Sweven — pronounced like heaven, not Steven — is, to quote Merriam-Webster, a “Middle English noun meaning sleep, dream, or vision.” The word is derived from Old English and was the kind of noun Chaucer would have bandied about. Nashville-based singer, songwriter, pianist, and orchestrator Brooke Waggoner thought the ancient word was perfect for the title of her latest album, which came out on January 15 on her own swevenly named label, Swoon Moon Music.
Over the past few years, Waggoner has scored high-profile gigs: She has recorded and toured with Jack White and has arranged music for ABC’s wildly popular Nashville. She began working on some of the songs that would become Sweven several years ago while juggling these pursuits, and, understandably, the album took a while to take shape. The muse finally took hold of Waggoner while she was touring China for three weeks in the summer of 2014, and that’s when the process that led to Sweven officially commenced.
“I had already recorded several pieces in New Orleans,” Waggoner tells the Voice from her home in Nashville. “But I was sitting on the recordings, not sure what to do with them. When I was in China, I just knew what I was going to do with them. I found touring around China very inspiring. Anytime I’m out of the country I feel inspired — it’s like clearing my mind.”
The Chinese tour was at the invitation of Waggoner’s Chinese distributor, Pocket Records, and she accepted despite being newly pregnant and in her second trimester. The combination of being pregnant and being in an exotic place turned out to be an unforgettable experience. “At the time, I was thinking a lot about my dreams, and my unborn child’s dreams,” she recounts. “Then one day I was walking through this beautiful forest and it struck me: I thought, ‘I need to go home and make something now and don’t delay.'”
With that tour completed, she did just that and immersed herself in a world of pregnancy and creativity, and the album, after dawdling for years, soon coalesced around this idea of dreamlike states. Still, that didn’t mean she herself wasn’t sharply focused. If the tour had pushed her in the right creative direction, pregnancy gave her a deadline: She would finish the album, her fourth full-length, before her son arrived (she did so with just a day to spare).
The result isn’t hazy stuff, as the title might suggest: It’s a set of smart pop numbers with the odd grand, swooning melody, but Sweven is mostly filled with bold, theatrical songs. Family members and friends, including her husband, Brad, who plays drums, added instrumental parts to the record. The pair met as musicians, but Brad works as a physical therapist now. Mum and dad are touring together though, leaving junior at home with family. “It’s a mixed bag,” Waggoner says of having free time away from motherhood. “We get to hang out and be grownups, but like anyone who has to travel for work, it’s hard being away from your child. But you suck it up.”
With touring for Sweven filling her calendar, side work is on hold, but she admits working with Jack White “was a blast.” The pair met when she was invited to audition as a pianist for White, who was scouting talent to fill out the sound on Blunderbuss. “Someone called me and told me he wanted a pianist. I didn’t know what it was about; they didn’t share any details other than he specifically wanted a female pianist. Then I toured [in support of] Blunderbuss and Lazaretto with him. Jack’s an amazing creative force,” she says. She’s more matter-of-fact than starstruck when she speaks of the Third Man Records prez and White Stripe. (Her tone changes to giddy, though, when another big-name collaborator, Beck, comes up: “I am a huge Beck fan; he’s so cool and amazing!”)
“I don’t really do a lot of sideman work,” she adds. “It’s a different hat to wear. It’s someone else’s world creatively. There’s less stress and pressure: You just show up for work. You can put your stamp on someone else’s project, but you are performing rather than forming it.”
One hat she likes to wear is that of orchestrator. She arranged strings on the latest Dead Weather album, Dodge and Burn, in addition to her work for Nashville. “I love orchestrating; I have a degree in that,” she says fondly. “It’s me in the producer realm, fleshing out a song. In the case of Nashville, I was adding this slick lush orchestration to what was a simple country song.”
When she looks back on it, the time it took to finish Sweven astounds her, particularly because patience wasn’t always her style. “I have become more patient and learned whether something is going to work or not. And if it doesn’t work, I now know to scratch it, or archive it and wait for another time to come when it fits,” she admits. “When I was younger, I was more angsty. I realized there was already a million records in the world, so there was no hurry for me to put mine out.”
Brooke Waggoner plays February 17 at Rockwood Music Hall.