Alumna performs at Grammy Awards, grows in music world
What does an 84-year-old Greek-born composer have in common with a 37-year-old rock musician from Detroit?
The answer is not what, but who – Brooke Waggoner.
A classically trained pianist and singer-songwriter whose latest album, "Originator," was just released in March, Waggoner credits both world-renowned LSU College of Music & Dramatic Arts Boyd Professor of Composition Dinos Constantinides and famous American rock musician Jack White as major influences on her career as an artist.
"Probably the most influential, just from observance, was with Jack," said Waggoner, while on a recent trip to her hometown of New Orleans to play the annual French Quarter Festival. "Honestly, the coolest part of all that was recording 'Blunderbuss' (White's debut solo album which was released last year), watching him in the producer chair and being a part of all those sessions."
Now residing in Nashville, Waggoner recorded with White in the Music City, playing organ, piano and electric piano on the album's tracks.
"But Dinos has also been a big notch for me – just being around someone so seasoned and experienced, and kind of soaking that in for four years every day – that was a big influence for sure," said Waggoner.
The young musician studied under Constantinides in the LSU School of Music from 2002-06, receiving her undergraduate degree in music composition.
In addition to Constantinides and White, Waggoner credits another artist as a major inspiration in her career – musician Chad Howat from indie rock band Paper Route.
"He started with me from the beginning," Waggoner said of Howat. "He made my first LP with me ('Heal for the Honey') and also 'Originator,' plus another record I did. I really enjoy working with him."
Of course, with any great musical talent, aside from just drawing inspiration from other artists around oneself, a musician needs a strong foundation from which to start. For Waggoner, that base came from her training with Constantinides.
"Dinos taught me a ton," she said. "It was an endless education of different techniques – different timeline of composers, the timeline with history and music – that was really valuable. I still use all that. I get really excited about it because it's so challenging and interesting.
"What was so great about those four years of doing my undergrad there (at LSU) was that it was sort of a different world, a different scene doing composition and orchestration with that classical background. It's a different environment for how you're going to use that music and that understanding. I just loved getting a really broad picture of what an orchestra is capable of doing and all the different colors and palettes that you have. It's endless."
However, for Waggoner, when she started to pursue a career in contemporary music after completing her degree, she knew that she would need to find a way to make her classical music training work for her as she embarked on her musical aspirations.
"My big thing for the first couple of years after leaving school was kind of thinking about melding those two worlds just a little bit more if I could, so it doesn't feel quite as polarized," she said.
Erika Goldring for BMI
Seven years later, with a musical résumé that now includes three albums, production work, film scoring and even ad campaigns, Waggoner has moved on from being the new kid.
"I'm in a different phase of my career now, and when you start building up a fan base, they expect certain types of things from you," she said. "It's sometimes a little hard to grow on your own – I'm not the same person I was three years ago (when her last album, 'Go Easy Little Doves,' was released), but a general listener may not see it that way. So you have to think about that, but at the same time I still believe in just writing for who you are in that moment."
And it certainly doesn't hurt if that moment is right after reaching a crescendo in the musical world.
On Feb. 10, Waggoner performed on the 55th Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, baby-blue grand piano in tow, along with her band mates in the Peacocks and, oh yes, Jack White. The Peacocks, White's all-female back-up group who toured with him during 2012 to promote his solo album, backed him on the show while performing his single "Love Interruption." The performance was a final christening of sorts to a year packed full of playing shows and festivals domestically and abroad to hundreds of thousands of people.
Looking back at her time during that tour, Waggoner mentions how she learned to stretch her comfort zone to a much higher level.
"The biggest thing I took away from that was getting comfortable in such a large setting," she said. "Prior to that, I've done some fairly large tours of my own just opening for bands, so I knew what that was like a little bit. But I think just broadening and getting used to playing for 100,000 people at a festival in Denmark and these crazy experiences really helped raise my bar personally. Plus, I'm a big fan of what he (White) does, so it was just a really cool experience."
So when one performs at the Grammys, is it one of those experiences like flying to the moon and everything else after just pales in comparison? Well, not necessarily.
"The Grammy Awards performance was cool, but I think because it wasn't my music and I didn't have a deep emotional connection to it, it wasn't personal to me," she said. "But it was definitely one of the most amazing experiences I've gotten to do.
"I felt like last year was a bucket list, mapping out all these places and shows I've always wanted to play. But, honestly, the biggest reward for me so far has been my new record that I put out. There were a lot of ups and downs with making it happen. I started a label four years ago, so my hands have gotten into every aspect of getting it out there. A lot of blood, sweat, and tears went into it, so that's the most rewarding."
Constantinides, a seasoned veteran in the classical music world who has composed more than 230 compositions for all mediums, attested to the hardships one encounters when pursuing a career in music.
"Music is not easy," he said. "You have to have drive. You have to have a passion for music. There are so many ups and downs, so many disappointments but, at the same time, there are so many rewards. You have to know that your life is going to be in music. If you don't feel that way, then don't go to music. That's the way I see it."
So what qualities make an aspiring artist successful in music? According to Constantinides, in Waggoner's case, it's a combination of many pertinent traits.
"The most important thing that helps Brooke is her talent, begin from there always for any artist," he elaborated.
"Secondly, she has a good foundation. I say that because, in her field, there are many people who have no clue about music, but she understands music. She knows how to write for instruments because to write, you have to understand how they sound and their capabilities. She also has a beautiful tone on the piano, so I'm certain that helps too. Plus, I'm sure Brooke has drive, because if you don't have drive in music, you'll never make it."
Of course, it probably helps if you're not a diva who requests gardenias in your dressing room sink, as Constantinides explained.
"It also helps if you are polite, graceful, warm, and intelligent. No matter what people say, these things are very important," he said. "People don't like obnoxious people. Brooke was always very graceful, very warm, and very well-behaved, she had all the things that people like, and when people like you, it gives you more credit."
It also doesn't hurt if you start off your musical educational training on a high note. Waggoner spoke fondly of her experience at LSU School of Music, bringing back memories of a time of newfound awareness of the many capabilities in the profession.
"My time there was so positive – a lot happened for me there personally, like figuring out what I wanted to do," she said. "It was the first time I started going out to shows locally and supporting bands that I was getting to know. So seeing it on a small scale like that made me think, 'I can do that with my own music.' I realized that making music or doing something creative isn't like a job you go out and apply for, but instead is something you create yourself, so there's no set path."
"But also, aside from going to shows, just being at school daily around such challenging music where there were such high expectations was such an influence on me. I learned that it's okay to wear a lot of different hats and that you don't have to pigeonhole yourself into one musical genre – you can get excited about many different things."
A little cup of Joe daily also didn't hurt either in getting the creative juices going, with Waggoner having been a regular at the local coffee shop next to campus.
"Whenever I go back to visit Baton Rouge, I always have to stop by Highland Coffees – I think I lived there (during school). It's right there by the music school and is the best coffee in town – it was definitely the place."
Aside from a daily dose of caffeine, where else does Waggoner turn when she hits a creative wall?
"Classical music is still such a huge part of how I think," she said. "Even though I'm not really in that world per se, it's the main thing I use to help me write. So, if I'm hitting kind of a stale place one day, I'll just listen to a Tchaikovsky piece or something like that, which will really help get my wheels turning again. For me, it's sort of the magic key. It unlocks a lot."
It was actually during her time while studying under Constantinides at LSU that Waggoner's sense of musical style unfolded, describing her method as melody-driven.
"I'm such a big fan of really cinematic music, really emotional music," she said. "I really can't get away from wanting to tap into the deeper side of music because I connect strongly with that. Especially during school, I realized that during that time with Dinos – that was a big part of it. He really helped shape that in me. From a writing perspective, my writing was really linear when I got to school, but after working with him I felt like it was so much more multi-dimensional, it had a lot more different movement and shape to it."
Pulling out one's personal style is an important lesson that Constantinides stresses throughout his time training students. In addition to his curriculum, which includes teaching techniques to help foster a solid understanding of orchestral music and the necessary elements for making good compositions, he also covers the art of showcasing one's inner individual style.
"The first lesson I tell my students is, 'You have to know your personality. We're going to help bring out your personality well. We cannot give you talent – talent you have it from nature, from your mother, from God, from whatever – but we can help that talent to come out in a good way that you can communicate with other people,'" he said. "I tell my students not to try to be someone else, but to just be themselves because there's always goodness in all of us."
So even while Waggoner collaborates with other well-known and up-and-coming musicians in her local Nashville scene and hopes to one day develop working relationships with the likes of Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Thom Yorke of Radiohead and film score composer Thomas Newman, Waggoner said she will always remember her time spent with Constantinides at LSU.
"I loved studying under him," she said. "It was really an amazing experience."
To learn more about Brooke Waggoner, visit www.brookewaggoner.com.