Reclaiming the Heart of Country & Americana Music by Reshaping the Soul of Confessional Songwriting

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Artist Feature,   From Issue 813   By: Robert Martin and Trish Lewis

23rd July, 2015     0

Laurie Middlebrook is one of those rare musical artists that possess a voice as clear and vibrant as the sun breaking upon a rippling stream of water rising through creative territory that runs pristine and uncompromised.   During the expanse of her 30-year career she has consistently proven through the unabashed gifts of her musical talent, which coupled with her instinctive sensibility for surrounding herself with exemplary musicians, to never lose sight of the emotive power music is capable of conjuring to impact the lives of people through the gift of song.

As a songwriter and performer Middlebrook quickly rose to the top of the regional Country Music scene at an early age, making the pilgrimage to Nashville to record and open the beautiful parameters of her music to a broader audience.  But because of her strict belief in retaining both the integrity and singular musical vision that fuels both her songwriting and live performances, these self-imposed roadblocks sidetracked her ride on the fast track to the Major League precisely because of her unwillingness to cave into the forces of fashion, glitz, and artifice.

Laurie started writing songs back in 1990 and has released three prior CD’s: She’s Got Dreams, It’s About Time and Volume III, recorded in Nashville, that showcased the special qualities of both her sound & music.

And with the release of her latest collection of original material entitled It’s My Pleasure, Middlebrook has once again graced us with a fresh collection of emotive & reflective songs on topics ranging from the magical formative considerations presented on the opening track It’s My Pleasure, which articulates the initial bonds of attraction forged together between two people that blossom into the miracle of love; to the vagaries of the digital age where technology gets between the connections made between people, drawing human attentions away from one another into the distractions of the screen, as rendered  on the wonderful track Real Life.

With a gift of songwriting reminiscent of such contemporary artists as Gretchen Peters and Roseanne Cash, Middlebrook’s new release is also her most collaborative work to date, witnessing her partnering with such notable regional talents as Donny Brown, Bob Hausler, Kevin Spear, Dan Smith and Steve Colarelli, who co-wrote five of the eleven tracks with Middlebrook that are featured on It’s My Pleasure. And to add the icing on the cake, Laurie also re-invents an excellent rocking closing track of the Guess Who chestnut No Sugar/Mother Nature to close out the song cycle.

Recently Review contributor Trish Lewis and I had an opportunity to sit down and speak with Laurie about her latest achievements with It’s My Pleasure, which was recorded in Bay City by producer Andy Reed; along with a discussion about the lessons she has learned following the arc of her storied career.  It is indeed ‘our pleasure’ to present this following exchange.

Review: What were you striving to achieve with the latest release that you feel distinguishes your songwriting from where you left off?

Laurie: Previously whenever I went into the studio to record I went to Nashville because that’s where the really good players were along with the studios. I would take my songs down there and get the job done. But after my last release I wrote a song, Already in Love, with Donny Brown that we recorded for the Nick Andros Tribute CD, and I felt really good about that experience.

I had just cut an album and already had a song together for the net one, but then life happened and it got pushed to back burner.  I had a dull couple of years where I couldn’t write anything that made sense, so I played a lot of live performances over that period.  My last album came out in 2003, but even though I had a start on the next one, I could never make myself focus; and I didn’t want to run to Nashville and do it again.

The last couple of years I met my husband, Kevin, and Andy Reed was a good friend of his. I knew Andy but never worked with him. So when I started writing and pulling new material together, Kevin said, ‘Why don’t you record this one at Andy’s studio and see what happens?’ Andy said to me: “I know you’ve gone to Nashville and I’ve heard the music you recorded there, but I think you need a Laurie Middlebrook CD that’s really you and not defined by how the production takes it. Down in Nashville I would use the same musicians on every song, with the same tones, so with this project, I would pay Andy $100 every time I’d go over to his studio for a couple hours and I recorded this new release one week at a time.  It took my 9 months to finally finish it up, but I have different guitar players and different piano players on each track, so along with the collaborative approach I took to the songwriting, it sounds more varied and live and fresh.

I wish it hadn’t taken my 10 years to create a follow-up and I used to worry what everybody would think about my work. But when I turned 50 I reached a point in my life where I stopped caring what other people think.

Review: Tell me about the title track, It’s My Pleasure. That is such a hauntingly beautiful song and I love the musical construction and sensitivity behind it.

Laurie: When I started dating my husband he would always open the door for me and I would thank him and he would say, ‘It’s my pleasure’. So I took that line and twisted it around and went into Andy’s and recorded the song and gave it to him for a Valentine’s Day gift.  The track I gave him was just my guitar and I and left it with a Valentine’s card on the counter. He called me and was really happy and said he loved the song, so I made it the title track.  It’s a happy and positive song. My last CD was written after a bitter divorce and most of the songs were somewhat bitter and angry, but now it’s a new decade and life is good.

Review: I also love ‘Real Life’ – that’s the first and best song I’ve ever heard about how people don’t communicate face-to-face anymore, but seem to relate any important sentiments they possess over the internet or through a text message.

Laurie: I honestly hate that. People don’t talk or look at each other in the eye when they talk anymore. Bob Hausler helped me with that song because when I originally wrote it my daughter was 16 at the time and would sit at the kitchen table. I’d be doing dishes and the whole time we were eating she would be scrolling through her cell phone looking at videos or doing something, so I said, ‘No – turn it off. She would take the phone into the bathroom with her like it was part of her body. So originally the whole song was put down your phone and look at me when you speak. But Bob told me that it sounded bitter, so he helped me twist it around to where it’s not a bad thing so much as ‘let’s log off for a little while and get some fresh air.’

Review: This new release has a very traditional sound to it, which I like.

Laurie: Yeah, I can’t listen to the New Country or the radio these days. If you listen it all sounds the same. It’s all a bunch of stuff thrown in the pot and mixed up and I don’t get it. Not all of my songs are country, but more Americana.  I think this new release has a ‘real’ feel to it and is not overly produced. Andy pushed me to put a lot of harmonies on this new release, because of his Beatles’ influence; but I told him I wanted very little of that. On the track Nelly we add Bluegrass harmonies, but only on that song and not on every song. I think Andy would have liked more background harmonies on many of the tracks, but because I was co-producer it was up to me. Maybe its because when I was in Nashville the last time around they put all these harmonies on my music and it didn’t sound like it was from the heart, but too much frosting on the cake. I feel this one is more true to my songwriting.

Review: How do you begin to write? Do songs just come to you or do you mull over ideas before the song gels?

Laurie: Usually it’s a phrase and then I take that phrase and look at how I could twist it to make it into a lie. You know what I mean? Songs are just stories. I have friends that come over like Steve Colarelli who had a little melody and when he played a bit of it for me on his guitar and asked what I thought about it, I said it made me feel like I was out in the middle of nowhere. So that’s where “Middle of Nowhere” came from.

Review:  When you collaborate with other songwriters, what comes first? Do you have a system?

Laurie:  Like I said, sometimes it’s just the lyrics that I come up with and then I’ll try to get a key or a little riff and feel for the song. Sometimes I am stuck on my own version and say, I’m not changing this, this is me and I don’t want to get other people’s input because then it wouldn’t be me. Half of the songs I do are collaborated with somebody else who can play better or has more knowledge of the guitar or piano than I do, because I’m pretty limited, honestly, as a musician.  But I’m a pretty good liar!

Review: When did you first realize songwriting was your way to express your feelings or other people’s stories? Your proclivity to lying - when did it become an outlet?

Laurie:  Probably when I was 15 or 16.  I loved Linda Ronstadt, The Eagles and Bonnie Raitt. I would make up stuff to the sound of my 10 -speed bike, hear the little clicking and make up my own words to the sound when I rode. My dad and brothers back in the 70’s had a band named The Rhythm Riders. They wouldn’t let me play because I was a girl and I was too young. This is a recurring theme in my life - if people say I can’t do something I have to prove them wrong.

Review: How did you manage to make the time for this release? What is your day job these days?

Laurie: I was working at the Equine Clinic here in Freeland as a veterinary assistant. In January I resigned from that position and returned to part-time daycare and it gave me more free time. I also have a pretty good husband. My son is 24 and goes to Michigan State University and my daughter graduated who just turned 18. So I feel like now is my time. I only wish I was younger so I had more energy! Before I was trying to manage working, horses, children and music and I couldn’t do it all. Now it’s easier.

Review: You were married to your husband Kevin Spear in October 2012 and you can feel the warmth and humor between the two of you throughout the album.

Laurie: We keep saying to each other we wish we had met sooner in life. We were both from Birch Run, but he graduated in 1979 and I was four years behind him - 1983. He was on track team with my one brother and my brothers all knew him. He knew my family since there were eight of us McInerney kids; like so many others back then, we had a big Catholic family. But I didn’t really know him and he left and joined the Air Force.  So we really never met until four years ago.

Review:  Who is in your ear these days?  What music are you listening to?

Laurie: I don’t like what I hear on the radio. I’d rather listen to songwriters than what’s on the radio these days. All I hear is smoke, mirrors, lights, bang, bang pop stuff. I love Gretchen Peter’s new release “Blackbirds”. Kevin said he’d rather hear a song performed by the person who wrote it than after it’s been over-produced and I certainly agree with him on that.

Review: What do you wish for your listeners to know about you that we won’t learn from your music?

Laurie:  I’m a private person. I have no neighbors. If I want to go out in my pajamas, nobody sees. I’m really happy right now at this point in my life. The stress has just depleted. Kevin coming into my life has made everything that much sweeter. A decade in coming, this album has taken since last September to finish. I’m excited to share it with everybody. I would also love to hear another artist perform and be successful with one of my songs.

Review:  What do you do for fun besides songwriting and performing?

Laurie:  I like going out to listen to music! On Sunday, August 9th from 2:00 - 8:00 pm we are having a CD release party here in Freeland with lots of friends playing too. If folks want to find out more about it or any event they can message me on The Laurie Middlebrook Band Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/TheLaurieMiddlebrookBand

People can purchase “It’s My Pleasure” at one of my gigs or online at CD Baby: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/lauriemiddlebrook2


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