“I have some Irish roots actually, my mother is a Sullivan,” Frankie Ballard shares over a cold Guinness at the Open Gate Brewery just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a seasonably sweltering day but Ballard looks impeccably cool; he’s up for the weekend to play some songs in honor of the year anniversary of the US brewery’s opening.
“I don’t know,” he continues, “there’s just something in the blood I guess that’s always drawn me to this brand.” He takes a sip of a delectable experimental brew, perhaps the Blonde that the Maryland location has become known for since opening.
“It’s amazing when you can combine a historic atmosphere with a brand new vibe and brand new passion, that really is a recipe for some magic,” he says. “I look around the grounds here and just think of the opportunities that Guinness has in this location, it’s just absolutely perfect for Baltimore and nothing but room to grow so it’s exciting to be a part of it, in the beginnings.” Exciting beginnings indeed; in the first year of its opening, the Maryland location has boasted almost half a million visitors and created more than 80 unique limited runs, from a Guinness IPA to a Nitro Vanilla Cream Ale.
Ballard has been cultivating exciting beginnings of his own lately as well; the Michigan native has been writing incessantly, with eyes on a new album. “I’m building an arsenal,” he says. “I think that’s what it takes nowadays to stay on top of the game is to have an arsenal of new music.”
For Ballard, songs have a variety of beginnings, and whether he’s home in Nashville or on the road playing places like the brewery, he’s creatively open to whatever inspiration might surround him. “Sometimes I just get melodic ideas just on guitar that I think are cool and I’ll try to record that of me just playing into my phone,” he says.
Sometimes he’ll stumble upon ideas that he knows could be a song. “One guy told me at a mechanic shop one time that it seemed like this life got on the way of him living, and it stopped me in my tracks,” he says. “I wrote that song, and you may have to tighten up what the heart of what he said was a little bit, so the title is ‘Life Gets in the Way of Living,’ it sings a little bit better than exactly the way he said it, but then you have to take that and ask yourself what that means or what the emotion that you’re trying to evoke in the people that hear it.”
“Certain things just sound like songs to me,” he says.
“If you hear songs in things, if you hear melodies in things or poetry in the way people speak or the way your life is going, it’s a gift to be able to try to expand on that and not just have to get back to work. I’m blessed to get to do it, and it’s fun to cruise down the airport terminal or whatever while you’re traveling and try to figure out an idea.”
As Ballard continues to build his arsenal of songs for the new record, themes begin to emerge. “I think it’s fun too as an artist to see those relationships develop,” he says. “You’ll write a song in one place and you’ll love it but then it’s kind of on hold and then you’ll write another song and it’ll hold another place and pretty soon those two songs are kind of holding hands, whether it’s the lyric or the melody or the vibe of the song and you have a theme. Songs kind of reach out for each other too when you’re building an album. I love it when that happens.”
It’s easy to imagine one learns about oneself in the process as well, observing the common themes that do arise within one’s songwriting. “It’s like reverse engineering in some ways, you’re getting emotions out and getting stories out and getting lyrics out that you wanna say,” he says. “Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to see how all the colors go together.”
To make those colors match just right, artists often cut songs they haven’t had a hand in co-writing, and Ballard is no exception. “I’m the guy that sees myself in the music video when I hear the song for the first time – or I don’t,” Ballard says of his initial reaction when being pitched a song. “I think those feelings and stories and visions and my imagination running wild while listening is the magic part. I like leaning into that and finding out what those characters are. I love dreaming like that, in 3-d, technicolor.”