Interview: Breland talks ‘ticking off the firsts’

Reaching for the stars - Breland
On stage at The Garage – Breland’s career is heading for new heights. Photo credit: Alison Dewar

To say Breland is having the time of his life would be an understatement. Having achieved 650 million+ career streams and released his debut studio album Cross Country to great applause in September, he has accrued accolades from the likes of Rolling Stone, who hailed him as “symbol of Country music’s ongoing evolution”.

Already a firm favourite in the UK, he was recently announced as opening next March’s C2C on the Friday night, as well as co-hosting in London alongside the legendary Bob Harris OBE.

He has just wrapped up a UK tour supporting Russell Dickerson and headlined his own amazing Breland & Friends show, held at The Garage, in London. Alison Dewar chatted to him ahead of that gig to find out more about his love for UK fans and why he is on a mission to use his platform to help other artists of colour.

Breland the entertainer
Breland was an entertaining ball of energy at The Garage. Photo credit: Alison Dewar

AD: From all the amazing feedback you’ve been receiving, it almost feels like you’ve been ‘adopted’ by UK audiences.

Breland: Yeah, it’s been a really beautiful relationship that’s developing organically. I just think the fans out here are so attentive and so kind and considerate, and they bring a lot of great energy every night. They spend time learning the lyrics, they want to be entertained, to hear good music and they love country in all its different forms.

I feel like that is somewhat of a departure from some American audiences, where if you don’t have country radio success, or songs that they all know, or a certain amount of status or followers, you might not get anyone’s attention all the time.

It’s helped me build a lot of confidence coming out here, because as an opener I’m getting the same attention that a headliner gets. As an artist, it shows you a glimpse of what the future can look like if you work hard. Every time I’ve come out here, I imagine that there will be some pretty big dividends in terms of what I’m able to go back and accomplish now that I have that vote of confidence.

AD: Did you have a heads up in terms of what to expect?

Breland: I was out in Vegas for the ACMs right before C2C and on my last day I ran into Phillip Sweet, from Little Big Town, and he asked if I was heading back to Nashville. I said no I was going to the UK for C2C and he was like ‘man, if you haven’t played it before get ready, it is going to be one of the best experiences of your career’.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but it got my head thinking ‘what’s going to happen’. And he was right, it was one of the greatest moments of my career. You know, when I look at ticket sales and streams, in some of our bigger markets like Philly, New York…places that we’ve played a couple of headline shows, we might sell 700 or 800 tickets, but for us to come here and have our first headliner show ever and sell out a 600-person venue, it’s a testament to how the fans are here.

That’s why I’ve jokingly been saying I’m gonna move and get a flat out here, but it becomes less and less of a joke every time I say it because I really am feeling a lot of love and support and I love what I’m seeing from the ever-growing country music fanbase across the pond.

AD: I interviewed Rissi Palmer at The Long Road and she was talking about how the audiences here are different in terms of embracing different genres of music.

Breland:  I definitely have been experiencing that. Obviously I’ve had the benefit of having a number one record at country radio, which unfortunately there aren’t any black women in the States that have achieved that. And you know, I’m looking forward a day when that happens and hopefully translates to ticket sales, support slots and all of the things we see for some of our counterparts in the States but, you’re right, you definitely don’t have some of those same barriers to entry over here.

I think part of the way your radio is set up kind of naturally lends itself to that. But also the fact that it’s likely a country music fan in the UK also listens to a lot of other things, just because of the way people consume music out here. I think that allows someone like me, who’s take on country music is inherently more soulful, more percussive, which introduces a lot more elements of hip hop, R&B and gospel…that doesn’t always translate to certain audiences, but it has translated really well over here.

Photos above from the Breland and Friends gig at The Garage, included Ben Earle, standing in Thomas Rhett for Praise The Lord, plus Caitlyn Smith and Matt Stell. Photo credits: Alison Dewar

Talking about The Garage gig, he continued…I’m really excited about tonight. I love opening, that tour with Russell was incredibly formative and it was great to have that opportunity; but you know, when you only get to play for 40 minutes, you have to cut out a lot of songs from the set that might go over really well. I’ll have the opportunity tonight and hopefully future headline shows over here to give people a fuller experience.

AD: When you were a guest on Bob Harris’ radio show, you talked about going to Keith Urban’s house, how did that happen?

Breland: Keith reached out to me, he came across an interview I had done and liked what I had to say. I’ve always liked every shade of Keith’s music and I felt that he was one of those country artists that was reaching across the aisle on the pop side, on the rock side, and pulling a lot of people into the format.

He always plays by his own rules and, being one of the first artists in the States from Australia on the country music scene, I kind of see a little bit of myself in his story and vice versa, with me being from New Jersey and making the kind of music that I do.

I think he saw that as well and reached out. We have a lot of creative chemistry, we get along famously, we’ve taken some long trips together and had the chance to share a stage a few times and had some really powerful moments.

I was playing this little 200-person club in Nashville, and he came out and played Throw It Back with me, you just won’t catch an artist of that calibre and pedigree to come and play at a venue like that to play very often. It speaks to his character and his consistent support over the course of my career, it’s helped me out a lot.

AD: Some artists talk about how tough it is arriving in Nashville, having to sleep in their car and that type of thing. Did you face similar challenges?

Breland: I think the starving artist experience that a lot of people have when they come to Nashville was more my experience in Atlanta. By the time I got to Nashville, I already had a gold single, a record deal and some high-powered collabs, so it was a little bit easier for me.

I quit a pretty comfortable job in corporate America to try to pursue music and I knew I needed to be able to give it everything I had. I couldn’t let it be vying for my time in that way, so I said let me really dive into the music thing full time and see what happens.

Breland
“I was obsessive…” says Breland. Photo credit: Jimmy Fontaine

Any time you do that without a real plan or consistent income, you’re going to have days, weeks and months that occasionally go that way. It was tough, there were days that I didn’t eat, there were a lot of nights that I didn’t sleep because I thought I’m not going to go to sleep until I can finish this song…and then this next song, and the next song…. I was very obsessive about working.

It probably wasn’t healthy, but it was effective, and I think it’s gonna be hard to tell up-and-coming writers not to do that, because it worked for me. But you do have to be careful because that burn-out is real and you got to be able to eat, to pay your bills and sometimes the ‘end all, be all’ answer isn’t just to work harder on the music. Sometimes you’ve got to diversify, those are the kind of things I might tell myself if I were in a similar position but, you couldn’t really tell me anything at 22-years-old (laughter).

I think everyone has to go through some version of that. When you make a big life transition, a shift to take the risk and bet on yourself in an industry where things don’t often work out, or there’s no clear pattern to entry, and there’s no ‘oh well, if I do this…this will happen’. Nothing is guaranteed.

AD: Let’s talk about your music. When you played the ACMs with Thomas Rhett (singing Praise The Lord), I watched it online and wow, there were goosebumps.

Breland: Yeah, it was my first time playing the ACMs, my first time singing that song with Thomas, first time debuting a song in front of a live audience (laughter)…first time singing in a stadium as well. So a lot of firsts to tick off but I also felt pretty confident.

I played the CMAs with Dierks and Hardy, I played the CMTs the previous year with Mickey Guyton and ultimately Gladys Knight, so I felt like, alright, I’ve done this a couple of times. I’ve been playing Praise the Lord solo on all of the shows that we had had over the course of the year, I knew the song was good and I knew people would respond to it.

My hope was that it would be a bright spot on the night, given that a lot of the songs that are hits and were being recognised are slower, so I’m like, we’re coming with this super high-tempo, high-energy song.

I knew that Thomas was going to demand a lot of attention when he came out and I figured that the song would speak for itself, so I wasn’t really all that nervous. I was just really excited to be able to do it and it definitely yielded some great dividends. It’s still one of the best performing songs that I have, week-over-week, in terms of the streams and the support that it’s got editorially, so I mean, to be able to come out there and do that, that was definitely a bright spot in the year for me.

But also, we went straight from there to here (the UK) and I felt like we were able to top that experience very quickly, those are the moments that you live for and that you reflect on as an artist.

This has been a really big year for me and right now we’re in the middle of the Grammy voting, the ballots are all live and (we’re) trying to make that push to see if maybe we can get recognised as a Best New Artist nominee. Whether or not that happens for me, I feel like we’ve already done that, because I’ve had the best year and exceeded so many expectations of my own.

I feel like we’re building a really beautiful thing here with, you know, going out to CMC Rocks in Australia, playing some shows in Canada, coming here now a couple of times. We’re setting ourselves up to do this on a global scale for a really long time. Whether that ticks the boxes for Best New Artist at the Grammys or not, it’s checked my boxes for the type of year that we wanted to have and I’m grateful for that regardless.

Breland's Cross Country album
Cross Country is out now. Photo credit: Jimmy Fontaine. Album artwork: Nada Taha

AD: When Cross Country was launched, you also staged a virtual art gallery of work from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) artists who you had asked to create a visual representation for the different album tracks. (The artwork is available to see here https://crosscountry.brelandmusic.com/)

You used the tagline ‘It’s time to say the quiet things out loud’… do you see yourself as more than just a music artist, maybe activist is too strong a word, but for you, it’s clearly bigger than just playing music…

Breland: Yeah, I definitely think I have been blessed from a lot of perspectives (and cursed right – laughing), but I think when you have an artist that has a really strong point of view, whatever it may be, if they can use their platform to promote some of those ideas, that’s one of the benefits.

And I thought it was important for me, coming into this place of country music as something of an outsider, as someone who’s path to the format was unconventional, as someone who’s making music that sounds a little different, that incorporates a lot of different elements of the black experience sonically. I just felt like it would be remiss if I were not also speaking out about things – or at least using my platform to bring light to certain issues – or to illuminate certain experiences and stories that I think need to be shared.

One of my favourite things about country music is that it is storytelling. One of my least favourite things is the amount of barriers that exist for certain stories to be told. I am really blessed to be able to tell my story, and where I can help other people tell theirs, that feels like the best usage of my platform.

I felt like with this album, given that it was like a unique storytelling experience, based on the way that the album sounds and feels, if I could give some space for some artists of colour to kind of use the music as a jumping off point to share some of their own experiences it would be a really thoughtful way for people to consume the album and for people to be able to express themselves. And I hope that came across with the experience that we had at the Museum of African American Music at Nashville. But regardless, I was really blown away by some of that artwork and glad to be able to do something.

AD: That leads me on to one thing…Africa often seems to be left off of the world touring scenario for a lot of music. Do you see you yourself touring in South Africa, or Kenya or Uganda, or any of those countries…

Breland: My first time going out of the country back in 2019, I personally made a trip to the UK and wrote some songs in London but ultimately, I was headed to South Africa for a few weeks and I learned a lot about the culture out there.

I collaborated with some producers and writers and artists in the South African music scene, and it really opened my eyes up to a more global approach and just kind of studying AfroBeat and some of the music that they are playing in their native tongue. It was just a great experience for me as a writer to be able to immerse myself for a few weeks.

Now, as an artist, I would love to do something. Whether it’s a tour, or a festival, or some kind of experience, because there are so many black people in the States and around the world who feel disconnected from the African diaspora because of how many decades and generations removed we are from that experience.

Ultimately, the reason that I’m in the States right now historically is because we were stripped of our homeland and brought to America and, while I am an American, and have pride in my American citizenship, I would hate to neglect that part of my history.

And the more we can do to form bridges and connections between not just the black community in America and people in Africa, but just change and reshape our perspectives in the western world about Africa. I feel like there’s still this like pervasive colonial mindset where people look at Africa as this desolate hopeless, Godless country and I feel like all of those perspectives are just rooted in racism and imperialism.

I feel that we need to actively dismantle some of those trains of thoughts because there is some really beautiful things happening in Africa. Also Africa is a massive, massive Continent with a lot of different experiences and a lot of different countries and tribes of people and cities that are making their own strides, so we have to stop generalising. We don’t generalise the UK and the rest of Europe, we don’t generalise Japan and the rest of Asia, but we do that with all of the African nations.

It’s something I think about a lot and I haven’t yet figured exactly what the things are that I’m going to do to help solve that problem are going to be, but I definitely would love to play some shows in Nigeria or Ghana or Ethiopia or wherever, and seek out a way to bring some new musical styles out there and share cultural experiences.

AD: Maybe some collabs too?

Breland: Yeah, I feel like my song Growing Pains off the album is primed for an AfroBeat remix.

It looks like Breland is going to have a full touring diary for many years to come…thank heavens we have him booked in for a UK return already in March!

For more information, visit https://www.brelandmusic.com/

Cross Country is available to stream.

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