Photo: Cal & Aly
Michelle Brooke On Releasing Her Debut EP & The Reality Of Musicians' Struggle During COVID-19
April should have been Michelle Brooke’s time to celebrate.
The Nashville-based singer-songwriter’s life and career had been building toward the moment when she could finally release her debut EP Let The Light In to the world. Brooke certainly earned a turn in the spotlight. After studying theater and performance in Michigan, she left for New York to pursue a career on Broadway, and soon found herself honing her abilities as a performer on Carnival Cruise Ships.
“I got to travel the world,” she says of the experience. “I got to touch a sloth in Costa Rica. Who else gets to do that?” Brooke eventually made her way to Music City and quickly found her feet, getting regular gigs singing in the house band at historic downtown venue Acme Feed and Seed, performing at weddings, and one-off performances like providing backup vocals for a benefit show at the legendary Ryman Auditorium last year.
All that was leading toward the recording and release of Let The Light In, a gorgeous six-song collection of throwback soul and R&B that highlights Brooke’s versatile vocal range and finely weathered songs of love and heartbreak. The Kickstarter-funded EP was ready to drop and Brooke was ready to start a new chapter in her story when everything in the live music industry ground to a halt as the country worked to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Brooke’s post-shutdown story should be familiar to most working musicians. But her struggle to make ends meet after all her work disappeared seemingly overnight, and how she was pulled from the brink with some help from MusiCares is one that, like her music, deserves to be heard. Brooke recently spoke with the Recording Academy about the effects of the coronavirus shutdown on her career and swallowing her pride as she reached out for help during these trying times.
I want to get a sense of what your creative life was like before everything in Nashville shut down. What was going on in your world?
I moved to Nashville in September of 2016, and I got to work really quickly. I was very lucky to be integrated into an amazing network and an amazing community here. I was singing every Thursday at a beloved venue here, Acme Feed and Seed. I’ve been in their house band, the Music City Toppers, for almost three years. It’s a funk-soul band. Really great tunes. We had quite a little following here in Nashville.
My weekends, I would be out with wedding bands. That’s how I’m allowed to live here and support myself. I use all the income that I received from singing in these bands to support myself. I was part of a band called the Downtown Band and that’s how I met a couple of the co-writers that I work with: Jordan Philips and Adam Stark. They’re in a band called Apollo LTD. I was doing live sessions. I was doing studio work. I was singing with the children’s theater company called QuaverMusic. Just anything I could do. I was making a living as a musician. I wasn’t babysitting. I wasn’t waiting tables. I was so elated that I could finally have the freedom of singing as a profession.
So I was really happy and comfortable. I was about to release my first EP and was planning on doing a release show and touring it... and that all didn’t happen unfortunately.
How long has it been since you were able to make music your full-time career?
It was September 10, 2019. That’s the date exactly. I remember I was so happy because that’s a dream! With musicians, it’s so rare that we can actually say, “I just do music for a living.” You know, I had the strangest jobs. I was a terrible barista. I babysat. I was a dog walker. I did every job under the sun to be able to support myself as an independent artist.
You know, to be candid, I had been putting a lot of things on my credit card. I did a Kickstarter for this record I that put out, but in my mind, I was saying, “When March starts, I know that that’s wedding season, and I know that every weekend I’m doing to be going out and making money. I’m just going to pay off everything that I’m putting on these cards to release this EP.” That goes as far as like PR, promotion, artwork, everything. So when everything was officially shut down, that happened at the worst time. There’s never a good time, but that happened at the quintessential time when all of these weekend warrior musicians here in Nashville start making our money.
"I had the strangest jobs. I was a terrible barista. I babysat. I was a dog walker. I did every job under the sun to be able to support myself as an independent artist."
That’s something I don’t think many people outside of that area understand about Nashville. It’s a big hub for bachelor and bachelorette parties.
Every single weekend! And this band that I was a part of, we hired some pretty big time musicians. Members of Kelly Clarkson’s band. Members of Harry Connick Jr.’s band. We all pile into this 12 person van – which seems crazy right now – and we go to Kentucky, Cincinnati, Indiana. We’re in this amazing band where we could go off on the weekends and make the bread and butter... and then we could pay our rent and continue to make music.
How quickly did things shut down for you?
It was really fast. I remember the last gig that I had at Acme. It was a Thursday night and I remember it was very eerie. Everyone in the band looked kind of scared. One of the drummers is actually a chemist so he brought some ethanol. We were all spraying our hands with it. We were really freaked out. And around that time, we got hit so hard with the tornadoes in early March. So there was a tornado watch and COVID-19 was prevalently in the news. So we were really nervous onstage. My female counterpart, Amanda Broadway, she turned to me and said, “I’m going to give all the notes tonight because I think this might be the last time we’re going to be on stage for a while.” I’m thinking it might be like a week or two weeks, but that was March 12th and I haven’t been on stage since.
Have you finally been able to get on the unemployment rolls?
I was able to get on the website and get registered because of a W2 that I had from my last part-time job at the beginning of 2019. I’m currently receiving a very, very small portion of the state maximum, which is $275. I’m only receiving, I think, $58 right now. They haven’t gone through my wage protest. I had to go on the website and file... I think it was 10 or 12 missing employers from my 1099s. That’s been a huge struggle for Nashvillians and musicians around the States. They passed that bill saying that self-employed folks and people who are independent contractors will be eligible, but it’s so slow because they’re so overwhelmed with all these applications. I had to reach out to my state representative so they could see if they could get me any more assistance.
How was it for you to request the grant from MusiCares? There had to be a little bit of pride swallowing doing that.
You hit the nail right on the head. It was really scary for me and I didn’t want to do it for a while. My partner Kevin McGowan — he’s the drummer in Larkin Poe — he was like, “Listen, you’ve got to get online. You’ve got to do this because this is going to be a while.” I was a little bit in denial. I didn’t want to admit defeat. I was thinking, “I’m just going to keep doing livestreams and the fans will help. Then friends and family will help.” But everybody’s in the same boat. And I was thinking, “Do I even deserve this grant?” All the self-deprecating things you think to yourself before you ask for help. When I finally applied and I was stating my work history, I was realizing, “I’ve been doing this career for my entire life. I’ve been pursuing music my entire life. There’s a group of people that want to help me and recognize that. They’re not saying, ‘Can I see every single cent that you’ve made?’ They’re just saying, ‘Have you been a working member of the music industry?’” There was no pressure from them. They want to help.
"I’ve been pursuing music my entire life. There’s a group of people that want to help me and recognize that."
You got that grant from MusiCares. How are things for you now?
Oh my gosh... When they said yes and they responded and said that the check was on the way, I had just been preparing to try to think of another place to live because I wasn’t going to be able to make my rent. I was thinking I might have to go home to Michigan. And while I love being home, I thought that wasn’t a possibility because my parents are in the 60s and they’re both high risk. With this grant I was able to pay my rent and my bills and my car payment and my phone payment. And when that happened, it was right around the time I released my EP so I was able to enjoy that and buy a bottle of champagne and not feel guilty about it.
How are things looking now?
They just started approving the federal assistance. Because of that, I have been okay. I’ve deferred several payments. It’s weird being this open, but I don’t think we should be ashamed of telling people and speaking out and saying, “I’m in the same boat.” It all comes down to going through the stages of grief and recognizing that everybody is too. I’m going to continue to apply for these grants and I’m going to continue to defer payments and message my state representatives because that’s what they’re there for. I’m in the lifeboat and I’ve got my preserver on. That’s where I am.
Learn more about how you can donate to or apply for assistance via the Recording Academy's and MusiCares' COVID-19 Relief Fund.
Learn more about the financial, medical and personal emergencies services and resources offered by the Recording Academy and MusiCares.