She’s tumbling into our consciousness like a cannonball, she’s a singer-songwriter, she’s a Greenfield Guitars artist and she’s a super-talented virtuoso acoustic guitar player. Meet Brooke Miller…
When you think of your favourite female songwriters, how many of them are really fully developed as writers? Plenty is the likely answer. How many are really outstanding, expressive singers? Probably lots of them are. But how many are really developed, complex guitar players? The truth is probably very few. However, here, in Brooke Miller, we have someone who brings all of it together. The Canadian songwriter’s virtuosic guitar playing and dense, evocative lyrics call to mind one of her key influences, Bruce Cockburn, and have won her a passionate and growing audience across Europe. I asked Brooke about her influences, and to what extent she is conscious of those influences when writing. ‘I think I’ve always been inspired by people who step outside of their comfort zone and challenge themselves in different ways, and I think if you’re going to play, why not push it, and do something different. I don’t do it deliberately; my goal is to sound like me, and whilst I do always want to see what I can take from artists I love, and adapt and play around with it, I always want to make it my own. If you want to go for longevity in your career, that’s what you do; embrace your influences, but still sound like you.’
Brooke has been building a significant fan base in Europe, and I wondered how much of a challenge that was for a Canadian artist. ‘As a Canadian musician, it stands to reason that I tour Canada, but not as heavily as I tour Europe and especially the UK. I started going to Germany about six years ago, and gradually working up my audience base, working with other American musicians like [husband and fellow guitarist] Don Ross, so it’s been a few years of working on it that way. Don has a really lovely following of venues and promoters and fans, so I’ve been really fortunate to be able to build from that. I think it’s just turned into a regular thing, and it’s expanding still.’
I asked whether the language barrier was a problem, particularly to someone who writes such lyric heavy songs? ‘Yes and no; any effort that you can make, even if it’s only a few words from the stage means you can connect a bit. I live in Quebec, so I’m learning French at the moment, and I have a few German words, but the Scandinavians are mind boggling in their language skills. While I can make an effort to speak the local language, there’s an understanding that you are a foreign artist. With the lyrics, what I’ve managed to do is just communicate at least what the song is about in language they can understand, and I hope from there that those who can’t understand every word of the lyrics can still get a feel from the song.’
Whilst the internet has opened new channels to performers, even the big pop stars don’t have the careers and money that they used to have. I wondered what would constitute success in Brooke’s eyes. ‘I think it’s going to be a long ride; I’m just going to continue doing what I do. I also dabble in the electric guitar sound, and again, hopefully it still sounds like me, but there is a strong fan base for acoustic music. I never think of acoustic as just a soft, singer-songwriter thing; I like to play like that, but I also like to rock out. I like that people are trying to give acoustic music a little more edge, but as long as it gets people excited and makes something new, it’s worth doing. Whilst I’m not on the top of the charts, I’m making a good living. Now that record sales have plunged, artists have to be at the helm of their careers, play live, and tour a lot. If you’re not Katy Perry, or Adele, then you’re the 98%. While there is a great thing happening because of the internet, you just have to be touring constantly, and be diverse in what you do. For me, I made a good relationship with a booking agency in the UK called Whipping Boy, and they now book Don and me and others, and are getting really creative with their promotions, taking international indie artists and making something happen with them. Anyone who wants to go for longevity, and instil integrity in their career should be involved in the decision making around you career; nobody is going to do it for you. You’re a self-employed person, and you’re making relationships around the world, making the best of it and being really positive. It means you’re really busy, but I’d rather be busy than bored.’
It’s rare to find a guitarist who accompanies songwriting with such complex playing, and rarer still to find a female with such virtuosity. I wondered why she thought that was, and what had led her to play the way she does. ‘My parents have exposed me to a pretty well-rounded bunch of music from the beginning; my mother taught me about alternate tunings, and how to mess around with string gauges and so on, and it just never really occurred to me that there might be a gender divide. This was my chosen instrument, and I wanted to become really good at it, so I put the work in, and of course, I was influenced by some of the people I loved to listen to who also used the whole scope of what a guitar can do.’
It takes bravery to play songs you’ve written in public, and it’s always fascinating to learn what pushes people to make the step from playing in their bedrooms to being a performer. I asked Brooke how it had happened for her. ‘Well, I grew up on an Prince Edward Island, which has a real Celtic music tradition, and whether it was on stage or a ceilidh in the kitchen, performance was around me all the time. When you grow up around things they seem very natural, but putting it into action, I was in the school band, and the jazz band playing sax. I think my first foray into playing my own music was when I was around twelve, I had a power-punk trio with my friends Lionel and Kenny, called Bleek, and we would play these all ages shows with ten different bands on the bill, and we’d play every weekend. It was great practise, not just learning how to work together, but how to share the stage, and to play together, and screw up and be ok. The punk atmosphere wasn’t about perfection, it was about rocking out and having a good time, and sometimes there was blood, but not often! I got my first guitar when I was ten, but when I was fourteen, my Mom gave me her old Yamaha that I still have, which she got in 1969, and she taught me about tunings. That was when I started shutting myself in my room and playing, and I wanted to be a bit more specific than power chording my way through a song. I wanted the guitar and my voice to be two instruments working together. I wrote a lot of songs, and most of them were crap, but that’s how it works, right? My Dad bought me a little Tascam recorder, and I would ping pong tracks to my heart’s content, until I had like sixteen scratchy tracks of me playing.’
Brooke plays some very interesting guitars from her local luthier, Michael Greenfield of Greenfield Guitars; I asked her to talk me through the instruments she uses.
‘Living in French Canada gives me opportunities; I’m working with Greenfield Guitars for acoustics and XXL Guitars for the electrics. Greenfield is a really small business and Michael Greenfield has been building guitars since the 80s that are right up there with the best of the best. He really is one of the world’s finest luthiers. We met at a gig of mine in Montreal in 2005, and we’ve been working together ever since. It’s great to work with another independent artist, who really knows what I do with the instrument, what I’m going to put into it and the demands I’m going to put on it. The best advertising for him is that I take his guitars on the road, and he gets orders from my fans; I take information with me wherever I go. It’s more of a partnership than an endorsement; he’s one of my dearest friends.’
‘I play the G2 and, more recently, the G4 model. The G2 is a pretty standard edition, but the way he built it for me was to work with a 13-62 gauge strings, with a long scale, using lots of different tunings. He uses nothing but K&K pickups, a small company that make absolutely the best pickups. My guitars are fairly large, and my action, you know, is work, but it has to be in order for men to play the way I play, and the neck is sized down for my tiny hands. The G4 is more like a baritone, it’s just huge, and it has fanned frets on the neck, which works well to hold intonation and tuning. Mine is a DADGAD model, and it needs to be able to deal with low notes, because I keep it in Cm11 tuning, which kind of sounds like Darth Vader, it has a big beautiful sound. I play it with massive 15-64 strings, and it has this huge tone. If you search for my name and Greenfield on YouTube, there are a few videos which feature it heavily, and it’s an amazing instrument.’
Check Brooke’s videos out on YouTube and be witness to the incredible team of her stunning musicianship with world-class luthiery – it’s just spectacular.