Brett Young’s Journey to Success, from SoCal to Nashville
By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief • October 19, 2017
Hit songwriter and new country music star on working hard and letting go for the sake of the song
Singer-songwriter Brett Young seemingly has come of age twice. First in Southern California, where he grew up and developed a love for performing and creating music (and releasing several solo albums) while also becoming an accomplished athlete and college pitcher. The second time was when he moved to Nashville to learn how to go pro and become a working songwriter. The results can be heard on his self-titled album (BMLG Records) released earlier this year, and on which he is credited with writing 11 of the 12 songs.
Young’s heartfelt lyrics are all drawn from personal experience, and his songs are rich with honesty, hope, vulnerability and passion. Add to that his incredibly soulful vocals and natural good looks, and it’s no wonder he has been winning legions of new fans with each and every performance, and steadily rising to become one of country music’s brightest new stars.
He's experiencing a quintessential breakout year. His first two singles were a hit with radio. He scored his very first Billboard #1 with “In Case You Didn’t Know,” and his debut single, “Sleep Without You,” also went to #1, helping to propel his album to Gold status. He kicked off the year with a performance at the Sundance ASCAP Music Café (see below), as part of a Bluebird Café songwriter circle alongside fellow hit country songwriters JT Harding and Rivers Rutherford. Later in the year, Lady Antebellum invited him to be a part of their “You Look Good” tour, which found Young performing all around the country, raising both his profile and the spirits of new fans even more throughout the summer. Young recently spoke to ASCAP’s Erik Philbrook about gratitude, hard work and letting go of inhibitions in order to reach your potential in music.
You are a great singer and performer, but you wear your songwriter credentials proudly on your sleeve. Why is songwriting most important to you?
When I was younger, even before it was songwriting for me, I was drawn to words. I’ve always really appreciated being able to say something that people say every day and people feel every day a little bit differently so it catches your attention. As a music fan and as a music listener, I think that’s the thing that always grabs me, because I’m a lyrics-first person. When I turn on the radio I’m hoping to connect to something.
At a young age listening to music, those were the things that were important to me. So as a songwriter, that’s what I what I wanted to do. While I love the artist side of the music and it’s awesome to walk on stage every night and get people on their feet as a performer, it’s way more flattering and fulfilling to watch them sing your lyrics back to you.
How does that feeling of connecting with an audience make you grow as a songwriter?
Even if I wasn’t putting music out, I would always write songs. Even if it’s just me in a basement [LAUGHS] in a dark room. It is cathartic and it is a part of me and it is something I’ll never stop doing.
One thing that I’ve learned recently is the amount of time you need to put into this career. It is very, very time consuming and you live your life on the road and in bars and venues. However, one thing I’ve figured out is that these songs become your children. I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating too much, but it’s almost like you bleed for these songs, you know? And I love that about it. So, I’m grateful for that opportunity every night to go out and be reminded that these songs are connecting with people on more than a musical level. And it absolutely does grow your songwriting because with every song that connects and works, you feel that responsibility to put out another one. And it gets you back in the room, excited and motivated to find what that next next song is.
You moved from California to Nashville, home of the best of the best songwriters in the country and the world. In terms of your work ethic, were you working hard before you got to Nashville or did you realized after moving there, that you needed to step up your game?
It was both. I was working really hard in Los Angeles but the problem that I kept running into — and this is hindsight now because at the time I didn’t realize how big of a problem it was for me — the problem I was running into is that Los Angeles has a different rhythm to it. There is so much going on there, and there can be many distractions. As hard as I wanted to work and I wanted to start co-writing, I would get canceled on way more often than not. And so I was trying to figure out how to continue to put the work in by myself. So I wrote my first five records alone.
And you are right, Nashville is the best of the best but also it’s got to be the only city in the world where there are that many songwriters that only write songs for a living and they write Monday through Friday, and they will be in the room from 11am to 3pm every single day. You drive down Music Row in Nashville and you’re driving by building after building where people are creating music. And it’s a little bit daunting but, at the same time, it’s very inspiring because, I’m an athlete. I have been my whole life. And the athlete’s mentality is "don’t get outworked"!
So, it was the best thing that has ever happened to my songwriting, because where before I would write a song every week or two, now I maybe write two songs a day in Nashville. That first handful of songs that came out, after being new to Nashville were probably some of the worst songs I have ever written [LAUGHS] but it taught me a whole new mindset and a whole new work ethic and inevitably it has grown my songwriting.
Now that you have several co-writing notches on your belt, what would you recommend to young songwriters who may not have attempted it yet? How do you prepare for co-writing?
That’s a great question and I have a lot of friends that have since moved to Nashville and they’re new to the co-write as well. What I’ve learned, and I tell everybody, is that it’s easier said than done but, you don’t necessarily have to be the guy that comes in with the title or with the idea, and you don’t necessarily have to have one strength in the room. I know a lot of people think, well, we’ve got to have a melody guy, we’ve got to have a music guy and we’ve got to have a lyrics guy. I mean, that’s great, if you can work that out every time.
But I think the most important thing is that you’ve got to put your inhibitions and insecurities away. I would say there are no bad ideas. There are bad songs [LAUGHS] but there are no bad ideas. Don’t be afraid to throw something out and have it be ignored or shut down because you are going to throw four or five ideas out before you land on the right one.
I think people will appreciate that in a co-writing room, if you are comfortable and confident enough to throw out any idea, you are on the journey to get to the right one. I think that’s the hardest thing because when you are new to that town, you are walking into a room with big songwriters that have already accomplished so much, you don’t want to be the young buck and the new kid walking in saying something stupid.
This year is a turning point in your career. What is the thing that you are trying to keep most in perspective as you achieve this new level of success?
We’ve had success with two songs. I want to make sure that I don’t kind of relax now. I want to remember the fact that hard work got me here and I don’t want to abandon that. Because if you do actually pour yourself into your craft, there’s more than just music on the record, there’s a lot of yourself on the record, and it works. People connect to that and when people feel connected, they come to shows and they buy music and you develop a stronger fan base because there will be a deeper connection.
What role has ASCAP played in your career?
I’ve been with ASCAP since before I moved to Nashville, even before I had a record deal, and since I wrote my first song. Aside from being amazing at what you all do and making it easy for me to feel protected and taken care of with my music, I’ve developed a lot of friendships at ASCAP, and that’s something that I always hoped to do in business —create friendships and good relationships. One of the first people I met in town who kind of took me under his wing was [ASCAP VP of Membership] Michael Martin and he’s been like a friend and a mentor to me. So I feel like I have an extension to my musical family.