RACHEL BROOKE • Walking the Musical Line Between Tradition and Transformation

Acclaimed Singer/Songwriter Appearing at Bemo's May 8th

    icon Apr 22, 2021
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As a rising young Country singer/songwriter hailing from the wilderness of Northern Michigan, Rachel Brooke possesses a sound that harkens back to Nashville’s Golden Era and a sensibility that is decidedly 21st Century, requiring you to check conventional expectations at the door.

While her voice lands somewhere between Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, with an unpretentious authenticity that catches the ear like the truth that rings from an unexpected confession or untangled revelation; her songwriting covers the panoply of loss, redemption, and yearning with the charm of an architecture that is part classic country songwriting anchored in the tradition of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, mixed with sprinkles of post-millennium possibilities. As noted critic Robert Christgau puts it, her work shapeshifts as a “blurry reincarnation of what might happen if Leonard Cohen and Dolly Parton hooked up to form a bent Ameriana band in the Michigan north woods.”

Rachel’s lasted album of original material, titled The Loneliness in Me registered in the Top Ten of new releases on statewide streaming country radio charts when it was released back in October, and she will be appearing in the Great Lakes Bay Region on Saturday, May 8th at Bemo’s Bar in Bay City for a special free performance at 9:00 PM.

The 12 songs contained on this amazing release serve as meditations on the wild strangeness of loss: losing love and the familiar, as well as old selves, direction, and dreams, yet are never sentimental or nostalgic. And don’t be mistaken. This is not Quarantine music for the dire and despondent, as there is plenty of sly irony, humor, and wry phrasing go mitigate the darkness and let in the light of illumination.

When asked what her earliest recollections were about becoming exposed to music; and at what juncture and age did Rachel know that she wanted to pursue music as a career with a focus upon advancing your musical artistry through Country music, she references the influence of her father.   “My dad, Barry VanGuilder, was an extraordinary banjo player and guitarist. He played in many different bands while i was growing up, mostly playing bluegrass and country/folk,” she reflects.  “I took piano lessons as a child, and also played in the school concert and jazz band as a percussionist/drummer.  I think I just naturally fell into playing music, as I had an interest in learning guitar and also played drums in an all-girl punk band in my teens.”

“One day my dad asked me to play a show with him at a country fair, and that's where it all began for me. I cut my teeth on bluegrass and country music, so it just came naturally to me to play that style as I grew up.”

As for some of the pivotal artists that helped inform Rachel’s sensibilities about songwriting and musical expression, two legends loom large in Rachel’s lexicon. “I think Hank Williams, Sr. was a pivotal artist for me because of his ability to write a sad song and convey those same emotions. I also really loved The Beach Boys. They really helped me with learning and creating vocal melodies and experimenting with harmony and overall sound. I also really look to Johnny Cash for inspiration and expression. He was just always true to himself.”

In looking back at the arc of her career, which began back in 2008 with the release of Rachel’s first self-titled solo album, what does Rachel feel are the biggest evolutions and most significant transformations that have occurred with her sound that most informs her newest release, The Loneliness In Me.

“I never like to do the same thing twice,” she reflects,  “so I've had a lot of evolution. I think with The Loneliness In Me, I was a little more experimental. I still kept it country, but I let a lot of other influences into the music and allowed them to surface a little more.”

Apart from the carefully woven construction of her songs, which threads together influences ranging from ……….., a large part of the sonic appeal of her latest release has to do with the musicians Rachel assembled to accompany her in the studio - including pedal steel guitar legend Dave Feeny. What does Rachel feel the band she put together on this release brings to her overall sound?

“I  had a bunch of great artists on this record. Aaron Graham on drums is a friend of mine. He lives in Vancouver and just received his doctorate in percussion and really is so talented that I felt very lucky to have him on the record.   I also had some really close friends of mine perform on this latest release. Louis Osborn, Michael Cullen, Nick Carnes and Shawn Densteadt playing different guitar parts. They all have their own style, and I've sprinkled pieces of their work throughout the record.”

TJ Rankin played bass on the album, and he has played in my touring band before,” continues Rachel. “He's really a phenomenal Michigan bass player. I also had a few people from out of state on the record - Liz Sloan from Texas played the fiddle; Jarrod Champion (Detroit) on Piano, and my friend James Hunnicutt (Washington state) sang background vocals. And my brother, Andy VanGuilder really put the sound together. He is a studio wiz and did such an amazing job on the record. Andy also plays drums with me when I'm on the road. I definitely had a lot of help from my friends on this record. They are the best.”

While The Loneliness in Me was mixed at Jack White’s Third Man Mastering studio, was there a specific reason Rachel decided to record in Michigan instead of Nashville; what does Rachel feel contributes to the echoes of Classical Owen Bradley Country sound yet frames the sound with a contemporary edge, similar to the way Amy Winehouse would channel the classical artisty and sound of singers like Etta James, yet frame it within a contemporary sonic context.

“I recorded in Michigan because I've always recorded at AV Studios, in Traverse City. My brother, Andy VanGuilder has an amazing studio up there. I think the sound comes from the classic country writing/structure with the layers of everyone else involved. Like the collaboration is what makes it sound fresh. Different people playing somewhat different styles makes the record new sounding, but with a lot of classic country themes.”

As for the most challenging component involved with advancing her career at this juncture, Rachel points the roadblocks COVID has placed on the Sonic Highway. “Right now the biggest challenge is booking shows.  It's tough because we want to get on the road, but things are still somewhat up in the air due to Covid. It looks like things are gonna start working out soon, but right now that has been our biggest road block (literally). We are booking shows but hoping to do some bigger tours this fall.”

Finally, with such a uniquely constructed body of work and familiar yet distinctively original sound that is continually evolving, what does Rachel feel distinguishes her sound the most from other contemporary female artists working with the genre of Country and Americana music?

“I support all women in the music industry, and I don't like to make comparisons because I feel that it might cause separation when really, women need to stick together.   However, I do realize that we all do have differences in music and style, and that is ok, too. So, I guess that my song writing style, presence, and voice is what might set me apart from others.”

“I've got some new songs coming, and hopefully some more shows around the region,  so I hope to see old friends and new faces too.”

Style, presence, and voice.  When you think about it, these are the three defining factors for any artist; and her current rate of progression, Rachel is decidedly in a league of her own.


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