Brooke album?
Yeah! I just feel like I found such a good place now. After years of uncertainty, like I was telling you about, I feel like I got so many things I can say now! And we’re workin’ on a new one! We got four songs written for a new one and this one hasn’t even come out yet! I’m gonna keep puttin’ stuff out. I don’t know how it’ll look. I don’t know if I’ll continue doing the same old thing or if I’ll move ahead, but no matter what I’ll be putting stuff out and always writin’ and tryin’ to keep it rollin’!
Something unique about what you do, I’ve noticed, is that you are as comfortable being just by yourself with a guitar as you are having that full band. My estimation is that it’s gonn to be easier for the singer-songwriter types to get back out and start performin’ live again. ‘Cause it will be easier to control and socially distance.
That’s true. There’s a lot of things that make it easy. I am, I’m comfortable doing acoustic or with a band. I mean, I love playin’ with the band, but sometimes people only want acoustic or they can only pay for an acoustic person– and I’ll do that! It’s pretty nice being versatile (laughs)! Yeah, I’ll make it work. Either I’ll be solo or I’ll have a band, but either way I’ll be doin’ something.
You’ve largely released music independently on your own through most of your career. What’s happening with The Loneliness In Me as far as being released through a label? And the reason that I ask is because you talk about your “domesticated grin” on the album and then about Nashville. So I was curious, had there been overtures made?
This record is gonna be independent. I’ve always kinda been independent. I like being independent because I have a lot more power there– but I don’t have a lot of money! And that’s the thing, that’s the hard part, you know? (Laughs) With this record, I saved up money. I’ve been savin’ up money from all my gigs and it’s not a lot, but it’s money that I saved. I’m putting my own stuff into it. But the part on the record where I’m talking about Nashville, that is like when you think about the way it actually works, it’s so tempting. It’s so attempting to envision something like that happening for you. You can see yourself in lights and it’s like, “Wow, how cool would that be?” But then if you think about it, you might not have to pay for it up front, but you are gonna end up payin’ for it! You might be able to get some type of glory from it, but you’re under the thumb of somebody else. It’s like the pros and cons of that kind of thing, and I was just kinda makin’ fun of it a little bit in my song. Makin’ fun of that whole system and also making fun of myself a little (laughs)!