I wish you were more than just a memory, calls Brynn Cartelli into a haze of drums and piano. Her song “Imaginary Stranger,” a benchmark to her new EP, Based on a True Story, gurgles like a Coldplay or Brian Eno b-side. Its lyrical delicacy, as the young singer-songwriter reaches out to her late grandfather, who died before she was born, contrasts against a slow, progressive ascension. Soon, she’s dancing in the clouds herself.
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“I had been wanting to write [this song] for a long time. I had that title on my phone. I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like, and I just never actually had done it,” Cartelli tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. Co-written with Joe London, who’d initially proposed to write “a nice, love song” that day, the stirring ballad summons up Cartelli’s most moving vocal performance to-date.
“Joe had this beautiful upright piano in the studio. All of a sudden, I just started playing the piano riff, and it flowed out so quickly,” she says. “I just can’t believe that the song exists. It means so much to me and to my family because it truly is such a real thing. I feel like a reincarnated version of my grandfather. and I’ve never met him. I feel like I’ve known him my whole life, which is such a strange, overwhelming feeling to write about and to reflect on.”
Despite never knowing him, personally, Cartelli’s maternal grandfather is a looming presence in her life, and his memory truly lives on in the stories told here on earth. “He was the most social and outgoing person. Every time there was a microphone in any room that he walked in, it could be like a restaurant, he was going to get up and perform. He learned every instrument by ear and was so creative. He never pursued a career in music but was always meeting a ton of people and musicians and really bonding over that. We’re also both wanderers and don’t like to be pinned down.
“We’re both very independent and don’t like being in one place for too long. My mom would tell me stories, and it always felt really familiar,” she continues. “He was a goofball and had really big blue eyes and just had something very soulful about him. I carry his picture with me pretty much everywhere, and I have another one sitting on my piano. It just makes everything feel connected to me.”
Born and raised in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, Cartelli was immediately immersed in music. “I was really obsessed with classical composers,” she remembers, noting such favorites as Tchaikovsky and Bach. “My mom was just very involved in letting me explore even though no one in my family is musical in any kind of way.”
While her mother gravitated toward Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse, her father enjoyed the contemporary/soft rock stylings of U2 and other ‘70s rock icons. “I considered it at the time ‘dad rock,’ but now I like it,” Cartelli laughs.
Her own tastes quickly began to shift, as she found herself getting lost in Taylor Swift’s extensive songbook. “I was studying the structure of her songs and the sounds I was hearing on the radio. I was wanting to mirror that. As you listen, you can pick up on what a song is and what it needs to be effective as a fan. You learn about all the parts of a song and then you accidentally start writing songs that already exist. That was my very first year of songwriting in my bedroom ─ writing songs that were knock off Taylor Swift songs or knock-off Coldplay songs. They were not good, and they were basically songs that already existed.
“I was always a very active listener and I just loved absorbing all different types of music. So eventually, I realized that I don’t need to have the same exact mode every time,” she adds. “I have a loose basis to follow and then as you experiment you get to play within that.”
In developing her own songwriting style, Cartelli admits she loves “wonky melodies,” so much so her collaborators frequently point out “‘no one’s going to remember this.’ I always loved playing around and doing different things. It’s somewhat impossible to do something that nobody’s ever heard before, but I like to think that I still can,” she remarks. “I always search for what hasn’t been done, so that’s kind of where I get caught up in a loop of like, ‘is it worth going down this crazy route for two seconds if it’s not going to be worth it in the long run, if it’s not going to have the same punch or some other options.’ When I get in my head, and if it takes longer than usual, that’s why.”
Cartelli eventually took the crown on the 14th season of The Voice and later toured with mentor and friend Kelly Clarkson in 2019. But she soon realized she needed time away from the spotlight, so she headed back to her hometown to recharge and reprioritize her life. Her personal excavation shows up in bright, shiny colors in her music, and a renewed sense of purpose and drive guides her steady hand.
Across her six-song debut EP, Cartelli brings a sense of quirkiness through not only her lyrics but the arrangements─from the reedy thumper “Long Way Home” to the breezy “We Belong.” The emotional arc winds between coming-of-age and her own deep-seated angst about needing to be seen and heard, particularly as she balanced life away from her hometown. “The balance of friendships, love, family, work, and school is never perfect and so I wanted it to be during that time. I was really trying to do my best to make everything happen at once.
“That is pretty well reflected in all these songs. You can hear me struggling and wanting things to work more than they should be─and making things happen or pushing things away.”
Cartelli’s journey to self-actualization comes to a head with the dreamy “Jane,” in which she imagines what her life would be like if she were named Jane. If my mother named me Jane / Wonder if I’d be the same / Would I fit inside this frame, she observes.
Featuring a lullaby structure, twinkling with toy-like sounds and textures, the song centers around acceptance and her eventual revelation about her life. “I had this realization. I have these nights when I reflect on everything bad that I’ve ever done. I guess, they’re kind of regrets in a way ─ regretting to say something to somebody, regretting going out one night with my friends instead of being sad at home or regretting saying how I feel about someone.
“I was really mad and hated myself. I wanted to escape. I wanted my brain and soul to get out of my own body and into anybody else. I wanted to fix everything that I’ve ever done. I know that that’s impossible, and I was just up at night thinking and crying. I called my mom, and we were talking about everything that was going on at the time. And I was just thinking about how you get in the zone, and I was really freaking out about it.”
The next morning, she ran downstairs, tears staining her cheeks, and she began writing the song. The EP had already been finished, but “it was the missing piece that we didn’t know we needed,” she says. “In a really weird way, it brings the whole thing full circle for me.”
Based on a True Story finds Cartelli collaborating with several prolific songwriters, including Nathan Chapman (“Long Way Home”) and Ben Abraham (“If I Could”), who challenged her to think differently about her approach. “The best part about co-writing is challenging every lyric and having to explain. When you’re writing alone, you don’t have to explain to yourself while you’re writing a line and what it means in the context of the song. It just flows. There’s something beautiful about that, but I think there’s also something so special about looking at a lyric and saying, ‘What do you mean by that?’ Or ‘Why would you say that there?’ It’s made me a much better songwriter.”
“There’s something that’s always going to be natural and flowing about it, but to be able to have to prove yourself and challenge a line and work together is so fun. I grew up playing team sports, so I just love the idea of winning. You get to the end of the song and you’re like, ‘oh, it’s so good!’ And you get to celebrate with somebody. I already won something alone, and there’s something so much better about winning with other people.”