When the Circus Leaves Town
Hanging in a coffee shop near Music Row in Nashville, a painting caught the eye of a music executive from a record label nearby. And then a second executive. A bidding war ensued, and in the end, not only did the painting have a new home but so did the artist, Brooke Ludwick. She had landed the position of Creative Director at one of the music industry's major labels. Considering her lifelong passion for music and coming from a successful career in fashion photography, advertising, and a job as an Art Director for Target, the position seemed like a good fit. At first anyway. But before she knew it, the magical veneer was gone, and Brooke was afraid that her love for great music might disappear right along with it. It seemed that rather than capitalizing on her passion for music, the corporate circus seemed to suck it out of her. So rather than letting that happen, she decided to cut ties and focus on the pursuit of her own songwriting-and the album she had already started before she took the job. So with her guts in gear and her heart on her sleeve, Brooke exited that world to follow her love of writing and performing great music, a love she's held dear since her days gigging with college bands at Washington State and later on, in the Atlanta pop-rock scene. Her departure represents a return to sanity, simplicity, balance-you might say the circus has left town. When The Circus Leaves Town, aptly titled, paints the perfect portrait of this catharsis - this escape from the hustle and hurdles of the working world. Ludwick's training and experience in such visually centered professions, along with her natural ability to see things artistically, allows her to paint a concise picture with words. Close your eyes and listen to "If It Rains" and you cannot just hear, but see where Ludwick is coming from-and more importantly, where she's headed. Car tires popping along a gravel road. Tall grass swaying along the shoulder. A quaint little house, a wrap-around porch, candles lit, windows open, and dinner on the table. Ludwick hails from the Pacific Northwest, and growing up in Seattle, was surrounded by the peace and natural beauty of the landscape, the freedom it inspired, and the love of the outdoors that she shared with her friends and family. "What took me so long," she asks, "to figure out not to let the stress get to me? Why did I let myself get caught up in work when all I really care about is playing music really loud, spending time with people I enjoy and making dinner in the kitchen with a warm gentle breeze and the sound of the ocean or river near by?" Through all the ups and downs of her career, Brooke always wanted to get back to the childhood simplicity of life. Summers growing up, Brooke joined her father and step-mother at their cabin in Index, Washington, a town surrounded by towering peaks in a wild section of the Cascade Mountains near the rushing Skykomish River. There, circled around a glowing campfire, singing along with a family friend named Starr, Brooke was schooled in the great singer-songwriters of the 70's: James Taylor, The Eagles, Janis Joplin, The Carpenters, Fleetwood Mac, Carly Simon, Heart, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Carole King, Simon & Garfunkle...and the list could go on, but it's past young Brooke's bedtime. So country music may seem an odd choice for the girl from Seattle, where Abba, Chicago, Doobie Brothers, Blondie, Aretha Franklin, Beatles, Bonnie Raitt, & Steely Dan ruled the radio. "Have you ever been to Washington State?" Brooke counters. "It's miles of wheat fields, it's mostly country-and more importantly, country is a way of life. Country isn't determined by geography. It's about life and how you live and experience it." Her mother and stepfather, Skip, had a cabin on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. A ferry departs every 30 minutes from the Mukilteo Ferry Dock and arrives in Clinton on south Whidbey Island, the mainland vanishing as you drive on. "Back then, Skip and I would get on the boat, and with my little feet on the dashboard of our big blue Chevy van, we would sing country music. Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Crystal Gayle, Emmylou Harris, Alabama, Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Lacy J. Dalton & Waylon Jennings. This is where I fell in love with country and never looked back," Brooke recalls. But summers spent with Mom and Skip taught Brooke much more than an appreciation for Country Music- they taught her to follow her dreams. The soaring "Wings" was inspired by Brooke's mother, who is a retired flight attendant after 40 years with the same airline. "At 19, she left her home town of Peru, Illinois where she grew up in the back of a tavern and headed to Chicago," Brooke relates. "Walking down Michigan Ave., she got her high heel stuck in a grate, looked up and saw a sign for interviews. It was her lucky day. One person out of every 35 made it through that day and she wasn't even wearing the navy blue suit required to make an interview." Brooke took to heart what her mom taught her about taking chances, and strong woman themes run throughout When The Circus Leaves Town-from the Thelma and Louise -style "Make It To Mexico," the fierce cheatin' song, "Won't Back Down," and later, in an elusive track, when Ludwick sings, "Come and sit here by my feet 'cos' I love you when you're sweet/And you know it isn't feminine to fight," you can only wonder how it's possible to sing with her tongue stuck so firmly in her cheek. Although Ludwick may have been sidetracked by her "Professional Career," she now returns to songwriting with a more clever perspective and better stories to tell. "I do feel like my career took me away from music, but at the same time I wasn't ready to come here when I was 16 years old," she admits. "I went off when I was 18 and got a college education, and my mother wouldn't have had it any other way. And then after that it was grad school. Now, I feel much more seasoned and have lived a lot more life. I can actually tell these stories whereas if I were to come here when I was 17, 18 years old I would probably be singing someone's else's music." Today, Ludwick's songwriting is filled with honest and personal observations laid over passionate vocals and intriguing melodies that resonate with emotion. A longtime fan of 10,000 Maniacs, Ludwick tapped one of their touring partners, Jim Reilly of the New Dylans, to help her realize her vision. "I believe in keeping the imperfections, and so does Jim," Brooke explains. "He believes in capturing music in the moment, often taking one pass at a vocal and keeping the rawness. In making this record, I never wanted to have a finished product that was perfect. I wanted it to be real." With an A-team of players signed on- ace pedal steel player Al Perkins (Dolly Parton, The Eagles, Emmylou Harris), The Jayhawks' Jen Gunderman on keys, 10,000 Maniacs' Jerry Augustyniak on drums, The Mavericks' Robert Earl Reynolds on bass, and The Mavericks' Paul Deakin on drums and percussion, When The Circus Leaves Town was ready to rock and roll, groove and sway, swing and twang. With the corporate circus behind her, Brooke is ready to be who she is, say what she wants to say, and the devil may care. "I guess it's all part of a process of expressing yourself and putting yourself out there. I think for me, it's not so much about chasing that dream to be up there in the spotlight. It's about realizing that the really good stuff is happening all around me, and appreciating that while it's here... Before I head off to that house out in the middle of nowhere." Catch her while you can, because her favorite venue will always be on Whidbey Island with her toes in the sand, guitar under arm and a circle of family and friends around the campfire. The circus may have left town, but the void it has left behind-that quiet, sane, simple space left in it's wake- is where Brooke Ludwick plans to reside...and to fill with great music.