Q&A with Brooke Surgener
The singer-songwriter releases her debut full-length CD August 8 at the crooked i.
With several releases and years of playing shows under her belt, Erie native Brooke Surgener has begun to make her mark on the local music scene. I first saw her perform at Edinboro's Off Campus Activity Center three years ago alongside of Deadhorse and William James, and I was surprised by her talent.
The Folk/Pop artist's music may be far from punk, but her do-it-yourself attitude certainly is a reflection of that. She uses a wide variety of instruments, including guitar, banjo, and mandolin, to give her music a unique sound comparable to A Fine Frenzy and Ingrid Michaelson.
Surgener will be releasing her self-titled debut full-length CD on August 8 at the crooked i, and is celebrating this milestone by being accompanied on stage by special guests for the very first time.
Tom Shannon: How long have you been playing guitar and writing your own music?
Brooke Surgener: Since I was like 10 – that's really when I started. I've playing music since I was 2 or 3. My mom taught me the piano, and she used to be in a band. I always enjoyed it, but it wasn't until I was 10 years old and I heard this song on the radio by Michelle Branch. That "Everywhere" song, you know? And I was like, "Oh my God, she's playing guitar – that's so cool!" And I asked my mom to teach me how to do that. And she was like, "Yeah, learn it on piano", but I'm like "No, she plays guitar". So my mom got this guitar out of her closet and she figured out the chords on piano and then gave me this book with the guitar chords in it, and I just went for it. It was probably a few more years before I started writing my own music. It's not really until you have more life experiences that you start writing your own music.
TS: When was the first time you played a show – as in just strictly your own music in front of an audience?
BS: I was probably 15; it was at The Hangout. No wait, I was 14. My brother had I benefit show that I played. But my first actual real show I was 15 years old. It took me that long to actually start creating my own sound and stuff like that.
TS: When did you release your first recording?
BS: When I was 13 or 14 – those awkward teenage years; I recorded with some family friends. My mom knew someone they grew up with and had a studio. So I had stuff, but it was I was like, "I wouldn't listen to this", you know? When I started to get more serious, I bought a computer and I realized I have to do this myself, I have to figure it out myself. I went to college the year after high school, and I was in there for just a little bit, and I was like "I don't want to do this. I don't want to teach music, I don't like college." And it took me a while to get back to the place where I could really start writing music like I did when I was 15 – writing in my room and stuff like that. My dad built in our garage this room for me to record; it was pretty awesome. So I got some recording equipment and started getting some different instruments. And I just started learning stuff. And that's when it first started to sound like it was "mine", you know? I don't know what the first thing was I put out, but that's when I realized this is what I want to be recording and putting out.
TS: So you record your own music then? That's cool. My freshman year of college I was at YSU as a music recording major. But their program wasn't very hands-on, and I felt like I didn't learn anything, so I transferred to Edinboro.
BS: At Youngstown? I hate when they make it all about theory; it just ruins the whole art of it, you know? There's no freedom; they're telling you how should be writing, and it kind of just makes you not want to write.
TS: I saw the flier for one of your shows has a picture with you holding a banjo. What all instruments do you use?
BS: I play banjo, guitar, mandolin, piano, bass, violin, ukulele, and a bunch of different random things that aren't really instruments – I just kind of bang on them [laughs]. Because it's in a small room so I can make it sound alright, nobody has to know.
TS: I've been playing guitar since I was about 15 or 16, and one of my roommates had a banjo and I tried to pick it up, but it's just a completely different instrument.
BS: The song "Take Me Out", I originally recorded with mandolin, but then I was playing with someone, and they had a banjo and I just thought it sounded really good with it. And then World Of Music had one of those estate sales, and I went there and there was a banjo there for like $15, and it was the biggest piece of shit. Like the strings were broken, and it was just dirty and I'm just like "I'll get it, buy a couple things and fix it up" and that day I went home and learned some chords and recorded it that day.
TS: So you play and fix all these instruments, and record your own songs. Very DIY – that's awesome. What kinds of things do you write songs about? Is there any common theme throughout your music or do you write about a variety of topics?
BS: I mean, anyone's experiences with relationships give you something to write about. But I think more than anything, not really when you're depressed but just going through tough things, it brings out the best music. I like to write about, I don't know, I guess a lot of the things I write about are for me, in like a therapeutic way. Like if you're really upset about something, people try to get their mind off it. But the only way I can actually feel better, it could be like the saddest thing ever, but if I write about how sad it is and then I listen to it for some reason it makes me feel so good.
One of my favorite songs I've written is "Vagabond" and that's about how through your whole life, everyone's always like, "You can be whoever you want to be when you grow up." But then you get to a certain age and everyone's just like, "You need to be a doctor, you need to go to school." I'm so sick of everyone just thinking that a stable life is based off of money and that defines who you are, like your career defines who you are.
And we forget that happiness is created off of doing something that makes you happy. And I don't care if I never make it, or I never have a super nice house. But if I was playing music, I was obviously doing something that made me happy, so I did succeed. I really hate how the world is like that though.
TS: My band writes a lot about the same kind of thing. I think that's something pretty much any musician can relate to.
BS: Yeah. I used to serve for four years, and I'd always get the question, "So what are you going to school for?" and I'd always say, "I don't go to school." "Oh, why not?" "I play music, and write and all that." "Oh, well that's not a career."
I've had people straight up say that, "That's not a stable career; you need to go to school for nursing." Not that there's anything wrong with that, but just, why? Because you think that's acceptable? Why is anything 'acceptable'? It's just really, really stupid.
TS: That's a good point. Now back on a lighter note, because that got pretty serious there – you released your "Seasons" EP not too long ago. It had three songs on it, one for winter, summer, and autumn. Is there a reason you left spring out of there?
BS: [laughs] I actually wrote a song called "July," which I guess isn't spring, that's still summer, but I wanted to save it for the full-length album. I released seasons as a promo for the full-length, only featuring one song from the full-length "Winter's Window". I released that beginning of April . I wrote "Summer" a super long time ago, and I had recently wrote "Winter's Window," and I was like, "I really need to start putting more stuff out and getting ready for this CD." But I just didn't write anything for spring.
TS: My birthday is in spring, so I was a little offended by that. But it's not a big deal.
BS: I'm so sorry [laughs].
TS: So this upcoming CD release show is your first time playing with a full band. Who's all playing with you?
BS: The members of the band Spethz. Matt McManus, and Ian Maciak, and another one of them, I can't remember who. It's hard to find people who are reliable and stuff, and they've been really awesome as far as learning my songs. But yeah, I'm excited. It's much more fun to play with a band than by yourself. It sounds so much better too. I've always played by myself, but if I'm representing this CD that has a full band on it, I want people to know what's on it and what potential it has.
TS: So the CD is full band too? Are the guys in Spethz in the recordings?
BS: I record everything on the CD. There's one song that Jess Scutella (In The Day/The Routines) drums for. The rest have a cajón box drum, the one you sit on and smack. I have a lot with that and bongos. The rest of it as far as percussion is just tambourine and an egg shaker. It does so much for it though.
TS: After this CD release show, you're going on tour for about a week or so. Did you book that yourself?
BS: Yeah. I didn't realize how big of a pain that was.
TS: Yeah, I tried booking a tour for my band over the winter, and I gave up after a few weeks and had someone else do it. It's really hard to do. And we ended up getting screwed over by the guy, so it's probably better that you set it up yourself.
BS: It's so frustrating. It's ridiculous how they won't even respond to you. I got discouraged, but I said to myself, "Look, you've got to do this," so then I just sent out like a million more emails and I finally just started getting things back.
I mean, I probably won't be making money on this, but I don't really care about that. I just really want to go to places I've never been before and meet new people and try to put my music in places it would never be if I didn't go out of my way to put it there. I didn't realize how big of an investment it would be. I just spent $150 on stickers. I'm working two jobs like every single night just to pay for this. But it's gonna be worth it.
I'm not trying to be someone who's at all negative and like, "Oh, it's so hard for me because I'm a girl," but really no one has like - I've tried out for bands before and asked to try out for bands and they just say, "No". And I know I'm a good musician, and I know I can take this seriously, but no one's giving me a shot. It was a big pity-party for a little bit, but then I was like, "This is what you want to do, do it." So I got a full-time job and just did it. So yeah, it's better to just do it all by yourself. It would be much cheaper if I could just do this tour solo as well, but I rented a van and that's gonna cost a lot.
TS: So the members of Spethz are touring with you?
BS: Yeah, they're playing my music. They're being really awesome, as far as taking time off for me. They're good people. Matt and I are gonna switch instruments and stuff like that because I really want to show how I can play pretty much anything. I think it's more fun to play more thing, because my music is simple, but I've heard before that simple is better, as long as it's unique and memorable.
TS: Will this tour be your first time playing outside of Erie?
BS: I haven't played very many places. I've done competitions where I've played out of Erie. But this is my first time doing anything like this. I specifically wanted to go to Nashville, Tenn. so I kind of just made a route that went to Nashville and then back home.
TS: What other goals do you have – for this tour, or as a musician in general?
BS: Well, I guess when I listen to artists, I remember songs that are catchy and meaningful, and of course talent and stuff like that. But I like stuff that I can put my own personal situations into. Like if you're going through something and you're just like, "I need to listen to a song think understands how I feel." But that would be the best if someone wanted to listen to something for a certain situation and they find one of my songs and say, "Wow, this is saying exactly how I feel." That would be really satisfying. I don't know if anyone does that with my songs, but it's a goal at least.
Tommy Shannon can be contacted at tShannon@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @txkx.