American Idol alum Brooke White joins us at Longevity Coffee in Thousand Oaks, CA to discuss her recently released ‘California Country’ album Calico, her experience on a famed reality singing competition, and making her to balance motherhood with her musical aspirations.
So you’re riding the highs of your recently released album Calico, wanted to say congratulations!
Brooke White: Thank you!
For those who have yet to discover how amazing it is, would you like to share a little bit about the lyrical themes and instrumental elements that you decided to include?
Brooke: Absolutely! So the name of the record is Calico, which it is a truncated word for ‘California Country,’ and it’s really about, I don’t know, almost ten years ago that I had started working on a country record. This is something that I knew I was going to do for a long time, it was just a matter of where and when. Originally, I was taking trips to Nashville and I was writing songs there. I think in my mind, I always thought that if I was going to make a country record, the proper thing to do is to go to Nashville. However, here we are, fast-forward to now, a lot of things happened, and the timing just wasn’t right to go to Nashville. I have two kids, two little kids, and my roots are here in L.A. I’ve been here for almost sixteen years now, and I have a life here. I realized at this phase of my life, I wasn’t just going to pick up and move or go to Nashville to make this record, and I was like, ‘You need to stay here and make the record here.’ When I started working with my producers, who are friends of mine that I have worked previously with on Jack and White projects, we got together in their studio in Echo Park and that’s where this whole concept for this ‘California Country’ thing came into play. It really influenced the overall direction and sound. The lyrics really point to California in a lot of ways, and reference “…The Mamas and the Papas on the radio/I knew someday I was gonna go…” which is from the song “Pioneer.” I grew up in Arizona, and I knew I was going to come here. I’ve been extremely inspired and influenced by the energy of California, and how you can come here as an artist, like, where I say “…there ain’t no rules and anything goes in Calico…” I’m referring to this kind of very free atmosphere to create in. You can really try to make anything you want here, and I think because we’re not in Nashville where country is made, there’s less pressure here. We’re in a place where it’s like, ‘Okay, you want to make a country record here, what does that sound like? What does that look like?’ And so, basically that whole concept of Calico is the freedom to take all of these elements from California and all the artists that have come out of here, and bringing all of those elements together to find this kind of ‘California Country,’ this “…we can all get together down in Calico…” thing.
And which song would you say was your favorite to write and then record, if you have two separate songs for those?
Brooke: That’s a great question. I have to say that “Calico” is really a strong favorite of mine. It wasn’t the first song we wrote, it was the fourth I think, but I have to put it at the top because I felt like it really spoke to my personal story, and kind of how I ended up making this record here. So that one was really fun, I actually started that in my house and finished it with the guys in their place. It’s really difficult to choose a favorite. It’s like a favorite kid, you know. *laughs* But I mean, you definitely have different favorites, and honestly, they’ve changed. Like, what was my favorite when we started until now, it’s gone through so many different favorites for different reasons. I hate that answer, *laughs* but I don’t. They would say “Calico” is a strong favorite. I loved the last song “Movies” as well, in which that was the first song we wrote for this record. I think the reason I really like that is there’s just this understated quality about it, but it’s also kind of unique and quirky in the structure of how we wrote it at the time. When we first started, we really wanted to be free and experimental with the structure of the songwriting and how we put these songs together, so it kind of goes up in these other sections and then the bridge kind of goes upbeat for a second, and then I had this big harmonious ending. I’m really into harmonies. I grew up listening to a lot of The Beach Boys and The Carpenters and The Beatles, just any music that was heavily harmonized, so I think that was my moment to kind of give an ode to those types of songs. I love “Pioneer” also. It’s very narrative driven. “Weigh Me Down” is a really cool song. It’s very modern, and I really dive into my relationship with fear. It’s kinda like a breakup song with fear. We’re all afraid of a lot, and fear can really hold us back. For me, I realized that so many times I just haven’t made that progress or really lived up to my potential and the things I really wanted to because of fear, and it literally weighs you down. So that one I think is really important to me.
How would you say that the songwriting and recording process was similar or different than that of your past work?
Brooke: I would say it was pretty different this time around because of writing with Chris [Qualls] and Eric [Straube], they’re very pop driven guys. For me in the past, I would start on the piano or the guitar. We actually didn’t play any piano, so that’s one giant difference. No piano on this record. *laughs* It took me a while to accept that that was happening, but I could see that it just didn’t feel right, like, I could tell the piano was the wrong tone. It was too easy to go back to what I did before, and the idea for me this time was to literally push myself outside of that comfort zone and evolve beyond that.
It was a great challenge for you!
Brooke: Yes! It was an amazing challenge! And these guys write together every day, 365 days a year, so for me to kind of step into their world was crazy. I wanted to do that because I wanted to feel challenged. I wanted to feel like I had to it, you know? I think whenever you’re working with people that are better than you or that are more proficient and do it more regularly, it’s an opportunity for me to come in and be like, ‘Ok, I got to come in here with my A game and really push myself.’ I loved that, but they definitely started right out the gate with the beats. We would start with the beat, we’d bring out the guitars, and it was all happening simultaneously that by the end of the day there was a demo. That didn’t happen every time, but in most situations, we had already started hammering out production from day one on each song. So that was very different.
I can imagine! So if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Brooke: Gosh, the first one is, and you probably know this too, would be John Mayer. Well, let’s be honest, it would probably be his tour that I’d be on. *laughs* I mean, he’s a singer-songwriter, but if you listen to “Born and Raised” or “Shadow Days,” those were kind of like his more country-ish moments as an artist where he kind of has those roots kind of vibes going on. But yeah, John Mayer obviously would be in there, and then Jenny Lewis would be cool too. I could see her fitting well. Hmm, who else would I put on tour? I’m trying to think, like, if I’d want it to be more of a ‘California’ thing. I love Band of Horses. They’re a pretty cool band, but I also like Old Dominion, which is a band out of Nashville that’s on country radio. Ideally, I think we’d find three great acts out of L.A. and we’d call it ‘The Calico Tour.’
There’s so many artists here. You definitely will not have an issue finding tour mates! *laughs*
Brooke: Yes! There are so many! There are tons of great ones! Gosh, who did I just recently see? Alisan Porter, she’s here in L.A., she won The Voice, and she’s my friend, so we’d definitely put her on the tour! That would be a good one!
Yeah! And speaking of The Voice and singing competitions. You were on the seventh season of American Idol.
Brooke: That’s correct.
My favorite season!
Brooke: Oh my gosh really!? Thank you! It was a good one!
Yeah! How did the opportunity come about and what was your experience like on the show?
Brooke: Well, I never saw myself as an American Idol contestant, like, I didn’t see myself as that caliber of a singer. I was looking at it as singer’s competition, and I always considered myself more of a singer-songwriter, like, needing to play and sing and write. I feel like having all those elements was kind of important as an artist, and so, I just didn’t know if I could hack it as a singer, to be quite honest. But when the auditions were happening, I wasn’t even thinking about it, and by the time it kind of came into play, I had just completed this radio contest for Star FM. I didn’t win, but I got down to the end, and at that point I was thinking of maybe calling it quits. I tried to play around town, and I had made a record called Songs from the Attic. Independently, I think we did what we could, and so I felt like maybe it wasn’t going to happen. So American Idol, that came into play, like, within twenty-four hours. I discovered there was one final audition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, so we emptied out our savings, bought a red eye ticket, and within twenty-four hours, I was in Philadelphia and I waited twenty-one hours for my first audition. And if anybody wants to know, that was legit. I wasn’t handpicked and brought out there. I waited in line, I went through four auditions to get my ticket to Hollywood, and it was absolutely a life changing experience. I could have never dreamed that I was going to make it as far as I did, and I felt really thankful that that year they incorporated instruments. That was really I think the reason why it went as well for me as it did, so I’m just thankful for the timing that I was on that show.
It’s so awesome to see the universe align. Like you said, you weren’t even really thinking about it, and it just all worked out great!
Brooke: Yeah! I reference this in the song “Calico.” The second verse is, “…I never planned to be on television, but I got a golden ticket out to Hollywood every week/Good people made the time to listen/ I felt like they believed in me more than I ever could…” and that’s just so true. I didn’t believe I was American Idol worthy. I wasn’t planning on it, but I got there, I got the ticket, and it was the support of people that pushed me I think as far as I went. I really was super thankful that people believed me in like over and over again. I always questioned, like, ‘What am I doing here?’ I’d sit and listen to soundcheck with everybody, and my friends were just so talented, such good singers, and I’m like, ‘How did I get here?’ And really, people did believe in me, and they just kept voting and I made it as far as I did. It changed my life.
Yeah! Would you say that the show brought forth opportunities in your career that might not have happened?
Brooke: One hundred percent, zero questions asked. I think when you’re trying to make it in the music business, you just have no point of reference of what it’s gonna take to get there. I always say that American Idol was like a boot camp for rock stars, like, let’s pretend like the music business is Mount Everest and American Idol takes you to the top of that mountain. They take you on in a helicopter to the top, they show you it, you’re up there for a little bit, you see that it exists, and when it’s over, they drop you back down at base camp with a backpack and spiky shoes and now it’s your turn to climb back up that mountain. What I like to say is before that point, I wasn’t even close to base camp. I don’t even know how far from base camp I was to begin with. So without a doubt, it helped. And obviously, people make it in the business without doing these shows, but a lot of us on the show had already been working for years and years trying to do something, so we understood how hard it was and we understood what an incredible opportunity it was to have that kind of exposure. Especially then, it was like forty million viewership. It was enormous! But yeah, we got to see that top and we got to see if we really wanted it, and then we came back down and we were at base camp, which is still full of opportunities. Like I said, you got that backpack full of like, ‘Alright, here’s what we’re giving you. Now you take it, and you climb back up.’ And so many things came out of it. I did a couple of made for TV movies, I’ve been on tour, I started a YouTube channel, I’ve done just so many things. I think the only thing that I wish we had back then was social media like we do now, which makes me feel old saying. *laughs* We didn’t accumulate these big followings or we’re on the show. We didn’t have Instagram or Twitter, we had MySpace, but MySpace was frozen while we were on the show, they froze it. So I think that’s the thing that nowadays I’d say contestants that go on is like, ‘What you’re getting out of this is the experience and this fanbase that you take along with you. And then you just keep them, and you just honor them, and you serve them, and keep giving them music.’
And speaking of social media, I mean, it’s pretty much the most prominent form of marketing right now whether we like to accept it or not.
Brooke: Absolutely! We all know it’s a little bit of a love/hate. *laughs*
Yeah. *laughs* Do you think that it’s made it easier or harder for artists to make a name for themselves nowadays?
Brooke: Both, easier and harder. Easier because everyone can do it. Harder because everyone can do it. *both laugh* I think the pure saturation of so many people out there has just created so much for people that it’s a lot for people and it’s hard to reach people. It’s hard to ask people to listen and swipe up to support when they’re getting it from like a billion other places. And we’re not just competing with other music, we’re competing with Netflix and social media and gaming. There’s just so many options for people now, and I think that is a lot of the reasons why it is becoming increasingly more difficult to stand out, because now anybody can and we all do. It’s amazing because we all do have the power with this platform, and that’s not a complaint, like really. If you can utilize it in the best way that you can as a platform, then I think we’re pretty lucky to have it. But because of that, we all have equal access to that, which just makes it harder to stand out.
And do you feel that social media also kind of adds on pressure to constantly have something to post about to portray yourself in certain ways?
Brooke: Every single day. It never stops. I mean, I wish I could say I was ahead of the curve and have this whole batch on content calendar, but that’s just not how I’ve done things. I really want to be as authentic and honest, and create from a place of inspiration as opposed to like this, calculated is a strong word, but like, you know what I mean. I’ve just always wanted to come at it from a place of being genuine, and I think it’s very difficult to do every day. It’s hard to keep it fresh, and it’s hard to know what to do next, and again, how to keep people’s attention and how to honor people’s time and keep them around for the long haul. It is so stressful. I mean, literally, every single day you wake up and you’re like *gasp* I’m independent, so this is what I have to promote, and I’m thankful for people like you who give me that extra push. But yes, it’s very hard. There’s a lot of pressure. It’s very stressful.
I mean, your audience, or I guess anybody’s audience really, they want to see the real you.
Brooke: They do! They want it, but it’s also weird that we’ve become so accessible. Just the day in and day out communication with people, which let me just say, I have very nice people who I’m in contact with,. I’m very lucky because there’s some real meanies out there. I feel like it gets really gnarly out there, and I’m thankful that I do have such a kind community, but I’ll just be honest, like the just sheer volume of communication and keeping up with that because of the accessibility that we have is another layer of craziness. It’s a lot of work. I don’t know if it’s good that were this accessible anymore, you know? I think it’s good and it’s not. I mean, to have any liaison where we’re just direct with our fans, there’s something nice about that. There’s pros and cons, a lot of pros though. I’m thankful for the relationship I have with my fans and my community, and that people stick around after all these years, regardless of where they found me.
So as a female musician, do you feel that women in the music industry need to portray themselves in certain ways in order to be successful?
Brooke: Yeah. I definitely think it’s something we think about all the time as women, and I think there was a time where we felt more of a pressure to oversexualize ourselves in our image. I think one thing that we realized on American Idol that happened for years was that girls weren’t winning. That’s not who people were voting for. And when you think about the voting audience, I don’t have the demo stats right in front of me, but we’re pretty sure that the vast majority of voters are girls, are females.
I think in terms of getting support for your music, it’s like, do women support women? And there are those out there who break through, like Taylor Swift, you know, she’s one of those girls that girls like. But it’s like, if you’re not like a Harry Styles, or like a One Direction, where there’s this appeal of being a guy and attracting that female audience that’s just crazy about them and follows them around and go crazy. I don’t think women have that type of fan. We don’t have the same type of thing, and so I think there has been a pressure for women to appeal to the male base by using their body and their sexuality. I see that happening less now, which I think is great. I don’t think that it’s easy for us. I think it’s still really hard, even in country music. I think there’s a deficit. There’s definitely less women out there in comparison to men, and I’m a big fan of a lot of men out there, so I’m not about to bash on them. It’s just difficult. It’s very difficult to get a foot in the door as a female, and it’s been this way for a long time. It’s been a long wait, but I think at the very least that the oversexualization of women in all genres of music, we’re seeing a turnaround from that. I’m not saying it’s not still happening. I just think that there’s less pressure and there is more in the message that girls are more than their body or how hot they look, and really pushing for more substance and more about who we are and what our stories are as opposed to what our body looks like. That excites me. But I mean, does it show up in terms of, like, record sales and support, or streams? At the end of the day, we just to make great music and write good songs. We gotta stay in the game that way, and I try to hyper focus on things like that. I feel like the best thing you could do is just go out with great songs, really connect with your people, stay strong in your message, and not deviate or feel the pressure to go a different way.
Yeah. And the bands that really matter are going to find you in that style of music.
Brooke: Right?! Absolutely! The style, the message, just being consistent with that. And I mean, no one’s perfect. We’re all trying to figure this out. I do have empathy for all artists out there that are just doing the best they can with however they know how. We all have choices that we get to make for ourselves and what we want to do, and that’s great. I’m thankful for choices.
Yeah! And kind of going into your experience with Jack and White, you were co-banding with a male artist, and I mean, you rarely see that kind of partnership. You don’t even really see all female bands outside of a pop group kind of thing.
Brooke: Right, right.
Do you think that there’s any specific reasons why women feel more comfortable in a solo setting as opposed to a group or a duo?
Brooke: I think we go through we go through seasons in music where it just evolves. It’s interesting. I hadn’t really thought about that. Like, why is there less of those male-female, mixed band settings or situations? There are a few like Colbie Caillat, she started a band called Gone West with her partner and then Jason Reeves and his wife. I love it because it reminds me of Fleetwood Mac, and it just reminds me of those times where we did have the thing of men and women together to create some really powerful things. That’s part of the reason I love working with Jack [Matranga]. I loved our differences and making them really cohesive and complementary, and just creating music together from that angle. But like, why that doesn’t happen as often I don’t know. Maybe the pendulum swinging really far. I think we’ll see it come back around though. I think it’s out there. It’s just not what’s happening right now. It’s more about girl power and women trying to exhibit strength and step up. That’s just me analyzing it from a question standpoint, that doesn’t mean it’s exactly what’s happening, but maybe that’s part of it.
Absolutely! For example, like, I definitely feel that there’s been a growth in the amount of women in the rap scene, which has been so rare until now. It’s so great! Kind of like you were saying, there’s been a deficit from representation within the genres, so anytime there’s more women rising up into these opportunities, I think it’s a win all around.
Brooke: Definitely! And essentially, I’m happy about it. But does that mean that men and women can’t, like, work together in an artistic sense and create musical things? I think there’s something really powerful there too. It’s just complicated, you know?
And speaking of complicated, how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Brooke: *laughs* Oh, balance. I just think it’s not a thing, like, it’s not a real thing. In my mind, it’s like a unicorn.
It’s just a word from the Webster’s dictionary. *both laugh*
Brooke: Yeah! It’s just a word! But you know what? It’s something to strive for and something to be aware of. I have children and I do music, and they’re both really important to me. I have a lot of passion for being a mother, and I have a lot of passion for making music, so neither of them really feel like side projects. They’re both important. But with being a mom, they do take priority for me because they’re only little for so long. I have this inner instinct to protect them and do everything I can to make sure that they have the best life they can have, and that they don’t suffer at the hands of my aspirations and my passion for music. I’m not going to lie, it’s super hard. I’m not perfect at it. I’m really far from perfect at it. But I think, like I said, making the decision to make the record here as opposed to go to Nashville was a decision that allowed me to both be very present in my motherhood while still making music. I was walking my daughter to kindergarten every day, and I was nursing my son, and then I was going to the studio, and then I’d come home and tuck them in bed. I was doing both, and both are hard and both are demanding. So do I think that balance is achievable? I think there’s areas of balance that are achievable, or maybe states of mind or phases, but there’s some times where they’re just really off kilter in both directions. But that’s life. I’m trying to beat myself up less about that, but to just be mindful, particularly when it comes to my kids. I don’t ever want them to suffer because of ‘Mommy’s big dreams,’ but I also want them to value my dreams. I want them to value that dreams are important, my dreams are important to me, and their dreams are important to me. I am doing both things. Do I think I’m trying to have it all? Maybe I do. Do I think I can? No, I think it’s more about the times and seasons, and the ebb and flow in one direction or the other. But I am thankful that I have a husband who is very supportive. When I made this record, it was a ‘family project’ in terms of it being a family sacrifice, so I just feel really thankful to have my family, my children and my husband who are such troupers. Yeah, my kids are not gonna have a totally traditional mom. They just won’t, but I think that’s ok.
It’s the modern era where supermoms exist!
Brooke: Yeah! It is!
If you could give your younger self some advice in regards to what you’ve experienced in music or in life, what advice would you give her?
Brooke: I think the advice I would say is that there’s no ‘perfect’ thing. Don’t think you’re gonna find something better. I remember thinking I wanted a major record deal really bad. That’s what you strive for, is for someone to take you seriously enough to take you the distance and do it for real. I really wanted that. And then I was on American Idol, and I got off the show, and I was very close to that. I thought that was gonna happen, I was so close, and then things took a quick turn, and I made the decision to do it independently. I realized that what I got as an independent was to be more free, to have more autonomy, and make more of my own decisions, but have less support, financially and with a team. There’s always some sort of trade off, like, I had friends with major labels and they were miserable because they didn’t have control or they didn’t feel like this person at the label cared about them enough to work as hard as they wanted to. So it’s like, over time I’ve just realized that nothing’s perfect. It’ll never be perfect. Don’t ever think you’re going to get to this certain place and then you’re set, like you’re going to be happy and all your dreams come true. It’s a journey, and what you’re there for is not a perfect experience. But to have experience, it really involves both the ups and the downs, the heartbreaks, the ‘no’-s, the rejections and the struggles, as well as the wins, even though sometimes those wins are quick and fast. You just got to hang on to them, and I think I would tell myself to really appreciate everything, and to just be present in it all, and recognize that success is sort of a mirage, like, what you think it’s going to be and if you think you’re getting close to it. There’s a chance you’re already there and are successful. And with ‘success, like, what does that even mean? Is it something that you’re gonna keep redefining throughout your life? For me, I think success is doing what I’m doing, which is having a family, being a mother, having a personal life that has meaning and connection while also being a creator. At the end of all this, what I really love is making music. I love to make music, and of course, what we want is to share it with as many people as we can. I’m just grateful for anyone who listens to it. Even if it’s just one person in their bedroom who needed to hear it that day, and it saves them or helps them feel less alone, or even just gets them to work on their commute, I’m thankful for that. So yeah, I would just tell my younger self, ‘Don’t worry. There’s no ‘perfect’ thing. Enjoy it now.’
And to end us off, apart from continuing the excitement of Calico, what other big exciting things should we be expecting?
Brooke: Well, I’m going to be straight up with you. I don’t know yet. *laughs* This has been such a big job, like, a big goal to create this record, and I can’t believe it’s done. I can’t believe it’s already out. It felt like it was gonna be so far away and now we’re here. I definitely would like to take these songs on the road for a little bit, and I’m working that out, trying to figure out how I can get to people. And then beyond that, I don’t know. *laughs* I mean, me and Jack might might create another EP, but right now, I’m trying to be in the moment. You make this body of work, and you just hope that you can promote it as long as you can. You hope it’s not like up and gone in a month, or even less with the internet these days, you know? It’s hard to really stretch it out. But yeah, I just want to enjoy the music, and I want to get it out to as many people as possible.
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