Photo by Ashtin Page
Teri Bracken has lived through a lot in the years leading up to the release of Finishing School, her new EP as Bronte Fall–and that was before a tornado dropped two trees on her house and the country shut down in response to a global pandemic. She was sidelined from music school for two years by an undiagnosed parasite, and when she finally found her way to Nashville, she still faced an uphill battle against the expectations set for women by the music industry and the larger society it reflects.
All of that sets the stage for “Six Years,” the triumphant pop-rock anthem that opens Finishing School. It celebrates everything Bracken overcame in getting where she is in her career. In a slow build of grandiose guitar and strings, “Six Years” takes growing older and wiser as a cause for celebration–in contrast to a world that demands and commodifies the performance of youth.
On “Bad Ideas” she reflects on a regrettable one-night stand with another singer/songwriter. On “White Dress,” she takes a bluesy organ pad over a wedding march, renewing her vows as an artist and her commitment to her musical aspirations. Backed up in the studio by producers Jake Finch and Lars Thorson, Bracken dips in and out of the Nashville mold, deploying country and pop sounds where they fit best.
In June, she spoke to The All Scene Eye about settling into her new normal under quarantine and the professorial slight that inspired the title of Finishing School.
How have you been holding up under lockdown?
It’s interesting. Being an artist and a creative, there’s this pressure that maybe I’m putting on myself, but I feel like others are feeling too, where it’s like, “have to be creative, have to write the next amazing and deep song about coronavirus,” and I feel like the world’s just been so heavy right now, I personally have not been able to. I just felt like my brain was too crowded–sort of jumbled and not in the proper headspace for writing. Nashville had a tornado at the beginning of March. I had two trees fall on my house and I was displaced for two weeks. I got back into my house on a Friday night on the 13th, and then was quarantined by Sunday. It’s just been nonstop, so I feel like it’s one of those times where you just have to survive, you know? Get through and not be too hard on yourself.
I was going to ask you about that double whammy of the tornado and then quarantine. What was that like for you, and how has Nashville been in the aftermath of that?
It’s been really interesting. I guess I did write one song just because I’ve never been in a tornado before–I grew up in Chicago, and we’d get warnings all the time, but we never had a tornado ever–so I’m sleeping, and I hear all these sirens, and I think that they are just firetrucks. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, please be quiet. I’m trying to sleep.” Like, I’m half-asleep, and I was startled out of my bed. It was like my body reacted to the sound above me and flew out of bed because two trees crashed above my bedroom, and they didn’t go through the ceiling, but I heard a huge crash. The house was shaking, the windows were shaking, and I literally felt like I was in Wizard of Oz–like I was going to be swept up into the tornado.
The one song I have written [laughs] I’ve written a couple, but one of them was about being in a tornado and not waking up in Oz. Waking up in total devastation. And for that to continue into coronavirus, I just feel like the world tipped upside-down in early March, and it hasn’t gone right-side up again. It’s just been trying to adjust to a new normal, but it really feels it’s sort of like a rebirth, coming out of coronavirus. There’s still lots of destruction in East Nashville. I did go home to Chicago for, like, a month, and I thought coming back a few weeks ago, it would all be better, and the buildings would be back, and they’re just not. I feel like the world is going through a thing, and, you know, letting their old ways burn, and there’s sort of a rebirth with life in general right now.
You participated in the music industry blackout [in June], out of deference to the protest movements that have been going on, and so I’m curious, how did you spend that time, and how has that been influencing you?
I think especially in the music industry, it’s–I also think it’s sometimes hard to talk about [laughs] being, like, white privilege girl, but I’ve been so influenced by Black music in my life. And I’m calling it Black music, but to me, growing up, it was just music, you know? Like, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, and even–our American music comes from the rural Black south, with blues music. I feel like they brought the African drum beats, and it sort of–I’m not speaking intelligently about this, but basically, it merged with American southern music. They contribute so much to music, and America, and honestly, some of the best music has come out of their struggle. I feel like we haven’t recognized that enough, with blues music, and rock and roll, obviously. Elvis Presley was just singing blues music, and he was white, so he got away with it.
I participated in the blackout, but I really just wanted to listen and hear black voices in my community. My friend Danya in Chicago is a producer, and we met through the music industry, and to hear his story on Facebook, how he experiences life–for us to have the same exact passion, but because he’s a Black man, for his experience to be so different–I think it’s very important for someone like me right now to listen and be mindful of what they’re going through. I feel really bad and sad, you know? For what has happened in our country with Black lives. It makes me so sad, and I think right now I’m just trying to listen to podcasts that talk about race, trying to support Black retailers, and help the disparity even just a little bit.
Your debut record, Silhouette Dances, came out in 2017. When did you first start working on the songs that became this new EP, Finishing School?
Some of them I wrote two and a half years ago, and I feel like when I write, I don’t write these seven songs in a month. These songs on the EP are very representative of what I’ve experienced in the last two to three years, and I do feel like I write as I experience life, whether it’s the #MeToo movement, whether–I mean, I have not written any songs about Black Lives Matter yet, but I feel like I do respond to what’s happening socially and around the world.
And for me personally, Bronte Fall–the Bronte sisters were women in the 1850’s in England. They were three sisters and they had to go under male pseudonyms to be published. They were shut down because they were women. They couldn’t be authors. Bronte Fall is about having a strong female voice, unedited and honest, and I think even the #MeToo movement, just having that happen in the last three years–I love using my voice as an artist, as a musician, to sing about my stories. You hear that in “Warrior” and “White Dress.” That’s how I contribute to what’s going on around me.
“Six Years” I wrote almost three years ago, but I feel like it’s a far-reaching song. It’s about celebrating aging, but it’s also the pressure I feel in the music industry getting older, being female, and feeling like time is running out for me because youth is so important and is so valued in our society. I needed to write that song as a pep talk, almost, to myself. I guess that was almost three years ago now, so it’s sort of spanned the last few years for me, this EP.
Tell me about the title, Finishing School. How did that become the name for this group of songs?
So, kind of funny, not. When I graduated undergrad–coming on second semester of college, I was like, “Oh my god, I still need one random credit of science to graduate,” and I either had to take a full science class or there was this opportunity I could go to Costa Rica [laughs] for my spring break, for like, three weeks, and it was a sustainable development trip. And I mean, I’m not an outdoorsy chick. I like to go on hikes and everything, but I’m not one to sleep outside for a week, but it was just this really cool opportunity. I love to travel, and all you have to do is write a paper at the end, and I was like, “Okay, that’s a really awesome way to get this one credit of science.” So I went, and I had a really good time, but I bring up that I’m not the most outdoorsy chick because somehow, my professor–he made this comment to me on the trip that I will never forget.
He was like, “You know, Teri, there are three reasons people go to college.” I’m like, “Okay, what are they?” He’s like, “One is for vocation purposes. Like, you want to be a lawyer. You want to go into finance. They have a very strict track.” I’m like, “Okay, yeah, yeah.” He’s like, “Then, some kids go to actually learn.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I feel like I fall under that category. I want to learn. I’m in the liberal arts. I’m a Spanish major, music history, like, whatever.” He’s like, “And then there’s the third, which is, some women choose to go to college as a form of finishing school to find their husbands and get refined.” And he’s like, “You fall under that category.” And I was like, “What? Are you kidding?” I haven’t forgotten that to this day. I was like, “Why do you say that?” And the only reason I can think is that I was not wanting to go bird-watching or didn’t like that I was brushing my teeth next to iguanas.
I haven’t forgotten that to this day, and as I’ve gone through my 20’s and early 30’s, so many women around me did follow a very traditional track, especially in my hometown. Go to college, meet your husband in your early 20’s, get married by your mid-to-late 20’s, have babies, settle down, and don’t have career aspirations. And I’m not knocking that, but I couldn’t be more different than that. I have always been so ambitious and so driven, musically, in wanting a career. I feel like the last several years have really demonstrated that, and so does this music. I wanted to stamp that on as, like–it’s sort of ironic, right? It’s the exact opposite of who he thought I was. My songs sort of sing about that and that’s sort of the statement I’m making with Finishing School.
I feel like there are songs in my EP that talk about what it is to be a female in 2020, trying to find her way and not going the traditional path. My campaign manager Brie, she said this, not me, but I thought it was brilliant. She’s like, “I feel like there’s still this invisible or implied finishing school,” where there’s a certain traditional path that our parents or our grandparents still think we should follow. “If you’re dating a guy for a certain amount of years, why aren’t you married yet? Okay, you’re married. Why don’t you have kids yet? Wait, why are you still working?” This pressure, like, “Why are you doing this? Why don’t you live in this little small town of Glencoe that’s so boring?” [laughs] So basically, it’s just the irony of the title, Finishing School. “White Dress” really delves into the traditional versus the nontraditional avenues.
You’ve said in other things that have come out around this EP that it’s been heartwarming to see that song connect with other women. How have you seen people respond to that?
With “White Dress” in particular, the chorus goes:
“Some girls want that white dress, three kids and a picket fence
Minivan in the driveway, no noise from the highway, or interstate
Run around in their yoga pants, with their hubbies in finance
Starbucks in the a.m., and close out the day with a good cabernet
That life isn’t for me, girls, you know what I mean
It might not look like the rest, but this is my white dress.”
It’s a take on that very traditional belief that a little girl’s ultimate dream is to get married and wear that white dress walking down the aisle. For me, I would love to get married down the road, but that hasn’t been my ultimate dream. That isn’t the end-all. I’m pursuing this career and I’m very passionate about it. I’ve worked so hard at it and I’m sort of celebrating what the last five years of my life have looked like and saying, this is my white dress. My ultimate dream is to follow my dream. Singing that song, I’ve had a lot of girls coming up to me being like, “I’m so moved by that song,” and just reaching out to me on Facebook and Instagram being like, “Can you please send me that song?” I’m like, “It’s not recorded yet but I’m definitely going to record it!”
Even “Six Years” was–and this is not just girls in their 20’s. A lot of people need that song, celebrating getting older and talking about how much wiser and stronger and cooler and more confident we all get. It should be celebrated–I guess it is. Every year, we celebrate our birthdays, but [laughs] I feel like that song, too, really hits a lot of people.
What does that six year period refer to? Is it anything specific in your own life?
It is, it is super specific. “Six Years” is the second single, and it is a celebration of getting through life and getting older, and for me, there is a personal story there. I first came to Nashville in 2011. I was in music school, and one of my teachers saw how passionate I was about songwriting, so she was like, “You should go down to Nashville,” and I honestly never had my eyes on Nashville. I always wanted New York City–like, east coast–but then I went down there and I was blown away by the talent and everyone pursuing their dreams.
But I was also pretty intimidated, and in my early 20’s, I was like, “Oh my god, I’ll never be good enough.” I went to a show and I drank wine at home and cried after because I was like, “I’ll never be good enough. I’ll never be able to do this.” Wanting to pursue it, but being intimidated. And then shortly after that, I went to Africa with my family and contracted a parasite that nobody could detect. I saw, like, three different doctors. I ended up being bedridden for two years in my mid-20’s. I had to drop out of Berklee for two years, had to leave my friends and my apartment and school, and was just so devastated.
I realized how much I had missed music too. It put it into perspective to have it completely taken away from me, and I think it revitalized my love for it, being like, “I don’t care if I’m Taylor Swift, or if I’m–” well, I don’t want to be penniless, but “I don’t care on what level I’m doing this or if I don’t think I’m good enough. It’s worth it.” I love music, and life can be short.
I didn’t honestly know. I was like, “What the hell is wrong with me?” They couldn’t find the parasite, and they never actually did find it. They just finally put me on a medication for a parasite that I could maybe have, and I got better. But basically, at that point in my life, I was like, “Life is so short. I have to do what I love.” And so I went back six years later to Nashville, after I finally graduated, after I was finally better, and I felt so different. I felt so much more confident and so much stronger and I ultimately just felt ready. I wasn’t as scared. I felt like I was good enough no matter what. It was a whole transformation, and I just wanted to celebrate the fact that I survived a really dark period in my life, and that I’m so much stronger and smarter and ready.
One of the things that Nashville is great for is that there’s a lot of people around, which, like you said, can be intimidating, but also there’s a lot of opportunities for collaboration. “Six Years,” for example, you co-wrote with Colin Peterik. “White Dress” you co-wrote with Isaac Slutzky. How did those experiences come about?
Yeah, Nashville is an incredible community of musicians, and living in a city like Chicago–I mean, Chicago has great music, but it doesn’t have the industry. Living in a non-industry city, it gets lonely for a musician, so moving down to Nashville, it was so wonderful to meet people who just wanted to write every day, and who you could write with. I met Isaac through my guitar teacher. He had lessons after me, and we had both moved to Nashville recently, and then we ran into each other at Whole Foods, exchanged phone numbers, and got together. It can be hard to just be in your own head writing a song by yourself, and once you bounce off your ideas, I feel like a really awesome crystallized idea comes out of that. Like “White Dress.” Isaac helped me with that whole concept. We got together just to talk twice before we even wrote anything, trying to figure out a really clever, cool angle, and it paid off.
Colin is actually a colleague from Chicago, but again, it’s just so awesome–you know, we all have different strengths, and Colin’s strength is he’s a producer too, so he can really pour a lot musically into that song and just help me finish my thoughts. He was really helpful with the second verse because I had started the first verse, and he liked how hooky it was, and like, making the rhyme and the melody be as catchy as possible. It’s really fun to write with other people, and it’s a great community down here. You make friends, you know?
Another song I wanted to ask you about is “Bad Ideas.” You have alluded to the fact that some of your ethos as a songwriter is inspired by the Bronte sisters, and “Bad Ideas” is built on an archetype that feels very Bronte-esque. Where did that song come from?
That was very autobiographical. [laughs] Yeah, it’s very, like, Wuthering Heights–Heathcliff is this really dark character that Catherine falls in love with–and this is just me personally, but I felt that maybe other people could relate. I mean, it’s really the emptiness in a one-night stand; that’s sort of what the song’s about. I wanted to be as honest as possible that there’s this guy on stage–I’m at a writer’s round, and he’s a hit songwriter, but he’s also really sad. He’s like, sexy and sad and dark and older, and he’s got this mystique, and I’m attracted to that. Like, what on earth–[laughs] I hope others can relate, that I was like, “That is so hot and sexy,” and you just get carried away in the evening. It’s a bad idea, but you just can’t help it. I wanted to be really bold about that, that I’m not after the nice, happy guy who wants to treat me so nicely. I want the really depressed singer/songwriter who probably has a lot of issues. I just wanted to be brutally honest, because why would you not be honest in art?
So, you are a multi-instrumentalist. You play a lot of different things, so in terms of the music, how do you go about arranging these songs and deciding what to play where?
It is interesting because I did play classical violin for so long. I really write on piano and guitar now, but I like to keep a string presence in most of my songs, and when you work with a producer, they do really help you through–I mean, they are as much part of the musical masterpiece as you are.
With my background, I played classical violin for a long time, but I sang in a rock band in my undergrad, and when I went to Berklee for grad school, I was in Boston, and I really fell in love with bluegrass and rootsy Americana music. I feel like I have an idea right off the bat what I want a song to have, and “Freeway High,” we knew it was going to be a little more like Kacey Musgraves, have some banjos and have some fiddle. My producers and I, Jake Finch and Lars Thorson, we do cater to the song.
I’ll tell them what I’m hearing, and with “Six Years,” I knew it was more poppy. Honestly, with that song, at the time I was listening to a Justin Bieber song that Ed Sheeran wrote called “Love Yourself,” and it has this really cool poppy guitar, and it has, like, a sax, a trumpet solo, and I just–I know based on how the song sounds what sort of instrumentation I want before it even begins. “Give You A Halo” I wrote about my grandma, and I was like, “cello. Need cello.” It’s just listening to what the song wants.
You worked with Jake Finch and Lars Thorson on the production, and what was it like recording at Trace Horse Studio?
Super cool. The two guys that run that are really easygoing and chill. I really liked the vibe with Lars and Jake, and they are my friends, but I felt like I was making music with my friends, and you can really relax in that environment. We were really excited and wanted to experiment, so we recorded for three days at Trace Horse, but then everything else, we would have these little sessions in Jake’s living room with his computer and his headset, and that’s when we could really get creative. We did guitar, drums, bass, and vocals at Trace Horse, but then we really could get creative with, “Okay, do we want fiddle here? Do we want cello here? Do we want banjo here? What is the synth sound we want?” With “Six Years,” Jake used two pencils and a jar and made beats on that. So that’s where it’s really fun to get creative and get so excited, and like, high on these little decorations on the base of the song.
Has your relationship to this group of songs changed over time as you’ve had this EP and you’ve been waiting to release it?
You know what’s interesting? I didn’t write each of these individual songs thinking, “Oh, this is going to be part of Finishing School. This is going to be the story I’m telling.” I just wrote songs as I was experiencing life, so having the package come together, it’s been really nice to reflect on why I wrote this song and what I’m saying in terms of the collection as a whole. It’s been nice to write about and talk about how these songs connect and why I’m releasing them as Finishing School. I recorded eight songs and I took two out, and I didn’t decide until the fall which two I wasn’t going to use–what tells the story the best and falls under the Finishing School umbrella. But yeah, I feel like it’s helped me tell the story as one connected thought.
What have you been reading lately?
I’ve been reading a lot. [laughs] A lot. Right now I’m reading a book called Untamed [by Glennon Doyle]. It was Reese Witherspoon’s latest book club book, and it’s just–it says “Untamed will liberate women emotionally, spiritually, and physically. I believe Glennon was born to write this book just this way at just this moment in history.” It’s phenomenal. I feel like because I’ve had more time than usual, I’ve been plowing through nonfiction. I am super affected by Black Lives Matter, and I’m trying to listen more to podcasts that really illustrate the African-American experience, and I’m listening to White Fragility. It’s a book I think a lot of people are listening to right now, but it’s about why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. I’ve been listening to podcasts–
Yeah, do you have any podcast recommendations?
Yeah, 1619. It’s really cool to see how African-Americans–to understand their experience and how they’ve contributed to American history. White Lies is incredible. You just can’t believe what happened in the 1960’s with race relations. I mean–it’s just, yeah, part of our history.
I just finished Mindy Khaling’s new show, Never Have I Ever. It’s about the experience of a first-generation Indian girl in high school. It’s a comedy. It’s hilarious. I think art, books, music, television, podcasts, it’s just such a great way to see how people who are different from us experience life, and I feel like it helps us grow empathy. I’m not trying to sound like [laughs] a saint here, but that is what I try to do with reading and television and podcasts lately, is become more empathetic.