On Taking a Band Break, Comedic Short-Story Song Writing, and Grandma Carolee: Brooke Waggoner Interviews Kelsey Kopecky
In the early part of June, an old friend of mine—the lovely Kelsey Kopecky—stopped by my place one evening to sit on the deck, share a bottle of rosé, and soak in the dusk. I recorded our conversation where Kelsey shares her stories of the last few years: traveling the open road with her band KOPECKY and the exciting ventures before her as she dives into solo music making. These are some extractions from the conversation that I opted to transcribe. Hope you enjoy this lady as much as I do!
Brooke Waggoner: Is KOPECKY on a break?
Kelsey Kopecky: Yeah, we basically all decided to leave it at that—taking a break. To take this year off from touring because really, the last 3 years have been over 200 dates a year. We just slammed it, going from one tour to another, which is a huge part of why we never gave up. But I think in some ways it wore us out. Gabe now has a baby, and I’m getting married—not that I’m wanting to be completely off the road. But, yeah, it’s been an interesting transition. One day all of us just looked at each other—I think we were in Park City, Utah, in this weird lodge that somebody put us up in, and we were all just sitting there saying, “What do we really want next year to look like?” And Stephen, our guitarist, was like, “Yeah, I think I’m just . . . sigh . . . let’s not book any shows next year.” And I replied, “I agree.”
Now we all get together for a BBQ and it’s really nice to see each other. I hope that maybe we’ll get together and write some music again—in a garage somewhere—and reignite that kind of creative flavor we originally had.
BW: Was the chemistry always very natural among the whole group or was it stronger for more than others?
KK: Our most magical and completely vulnerable moments—in the zone—would happen when all of us were in the same room. Marcus would be acting crazy taking his shirt off, being a maniac—that would allow us to drop into a place of let’s try thisandbe weird. When Gabe and I were in college we had this instant ability to be able to immediately share ideas, and I had never really done co-writes back then (this is around 2007). That was my first time writing with another person, and it was really fun.
Yeah, pretty instant chemistry. And I think as we grew and our friendship changed, that role shifted our individual roles as lyricists and musicians.
BW: Right. Evolving together. But getting some good opportunity and knowing how to stay unified in that, which a lot of bands have a hard time doing. It’s maybe fun and easy at first, but to maintain it as long as you guys did? That’s big. So right now you’re working on solo material for the first time. How is that hitting you at this phase in your career?
KK: I’m not above putting out a pop song. I ultimately want to create more time and energy and space for me to do what I—and, clearly, a lot of music listeners—really love. I don’t want this to sound like the “selling out” bit because I truly believe in music that is from a journal—the pouring out of stories and truth that’s hard or good or whatever. But sometimes in order to do that you have to create songs that are more entry-level for the public. Hopefully, that will provide a path to make things that allow me to dive in deeper. Now that KOPECKY isn’t touring, I’m nannying here in Nashville and, honestly, I don’t care—I’ll be a nanny and just write music I like.
BW: That makes sense in a lot of ways—defining how far you’ll play that game. Supplying access to something digestible, but also not wanting to contribute to the noise out there. Are you putting any tangible hopes on the new project?
KK: Honestly, I have so many hopes for it. As a writer in the past I’ve been like, “Okay, how can I say this message and encrypt it in this level of poetry that sounds interesting for the sake of poetry?” But ever since picking up an electric guitar, my music is sounding so much like when I’m on the phone with my best friend Laura telling her things about Minneapolis where I grew up—songs that are trying to say what I want to say but you talk too much type of lyric. I would have never written that before because I would have thought it isn’t poetry.
But now, maybe from maturing, and with an electric guitar, I’m writing songs that are so fun that I want to send them to my mom because I know she’ll laugh. There’s a comedic element to them. I love laughing and I want my music to be just that.
I recently wrote a song called “Bunny” about this woman who books the chapel at the state park where I’m getting married. Her name is Bunny and she literally never answers the phone. You’ll call her direct line, call the office, leave her messages. She never answers and she’s never around. The whole song is about Bunny not being there, using her paid time off, coming in late, leaving early. To me, this is so funny. It embodies the stress of planning a wedding reception, wanting BBQ but there’s a vegetarian in the mix!
BW: Ha, all the trivial things!
KK: Yes! I’m just having fun. I care about these songs more because they’re less “coming of age.” Now I’m like, “I just wanna book a chapel!” It’s a short story.
BW: That’s truly accessible because it’s relatable. That’s real life. Some of the best songs written are so trivial but laced with metaphors. They just work.
KK: That’s so true. I went out to L.A. last year to take a step back because for the last year of KOPECKY, we put out the last record and all I could think about was, I just really want to do a solo thing. I’m ready to connect with fans with one voice. Although it’s so needed to have camaraderie in a group, I began having a clear thing I wanted to share that was being derailed by other people’s motives, feelings, or personalities. The voice of God was telling me, “Okay, we’re getting ready to do something.” But all I could think was, “Oh, I would never leave my band.” Soon thereafter is when we all decided as a band to take a break, and it provided this opening of space and opportunity where I wasn’t betraying anyone and could freely go after this. And they’re all super pumped about it. Coming out to my little shows at The Five Spot. It’s such a gift in and of itself.
Goal-wise, I’m taking this year to work a 9-to-5 and learn so much about myself and other people. Preparing for the domestic life and how life-giving that can be for creativity.
BW: That’s really wonderful. I totally understand that. After years of being on the road myself, I grew concerned that I was going to end up writing a road record and all I could think was, “Who cares?” Most people don’t care about that topic. There may be some intrigue or mystery behind that lifestyle, but overall, that wouldn’t be a life-giving topic to write about. Yet, at the time, that’s all I was experiencing. That was my day-to-day. So, intentionally putting yourself back into a sense of “normalcy” can be occupationally and creatively smart. I think what you’re doing is a really healthy thing.
KK: Thank you. There were some strong moments on the road with KOPECKY where I feel like I was giving myself enough “self-care” through yoga, prayer, and meditation, and connecting deeply with people so that I could operate in the overflow. But so often it was not like that. So often it was, “Oh, we’re eating McDonald’s again for the fifth day in a row. We had to drive 13 hours straight and we’re tired and hungry and chicken nuggets just sound good cause I’m a horrible person.” Truly, just beating myself up.
So in this new season, I’m giving myself patience and a real break. To just “not care” for a little bit. To rebuild and reinvent. Recuperating.
BW: Right, like band rehab!
KK: Exactly! We’ve been a band for 8 years, and about 6 of those were on the road.
BW: Man, those days are long. And they run into each other. It’s endless. And you don’t have home to go back to every evening. It’s one of the hardest jobs. Performing can fuel so much of it, but all of the steps just to get to show . . . it’s unbelievable. It leaves you saying, “Man, I’m crazy to be doing this!” Hopefully the passion is strong enough. But recuperation is still needed. I get that.
After touring intensely for a few years, I started feeling a bit aimless. Like I was losing sight of the original goals. Losing sight of serving others. It became self-seeking. Warped expectations. Dissatisfied to the point that you may actually miss the victories in the midst. And eventually I was like, “I can’t have this happen to something I view to be so sacred.” And then pulling back, taking a break, recharging, and saying, “Okay, I’m ready to do it again.”
KK: Yes, that is so vital.
BW: This is a good segue into my next question—what are the dangers of this particular occupation? How do you combat it?
KK: Such a good question! For me, it’s noticing what can happen to your self-esteem when a song you write is online and you can view how many plays it’s getting or not getting. And then you start comparing yourself to others and feeling like, “Oh, I guess I’m not that good of a writer.” Even though that’s ridiculous, the trying-to-achieve self can get so defeated. And the responsibility of having everything I do since the previous project be better than the last and how that relates to my team and those involved can be such a weighty thing. A real pressure. That seems so dangerous to me. Being in a position where I view my job similar to a counselor. Trying to make a listener laugh or have them hear a love song that can be shared and be a healing exchange. That’s what I want to focus on, but so often all the brainpower goes into appeasing all the people who work for you—managers, publicists, labels, etc. On the flip side, the confidence can also get inflated by fans or consumers or media. It’s ridiculous, but it does have an effect.
BW: That makes sense. The ego vs. insecurity. It is truly such a paradox.
KK: Right. And it’s interesting right now, because I’m kind of in this phase where I’m not seeking out new music or listening to much music unless it’s a random vinyl from my grandma’s collection. I’m kind of over the whole what’s new? aspect right now.
BW: It really is overwhelming. It just seems like everyone is in a band. Making a record. It’s not feeling particularly special anymore, but I still believe in cream rising to the top. When I hear about something a lot, I’ll check it out. Or I’ll take a tangent from something I really love and dig into the backstory of that artist—i.e. who inspired them, and the train of music that led them to where they landed.
KK: Yeah, I’ll go to a show here or there, but only if it’s someone I really care about. But I’m rarely like, “I want to go to a venue”—it feels like the workplace!
BW: Of course. It’s easy to get audibly tired.Okay, so one final thing—you bring upyour grandma a lot. I remember when you and I toured together back in the day, you told me she taught you how to thrift shop — how to find the treasures amid the junk. And you’ve now referenced her again in speaking about vinyl. How does she work in your mind with your choices?
KK: My sweet grandma! I feel like she’s almost this figment in my mind. I actually saw her this past week. Grandma Carolee. She’s literally the cutest little woman you’ve ever met. She’s never trying, but she’s super cool. Poise and sophistication yet disheveled. I would ask her questions all the time growing up, for example: “Grandma, why are you watching this show about how elevators are going up?” She said, “Well, you never know when you’ll be sitting next to someone and that’s their thing, and you can connect with them over this topic you’ve learned about this random subject.” She’ll drop these nuggets of wisdom saying, “Well, only a fool wouldn’t change his mind.”
I think part of it is that she was kind of a hippie in her day and then my own mom was the opposite—she wanted to have a suburban home and stability. I grew up with my parents saying, “You’re not doing this or listening to that.” But when I would go to Grandma’s I would be like, “Whoa! What is this vinyl record?” And, “You make coffee out of this weird percolator thing?” Everything that she did seemed so different. She would compost in the early 90s. She would teach me about plants and soil. And every trip to her house was about learning about a life that’s full of little details and care.
We write a letter to each other once a month. She’ll send me some that include song ideas. Little sayings that she thinks I could possibly use.
BW: That’s so sweet! Based on what you’re describing, she reminds me a little bit of Maude from the movie Harold and Maude. Hopefully you view that as a compliment. It’s one of my favorite films.
KK: I’ll have to check that out! I’ve never seen it. I’ll totally watch it.
Grandma Carolee is super simple. She doesn’t have caller ID and doesn’t dial long distance. No internet. But she does have cable because she loves learning about things from TV shows. She was an interior designer for years in Minneapolis, so I always tell her, “Grandma, you’d love Pinterest.” She’ll always respond with, “I have my catalogs. I’m fine.”
KK: She’ll say, “The internet clouds your brain. It’s a portal to the unknown.”
BW: She’s kind of right. She’s like a really stark window into how life used to be pre-1980s.
KK: Yeah, she’s pretty special. I’m kind of obsessed with her.
BW: It sounds like she’s left some good marks on you. We’re all truly grateful for Grandma Carolee.
Music, like fashion, food, and a bevy of other cultural landscapes, continually waffles between nostalgia and innovation, cycling through one reinvention to the next. Brooke Waggoner’s inherent grasp and commitment to her sound, seems decidedly unconventional considering these patterns of trend. “I found my sound at a pretty young age,” says the songwriter, composer, and performer. That sound, explored and refined in her latest album, SWEVEN, draws the notes between her past and present and doesn’t hesitate to mine an unusual source — herself. Brooke found herself revisiting her earliest work, captured in a pre-YouTube phase of life, that she had recorded throughout her childhood.
The album, which released in January 2016, builds upon her previous work to tackle a more direct conversation about aging — in her words, “the beauty that lies within every notch on your belt, the good ones and the bad ones.” Its subject matter reveals a maturing artist and musician, and an evolving outlook brewing since the release of her freshman EP, Fresh Pair of Eyes, which was heralded as "[O]ne of the most exciting releases to come out of America in 2007" by the London Sunday Times when it debuted on the Nashville scene. Her next release, Heal For The Honey, plumbed the depths of heartbreak and repair with a jaunty, 70’s-esque pop lightness. With Go Easy Little Doves, released in 2009, the flemished featured musician took a turn for the pastoral with lush, unbridled instrumentals. It later debuted as number one on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter charts. Originator, promoted in 2013 and dubbed "[A] bold step forward" by Entertainment Weekly, led to gigs at Austin City Limits Festival and Lollapalooza.
In the midst of collaborating with and writing for Nashville-based musicians and orchestras, Brooke took time off in 2011 and 2012 to record and tour with Jack White. Licensing deals with prominent TV shows emerged as well, building a credible showcase of Brooke’s artistry and songwriting abilities. For the musician herself though, she is happiest when writing and poring over the keys of her piano. “Writing is thrilling for me. And wherever you are putting your time, there you will see the fruits of your labor,” Brooke says, “Or so I’m hoping.”
—written by Rachel Jones
Living an abundant life though music, movement, and art, Kelsey finds that all things are truly connected. While touring across the country performing with her band, Kopecky, her yoga mat collected little pieces of each adventure. Now, off the road for a bit, she's putting the finishing touches on her solo album between coats of paint on her new (old) home in the country right outside Nashville proper. Whether on stage or on the mat, operating from a place of vulnerability has become her sacred daily practice.