Brooke White: “We can all get together down in Calico”

Photo by Kat Borchart
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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Winter Issue 10

Brooke White, previous American Idol finalist, has made country music history releasing her new album Calico. A Nashville country-style album written, recorded, and produced entirely in California, Calico embodies the rising of contemporary country music – a style that stretches traditional country music norms blending elements of pop and rock music with Laurel Canyon folk. Speaking recently to Guitar Girl, White described her new album as being somewhat a reflection of herself – free-spirited and fun, but still capable of communicating deeper issues of importance.

Beginning life in Arizona, Brooke White developed a passion for music at a young age, learning to play piano and guitar. At the age of 19, she left her hometown for Los Angeles, where she spent several years pursuing a career in music while working as a nanny. She received her breakthrough in 2008 when she appeared as a contestant on American Idol, performing in front of millions of weekly viewers. She stole the hearts of many American families with her pure, sincere personality and stunning performances, which showcased her vast vocal range and her living-room-style of playing the piano. After finishing in the top five, Brooke set her hopes on a career as a songwriter. White has since released several solo albums, as well as three EPs and several singles as part of the duo Jack and White, featuring Jack Matranga.

Calico, short for California country, is White’s fifth full-length solo album. Featuring a variety of different songs, from the toe-tapping ‘Calico’ and ‘Boots’ to the heart-warming ‘Movies,’ White’s new album is earnest and sweet – focusing on her love for the community of California. Joining with pop songwriters Chris Qualls and Eric Straube, White wrote and recorded Calico in Straube’s home studio over a year, with the same spirit that is reflected throughout – laid-back country-style vibes that speak of a place where “there ain’t no rules and anything goes.” They even had animals in the studio, as White shared with us that some of the songs were recorded while she had Straube’s cat in her arms and a pug named Phoebe on her lap. She also described writing a country album out of California to be freeing creatively, as they weren’t bound to any formulas or generic patterns but were free to explore whatever sounds they wished to create.

What led you to record a country album in California?

I had two young children and I was still nursing one and walking the other to kindergarten. It just became clear to me, “you’re not going to Nashville.” “If you’re going to make a record, you’re going to make it here. You’re going to make it while you’re in the trenches of motherhood.” I ended up calling Eric for help, and I said that I wanted to make a country record. He wanted to write with me, and so we started writing. I felt like we were starting to create something. I was feeling confident that making the record in California was going to work. I let go of my expectations to make a proper country record in Nashville where country music is usually made.

I think it’s better that you made it where you did, as it highlights aspects of California which I think will resonate with many people. What do you think?

I feel like there’s no doubt in my mind, this is where I was supposed to be to make this record and it worked out perfect. There would have been no Calico had we not done it here. The California country concept wouldn’t have been. I’m not the first to make California country, but I am the first to make country records in California, in the fashion that we did. I’m so thankful we did because it allowed me the space to be experimental and to draw from references that matter to me, such as the artists and places that I mention in the songs. I’ve lived here for 16 years, and I’ve made my home here and have developed some strong roots in this place. I just think that the energy is thick, and the magic and history are full of legends and people who have made an enormous mark on me, musically, and California.

Is the overall theme of the album like the song ‘Pioneer’ autobiographical? Was it about you leaving Arizona and moving to California?

There are some very autobiographical moments in the songs, but not in all of them. Some are not about me — like “Honey.” But I would say the moments that are really about me leaving Arizona, like “Pioneer,” was hard for me to write because I love Arizona and I love my family and I didn’t want to hurt anyone. Writing that song, I had in mind that I don’t want my Arizona people to feel like I don’t miss Arizona or still love it, because I do. But there was this point in my life where I felt so drawn to come to California and I knew that it was just something I needed to do. I knew that it was the place I needed to be, to become the person I wanted to.

When you started writing, did you know what direction you wanted the album to go in?

No, I didn’t. It did surprise me that I didn’t end up playing a single lick of piano on this record. I think people often recognize me on the piano although I did play the guitar quite a bit on American Idol, and my last record has some guitar moments. However, some of the things that I was writing on the piano just did not feel right for this record. I would sit down, and then I’d come into the studio with the guys, and it just didn’t feel like the sound for right now. Another thing I didn’t anticipate is those autobiographical moments.

There’s a lot of lightness to the whole album in addition to some deeper themes. The song “Weigh Me Down” gets into a bit of a moodier place, acknowledging those places of fear, and those emotions that are difficult, and can keep us stuck. But I feel like there are so many really fun moments. I feel as if I am now in a place in my life where I’m letting go a little bit and just enjoying having fun. It was kind of a surprise to me that this record turned out as fun as it did. But I’m also kind of not surprised because that is genuinely what I am like in my everyday life. I enjoy being a free spirit, but I do also love to think about things that matter.

Is this the first time you have ever written with Chris and Eric?

No, it isn’t. I do have a history with them. My band Jack and White, (with Jack Matranga), were set up on a writing date with them, back in 2013 or 2014, and we hit it off with them right away. Jack and I wrote with Chris and Eric, and we started writing Tuesday nights together. We had our own little Tuesday night music club and we would write together and eat snacks and order Little Caesar’s Pizza. We loved it. Then Jack and I were working on a record, and we wrote the song “Lost” with those guys. It was a great song. I’ve always felt musical chemistry with them. However, they are more pop-leaning and so my first thought was, “I’m going to go make a country record with Chris and Eric?” I think that was kind of what made it fun.

Having written with them before, I had confidence in our ability to write music together and that we were all open enough to see where it would go. I had confidence that I was working with people who have a good sense of who I am, and that I could be honest in the process of writing with them and that they would honor what I wanted, but still, be pushed and challenged by them.

Their pop influences came through in it too, which blends well.

It’s a part of what I do every time — I love a pop song. I love a strong hook and I love a melody that you can remember quickly. I’m not a super-cool hipster indie artist that makes music that’s just cool. I can’t, it’s not me. I grew up listening to the most iconic pop music ever. Pop songs and melodies that are strong, despite whatever the instrumentation was. At the heart of every song is just writing a really good song. Then how you make it sound, you add things, and you add these elements that make it whole. If you listen to “Weigh Me Down,” in the beginning, we have this beat. It is the driving force of the song, and then I started hearing this mood and so we added the instrumentation which makes it sound like a country song.

When did you start playing guitar?

I started playing piano at 7, and guitar at 16, almost 17 years old, and I’m fairly self-taught. I had one friend who sat me down and taught me how to play “Wonderful Tonight” by Eric Clapton. That was the first song I learned how to play. I started with the classics, luckily, it’s not too hard. Well, not the strumming part anyway, but that was the first song I could play, and it just opened up a whole new world. Honestly, from what I love to listen to, the guitar is my favorite instrument. I always say my goal, someday, is to be able to play “I Can’t Tell You Why” by the Eagles and be able to nail that solo.

But you know a guitar player came in. We call him Keg. He is an exceptional guitar player and it was really important to me that guitar play such a front and center roll in this record, and that there were prominent parts, and that was the voice. You know in today’s music, you don’t hear guitar solos anymore. The guitar is important but it’s not like the ‘70s or the ‘80s where the guitar was shredding everybody’s faces and playing such a prominent role in music. For me, with this record, I wanted that. Keg came and played all the leads on it and it was such a blast to be in the studio with him and have him lay down those. We had a pedal steel player too who is exceptional. His name is Rich Hinman. To be able to stand up and play guitar more on this record is a new challenge that I am excited about. I’m so excited to approach this whole record from the guitar because it allows me to expand as an artist and get outside of my comfort zone at the piano which is a little easier for me.

What was the songwriting process?

We wrote everything together. One time, I was on the way to the studio and it was raining, and so I started with raindrops falling on my windshield. It just came out, really fast. I sang it into my phone recorder on the way there. I couldn’t play guitar while I was driving, but I got there and said, “Hand me a guitar.” Then I started coming out with the chords. I am always writing everything simultaneously, with the music and the lyrics at the same time. When one thing comes separate from the other, it’s very difficult for me to see it through to the end.

Was it just yourself, Chris, and Eric doing the songwriting?

Yes. We did everything and the only thing we brought in was pedal steel and electric, and Kevin also played some banjo and a little bit of mandolin. I love the touch of banjo — it makes such a sweet sound. Everything was in this little room with just the three of us. 

How long was the process from start to end?

We started in January, somewhere between the tenth and the twentieth, I can’t remember. We finished mastering on December 20th of 2018. It took a year from start to finish. 

Do you have any plans for touring?

I don’t have any nailed-down plans. We are definitely in the phase of working it out. With the music coming out, we just need to reach all the people that we can and that makes touring a higher probability. We did a show at the Hotel Café in Hollywood on the day before the record came out. I think I could see myself doing some more shows soon. And then expanding upon that as the record keeps moving. It gets hard with me having children though. Part of the reason I didn’t chase after the big label is that I’m a mom. I have two children that are young and they’re only going to be little once. I’m choosing to do both at the same time, and it’s really hard.

But for a couple of weeks, I would love to do that for this record. Playing this record live with the band is exhilarating. And like I said, this is the first record that is so fun, it has so much energy and to play it live with the band is unlike any show I’ve done before. And that’s the kind of setting that it needs to be. I hope that it does get a chance to be played for an audience that can enjoy it in a live setting.

What was the significance of the hats on the “Calico” video?

I think it represents a couple of things for me. One, that I am in a phase of my life where I am wearing many hats. I am wearing all the hats, and I love all my hats. All of them are meaningful, make me who I am, and makes my music what it is. But in the music video for “Calico,” I also wanted to incorporate hats in terms of community. Where people would act like we can all just get along together. I didn’t get here alone. I didn’t do this all by myself. I’m independent but I have many people in my life who’ve influenced me and helped me. I feel like the exchange of hats is a nod to that. Even to artists who I’ve never even met but have influenced me here in California.

What type and brand of guitars do you like to play?

I have a couple of guitars. The very first guitar I ever bought with my own money was a Taylor Big Baby and I still love that guitar. It’s worn and still sounds great. But then after the show, I was really lucky to get a guitar from Gibson. As soon as I picked up a Songwriter, I knew it was the one. I’ve been playing on a Songwriter ever since. It’s my acoustic guitar of choice. The Gibson Songwriter is the prettiest, most glorious-sounding guitar that I have. I have a little Martin for traveling, and my husband got me a Tele for my birthday. I’ve been playing that for a couple of years. And then I have this funny yellow Epiphone electric guitar that I found dirt-cheap, and it needs some work. I need to replace some of the pickups and stuff. It’s perfect for “Calico.”

Based on everything you’ve been through in your career, what advice would you offer to a young artist wanting to pursue a career in the music industry?

I would say just hang on. I think something that I realized is that it’s never going to be perfect. There’s no perfect scenario. People often think that certain things like finding a major label will make it all work out. But in reality, what determines if it works out or not is you. Pursuing this has broken my heart on several occasions, but I kept coming back for more because I love it. So I would say if you’re going to do this, you need to ask yourself if you love it enough? Everyone figures out pretty fast that it’s not particularly glamorous. It’s typically grueling, hard work and then you have these moments where you do find the magic in the music and that’s what keeps you going. You know, it’s like boots – go to work for it, put your boots on. That’s what I’d tell them. Put your boots on.

Calico tracklist:

  1. Calico
  2. Honey
  3. Boots
  4. Pioneer
  5. Into The Trees
  6. Weigh Me Down
  7. Back Pocket
  8. The Night We Met
  9. Disco Moon
  10. Be Good
  11. You
  12. Movies

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