Cody Brooks Seeks A Truer Self With First World Problems
Tennessee native Cody Brooks recently released his debut full-length album, First World Problems, via Pasadena Records and working with Producer Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco). The album takes full advantage of Brooks’ omnivore tendencies when it comes to genres, and though the earthiness of his themes and rhythms stick closer to blues and other types of roots music, you’ll also find plenty of elements from across the musical board. Something that tends to tie the songs together is the way in which they capture dramatic moments of intense emotion with implied or overt storytelling as an anchor.
“Snake in the Kitchen” is a real-life fever dream projected into musical form, “Stay Gone” turns on the fateful moment when a lover is leaving, and “Sunny Days” feels like a captured conversation with perhaps the most important message one can deliver. Cody Brooks is also someone who has a close personal connection to the performance experience on an emotional level, and in both performance and in these new songs, he’s seeking to strip away versions of himself that no longer serve him to reach a more direct mode of engagement with himself and with audiences. I spoke with Brooks about making his videos, his experiences of performance, and working with Ken Coomer to tackle First World Problems in an organic way.
Americana Highways: What is your normal day like these days?
Cody Brooks: I am currently in editing mode for three music videos. As of right now, I’m basically a one-man team, so it’s been a process figuring out how to be on both sides of the camera and edit it all together without feeling like a complete narcissist.
AH: I guess you are spending a lot of time looking at your own face.
CB: I get so sick of looking at me that I’ve broken all the mirrors in my house.
AH: Before putting together this album, had you worked on videos?
CB: I’ve always been interested in film and filming. My dad was in the movie industry for over 30 years outside of Nashville. He was a picture car coordinator and a stunt car driver, so I grew up with film being a big, respected part of art. As my music developed into me wanting to express through sound and visually, I dove headfirst right into it. I have no idea what I’m doing, and I never got the rule book, but I’m just going for it. I myself am a pretty lo-fi fella, from how I dress, to how I live, and write. It’s all pretty damn organically lo-fi.
AH: Is that a decision that aligns with your way of thinking, or is it just something that’s natural to you?
CB: It’s pretty natural to me when I’m in the middle of it. I guess, once it’s completed, then I’m flooded with all these thoughts, “I wonder if this is too scratchy or dirty.” I start contemplating what other people might think. It’s almost like the five stages of grieving. There’s a process I go through of totally going for it, completely writing on dopamine and a dare, and then the result of the art that I want to see, then I become critical of it, then I let it go forth. Then it’s done. If people connect to it, great. If not, I’ve got plenty more [art] to make.
AH: A lot of artists struggle with that last stage, the letting go, and realizing that audiences will have a very different experience of that thing.
CB: It’s learning how everyone will have their own perspective. If I write a song about my dog dying, to someone else it could mean anything. I love that process. A lot of how I write is intentionally vague so that it can be up to the listener to fill in the details.
AH: If you’re writing lyrics, do you go back over drafts and remove detail to make it more open, or do you start in a more open way?
CB: I’d have to say that I’m usually going through that process internally before it ever reaches the pen. By the time it makes its way onto paper, I’ve already tried to remove as much of the detail as possible. But I’m also going through a major, weird metamorphosis [right now]. I feel like I’m still in a chrysalis stage, like we were talking about before, of a type of letting go. For me, it’s between the performer/entertainer and the audience.
As a native to Nashville and growing up performing for people, there’s a people-pleasing side of me that’s very instinctual. I’m trying to figure out how to separate that out as the artist now, and people be damned when it’s the art that I want to share. I’m somewhere caught in between right now.
AH: Having listened to First World Problems, I can tell there’s a depth of your own experiences there informing the songs, so I imagine that when you take the songs to a live performance, you might be encountering those emotions in a different way. Is it hard to be both personal and professional?
CB: For me, no. The moment that I’m on stage, I feel liberated from all social constraint. Once I’m on stage, I’m actually able to give more of the emotion than I was previously able to give. Once you see a live show of mine, you’ll notice that I want to spill it all. If I don’t, I feel like I’ve cheated the whole process. If I’m not crawling off that stage by the end it, I feel like I’ve conned the audience from receiving what I was actually feeling if that makes any sense.
AH: That’s a great way of putting it. For people who have performance as a big part of their personality, it can be almost a ritualistic experience for them that needs to go through certain stages. Do you need to have that experience to fulfil the creation of the music?
CB: Yes, it’s a balance of self, especially around this whole concept of the album. I have an incredible team of people who are around me, supporting me, and helping me through this process of letting my music be public, but I get very tired of “me.” There’s something about giving people my true, authentic self, and ripping away the person who I have to be in society, the person in the line at the grocery store. To be unfettered and undefined is the goal and I want to tap into that and amplify that as much as possible.
AH: Is that also true for you in your songs?
CB: In songwriting, it’s getting down to the brass tacks of actually saying what you wish you had said. Let’s say a lover is leaving you. You’re in that moment when they are at the door, and you’re saying goodbye, and they are leaving. You have that one moment, right before the hand closes the door, for you to actually say all the things that you couldn’t say until that point. That’s an incredibly brave place to try to be in life, even if it’s too late. That’s when you drop everything else, and whether or not it saves the relationship, at least you tried to say it. I’m just trying to be in that moment all the time. It takes a lot more out of you, but it’s something that I’ve been adjusting to and getting used to.
AH: Is that like trying to be more intentional and aware all the time, and less on auto-pilot in life?
CB: It’s taking the risk every time. That’s what makes life so fulfilling for me. A minute for me is an extended period of time because I don’t let it pass by. Every moment is too precious. It does take a lot more energy, and a lot more intake, whether physically, mentally, and spiritually. I’m really putting a lot of focus on that in my life right now.
AH: That really stands out in contrast to our lack of attention spans these days, but I wanted to circle back to this changing phase you’re going through. Do you feel that’s a change in your music, too?
CB: It’s more as a person, because my art is always shifting. I’m often the only common thread in my art. My art is all across the spectrum and I don’t sit well in only one palette. As soon as I paint with blue, I tend to want to go to yellow.
AH: I can see that with this album and I’m someone who likes a lot of musical genres, from Americana to metal. With this album, I saw that kind of range, because “Sunny Days” could almost be a metal song. Is Ken Coomer like-minded in that way?
CB: We’re definitely like-minded. Ken has an incredibly history of being a great man but also of pushing the boundaries of people who he works with and saying, “Risk it! Why not? Cross that line that we draw in the sand. That unknown territory, I know, is scary, but take it there.” He’s a great guy in your corner who helps motivate you to leave the path and find another. Using that path analogy, things would start with us leaving a path, and almost taking an animal trail. There would be some sort of path, though it’s more feral, and you know it’s going to lead you to water. You know that there’s a reason why there’s a trail there.
That’s why I love working with Ken. He’s sheltered me from a lot of the “industry” side of things where in order to expose you to audiences, they have to define you. For someone like me, that’s hard. I’ll wake up, and I’ll be jamming Bill Monroe, then at lunch I’m on Django Reinhardt, then in the afternoon, I’m listening to Mastodon. I’m all over the place and right now I’m letting go of the fear of being labelled.
AH: To go back to “Sunny Days” which has such a great sound, the ideas are also interesting there because there’s a sense of dialog there. My assumptions were that the song presents two ways of looking at life, either more optimistic or more pessimistic, and the speaker is trying to get the other person to try something different. Did that stem from a personal frustration?
CB: For me, it stemmed from the fact that I’m an empath, and I don’t keep a lot of people around me, but those who are in my life mean just as much to me as I do. When you find people that maybe are being overwhelmed by depression or sense of hopelessness, it becomes incredibly motivating for me to try to tell that person, “You’re simply feeling it, and looking at it, in a way that won’t allow you to win or grow.” They are chewing on the wrong side of the pork chop, just chewing on the bones. If they flip that sucker over, they’ll find that it’s delicious!
I wrote “Sunny Days” after a couple of friends of mine had gotten really blue, and it was kind of seasonal. Nashville is known and notorious for its grew skies in the winter. It can become incredibly depressing. It’s not even weather. That creates great art, but I had a couple friends who couldn’t see the silver lining and it was frustrating for me because I loved them so much. I wanted to ask, “What happened to your sunny days? Why did they leave?” A lot of my music is reactionary and I’m responding to life and people around me. I want to give back something that could help them see it differently.
There’s also something about being able to hide the idea of the song in melody and not sound preachy. I’m not saying to them, “Listen to what I have to say!” I often try to put those things into songs rather than just saying it in a room.
AH: How did the process work with you and Ken choosing and putting the finishing touches on these songs?
CB: These songs were compiled across a two-year period through various sessions. We were just kind of piling them up. We loved the sounds and we loved the songs, but we wondered how we were going to put them all into one project. It all went nice and slowly, and there wasn’t a whole lot of intent in terms of the design of it all. I’d show up, and Ken would hand me a guitar, and say, “Whatcha got? Play me some of your new songs!” I’d just go through them and there’d be one that went well with his breakfast. He’d say, “That one!” Then we’d wonder, “How is that going to fit with ‘Snake in the Kitchen’?” “Well, we’ll just wait and see.” Over that period, it allowed what started as a compilation to become a pretty cohesive project.
AH: I feel like each of the songs is an intense snapshot of a particular mood in a particular moment, or a particular type of feeling. That’s something that pulls the songs together as well.
CB: You got me pegged. We picked one song at a time and removed some that might be unnecessary because they were already represented by another song. It was an interesting process of allowing things to have polarity without it feeling like a compilation album.
Thanks for chatting with us, Cody Brooks! Find more Cody Brooks tour dates and info, here: https://www.codybrooks.rocks