Issue #184: Originator by Brooke Waggoner

November 5, 2019

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Originator by Brooke Waggoner
Released On March 5, 2013
Released By Swoon Moon Music

This Week’s Selection Chosen By Doug Nunnally

I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Brooke Waggoner writes a song.

Okay, sure, if we’re going to be honest here, we’d all like to be flies on the wall to witness greatness at work. But truly, more than any other artist in recent memory, Waggoner’s talent and imagination captivates me, confounds me. She makes me wonder just how she came across this harmony choice, that paused chord change, or the endless amount of dramatic and remarkable melodies found on Originator.

Orchestral rock at its finest, this record is intricate and lavish, something’s that surprising even when you learn about her extensive training in classic music as well as her time as a session musician for the likes of Jack White. Waggoner possesses ethereal skill here, able to take on a rugged corporeal form at the drop of a dime (“Rumble“) or dissipate and flutter through a wispy ballad (“Squint“). She’s able to put together tracks that could fill a stadium with their decibel power, but also enrich a concert hall with madrigal harmonies that join hand-in-hand with symphonic melodies. The end result is a record that dazzles and incites, offering rhythmic tumult alongside a much-welcomed surplus of rhapsodic splendor.

And we should really start with that splendor, arrangements that are so richly crafted that they could be broken down into several separate songs that would be spectacular all on their own. “Shiftshape” plays out like an opening symphony, introducing you into her songwriting world by breaking down any preconceived notion of what orchestral rock can or should be. “Squint” blurs the line more with skittish, spastic lines that hover while chasing a wispy musical idea, never really touching down on the ground but resonating all the same. And then there’s “Welspryng,” a simple piano composition that’s transformed into a stunning work of art. Of the dozens upon dozens of head-turning moments on this record, it’s that delayed chord change which rushes in after a lingering “I know…” lyric that stands out to me, stopping me dead in my tracks and showing that even stripped down to her basics, Waggoner can still find a way to amaze and surprise.

For relying so much on ornate and delicate arrangements though, as well as being directed so much by the piano, the thumping drive of Originator seems wonderfully peculiar. “Rumble” is magnificently built on a quiet-loud dynamic shift that moves Pixies’ patented formula into a symphonic sense, and it’s the drums that really accentuate every bit of the song with the melody weaving its way through the space between each resounding pound. “Ink Slinger” isn’t as clamorous, but the drums breathe life into the swinging composition allowing it to sashay along with a playground of vocal and instrumental melodies. And then there’s “Perish,” an astutely sequenced track that uses the rhythm to inject a sense of urgency into an album that could otherwise be dismissed as floating through the air, considering the tempo and texture. It gives the album a real sense of performance, as if you’re experiencing sonic movements throughout as opposed to track 1, track 2, et al. That’s not to dive into the rabbit hole of Originator being a concept album, but more that the record can give you a condensed version of a night out at your local philharmonic, with double the thrills and triple the chills.

I’m deeply intrigued by the instrument choices Waggoner makes on this record as well. Her classical background should make that unsurprising, but this isn’t token orchestration that you typically find when musicians look to add depth and majesty to pop songs. Sure, she uses trumpets and trombones, but there’s also a tuba that helps compliment the heavy low-end of some songs, as well as a hidden 4th brass instrument that blends into the mix, one with a rich timbre that either points to a euphonium or mellophone. There’s a woodwind at play, providing gorgeous, unforgettable color to “From The Nest,” but she again goes against the grain by choosing a bass clarinet, and that canny choice makes the song all the more better. And then strings, a fixture of any type of orchestral pop music dating back to “Eleanor Rigby,” pop up, but not in your standard solo violin or quartet formation. Instead, a harp joins the proceedings, aligning more with the piano in sound so as to provide a pronounced thread between each track.

Some instrumental choices pop up out of nowhere as well, like the harpsichord bridge on “Ink Slinger” that makes the jaunty track even more dizzying when it abruptly chimes in. The vocal harmonies demand mentioning as well, like the rousing climax of “Shiftshape,” the ethereal madrigals of “From The Nest,” the relaxing choral outro of “Perish,” and the gentle duet of closer “To Love.” As if that all wasn’t enough, there’s even field recordings scurrying about, another intriguing musical choice considering the listener is greeted to them directly after the sound of horns tuning up on the opening track, all before Waggonner even hums a note or says a word.

And despite the record being so resplendent in tone and harmony, the lyrics earn their place at the forefront of many songs. On “Rumble,” they deftly match the galvanizing anthem (“In the moments, right you must strike / It’s not a test, it is a fight”) while “Welspryng” offers empowering words in a more tender and introspective manner (“I know I’ll never love you like the lamb I was”). But Waggoner is also able to have a lot of fun here too, with little vocal fills and word skips (“Honestly oh me oh my / I feel my nerve growing high” from “Ink Slinger”) that offer up brevity on a record that towers in scope. And then there are songs like “To Love,” which are so candidly beautiful (“Be kind, not cruel / Inside lives a fugue / Love locked, unattended to”) that they strip away the grandiosity of the record and reveal the genuine soul that fuels it.

And perhaps that’s the greatest achievement of Orginator: Waggoner composes musical skyscrapers here, ones that could easily intimidate and alienate a listener searching for personal connection, and yet you can still her heart and soul within each song. Even as bits of the record feel like an arcane fairy tale or abstract rumination, you can still see Waggoner as clear as day, shining through brighter than even her own beaming, brilliant songs, which is the true mark of an amazing musician by any metric.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart

Spectral musical beauty taking the form of gripping orchestral rock music, in every sense of the phrase.

It took more than a few spins to figure it out. It began to bother me sometime during the fourth play-through. I just couldn’t put my finger on why Originator felt so familiar despite my not having ever heard it, or even of it. (I’m actually glad I had an extra seven days, because it may not have occurred to me in time.) It’s the ethereal vibe of the album. It’s the lovely piano-based songwriting, and it’s Brooke Waggoner’s specter-like voice. The arrangements are pillow-y, with every instrument carefully placed in every song. It’s like velvet — looking at you, “Welspryng.” And the reason all of this feels familiar is that there’s a distance, a longing to the proceedings. It feels like there’s a constant search for something, and it’s something you might never reach. It’s like running towards the horizon in the hopes that you actually reach it and touch it. Wouldn’t it be grand to touch a sunrise, or just see one up close, that’s as orange as the most beautiful autumn leaf? You might burn your corneas out, but it’s probably worth it, right? I struggled for days to come up with a term for what I’m trying to describe here. And then finally: halcyon future. It’s the idea that you can run forever in one direction towards something and never (quite) reach it, but you are soothed or comforted anyway. It’s comfort that comes from the journey, not the destination. You accept that which you cannot change and forge ahead regardless. In other words, it’s life.

Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That

Have y’all been following the whole #GiveCredit thing? All those neatly formatted liner notes that flooded Instagram last week? It’s an initiative launched by the Recording Academy with the aim of making the contributions of musicians and sound engineers more visible. As someone who’s obsessed with liner notes, I’m here for it. Had #GiveCredit been launched in 2012, Brooke Waggoner might have been on my radar sooner, given her contributions to Jack White’s Blunderbuss and Lazaretto albums. (I actually saw White on the 2012 tour Waggoner was part of, but the Charlottesville show I went to featured only the all-male backing band, if memory serves, so I missed out on seeing the lineup that had Waggoner on keys and Originator contributor Bryn Davies on bass.) Paying close attention to album credits is an excellent way to move artists from the periphery of your listening to the center, and it would have been so fun to follow the 2013 release of Originator in real time. It’s a tremendous artistic statement, with big, boldly orchestrated moments that knock your socks off (the stops and starts that open “Rumble,” for example) alongside intricately designed details that stick out in your memory (like the ascendant piano notes at the end of “Welspryng“). Yet the overall sound is what I’ve fallen most deeply for. The combination of rich instrumental layering and intimacy brings to mind {Awayland}, an album released around the same time by Irish singer-songwriter Conor O’Brien under the name Villagers. In both cases, the grandness of the music is balanced by vocals that seem like they’re being sung from just a few inches away. There’s a moment near the start of “Squint” when Waggoner’s singing is barely at the level of a whisper, blurring the line between a breath and a musical tone, and it’s absolutely gripping. Always impressive when quiet elements speak so loudly. Amazing vocal control by Waggoner, and hats off to Originator producer, recording engineer, and mixing engineer Chad Howat. (#GiveCredit, y’all.)

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds

There are a couple things that stand out as great to me with this record. First, I often say that if a record is unclassifiable, then you’re probably listening to something groundbreaking, and Originator is one of those records. Turns out it’s aptly titled as well! The album, at times, sounds kind of folk-ish, but then others it sounds like an ambient massage of the senses. The emotional weight of the record is so consistently imposing that halfway through I wondered if it were a soundtrack/score. And then there’s the final third of the record. In the past on OYR, I’ve also reveled in the skill of producers to sequence an album. To purposefully bring the listening audience to a musical climax as if it were a motion picture. I can barely express the beauty of the four song run that is Originator‘s closing movement. The progression from “Waterlogged” to “Canticle” to “Mixin’ With The Birdies” to the closer “To Love” is absolutely stunning. It’s one of those rare four song runs that ultimately feels more like one piece with four movements as opposed to four separate tracks. Originator is a highly enjoyable project, taking us through a litany of emotions while not losing focus. It’s a record that’s somehow relaxing and energizing at the same time. It’s like a musical Vitamin-B shot.

Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator

Click here to watch a iridescent live performance of “Welspryng.”

Deftly capturing the charming elegance of Waggoner’s talent.

One look at the cover of Brooke Waggoner’s Originator and you get a pretty darn good idea of what its going to sound like — which is an impressive bit of graphic design and photography. I expected to hear something pretty and floridly arranged: And it was so. Many songs feature multiple keyboards, rococo melodies, and even among moments of darkness there is always beauty. I expected to hear something quirky, maybe along the lines of folky prog-rock: And it was so. There’s a touch of Renaissance, the classically informed prog-folk band from the ’70s to Waggoner’s work, which brings classical structures (she’s got the training!) to arty songs without a touch of blues influence. I expected to hear deeply personal songs driven by a singular vision: And it was so. Originator feels like a solo album in the truest sense — if I hadn’t checked the credits on Discogs, I’m not sure I would of thought anyone else was even involved. For more of a collaborative sounding take on these songs, I recommend a listen to her other 2013 album, Sing To Me: Live In Boston, which has many of the songs from Originator. I also admit that the cover gave me vibes of self-importance, that title for one thing (originator of what, exactly?), and the unnerving stare of her facial expression. Unfortunately, that is also slightly so. A strong song like “Shiftshape” is followed up by the clangorous bombast of “Rumble” and you begin to wonder about Waggoner’s goals, concerns quickly quelled by the loveliness that is “From The Nest.” “Ink Slinger” is also worrying, sounding puffed up beyond its station. Fortunately, that’s the last such moment on the album. One thing that did surprise me was that she worked with Jack White as a keyboard player on a couple of his solo albums and tours — that’s her pounding the ivories on the performance of “Love Interruption” at the 2012 Grammys. She obviously has talent and artistic ambition to burn, so the final surprise, that she has mostly retreated from the music business, raising her children and teaching music at a small university, is somewhat disappointing. But as I always say, “Live your life, find your joy,” and that’s what I hope she is doing. After all, she has no real obligation to anyone else but herself and her family. But since she did turn outward for a number of years, fans of complex, baroque art-pop will find much to absorb them Waggoner’s music. Give Originator a try and see if you agree.

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore

There’s something mystical about the cover of Brooke Waggoner’s Originator that sets the stage for this marvelous release perfectly. Calming and beautiful, there’s something hauntingly beautiful about the smoothness of Brooke’s vocals throughout this album. Reading up a bit about Brooke, it’s no surprise that she comes from a musical background and that she grew up in New Orleans before moving to Nashville. You can hear bits and pieces of all of these influences throughout this album which creates a very one of a kind sound. You can’t quite call her folk, country, or indie-pop, but you could describe her music as all of the above. Above all else, it’s Brooke’s voice that is highlighted throughout Originator. The beautiful piano parts throughout the album are just the icing on the cake and although I’m a pianist myself and tend to find myself focusing more on piano parts more than anything else, Brooke’s voice kept me captivated. I’m not one for calm music. Shredding guitars and blast beats reign supreme in my household for the most part, but I absolutely could see myself turning Brooke Waggoner on for a cozy night in, where it’s just me, the cats, and my computer to work. The amount of calm that comes over you when listening to this brilliant musician cannot be put into words and therefor, my words will do nothing when it comes to trying to convey the atmosphere that Brooke’s music brings to the table. All I can say is that if you are looking for a warm friend on a chilly winter night in the upcoming months, listen to Originator or any other work by Brooke Waggoner!

Langen Goldstien (@girlatrockshows)
Queen Of Everything Loud & Nostalgic

That a record like this rocks as much as it soothes goes to show how educated & gifted Waggoner truly is.

There’s something very otherworldly about this music, in a sort of musical theatre-y kind of way — though the album never fully commits to that genre. That description was probably one that will only make sense to me based on the way that I conceptualize music, but I suppose that the “otherworldly” and the “musical theatre-y” could have some inherent connection. I have to give it up to whoever engineered this project. The tracks are expertly recorded, and the production keeps things interesting at every turn. Great songwriting makes production much easier, so full credit to the artist for this piece of work. As a guitar player, it’s nice to be reminded of the potential for piano driven music. Guitars are hardly present, yet the music still drives and rocks. My only criticism might be that, at times, the production overwhelms the songwriting, with new ideas thrown at the listener with every opportunity. With that being said, this comes as an issue to someone who enjoys music that does more to capture a very specific mood and then ride that feeling, as opposed to music meant to tell a broader musical story. Preferences are preferences, but anyone can appreciate the excellent execution of some creative vision, which is what this record strikes me as. I’ll definitely have to check out more from Brooke Waggoner.

Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965

It is a known fact that in Canada, it will just immediately become winter after Halloween (or sometimes even on Halloween night). And with the recent influx of cold weather and snow (yes, already), I find myself wishing that I had taken advantage of the nice weather when I had the chance, not that I didn’t, but I guess just wishing that there was more of it. This album takes me back to the nice weather in a way. A lot of the tracks, especially “Canticle,” remind me of sitting at a Parisian cafe, people watching, just enjoying a lazy summer day and watching the world, and of course as I’m picturing this it is all happening in black and white because that’s even more romantic. On a completely different note, her voice reminds me quite a bit of Metric, and to me that really comes through in the more up-tempo songs. Those songs as well take me back to nicer weather, not necessarily living in a dreamy Parisian fantasy land, but a little closer to home, driving down country highways on the way to the beach type of music. I just really enjoyed the different sounds of this album, and I really enjoyed that it wasn’t just one sound, it shows that she has quite a bit of range and isn’t scared to experiment.

Chelsea Kostrey (@chelseakostrey)
Retrophile & Festival Enthusiast

Well, hello there, Brooke Waggoner. How is it that someone like myself, who claims to be a music fan proud of having listened to and experienced so many artists, misses out on someone as talented, unique, and professional as yourself? Obviously there are a lot of artists and unless you’ve signed to a major label and been promoted through all of the recently emerging channels, it’s possible I might miss a few. This one seems particularly unusual though. When HBO launched their series Treme, it allowed me for a time to feel in some fantastical way like I was tuned in intimately to the deep vein of musical talent that runs through that region. Political drama aside, it was always the music of Louisiana artists that drew me in. So while it’s not a guarantee that every artist who emerges from that region will be a smash hit — or even good — we can say with some certainty that they will at least have had some exposure to a spirit of music which is extraordinary relative to other states in the union. Brook Waggoner seems to be something of a musical academic who not only penned and arranged the wonderful songs on Originator, but now shares that skill with other artists as a professor. It comes as no shock to find out that she revels in the craft of songwriting, lyrics and sets about “tweaking” her craft over time. The songs on Originator are rich with melody, mood, and intimacy. They do not indulge in overwrought melancholy but where they do meander playfully through reflection or sad emotions as in “Canticle” or “From The Nest,” they do so assuredly with no time for nonsense. One gets the sense that everything Waggoner does is a very deliberate expression built like a path through a garden of intricate instrumentation, flat ambient samples, and grand choral backing vocals. Few albums are a pleasure beginning to end, but this is one of them. Nothing about it suggests an “easy” listening experience in a pop sense. While “Ink Slinger,” for example, could be danced to, it begs for more focused attention — as if Waggoner ought to actively listen to rather than passively appreciated. Having that kind of commanding presence on a record is a superpower. The fact that she can hold that attention, doubly so.

Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage

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Editor: Doug Nunnally

Contributors: Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford, Dustin Gates, Langen Goldstien, Davy Jones, Chelsea Kostrey, Steve Lampiris, SJ Lebowski, Jeremy Shatan, Joel Worford, & Darryl Wright

Logo By Matt Klimas


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