Four years ago, Brooke Eden had what every up-and-coming country artist wants: a record deal, a calendar full of show dates, and an attention-getting single in "Act Like You Don't." What she didn't have, though, is perhaps the most essential ingredient of country music — authenticity — and it was killing her.
"How is an artist supposed to be an artist and be completely open," the 32-year-old singer-songwriter tells PEOPLE, "if you can't be completely open?"
That dilemma took Eden on a long, painful— and risky — journey that's finally led her to this moment, and she's now reintroducing herself to country fans with nothing to hide. Just as before, that includes a powerful, expressive voice and catchy, radio-worthy songs. But this time around, she's also talking about her happy personal life with her partner of five years, Hilary Hoover.
"The reason that I am being so open about my story and my journey and my relationship," Eden explains, "is because so much of my music is based on that relationship. And it's based on the happiness that I only found in that relationship."
Eden's previous musical themes studiously avoided the joyful aspects of love, more often reflecting her real-life failed relationships with men. That all changed in 2015 when she met Hoover, a radio promoter at Eden's label. "As soon as I met Hilary, I was like, well, this is what love feels like — never felt that before," Eden says.
But as the two women became a couple, now-former members of Eden's team went into a defensive crouch, fearing the country music community would react negatively to the relationship. Eden says the message was clear: She had to hide her personal life, "if I wanted to keep my career in country music."
Ford Fairchild Brooke Eden
Over the next two years, even as her career was progressing, Eden discovered she was paying a steep price for pretending to be something she wasn't — hedging in interviews when asked about her love life, self-censoring her socials, keeping Hoover in the shadows while living in constant fear of being found out.
"Being half of yourself causes a lot of issues," she says. "I was doing all of these things that I should be really happy to be doing, and my life was just very sad because I wasn't living it fully."
There were times, she reveals, when she and Hoover even considered splitting up. "Not because we weren't madly in love with each other," Eden says, "but I knew that I was keeping her in the closet that she'd already come out of. And she was told by many people that she was ruining this career that I had worked my whole entire life for. Every single time we'd get into that conversation, we would be bawling, and at the end, I'd be like, no, nothing is worth ending this. But I still always felt so guilty because I was keeping her in the closet."
Eden says her moment of truth finally arrived in 2017 as the stress began to ravage her health. Diagnosed with bleeding intestinal ulcers and resultant anemia, she received a sobering prescription from her physician: "He said you have two choices. You can stay on the road and probably get another six months out of this and possibly die because you don't have enough blood going to the rest of your body. Or you can take this time off."
She shared her predicament with her label just as it was being bought out, and she was relieved when the new BMG management supported her convalescence. But more profoundly, Eden says, she also was told she could stop hiding. "All of a sudden," she says, "I had these leaders who were like, 'Brooke, we believe in you. We love who you are. We love who you love. And we want you to go and make the music that you were never able to make before.'"
As she took the time to rebuild her health, Eden also had to regain her confidence in herself. After years of secrecy that made her feel ashamed, she says, it wasn't easy. "What was so wild about all of this was that, when I met Hilary, I was so proud that this is my girl," Eden says. "She's the most amazing human I've ever met, and so I was like, yes, let's go! I had no shame. And that shame was taught to me after that."
Bolstered by the support of their families and circles of friends, Eden and Hoover, who now works for Garth Brooks' label, started taking small public steps to introduce themselves as a couple.
"We went on a vacation and posted a picture together instead of separately," Eden says, "and we got so much love. And it was like, ooh, a little bit of hope. Then we would post another picture and feel more love. Just the amount of love that we received helped us to feel more comfortable with being out."
"I had so many lightbulb moments," Eden says. "She had this paragraph about integrity, and she was saying, 'I was living one way on the outside, and we were living another way on the inside.' And that just hit me like a ton of bricks because I realized that I was living my life with zero integrity. That was the moment that I realized everything needed to change."
Unleashed, Eden began fully expressing herself in her music, writing about the love she was experiencing. "I had never written a love song," says Eden, "before I met Hilary." Turning to hit-making songwriter-producer Jesse Frasure (who also co-wrote "Act Like You Don't"), Eden worked to develop a happy new sound to fit her emotions, a vibe she describes as a mix of soulful country and Motown.
No doubt the lyrics of Eden's songs are words that any listeners who've experienced love can identify with. But Eden also wants her listeners to know who her muse is, and she has cast Hoover as her love interest in her music videos. She has a cameo in "No Shade" (released Feb. 5) and she co-stars in "Sunroof," which debuted Friday. A third single and accompanying video are due out next month.
"I want people to see a real relationship between two women that no one has seen in any [country music] video," Eden explains. "We're not doing anything that's particularly sexual, but it's our natural chemistry where you can just tell that we naturally love each other. You grow up watching videos your whole life of Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, or even Kelsea [Ballerini] and Morgan [Evans] or Maren [Morris] and Ryan [Hurd]. It's important to me as an artist, as a woman and as an LGBTQ woman to feel equal to a straight woman, a straight artist."
Persuading her usually behind-the-scenes partner to appear in the video, says Eden, wasn't too difficult. When Hoover hedged, Eden was ready. "I guess I'll just have to hire an actress for this one," she suggested. Hoover was immediately on board. "It was like a 15-second conversation," Eden says with a grin.
The "Sunroof" video, especially, captures the first flutters of romance as the two women explore coastal roadways of Florida, Eden's home state, in a vintage Mustang. The song's inspiration arrived on a spring day last year when Eden was opening the sunroof of her own car, and "I was like, God, this giddy feeling reminds me of the feeling I got when I was falling in love."
And couldn't it also describe the same feeling of coming out?
"Totally," says Eden. "Yeah, I let the sunshine back in."
Building a country music career is always a gamble, and Eden knows her openness will have an impact on hers — one way or another. She's noticed some followers have departed her socials after her posts about Hoover. She's also been experiencing her numbers rebounding.
"There's definitely a younger and just more open generation that is now wanting to listen to country music," Eden says. "I'm okay with people leaving because I don't want my fans to feel scared when they're at my concerts or feel like they're not accepted. I want them to come and feel love and safety and comfort. So, let the others weed themselves out, because that's when the new, more open people come in and take their places, and I'm cool with that."
Eden finds courage in knowing she is among a growing list of figures in country music who also are members of the LGBTQ community, including broadcast personalities Cody Alan and Blair Garner, producer-songwriter Shane McAnally and singer-songwriter Brandy Clark. Most recently, TJ Osborne, one-half of the Brothers Osborne, has opened up — making him perhaps the highest-profile LGBTQ country artist.
"It's a huge deal," says Eden. "I've known TJ for a long time, and I was happy when he decided to be himself."
Noting recent concerted efforts in country to include more female artists and racial minorities, Eden says she senses the possibility of a coming sea change in the format. "My record label is all about inclusion," she notes. "They broke Blanco [Brown]. They broke Jimmie Allen. They weren't scared of me. They're realizing that we've been shut out for a long time, and they're totally behind us. I think it's a big step for country music in general because I don't want people to look at the country music community and think that we're bigots and homophobes, you know what I mean?"
Among country artists, Eden says, she and Hoover have found Garth Brooks, Hoover's boss, and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, to be two of their strongest allies, though their support has been largely unspoken. Brooks has also been supportive of Eden's career, tapping her to open his Eugene, Oregon, stadium concert in 2019.
"What I think is so beautiful about them," says Eden, "is that they don't need to tell you that they love you and accept you to know that they love you and accept you."
Eden is now looking forward to the day when she can tour again, hopefully accompanied by her future wife. Marriage is definitely part of their plan, she says, and they also want children. "My threshold is when I can live on a tour bus, and my family can be with me, and all my team can be on salary, and I know that they're good," she says. "And we just go out on the road and make music every single night. That's success for me."
Gone are the days, says Eden, when her career "was literally my only source of happiness." Now, her relationship is "my source of energy," she says, "and the fact that I get to do this career and get to do music is like a cherry on top of that. Will I be devastated if it doesn't work? Yeah, I'm going to be upset. But I can always say that I did it the most authentic way that I knew how, and I got to put out music that I was truly proud of."