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Photo by Shervin Lainez
Digging deeper into the gentle indie-pop sounds of Brooke Annibale’s fourth album – and first for the Nettwerk Music Group – Better By Now, listeners will hear a songwriter experiencing a love story in the making while dealing with the stress and anxiety of everyday life and the current state of the world. Though the two themes are often in conflict with each other, ultimately, this is an album of acceptance, understanding and healing that ends on a note of strength with “You Hold Me Together.”
On a recent phone call, Annibale is refreshingly open about how these songs came to be, how she found a silver lining in being confined to her home for the last few years in the midst of a global pandemic, and the thrill of seeing Harry Styles in concert.
Did you start writing this album in the midst of the pandemic or did you write it as things started to calm down a little bit and we started getting back to whatever normal is these days?
BROOKE: It’s a little mix of both. There were definitely some songs I had written prior to everything going whatever you want to call what happened. There was a song or two that I had started performing in the last couple of shows that I did in 2020. A lot of writing happened in 2020 and even in 2021, leading up to recording. It’s a reflection on that time but also several years worth of writing.
Mental wellbeing is an important part of who you are as a person. Did the pandemic exacerbate the stress and anxiety you may have been dealing with?
BROOKE: We’re all on a journey of trying to find balance in our mental health whether we’re aware of it or not. I think I’ve always been sort of hyper aware of it because I’m a songwriter and I’m always going to be digging into “What am I feeling? What do I want to write about? What do I need to process?” I think the pandemic made everything magnified in a way where you realized what your priorities and what made you feel better and what you should avoid. I think I was just going through all of that all at once. For a little while, it was really hard to write about anything because everything was so overwhelming and distracting and we were all just focusing on surviving. As I started to work through all of that, being creative came a little easier.
Things looked bleak for all of us in 2020. Was there ever a point where you thought that maybe you’d give up the dream of being a full-time musician because touring had ground to a halt?
BROOKE: I feel like it crossed my before the pandemic. I had put out a record in 2018 and then felt kind of burned out by 2019. It’s not that I took a step back, I just wasn’t writing a lot and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Then I had a bunch of plans for 2020 and they all went away. I was feeling refreshed and ready to go again and it was like, “Wow, what do we do now? We can’t play shows. We can’t go into recording studios with other people.” It opened me up to collaborating with new people remotely because it was something people were doing now since we couldn’t get together in person. I started working with someone in California on these songs that I never probably would have started work with otherwise. I realized that I really enjoy making music, that’s my favorite thing and that’s what I want to do more of. I want to collaborate with more people that I enjoy working with. At the end of the day, if I’ve done something creatively like that, I feel more like I’ve had a productive day than if I’ve gone through a long to-do list.
Perhaps there were some silver linings to the pandemic. You’re collaborating with people that you may never have met and, since artists couldn’t tour, many were doing live streams which allowed people to watch from the comfort of their houses. They couldn’t complain that their favorite artist wasn’t coming to their town. Will you continue to collaborate with others?
BROOKE: Definitely. Making music is my favorite part of all of it, writing songs or recording. I played some live stream shows where there would be people from all over the world watching at the same time. That was really wild to me. And then I also played some shows where it was three or four artists and we were all in different places but we were meeting each other and playing a show together. As far as your question goes, everything I’ve written in my career, I’ve written by myself. The first step of collaboration has been in the studio. So, I thought, a lot of people co-write, why don’t I just try it? I just did that last month in Nashville where I used to live. I wrote a bunch of songs in a week with people I had never met before. That’s an example of me continuing to open my mind to whatever leads to a creative experience.
I think I’ll definitely continue to write alone because that’s just in my introverted nature. But, co-writing could be future stuff. I think I used to be a lot more protective of my ideas and my feelings and my stories. Now, I’m in a room with someone I don’t know and they sing something and I say, “Oh, that reminds me of this story” and that leads us to the next lyric. I realized how much more open I am about that now which is kind of cool.
As someone who writes personal lyrics, do you feel like you’re exorcising those things, getting them out of your system, or do you treat it like therapy and putting those lyrics out there knowing that they’ll be part of your history forever?
BROOKE: I’m not sure if I know the answer. I feel like anything I’m writing, I’m pretty conscious of the fact that I’m probably going to be singing these songs, or performing them, for a couple of years, if not the next decade. So it’s not usually something I want to dispose of from my mind. A lot of these songs tend to evolve in meaning to me or serve as some sort of reminder of a lesson that I learned.
I think all of my releases have been really personal and definitely things that have come from my own experience but I did a lot of dancing around what they were actually about or wouldn’t really talk about what the songs were about. Now, I feel much more open about talking about whatever it was I was going through, whether it’s coming out of the closet to my family or mental health stuff or whatever it is. Some people are born confident to share those things and some others aren’t.
Do you feel like we’ve seen the worst of the pandemic and it’s behind us?
BROOKE: I’m still pretty careful. Maybe within the last month or two, I’ve been a lot more social. I also got the new boosters so I feel kind of bulletproof right now. But, it’s been affecting me still this year. I had a tour canceled in April because the person I was going on tour with got Covid right before it started. I’ve had bandmates get it right before shows. It’s not something we’re going to be like, “Oh, come to the show and play with us any way.” I’m still feeling it a lot in the work world, trying to maintain good health so that I can do my work. I live in Rhode Island and my family’s in Pittsburgh and it was really hard to see them during the pandemic. We camped in the backyard once so we could see them. Just within the past couple of months I’ve felt like, “Oh, we can be in the same house and everybody’s going to be okay.”
I’m a bit of an introvert so I didn’t mind spending a lot of time at home.
BROOKE: I felt like a lot of people were saying, “Oh, I’m so bored.” And, you know, I’d look at my wife and be like, “Are you bored?” She’s go, “No.” And I’d say, “Me either.” I like not having plans. I like to be out and experiencing things, I miss traveling and playing shows but I did not mind just being at home with the dogs and building fires and stuff like that.
Did you take up a new hobby or anything to stay busy?
BROOKE: I didn’t until earlier this year. I started taking pottery classes which I think was a result of me being like, “I want to try new creative things,” and the opportunity presented itself in my town. It’s been awesome. It wasn’t during the pandemic but afterwards.
You signed with Nettwerk Records which is a pretty big thing. How did that come about?
BROOKE: I had met folks from the label before. I think with the last round of releasing music, we had talked to them. This record I made, in it’s entirety, and then got signed to Nettwerk. It was one of things where I had this record and we sent it to people to see if we could build a team around it. They were interested so that’s how it happened.
Was the artwork already done?
BROOKE: It was. I hired a designer from my hometown in Pittsburgh. I had finished the record and started on the artwork and music videos. I already had two music videos done when I signed to Nettwerk.
The artwork is great.
BROOKE: The guy who designed it, his name is Paul Haggerty. He was probably the first graphic designer I had worked with who wanted to listen to the music and have a conversation about what inspired it and where I made it and just get a feel for how to visually represent the music. He did an incredible job. He sent me four cover ideas and we landed on this one and I’ve been really excited with everything he’s done.
Do you plan on getting back out on tour or will you wait to see how things go?
BROOKE: The strategy is to play places that I have played before, even if it’s just the city, not necessarily venues I’ve played before. We’re finally rescheduling the European tour that got cancelled in 2020. It’s really wild right now because everyone is trying to tour because they were home the last two-and-a-half years. Venues are more backed up than ever before. It’s like you try to book a show a year from now and there’s five other artists that have held the same date. So, the strategy is to play places that I’ve had some success before. I’ve got 14 or 15 shows this fall, that’s our priority right now and then we’ll see for 2023.
The stuff you were working on in Nashville, is that stuff that you’ll continue or maybe put out after the touring is done?
BROOKE: Between those new songs that I wrote, and alternate versions of songs from the album, like acoustic versions or remixes, I’ll put some stuff out. And, I’m working on a couple cover songs too which is really fun. I’m just sort of planning to keep recording, I’ve been doing that at home lately and just keep releasing new stuff.
What covers are you working on?
BROOKE: I started covering, I haven’t finished it yet, “Happy Together” by The Turtles. It sounds dark and sad now, which I tend to do with songs. Also, there’s a thing that the label is doing where they’re having people cover women artists from the ’90s and there was this list of suggestions and this song by Sade called “No Ordinary Love” that I knew the chorus vaguely but didn’t really know the song. I found it really fun once I started playing it so that has turned into a fun little at-home project that will probably come out next year.
I saw on Instagram that you went to see Harry Styles in New York. Was that as life changing for you as it was my 17-year-old daughter, Piper, who saw him in Cleveland?
BROOKE: (laughs) I’m going to guess that it probably wasn’t as life changing as it was for Piper because I remember what it feels like to be that age and love an artist and see a huge show like that. I’m a new Harry Styles fan and I was like, “I’d really love to see a show.” We live 3 hours from New York and he was playing like 20 shows at Madison Square Garden so we just went. It was really fun. We felt quite old there and it’s been a while since I’ve been to a show where I’ve had to wear earplugs because of the audience noise.
NOTE: Piper and Brooke have some history. Piper interviewed Brooke in 2015 for the YouTube series Kids Interview Bands.
I’ve been watching a lot of really bad TV and one show that I’ve been working my way through is Pretty Little Liars. Has anyone ever mentioned to you that you and the actress who plays Spencer (Troian Bellisario) sort of look alike?
BROOKE: I have not been told that before but I have had a song on Pretty Little Liars. I’ve only watched two episodes and they used the same song twice. That’s my only knowledge of the show. You know, I think maybe one person has told me that I look like her, that actually rings a bell.