Rachel Brooke proves you don’t need to live in the south to make great southern music. Physically, she’s in Michigan, but sonically she would fit right in on Music Row in Nashville. She’s hitting the road and will stop by The Southgate House Revival on September 3 to perform with a full band. CincyMusic caught up with Rachel to find out more about how a teenage punk rocker rediscovered her roots to create some of the most bracing, engaging country music out there today.
How does it feel to be on the road and see venues opening up again?
It feels really, really good. This past year or two has been extremely hard on me, as I'm sure it has been for everyone. And it almost felt never-ending. I'm just really happy to be able to go back out and perform again. I just hope that everything stays safely open.
You grew up in a bluegrass/folk household, but you were in a punk band in your teenage years. Do you think that was a reaction/rebellion against your roots? How did you find your way back to embracing country music?
I don't remember it being a conscious rebellion, but you know, I'm sure it was at 15-16 years old. I was mad at a lot of people at that age, so I think playing in punk rock bands was a good outlet. I remember randomly hearing a Hank Williams song and remembering how much I loved the music I grew up with. It just felt like it was where my heart always was, and it was like coming home. I'm really all about my home/safety and the things that make me feel like I'm home. That's bluegrass and country to me.
Your Modern Mal songs would be right at home next to Jenny Lewis or Magnetic Fields on a “Modern Rock” station; your solo material would easily mesh with tunes by Dolly or Loretta on an “Outlaw Country” station. When a song is being born, is there ever a conscious effort to nudge it one way or another? How do you decide what goes with Modern Mal and what stays with Rachel?
I LOVE The Magnetic fields. I'm so happy you said that. But yeah, I think each song has its own personality, I guess. But when I write there is definitely a conscious effort to sway it one way or the other. I want to write the perfect country song, just as I also want to experiment with new sounds. So, If I feel like experimenting chances are it might be a Modern Mal song. And I'll always be chasing after the PERFECT country song, which ends up on the Rachel record.
You produced and played most of the instruments on “Down in the Barnyard”. As you’ve gained more experience and grown, is it easier to give up some of those duties? How does that influence the shape of the songs?
Yeah, I actually look back on that time and remember how frustrating it was to record it all myself. I will probably never do that again. I mean, I'll demo stuff but It's not easy to record yourself when you're frustrated. I am very happy giving up those responsibilities. The one good thing about that time was that I learned a lot about myself and my abilities, both with recording and instrumentation.
Jeff Tweedy once said that when Uncle Tupelo formed, the most punk rock thing you could do was pick up a banjo; country was a reaction to punk and expectations to be the next Nirvana. Later, Wilco evolved from a blend of punk/rock/country to a more experimental sound that incorporates electronics, ambitious production, and soundscapes. What would you like to experiment with in the future?
I always want to experiment. There are sooo many sounds I feel I could genuinely enjoy. Honestly, I love playing bass, and I would love to just play bass in a band. I'd also love to be a part of a concert or orchestra again. Like maybe find a community band to be a part of. I'm also considering releasing a straight up bluegrass EP just to get that out too. I'm sure that will happen eventually.
Rachel Brooke plays The Southgate House Revival Revival Room with Dead Man String Band on Friday, September 3rd.