ASCAP Experience Q&A With Chart-Topping Songwriter, Brett James

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On Tuesday evening we sat down with hit-maker Brett James before he performed for the 2nd Annual ASCAP Experience ‘In The Round at the Bluebird Café’.  

James has a laundry list of No. 1 tracks, including “Blessed” from Martina McBride, Jason Aldean anthem “The Truth,” Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All,” Kenny Chesney’s “When the Sun Goes Down,” and Dierks Bentley’s “I Hold On.”

For this occasion, he performed “Jesus Take the Wheel” – a song that he won a Grammy for co-writing with Carrie Underwood — as well as some originals he will be releasing soon. He shared the stage with Cassadee Pope, Chris DeStefano, and J.T. Harding. 

We spoke with him about a myriad of topics from music, to Med school, and why Thanksgiving dinner is his favorite meal.

American Songwriter:

So, if you could take us down memory lane a little bit.  You attended high school in Oklahoma and received a Bachelor’s of Science but then left school to pursue music. What was that like?

Brett James:

The process was a little crazy. I went to Medical school after undergrad, and I came to Nashville my sophomore year, spring break of med school. My third day in town, a guy named Tim DuBois, who was head of Arista records, offered me a record deal. And I was like, well that’s crazy. I don’t even know what to do with that. So I finished that year of med school, and came to Nashville.

I didn’t tell Tim I was here for another year, because I knew I wasn’t ready to have a record deal. (laughs) Finally I did, and he signed me the year after, and I proceeded to fail miserably for the next six years as a recording artist. (chuckles) And long story short, I was in Nashville seven years, went back to med school for a year, and when I went back to medical school, my songwriting, for some reason just all exploded.  I was in Oklahoma writing songs, and I had 33 cuts, and five top 10 singles that year. Things started booming for me, and so I quit med school for the second time. And ended up being a songwriter for the last bunch of years, yeah.

AS:

That’s a crazy story! Do you think that the pressure to create songs hinders the creative process? So, while you were in med school you were writing on the side a little bit, freeing you to write more authentically.

James:

Absolutely. I think that a lot of what that was for me was a freedom to say screw the business side of things, I’m just going to write what I like. I’m going to have the freedom to just enjoy. Yeah, exactly. It was very much that. It was a bit like letting go of all the, I’m trying to fit this into a box, and I’m writing my music for every day and all of a sudden I was just about as far away from the music business as you can be, in Oklahoma. It literally was creatively a sort of ‘F it Nashville’, I’m just going to write what I like. And that’s what I did, and that’s when it started working.

AS:

Nice! So tell us the emotion that came over you when you first had that hit single, or that hit song.

James:

Oh, Gosh. I’ve been here for so long, like I said. I did Nashville seven years and felt like I’d given up on the whole thing. I was literally just going to go back and do something else. And so I think it was a combination of, I was ecstatic and relieved at the same time. Like, maybe there’s a chance I could do that. It was fun. My first hit was with the legendary songwriter named John Bettis, who’s in the New York Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s written everything from Madonna and Michael Jackson, all these classics, he’s one of the greatest of all time. And my first hit was with him, and he just kind of would write with me, just because, to be nice. And so we had our first hit together, and then my second hit was a big song called “Who I Am”, for Jessica Andrews, and it was number one for five weeks. That kind of got the ball really rolling.

AS:

Yeah, very awesome. There’s a ton of inspiring songwriters out there, and artists, obviously. For local Nashvillans, or really anywhere, what do you suggest as a piece of advice for them? Any tips or recommendations for those who are really serious in their pursuit?

James:

I think it’s like everything else, it’s 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration. A lot of it is just working really hard at it. I think my impression of songwriters and a lot of people before they come to Nashville and do it for a living, is we ride around and smoke weed in our car, or wherever, and go to the beach and hope inspiration strikes. But that’s not really the way pro’s do it. If you’re really a professional day in, day out songwriter, you show up for work, and not every day does inspiration strike and you come into something. But it’s really good to use that creative muscle every day, and to be creating, writing something every day. I think it’s really an important thing.

It’s like if you were an athlete, they don’t go very many days without playing their sport. They want to be a pro at it. So that’s important to summarize.

AS:

Awesome. As you know there are seasons in life, ebbs and flows, and we all experience peaks and valleys. What season in life do you feel you write the best?

James:

Oh, that’s a great question. That’s a great question! For me, I think it’s when I feel the tension of struggle. I think there’s something to like, I don’t know. I don’t know what, the economics, sometimes you can’t even put your finger on it, but I think when I feel there’s some tension in my personal life, in my work life, whatever that is, that makes me… I literally sometimes have to sit down and write a song. I’ve been writing a lot by myself lately, which is something that doesn’t happen much in Nashville, especially for the people in pro songwriting circles. I’ve been writing for my record a lot, and that has been the most cathartic thing I’ve done in years and years and years, just to get to put all expectation of a genre, expectation of an artist, expectation of whatever aside, and just write what I love.  That’s literally been the goal, was just to write music I love. That’s brought back the joy of the whole thing, it’s really been fun.

AS:

I know that was a dream of yours from a young age to be an artist, so I think the process going from writing for other people, to writing for yourself. It’s just different.

James:

It’s a very different process. It’s a very different process. And, especially to do it without expectation of, hey, I need a number one song on country radio or pop radio. I’m not trying to write to do that. I’m trying to just write music that I love and hope somebody else loves it, too. And I think that’s really a pure way to do it.

AS:

So was that what inspired your new album? 

James:

Absolutely. I literally had a 50th birthday, and I was like, “You know, I haven’t made a record in 25 years. I’ve been writing for all these other people, it’s been great, but you know, what do I want to say? What do I want to sing?  It was a lot for me, it was for my kids. I want them to know that their dad was more than that, you know… I don’t know, I just wanted them to know something that came from my heart.  I wanted to get that out of my creative system, and so I literally sat down and pretty much wrote the record in two weeks. Just by myself.  I had more fun, like I said, writing than I think I’ve ever had in my life, and I just love the process and I’m back doing it now.  I wrote a lot of songs over Christmas, but for my future project…

AS:

That’s very exciting! Ok, so at American Songwriter we like to get a little more personal and get to know “who you are” outside of the art. Here are a few off the cuff questions! If you had to have one last meal ever, what would it be?

James:

Oh, wow. One last meal on earth would have to be like a perfect Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey dinner, followed up by some hot chocolate chip cookies, right out of the oven.

AS:

 What’s something that never fails to make you smile?

James:

My daughter. My daughter, I have four kids but she’s the one that always makes smile.

AS:

And is there a go to spot in Nashville for you?

James:

My go to restaurant right now is a place called Barcelona, and I’m there once a week, at least, sitting at the bar there, it’s great.

AS:

Their wine is amazing.

James:

Their wine is amazing!  Everybody knows about half price wine night, and so we go for that a lot.

Also, don’t forget to sign up for the 15th annual ASCAP Experience held in LA April 1-3, 2020!  

For tickets and more information about the 15th annual ASCAP Experience visit: https://ascapexperience.com/.

And, in celebration of Nashville’s creator community, the promo code “BLUEBIRD” can be used for 10% off non-member pricing through January 22: https://ascapexperience.com/register)

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