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Maxim speaks to the artist that's burning up the Nashville rulebook and forging a whole new genre: Cross-Country
Hey Breland, thanks so much for taking the time out to talk today! You recently announced that you’ve got a new album on the way. This will be your first full-length release - how was the process different when creating this album compared to putting together your BRELAND EP?
The process is very different, partly because of the time I’m putting into this album, and partly because of all that’s happened in my life since the BRELAND EP. That EP had some of the first Country-leaning songs I’ve made. Once the pandemic hit, I had time to sit with my thoughts and figure out what I want my music to sound like, what I want it to represent and who I want it to reach - all of that happened after the EP was out in the world. Country is often siloed away from other genres. I feel like the future of music is collaborative and genre-less, so I want to find ways to make music that can reach a Country audience while also appealing to a much broader demographic. That’s what my album title, ‘Cross Country’, represents - trying to build new bridges between Country music and other genres. I have songs that are at the intersection of Country and Pop, Country and Motown, Country and Gospel, and some songs that are more straight up and down Country. If anyone likes any of the songs from the BRELAND EP, you will love this project. And for anyone who didn’t like the BRELAND EP…I think you’ll still love this project!
As you mention, your music weaves in a variety of genres, but what’s special about it for me is that it always feels as though there’s a genuine appreciation of each one, and it’s never a surface-level or token-gesture steel guitar or hi-hat - it all knits together. What drew you to crafting this Country and Hip-Hop infused sound that really, before a few years ago, was unheard of?
I love the fact that there’s a freedom of storytelling within both Country and Hip Hop. I had been focussing on Hip Hop, and I thought that if I’m going to do Country, I have to do it in a way that feels authentic to me. I always appreciated Country from a songwriting perspective and as someone who spent quite a few years just pitching songs to different people, without having any of my own material out there. You always admire the people that are doing that at the highest level, and to me the best Country writers were nailing it every time, and I also felt like the best Hip Hop writers were nailing it all the time. I wanted to create music that was still lyric-focussed, but that also has a driving beat and makes people want to get up and dance. That was what was lacking in Country music for me, as a listener who wasn’t always listening - they were great stories, but I could see where the mass appeal falls short for a lot of people. Sometimes people just want to party or have something on in the background. I could understand where Country and Hip Hop were excelling from a lyric and a feel perspective, and I felt like if you put those two together it would be really powerful.
One song that definitely makes you want to get up and dance is ‘Praise the Lord’, which is a celebration of faith. Country music has always had a strong relationship with God. What I’ve found particularly interesting is the way that Country often seems to emphasize a personal relationship with God, rather than one that’s centered around more traditional pathways. For example, there are so many Country songs about missing Church on a Sunday but instead finding God while fishing on a lake - the personal over the institutional. What’s your take on this?
‘Praise the Lord’ just came out of me, we had the beat and wanted to do something Churchy with it. In recent years I haven’t been someone who’s been attending Church super regularly, and especially now as an artist where there are shows every weekend, I miss most Sundays in town regardless. So this song is just about acknowledging that you don’t have to go to Church on a weekly basis in order to have that relationship you talked about. Also, there are a lot of believers who don’t necessarily live by all those principles. It’s recognising that we’re all human and we’re all trying to figure things out. This is a song that could speak to that in a way that will hopefully still encourage people to pursue a religion if they want to, and not be discouraged by some of the mistakes they’ve made. The God that I serve understands that people are flawed. He made us to be that way. So when those things happen, it’s more of a testament to your resolve in your faith to then say, ‘Hey, I maybe didn’t do this right, but I’m going to try to get it right the next time.’ To me there’s a real redemptive quality to the song if you read into it from that perspective, but it’s also just a really fun song. Being able to get Thomas Rhett on it helped it to reach a bigger audience, and definitely helped it to grow.
I loved your C2C performance, and you mentioned in-between songs how the way you grew up in New Jersey wouldn’t necessarily be considered a typical ‘Country’ upbringing. The album’s title-track, ‘Cross Country’, tackles this feeling of being an outsider coming into the genre. A year on from the release of the ‘Cross Country’ single, do you still have a sense of looking for belonging, or do you now feel more at home in the genre?
I definitely feel more at home. ‘Cross Country’ was the first song I wrote when I moved to Nashville after releasing the BRELAND EP. I had been moving around a bit, and during the pandemic I’d gone back to my actual home for two months. Nothing against my parents, but as an adult when you go back to your childhood home, you have big dreams and you’ve just signed a record deal, it just feels a little odd. I want to find a place where I can be creatively free and feel like I belong there. I do feel like I’ve found a lot of that in Nashville, but I also feel there’s still work to be done. I also look at Country music and know we’ve got maybe 100 million people in the world that are listening to it - but there are billions of people listening to music in general. Look, I would love to reach all the people that listen to Country, but I already know there are certain barriers that will make it impossible for me to do that - and the way that I’m approaching the music is one of them. I know that's impossible, but if I can reach 1% of the larger billion or so people that are listening to music, then to me, that’s where my power lies as a creative - being able to bring people with different interests, beliefs and perspectives together and give them something they can agree on. Being an outsider in Country music, I represent the kind of person that I’m trying to reach with my music. I would love to be able to reach the people who have never listened to Country or who have never felt as though their participation in the genre was accepted. So hopefully if I can be in this space and reach across the aisle via these different songs on the album, we have the opportunity to do something really cool. I do feel accepted in a way that I didn’t anticipate, but at the same time there’s a level of acceptance that I’m not looking for and that I don’t need. I would rather just make the best music that I can make and hope that each song accomplishes my mission statement, which is trying to create a sub-genre of music that defies genres entirely and hopefully brings people into the middle.
‘Real Men Don’t Cry’ has a great mental health message. As men, there is the stigma that we shouldn’t show our emotions and that we should remain stoic, but this can often lead to that emotion expressing itself in unhealthy ways, as you mention in the song. You released this as part of your ‘Rage & Sorrow’ EP, which was released after the killing of George Floyd. Was ‘Real Men Don’t Cry’ a direct response to this?
That’s a great question and I always love talking about this EP. I think it’s an important body of work and I do hope people find the time to get into it. The biggest thing I was experiencing when I was trying to write something about the situation was that I was having two very different feelings - one, I was just pissed off, asking myself, ‘How is this still happening in America?’ And then on the other side, I felt so heartbroken that some people just didn't care, and that they were still trying to attach this problem to any other problem than the issue that we know it to be. I wanted to be able to speak to the duality of my own emotions, and say, ‘Hey, it is okay to be angry, but do not allow your anger to be the only expression of emotion you have.’ That is a dangerous place to be, and it is not healthy - what’s healthy is feeling the full range of emotions that come to you, and not just focusing on the one that feels the most powerful. As men, we often try to dive all-in on rage, anger and frustration because it feels powerful. But the real power really comes from being able to deal with that and work through it. You can’t hold onto that burden in that way without it eventually manifesting itself in negative ways. When you’re not processing the anger and getting it out of your system, it makes it harder to empathise with people. It’s important to allow yourself to cry, and to feel that full range of emotions. I wanted to make a project that could speak to that, and I wrote the two songs on that EP at the same time. During that period, I knew that there were people looking at me as the new black dude in Country music and seeing how I was going to play it, because a lot of people were really quiet. I was like, ‘No, I want to put the music out even though I know it may cannibalise some of the streams on the BRELAND EP that I’d put out a couple of weeks prior. I make this music for much bigger reasons than just trying to get a number one. I want to inspire someone, encourage someone, energise someone or speak to a human condition. I know the ‘Rage & Sorrow’ project was important for the people that engaged with it.
Of the unreleased tracks from the new album, what’s the one that you think listeners will be most surprised by?
Honestly, at this point I don’t think my listeners will be surprised by anything! Anyone who listens to my discography recognises that you never really know what you’re going to get! No two songs are the same on this project. You only get 14 tracks to try and establish a whole new genre of music - I wanted to make sure I was filling that room with different pieces of furniture. For new listeners or people that have only heard ‘My Truck’, then I imagine most of the songs will surprise them! But if you’ve listened to everything I’ve put out and recognise what I’m trying to achieve creatively, this album is consistent with that - in that nothing is consistent!
You have produced some awesome collaborations, including ‘Throw It Back’ with Keith Urban, as well as having worked with Mickey Guyton, Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt, to name a few. Are there any other collabs on the new album?
There are a couple more on there. What I really love about this project though is it gives me a chance to really do my thing. Sometimes the collabs can become a crutch - as a smaller, newer artist, you get all of the listeners from that person’s audience, but they only hear a verse or a chorus from you. They don’t get a full experience or story. That’s what I thought was so powerful about the original version of ‘Cross Country’, and I love the version with Mickey Guyton too. ‘Cross Country’ is a song that has potentially had the biggest impact with listeners. They get a chance to hear me sharing my experience, so I wanted to make sure we could honour the fans. It’s a Breland album, it’s not a collaborations album. At some point I‘m sure I will do an album of collaborations, like Jimmie Allen, DJ Khaled or Ed Sheeran! But that’s just not what this project is. We have five features in total, and the other nine are all solo records with various levels of emotional depth. While there are a few features on here that people haven’t heard yet, I think people will be most satisfied with the level of honest, authentic Breland that they’re going to get.
We ask all our artists to name their top three songs with a theme of mental health and wellbeing. What would be yours?
Shared Walls - Tenille Townes ft. Breland
Real Men Don’t Cry - Breland
All I See - Gary LeVox ft. Breland (BONUS).
Cross Country - Breland
All four of these speak to mental health in their own way. I have seasonal depression every year, usually from October through March, and it’s really hard for me to get out of bed some days, or go play shows and turn it on for fans. It can be really tough to be an artist and also be struggling with your mental health because of the amount of weight put on us to perform on a daily basis. Music has been a big part of my own therapy, and finding ways to write things - even just writing a really fun record like ‘Praise the Lord’ - helps me because it puts a smile on my face when there isn’t one. Music is so powerful because you can get to the heart of some of these issues with a lyric, but you can also do the same with a beat, tempo or a melody.
Do you find that creating music or listening to music is more therapeutic?
Creating has always been my solution. Sometimes I create better once I’ve listened to some music. But for me, a lot of my depression centres around this feeling of ‘I don’t have anything to look forward to, there’s nothing good going on’. Obviously that’s not true, but it’s what my brain will try to tell me. Writing a great song reminds me of the truth and helps me to clear my lens a little bit to say, ‘I’m here for a purpose, this is what I do and I do it really well, and it matters.’ For anyone who is dealing with something, creativity is not always going to be the end-all-be-all solution, but it does feel really good and encouraging to just make something. Even if it sucks! Whether it’s a song, poem, painting, drawing…whatever it is you create, create something and see what happens. Art is healing, and at our core everyone has an expressive ‘thing’ that they like to do, whether they do it professionally or not. For me, knowing that music is a big part of my purpose, whenever I can be creative it solves some of the problems, or at least helps me find a better perspective.
Breland’s new album, ‘Cross Country’, is out on 9th September. You can listen to his new single, ‘Natural’, which is available on all platforms now. Banner photo by Nolan Knight; all other photos by Alaina Mullin.
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