Brooke Surgener

and the art of suffering




Text by: Saraphina Forman
Published on October 1 2022

Brooke Surgener on process, pushing through, and making it as an indie musician over the years




First of all, I was wondering if you could describe your music a little bit for people who might not be familiar.

I would say my music is indie/folk/pop. It's definitely a little bit of all three things. I think I definitely found my sound messing around with all the acoustic instruments—mandolin, guitar—but I've also always loved indie rock music. And I think I've just in the past year or so, I’ve become comfortable being like, “I'm gonna make the kind of music I listen to.” You know, it's just kind of hard being a solo female artist sometimes. And not knowing if you can pull it off or not, but I'm just like, “If it's something I listen to, why not make it?”

What kind of music were you, in the past, kind of staying away from, not sure if you could really do it as a solo artist?

Well, when I was younger, I really wasn't allowed to listen to a lot of music. My parents were pretty religious and they played, like, country music in the house. And I'm talking about nineties country. So now when I hear nineties country, I'm like, yeah. But at the time I'm like, this just isn't for me. Even though I can rock out to some Dixie chicks for sure.

And as I was growing up, emo was really big and I loved pop-punk—all of the early day emo music. And I think it's something that I struggled with as an artist: finding my own sound. Because I loved that pop-punk music so much, but it really wasn't a fit for me to create, because when I started writing my own songs, it was definitely very singer-songwriter. You know, I'm writing on acoustic guitar. And I struggled with wanting to sound like the people I looked up to and accepting the kind of artist I am: my songs, where they come from, what they mean to me.

So when I started falling back into my roots of that country music that I grew up listening to, messing around with harmonies and adding these very soft strings. It just felt comfortable to me. And more recently, during the pandemic, I was running a lot, and I had so much time to just listen to music and find new artists. And I was definitely putting, like, my Spotify “Find Indie Artists” on shuffle. And I realized I was listening to so many female-led indie bands. So I’m like, I grew up thinking I couldn't sing stuff like this, but this is what I listen to. Like, I definitely can make music like this.

I know what you mean. It can be kind of dysphoric when you're listening to a lot of music made by men and you're like, “I don't sound like this and I’m never gonna be able to sound just like this.” And it's definitely empowering hearing more non-male artists make music.

Yeah, because I think that scene was definitely run by men when I was younger and now it's so cool to see non-men being very open and emotional with their lyrics and everything. But like, we can play heavy stuff too. We can do whatever we wanna do. And it, it, it feels good to just dip my toes into that and be like, “I can do whatever I want with it.” So I can play acoustic stuff, I can play heavier stuff, and just find what works for me and feels right.

Yeah. And you mentioned your background a little bit. I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit more—like, did you have specific religious influences of church music? Did you grow up playing instruments? When did you start writing? You're from Pennsylvania, right?

Mm-hmm, I’m from Erie, PA. I grew up, yeah, in a religious household and it was a good thing for the most part. For me it was a positive experience, but I can't fake liking that music or liking everything that I was around. So I felt very… just not understood yet, as in what kind of music was me.

But my mom taught me piano when I was three and she was always singing harmonies and it was just something that caught on. I got to play in the church band when I was like 10 years old. And there were so many opportunities for me to start using my voice in a very positive way. Then I saw Michelle Branch, and it was different from that stuff I didn't connect with. It was like, “Oh, okay. I can write like this.” Like, “this is what I want to do. I wanna learn guitar.”

I didn't really have a really tight group of friends yet. So my way of saying what I kept inside was writing a song about it. And it was really cool to play that and have people listen to what I was so used to people just ignoring. It was like, “Oh, I have a voice. This is how I feel comfortable sharing what I'm going through: through music.”

So then, transitioning a bit more to the present, what is your songwriting process like now?

Hmm, it's very different. I could just be in the car and a melody comes into my head or I'm strumming on the guitar and I just start singing along. But my favorite way of songwriting, which feels the most natural, is when I just start to sing. It's like my brain shuts off. And I’m not trying to think of what rhymes or what sounds cool. If I feel very overwhelmed that day, instead of me talking to a friend or writing it down, I just will pull out my voice memos. I'll just start singing how I feel. It's become such a routine of me expressing myself that I eventually rhyme, even though I'm not even trying to.

So given that your music straddles a couple different genres—some songs are more influenced by like the country or folk, some are more like a little bit more rock, others are more indie and mellow—do you have a vision or a plan for sort of the vibe or genre when you start out? Or do you just focus on the bones—the melody, the lyrics—and then develop it from there?

Once I make myself a demo—and when I say a demo, I mean a voice recording—I listen to it in the car and start singing harmonies to it. I usually start to envision what else it needs. And I think that's kind of why I started learning other instruments and just playing what I can for myself. Just because it's like, okay, I've got an idea. How do I do that?

But at the same time, there's a lot of things I can't do. And there are things that I realized I needed help with. And it's okay to find somebody to help you, because they're just gonna make it better. So, like, my one song I just put out, “I Hate You the Least,” was so cool because I couldn't figure out how I wanted it to sound. I played so many different ways live. I ended up just recording the guitar and the vocals and harmonies and sending it to Zach Zurn [of Carpet Booth Studios] who helped me produce this album. And he did the rest. It's really nice to just have some freedom and let other people listen to my songs, so I'm getting a little less controlling about it, and letting whatever happens happen. And I think with my next album or whatever singles that I put out, I wanna start to write like that because it just feels less stressful.

And what are you usually drawn to write about in terms of content?

I can say that 95% of what I've written about is an overflow of emotion that I have to put somewhere in the universe so that it's out of my brain and out of my body. When I was younger, it was, like, relationships and stuff, and it’s not that love isn’t real, but as I've gone through more shit, it's about some more real deeper topics: depression, loss, not feeling good enough or just feeling overwhelmed. And I think it's all how you present that. It doesn't have to all be sad, but I really like singing those because, again, it's very real for me. I feel very proud to have put that out in some way.

Yeah, you do talk about some more complex topics like depression, grief, those sorts of things. Do you find comfort writing about them? And also on the flip side, are there more negative aspects? Like what is it like to actually write about these traumas and expose them to the public, and, especially when you're trying to make money off of them, do you ever feel pressure to exploit some of this suffering? What is that like?

Oh, you, you nailed it. 100%. It's. So, to answer your first question, I feel like as a listener, if I'm sad, I don't wanna listen to happy music. That doesn't make me feel better. I think what makes me feel better is listening to someone say exactly how I'm feeling. It doesn't solve the problem, but it kind of heals you. That is my goal in the end: to put something out there that makes someone say, “Oh, thank you, that's how I feel.” Because you're not always thinking about the songwriter’s experience when you're listening to a song and you're sad; you're thinking about what you're going through. That's like such a cool thing to just feel understood in that moment.

But the downside of putting something so personal out there is that the only way for people to hear it is to be like, “Hey, look at me, look at what I made.” And I think people who are artists do understand that this is the world we live in, and that's just how you put your stuff out there, but for someone who has worked so hard to not care about what people think about them, I’ve had to try really hard to do that. It's really tough. Especially this last song that I put out, “Tidal Waves,” means so much to me and then I’m like, oh my God, I don't wanna go, “Hit that ‘Share,’ button!” a bunch of times. That's not the purpose of it, but like that's how people are gonna hear it. You struggle with that. Also, once you put that out there, it's no longer just yours; it's everybody's. Which is a beautiful thing, and a really hard thing to accept when you want to just keep that to yourself.

Do you find that sharing your pieces tends to take away from being able to feel it as completely? For example, for me, sometimes after sharing art, I can't really feel what I was expressing; I'm more just focused on what other people think of it. Or are you able to deepen your feelings through appreciating other people reflecting back and saying they relate?

I thought I was going to feel less after sharing–that it's no longer there, it's out there. But I’m realizing every time that I do put myself out there, it's the complete opposite. I feel more full. And I feel like, no, these are 100% my feelings. And every time I sing this song or hear this song, it is still there because it came from a real place. It wasn't just like, this is a cool melody and people can relate to this. This is like, this is my shit. This is like something I really had to go through and it doesn't make it go away. Having a stranger walk up to you and give you a hug and say how thankful they were for you to be brave puts it into perspective that you are doing what you really wanted to do with this. So it’s all just like a brain game. All of those insecurities aren't really there. People aren't going to judge you for that. They're going to accept it. You just have to be brave enough to try.

What are the impacts of making art about your suffering? Do you ever find yourself fixating on the more sad parts of your lives in a sort of subconscious way in order to make more art about it? And how does that interact with the society's image of like the suffering artist? Has that made any impact on you? Do you think you have to suffer to make good art?

I think the experience of me creating it is healing. And it really depends where you're at in that moment. I have to be considerate of myself. I, you know, played out in bars and I played out in very intimate settings and I have to just think to myself, is this worth playing right now? Is this going to serve me or is it gonna serve somebody? And anytime I pick the right thing, then yes, I am in that moment absorbed in it, but it's never like, as soon as it's done, I'm sad. And so it's a reminder that you went through this, but I don't feel sad. I feel empowered when I play something that came from a really dark place and I made it something else. So no, it doesn't, it doesn't really affect me in a bad way. I think I'm always a little sad in a twisted way. But aren't we all though? So it's more of a healing experience, and empowering more than anything.

So nowadays, there's an upswing in both mental health issues, diagnoses, medication etc., and also it's just being talked about a lot more—you know, obviously the world is going through all sorts of crises, pandemics, climate change stuff that is causing lots of distress. And this is affecting the music scene, the art scene. So, how do you see a balance between destigmatizing these issues without romanticizing suffering?

Well, I give music lessons to younger girls. Like after we're done with this interview, I'll probably leave and go give some music lessons. And to see their generation have music that's deeper, I see that affect them in a good way. And it depends on what you can take or what you're going through, but for the most part I've seen it play a positive role.

Growing up, nineties, two thousands music pop culture was very romanticized more than anything. And so it's like, do we look up to these people, singing about parties, you know, stuff that's fun, but is it really important? And now we're thinking about much, much deeper stuff and that's popular. I think it depends on the person, but I would much prefer kids these days to listen to something that they are really going through.


Yeah. I think art can definitely be a reflection of the time.

True. Yeah. We're going through a lot, so yeah, there's a lot to talk about.

And on the topic of what you were saying of making music as a woman-identifying artist specifically, can you say more about how your writing, especially when you write about deeper topics or suffering or pain, is perceived?

Yeah, it's the ongoing struggle of girls being weak and emotional. And like you said, sometimes it can be whiny, when, if a guy were to sing about it, it'd be like, “Oh wow, he's so strong” and it'd almost be attractive. But I really am so stoked on the feminism that's been happening in the last several years, really. I feel like we have each other's backs more than we ever have, so we're used to it and we can deal with it. Because we know that it's a bunch of bullshit in the end, and we can be strong enough for ourselves to not care as much, and be proud that we can be vulnerable. It's not weak.

And also, you know, this can intersect with other qualities like race and class. Have you on the flip side have you noticed any either like privileges or biases or experiences you've had in regards to other qualities within the music industry beyond gender? Like, your other identities, if you wanna talk about that? It's fine if you don't have any other comments.

I don't just because I feel so empathetic towards everything that's going on. And as this privileged white girl, all I can do is support it and try my best to have everyone's back in the situations of people going through that. I think as a girl, I've had my own struggles, but there is so much other stuff I haven’t gone through. So all I can do is support the best way I can. But I don't really have anything I could probably note on.

Yeah. Do you ever feel conflicted about putting your voice on a platform? Just given that it's a very charged time and a lot of people are sort of vying for airspace, do you ever feel worried about platforming your own ideas and art?

No, I don't, just because I feel like it's just a part of who I am. I don't feel bad about it. If somebody had a problem with it… Yeah, I don't care.

Everyone has something to say. And I say this to my students too, when they're like, “well, what if nobody likes what I do?” Or they think, “everyone thinks I'm annoying.” I’m like, I'm sure somebody does. So who cares? I'm gonna do what makes me happy.


And then shifting topics a little bit, you've talked about how you teach music. How important of a role do you see music education and music theory playing?

It's so important. And I think it's because I didn't have someone like that when I was younger.  Being in the position I am, I'm almost like this big sister to my students. Some of them I've been teaching for four or five years, and now they're like 18, 19, and they're my friends, but we have such a healthy relationship where we feel like we can tell each other what we're going through or share a song that we wrote. I didn't really have that. I think I was quiet, and then I sang to be loud, and I want them to feel both. I want them to feel like they have someone to talk to. And I try to get the girls together so that they have other people to understand them. And it's just so cool to be a part of that. I actually never wanted to teach, but now that I'm in this position, I'm so grateful to be a part of it.

That does sound really fulfilling. And it sounds like you've worked a lot of other jobs, too.

Yeah, yeah.

What is it like to try and make it as a musician while juggling all of these jobs, like coming home exhausted and, you know, still not giving up on other aspirations?

It's very exhausting. But it's also what drives me. Like I’ve almost always had at least two to three jobs since I was 18 years old. And I've done it while keeping in mind that I'm working so I can create art. It can be hard sometimes, and I do make money playing shows and I'm getting there and I'm growing, but I think it's safer to be in a place where you're not thinking about making money off your art, but creating it because it's a part of you. And so I've always kind of felt that way because it's what I've just had to do–work to make a music video, to record, to pay for gas, to go play a show for free or for $20 when I was younger and just wanted to open up for whoever I could.

I remember I worked third shift at this hotel for like two years full time, and I wrote songs in the bathroom back there. I binged TV shows and anime while doing that. And then have to like, you know, wake up and work and then go play a show, then go work. Third shift.

So it's exhausting, but I think it's made me appreciate every experience of being able to perform. Or to watch these music videos back that I had in my head. It just pays off. And I mean, just before this interview, like an hour before, I was working. And I'm used to doing that, but I actually put in my two week notice two days ago, so I could just focus on music and teaching music at night. Because I'm like, you know what? This is the next step.


Congrats! And then, so on that note, you've been in the music industry for quite a while.

Right.

So you've experienced going from releasing things on CDs to mostly doing Spotify, I guess, or other streaming platforms. So what was that transition like? And how is it different trying to make money off of music today versus a while ago?

It's really hard to keep up, because as soon as you feel like, “Okay, I got this down, I know how it works, I gotta do this and then people hear my music this way,” it changes.

And there is something so beautiful about just going to a local venue—listening to the songs on Myspace, supporting someone making music and singing along, and then buying their CD. It's harder to get your music out on a larger scale that way, but I appreciate growing up with that. Nowadays everyone has the opportunity to put out their music so anyone can hear it. And that's so cool. But again, you are a small fish in this very, very, very large pond.

There are opportunities, but it's like how we were saying—like being vulnerable and talking about stuff that's really deep. You have to be so loud and so vulnerable for people to hear you. And it's frustrating because you're like, “I wanna put something out and I want people to listen to it because it means a lot to me,” but that’s just not how it works. So I feel like I'm always trying to catch up. And to just accept that this is my art, and then how I put it out there is my job. And don't be upset about it. Just do it, because this is what it takes to do it. And hopefully not burn out.


Yeah.

We're all going to burn out, but like, if you love it enough, you just gotta keep pushing forward.

And hopefully get paid enough to do that!

Yeah. At the end of the day, that is what we hope.

So has this digitalization and increased social media usage changed your process? For example, TikTok is really emphasizing these short 15 second sound bites, smaller attention spans, and like you said, being loud. Have you found that influencing your music at all, or do you just try to keep it the same and then work on how to market things?

I think it's something I need to keep in the back of my mind when I’m making something. Like, what's the best clip of this. What's the best way to show this very quickly? You do have to think about that, but I feel like I've just been trying to put it out there.

It's cool because there's different ways to be successful. You can be a successful touring artist or a successful TikTokker or YouTuber, although it's hard trying to find your niche with it.

I really love making music videos, because I feel like sometimes when I write a song, I start envisioning the video and it's not so much as like, “I can't wait to make YouTube video,” it's like, “I have like a vision with me singing this and I want people to see what I’m seeing when they're listening.” So I really like that. It feels like a cool project to look back on, but the hard part about that now is like, okay, cool, you put all this work into this five minute thing, now cut it down into 15 seconds. And people eat it and they want more. I'm still trying to figure that one out.


And then, you have an album, right? When is that coming out and what can people expect from it?

So it's called Moon Waves and it comes out everywhere on streaming platforms on October 14th.

What I like about the name of the album is the changed directions it represents. I started writing the collection of songs about five years ago, and I was gonna call this EP at the time “The Moon.” It was a song I wrote and it was just cute, just a fun name. And to just be really honest, my dad died. I stopped writing. And all the songs that I wrote minus one of them, I didn't care about. I didn't care about the things that I wrote about because now I went through something really big and life changing. This album really just followed. It's almost like a diary of these big things that happened to me since that happened. And then my dad's song was called “Tidal Waves.” I thought it was a creative way for me to put who I was then who I am now and all the songs in between onto an album.

I think anyone who hears “moon waves,” they think, like, phases of the moon. That's not really what it means, but it does kind of make sense. The songs go from really mellow to fun to mellow again to fun. And it's, again, going from indie pop music to folk and acoustic, and then it’s let's bring it up again and it's more Indy pop rock, and then it's back down to folk. So I express myself as an artist as indie/folk/pop and it just kind of flows like that. So they can expect a flow of some ups and downs and in a very soft way.

This interview is based around a college radio station, WBRU. Do you have any advice for young people who might read this interview?

I say, if you are someone who’s been writing or you want to write, and you just wanna put your stuff out there and you just feel like you don't know where to start, just start. It's gonna be a lot of work, but just do it. It might take a couple years. It might take longer than you want. It might be a lot quicker. You might just need to start playing at open mics and maybe you'll meet somebody there who can help you further. I think you just need to start doing something and put in the work. And be proud of what you're making, because if you're making stuff that you're not really happy with and isn't you, then you're not gonna push forward and really, really work to put that art out there. So you go, you do it.
 

INDIE

(Alternative)

360

(R&B/hip-hop)

WBRU RADIO (Alternative)

360 (R&B/hip-hop)