August 2014 (e-mail)
Brandyn Burnette is, according to his own definition, a soulful artist & he might even add with pop sensibilities, who plays piano, guitar, sings & is a prolific songwriter dedicated to the craft that is more than just walking into the studio with a blank sheet of paper, but as he says in this interview, working a little bit every day. In late 2014 he'll release his debut major album release The Couch Surfing Chronicles that might have a Generation X ring to it but draws on firsthand experience & the inspiration of a family background in music that includes influential contributions to the worlds of R&B & ska. "Thanks For Nothing", with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics about surviving a bad break-up, is the first single from the album. It was directed by Sarah McColgan who has also directed clips contemporary rapper Aloe Blacc.
Dropping out of college to pursue a career in music & to then find himself having his debut land in the hands of a major label is a success stories in music that seems rare in this age of self-production & home studio releases & in turn Brandyn is an unintentional source of inspiration that dreams can come true with patience, hard work & dedication. Certainly, that's the feeling I got when the request for an interview came across my desk, though I wasn't familiar with his name. After taking months off from this blog for personal life changes, Brandyn is the first new interview, leading off a return to regular bi-monthly interviews with musicians who are doing something unique. Brandyn's almost confessional answers, laced with a sense of wonder & excitement & deep maturity, personally were a pleasure to read & I couldn't be happier to give him the honor of re-inagurating my blog & reminding me why I enjoy sharing others music.
Special thanks to Brooke Blacke & Warner Brothers Music for making this happen.
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AJ: Your promotional materials list the following descriptors of your music, pulled from different sources: pop jam, pop crooner, sunshine pop, hooky & radio-ready, feel-good music, pop-soul ... but how do you describe what you create?
BRANDYN: I think anything with the word 'soul' is a good descriptor for the type of music I create. I started writing songs in my bedroom, with no formal musical training, no songwriting knowledge, just a love & a passion for expressing myself. If that isn't soul then I don't know what is. I used music as therapy for years, so it’s never been about genre or style for me ... but about feeling.
AJ: Your forthcoming EP The Couch Surfing Chronicles comes from your decision to quit school to take on music full time & then the journey that ensued, as your promo says: "an homage to the years spent crashing on the sofas of friends & family, & the life lessons that come with being in a constant state of motion." Can you elaborate on what listeners can expect to hear with the new release & does it follow along the same vein musically as the first video release from the album "Thanks For Nothing"? I imagine something recalling lost & found lovers & friends, loneliness, scary moments, startling discoveries ... & a nice swashbuckling adventure ...
BRANDYN: The Couch Surfing Chronicles ... It's a complicated & funny story. After leaving a full scholarship at a pretty amazing university, life wasn't particularly ideal. I was immediately thrown into the real world with very real problems - like where I was going to sleep every night, how I'd pay for my next meal, & what steps I would be taking next. It wasn't hard to take refuge in music. Before I was even signed I knew that if I did finally get that chance to make a major release it would capture all of the crazy experiences that being 18 & nearly homeless in N.Y.C./L.A. could bring. The colorful cast of characters in a changing world was enlightening to say the least. There I was, a small town boy from St. Louis living the 'I'm trying to make something of myself' life. The pressure to succeed was intense, but not nearly as intense as the pressure to survive. Luckily, I made great friends who gave me couches to crash on while I started writing a lot of the music people are starting to hear now ... like my acoustic mixtape. I remember writing a particular song called "Beautiful Beginning" on my friend Isabella's couch on the Lower East Side of NYC in a room full of 20 friends & strangers on New Year’s Eve. I think listeners can expect my EP to cover a wide range of emotions. Not just from the perspective of a college dropout living out his dreams, but the thrills of self discovery, the fear of what's to come, & the people we meet along the way that make it all seem okay.
AJ: You attended college for musical theater & acting ... what brought on the change to music & the desire to do it full time & not just outside of other college activities?
BRANDYN: I would have to say the change happened upon meeting my first production partner, Adam, who was studying at the Clive Davis School Of Recorded Music. He approached me one night at a party & asked me if I was into music. I played him some of the first songs that I'd ever written. He really liked what he heard & told me about a project for one of his classes - to find a new artist & produce one song that defined their sound. I had a song I wrote when I was 15 on MySpace that he really liked, so we made a production for it, which ended up winning first place for the project. As many things in my life, this was anyother happy accident moment. One project turned into 5, & eventually we had ourselves a sound. It didn't take long before Adam's teacher started inquiring about me. That's when we decided to take it a little more seriously. Buzz started building around campus. As we started working more together in our dorm room naturally I was drawn less to the voice & music theory lessons, acting classes, etc. Instead, I was in my own world with this kid producing what would become the first demos that got me signed. I remember standing in a required ballet class - right in the middle of learning how to plie - when I decided that I just didn't want to be on Broadway ... I wanted to be a rock star. So ... that day I stopped going to classes. As foolish as it may sound, this really allowed me to focus on taking my song demos to the next level. I remember towards the end of my first semester I got asked by my next door neighbor (who ended up hating us by the end of the year because we made so much noise) to try out for the dorm-wide talent show. I went on a whim & I won first place which led me to the University-wide talent show called Ultra Violet Live - most famous for being the competition Lady Gaga was in when she was at NYU. Nearly 2,000 students tried out so I thought my chances were pretty small & I decided to keep it simple. I played a piano/vocal ballad I wrote about a girl from my high school. Little did I know that stripped performance would win me first place. I remember being on stage in front of all my peers that I was about to leave to pursue a life of music, & there was a distinct moment I looked at my friend Adam & thought 'wow, maybe I could really do this'.
AJ: Any advice for those who might be in the same place you were when you made the big decision?
BRANDYN: My advice for anyone who's looking to travel down that same road is to trust your instinct & devote your life to your passion. Leaving NYU was probably the biggest & hardest decision of my life ... but it ultimately turned out to be the best. It allowed me to get a jump start on my artistry & a jump start on the quickly changing music industry. I decided that if I really was about to leave a full scholarship behind than I needed to treat my music career like I would've treated school. I studied every contract I received, I watched every interview I could find that inspired me, I wrote a song idea nearly every day to practice that creative muscle & keep it working. I believe that we can truly do anything as long as we do it fully.
AJ: Speaking of a state of motion ... I'm also someone who traveled a lot going from home to home & job to job after college so I know being in a transitory state affects you on a personal level, but what makes me curious is how did this state of motion effect you as a musician, on a musical level, that is the effect on the music itself? Or, to put it another way, when you left school you probably had a vision of yourself as a musician/artist & then today how does the end result compare to that vision? Are you who/where you thought you'd be?
BRANDYN: It's interesting. There is nothing settling about a nomadic lifestyle. In fact, I spent a long time really trying to figure out exactly what made me tick, what beliefs I had, what music I liked, & what kind of artist I wanted to be. There was a period where nothing was going on, I remember, & I had no idea what to do next to push my career along. There's so much beauty in those terrifying moments because you start to learn a lot about yourself under pressure. I knew one thing would always remain the same about me, however, & that’s the simple fact that it all started for me in a room with an instrument. As I couch surfed & met various faces & places I always had this burning desire to write about how I felt & what I was experiencing. Songwriting became less of songwriting & more storytelling. When I would find myself in a new city surrounded by new faces, it was as easy as playing an old song to recall who I was. There was a story to my songs, a reminder of the artist I was becoming. The music defined who I was, where I'd been, & where I was going & that made being in a constant state of motion not so scary any more.
AJ: The new album is released by Warner Bros Records. It seems rare when I find an indie artist these days with a major label debut. What form of lady luck landed on your door? How did the signing with Warner Bros come about?
BRANDYN: Signing with Warner Bros Records was a major accomplishment for me. When I told my family I was pursuing music & ditching the collegiate life, they were skeptical to say the least & they remained that way ... until one day I finally was presented with an opportunity to travel & write. My manager, Ric Aliberte, had an opportunity to send me overseas to Norway to do my first few official writing sessions. I ended up taking some of the songs I created in my dorm to an even higher level with full productions, real instruments etc. When I returned from my trip I felt so inspired & finally started feeling like I had a real shot. I did some more couch surfing, lots more, along with a lot of songwriting sessions & eventually I was presented with my first publishing deal offer on Sony/ATV Scandinavia. There I was at 19, with my first official confirmation that I was on the right path & that I made the right decision. I started working with a lot of the Sony roster which lead to a studio in Brooklyn, where I met a couple people who would turn out to be game changers for my career. One of the songs I wrote called "Is This Love" caught the ear of Kara Dioguardi (who was just coming off of American Idol). She flew me out to LA to showcase for Warner Bros, and the rest they say is history.
AJ: You have currently available for free on your website the mixtape Punch Lines From A Scattered Mind. Outside of its acoustic nature, how does this differ from your forthcoming album or how do they intertwine musically influencing each other? I also want to compliment you, as I liked how its songs become available for download via specific actions - liking your facebook page gets a track, following on Instagram gets a track, subscribing on youtube, following on twitter, joining your mailing list.
BRANDYN: The mixtape was written over the span of a couple years, with some songs like "Try" dating back to 2008, & others like "More of You" written just a few months ago. In that regard, I wanted Punch Lines From A Scattered Mind to give listeners a taste of my writing style. How it started, how it's developed, & the way I tell my stories. I decided to keep it acoustic to keep the focus on introducing my style of storytelling. The forthcoming EP, on the other hand, starts to introduce the sound I've created over the last 5 years of writing with so many different types of producers & songwriters. I'm really looking forward to releasing this EP to see how fans react to my sound. I wanted to give them a sense of growth as they go on this journey with me. The mixtape should feel like a precursor to the EP which should feel like an intro to the album.
AJ: You play both guitar & piano, in addition to singing & composing. These are very different instruments in how they approach music, not just mechanically but also in terms of feeling & compositional style. What is your writing process & how do these two instruments have a play in it & in turn effect you as the writer? For example, do you write lyrics & then music, or strum something on the guitar & then move it to piano or what is noodled on the piano stays on the piano?
BRANDYN: My writing process varies from day to day & session to session. When I started writing, I was just a 13 year old kid who knew nothing about music theory or songwriting. Now, I'm a 23 year old kid who still knows nothing about music theory or songwriting, but the beautiful thing about this day and age is that we don't need to really. Probably one of the only true upsides to all of this technology being available to us - aside from connecting with a virtual audience - is the accessibility to create art in a lo-fi manner. I've always been drawn to writing organically on an instrument, as you mentioned, but that's not to say I can't listen to a beat, get equally inspired & put a melody & lyric together. Sometimes I feel like it's a great tool as a creator to stretch yourself in the ways that you create. I've always wanted to be a multi-dimensional artist that can do more than just the norm. I taught myself piano first - thanks to my grandmother who gave me my first Casio keyboard at age 7. Back then, keyboards had song banks full of classics like "The Entertainer", "Fur Elise", etc. After learning every song on the song bank by ear, I decided it was time to start creating my own songs, the first of them being one about my sister leaving for college called "Memories". That process was unlike any other process. Imagine 13 year old me, sitting alone in his room crying hysterically & letting my stream of consciousness pour out onto the page. In retrospect, nowadays depending on what I'm working on, I may be writing to a track, building a song from scratch, or bringing an almost finished idea to a collaborator. Whatever it may be, I try to at least incorporate an honest, fresh perspective into the music I make. I'm very grateful I had those early years of being innocently obsessed with expressing myself, because I feel like it's made me a very versatile & relatable artist.
AJ: You've got an impressive list of songwriting credits including both hundreds of songs of your own but also many songs with other writers & producers who have some stellar credentials - including the noteworthy Diane Warren, American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi, busbee, Ari Levine of the Smeezingtons with Bruno Mars, Evan Bogart the son of the founder of Casablanca Records, Lauren Christy, rapper Jake Miller and Martin Johnson of Boys Like Girls. How does writing with someone differ from your own compositions & how do you work with others, if there's even a pattern?
BRANDYN: Writing with other people is a very complex but necessary world as a new artist. There aren't many of the songs we all love to sing on the radio that were written by just one person any more. That being said, writing with others can be either an extremely educational experience or a miserable one. No one can be expected to mesh well with every person, in every session, but there's something to be said when a collaboration just works. That's been the case in most of my more recent placements, like the Jake Miller single for example. I'll never forget that day. I came to Atlantic Records to rehearse for an important showcase, when my A&R decided to bring me in the studio to meet Jake. I'd heard he was recently signed to Warner Bros, but had never met him so I figured it would be a good idea to calm my nerves before the showcase. We immediately clicked within seconds & I loved the beat they were working on so I went into the booth & laid down what would become the hook of "First Flight Home". There's a certain kind of magic you feel when something is supposed to happen. I walked out of that studio with probably my biggest placement to date & it's crazy to think that it could have never happened. I like to stay open when it comes to working with people. After years of writing with so many different people that’s the only thing you can really do to stay inspired. I feel like the second you get too comfortable doing something in a specific way, you can potentially lose the magic you were blessed with. It's good to switch things up sometimes.
AJ: Any advice for a wannabe songwriter on how to write with others, the business of songwriting, etc?
BRANDYN: If I were to give any advice I would say to just keep writing. My father gave me that advice early on & it changed my life. So many times I'll write something & think 'there is no way I'll ever write something better', & the next day, I'll write one of my favorite new songs. You never know when a hit idea can come to you, so it’s best to stay open & keep your eyes & ears peeled for that real inspiration. I would encourage any aspiring songwriters to study the psychology of not only other people but themselves. The hardest part about writing to me is being honest. Most of the time the truth hurts, so it’s easy to cover it up with a barrage of lies or half truths to hide insecurities. But unless you want your audience to feel half invested or betrayed I'd stick to the honest approach. There are lots of songs that are 'of the moment' but so very few are timeless. Strive to make songs that still resonates 50 years from now. That's the mark of a true songsmith.
AJ: There's hints around your website that touring might be on the horizon or at least in your thoughts ... what’s next for you as you wrap up the new album?
BRANDYN: Touring is exactly what I'm thinking. I'm convinced that live is where I'm gonna win most of my fans. Performing is in my blood & I plan to make a statement every single show, festival or tour I play big or small. Other than that I'm just staying happy & healthy by hitting the gym, writing for a couple other artists & working my socials to build my fan base.
AJ: Let’s give a little moment to you family. Your father was discovered by Soul Train's famed host Don Cornelius & signed to Capital Records in the mid-80’s as a solo R&B artist, even penning the show's theme song for the show. Your great uncle was a part of the Jamaican mento group the Folkes Brothers, who co-wrote performed the first #1 worldwide ska & reggae hit “Oh Carolina.” While their paths & music is far different than your own is there anything that you draw from their legacies on a personal or musical level?
BRANDYN: My father is probably my biggest musical inspiration. I listened to his album before I even know what an album was. I remember some of my first memories were watching him record vocals in various studios in the early '90's. He has essentially walked in my shoes before me so to have someone with some a knowledge of the music industry from an artist/songwriter's perspective has been a huge help in me navigating the right steps to take. I didn't find out about my great uncle until I got a lot older but once I did it all started to click. From my father's R&B legacy, to my great uncle's ska legacy, it's now up to me to build a legacy of my own. I truly don't think there's another artist out there like me, & even if there are comparisons now, the music you hear in the future will speak for itself.