Interview: Rick Brantley Seeks Wisdom, Smoky Bars, and True Stories

Rick Brantley

Rick Brantley has one of those voices that sounds like it’s seen things. It quivers and whispers, it shakes and it wails. It’s as much a story as the story it tells, laced with a narrative much greater than its 29 years. Like his rock and folk forefathers, it’s a raw nerve end, a direct line to the human condition.

“You have to live those experiences,” Brantley says, “or you have to develop a certain sense of empathy where you can communicate those experiences to people. I think that’s actually more than half the job, because nobody wants– it’s self defeating to live all of those experiences, it doesn’t last. We’ve seen that, history has proven that. You just can’t. So you have to learn how to communicate the same feeling without going through the whole process cause you’re not going to make it out.”

To that end, Brantley is a knowledge seeker by profession and, perhaps, in spite of himself. He isn’t hurtling himself into an experiential fervor or drug-induced vision quest – that, in every sense, would indeed be self defeating – but he spends his nights in a haze of Parliament smoke and cold Bud Lights at his favorite Nashville bar. Even the lighter – his most prized possession, above even his guitars – with which he lights each cigarette is almost too fitting a testimony: a worn chrome Zippo, engraved with the simple “Enjoy Every Sandwich,” a reference to Warren Zevon’s reply to David Letterman when asked, during his battle with mesothelioma, what he’d learned about mortality.

“To be a creative person you have to consume,” he says, taking a sip of beer. “You have to be putting in to get out. You take all of it because you’re gonna find wisdom in stupid little places and you’re gonna find wisdom in Thoreau.”

“It’s why I come to this bar,” he continues. It’s a large, smoky room of fluorescents and formica, neon beer signs illuminating pock-marked almosts in uneven rings around each dart board. Brantley places his cigarette carefully between the plastic indents in the ashtray.

“I love this place. Walking in the door makes me feel better after a long day. I’ve had more conversations here that have enlightened me in so many ways, as a man, as a songwriter, as a friend, that I could never get outside this bar. And I know that this isn’t the healthiest lifestyle; I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. That’s why this place really matters to me, that’s why I live my life the way that I do.”

He mentions a conversation with a friend who hasn’t spoken to his son in years. “That’s gaining knowledge,” he says. “I don’t have that perspective. It informs me as a songwriter, it also informs me just as a human being, living my life, interacting with other human beings.”

“My dad’s a Southern Baptist preacher,” he explains. “I was constantly going places with him and doing things that I didn’t really want to do. So I’d be bitching about it or whatever in whatever small way that you do and he would always say, ‘You know what, if you just keep your mouth shut and pay attention you might learn something.’ And I did learn a lot of things once I got a little older. Empathy – just by watching. Pay attention.”

Brantley has piercing eyes, like they are constantly parsing the world as they see it. To say that he’s studying humanity for the sake of better songs makes it sound almost calculating; he’s got a curiosity toward his fellow homo sapiens, a desire to understand their how’s and how come’s, and perhaps along the way, his own as well. It’s something he alludes to time and again over the course of our conversation, whether it’s the journey through which he discovered his creative voice or what it means to be a man.

“I think my favorite song ever – not I think, I know – is ‘The Only Child’ by Jackson Browne. That just speaks to a base humanity of how to be an adult I think, in a weird way, which is partly informed by where I am in life right now.” He begins to recite lyrics, sounding instantly like his father’s son. “Let the disappointments pass, let the laughter fill your glass, let your illusions last until they shatter, whatever you might hope to find, among the thoughts that crowd your mind, there won’t be many that ever really matter. Take good care of each other.” He pauses. “If you can live your life by those basic principles you’ll probably be alright.”

He cites Springsteen’s “Racing In The Street” – “there’s two different types of people in this world, some people give up, some people say, ‘fuck it, let’s go’” – and frequent tour companion John Hiatt’s “Have A Little Faith In Me” – “that’s love. That’s just, start with who you are, and connect to another person.” 

“I don’t really give a shit if you’re a good singer or you’ve got a great melody,” he muses. He takes a drag from a cigarette that, neglected, has been slowly ashifying in the tray, the dead end dropping unceremoniously as he picks it up. “Just tell me something.” He exhales, and replaces it carefully. “Just tell me something.”

Rick Brantley

It’s an ethos he’s embraced. Though his early years as an artist consisted of a more rock-leaning frenzy (“a full band, crazy social, political whatever it was,”) he’s settled recently into a more raw sound, with recent EP Lo-Fi consisting largely of his voice and acoustic guitar.

“I like those records I made then and I’m proud of them because it was who I was when I was 19 and 22, 23, 24,” he says. “But at the same time I was lucky that nothing ever really worked so I wasn’t married to anything when I was 23. I got to grow up and learn how to be a man, learn how to be a real songwriter, learn how to think, learn how to figure out what my voice is and how I want to speak to the world.”

“It’s just, growing up you learn how to communicate,” he continues. “Right now me communicating is just me singing songs, all live with just two acoustic guitars.” One gets the feeling as he talks that it’s a need, not a want, that drives him to music; were he deprived of a stage, he’d be playing in an empty room, stirring motion from its walls.

“I think you want people to go away even from a recorded thing with a sense of occasion, like this happened, I witnessed it, and no one can take that away from me,” he says.

He points to a seat at the bar. “I sat right there on the corner of that bar the night before we recorded ‘Enough Rope.’ I was so scared of that song for a lot of reasons. I got as drunk as I’ve been in my entire life to be able to do that. We did it in one take. But that is a sense of occasion – that is me being hurt and not being able to process what’s happening in my life right now.”

He speaks of “Half Mile Hill,” a Mark Selby and Tia Sillers co-write born of a complicated time in his life. “The best co-writer is the one that loves you the most,” he says, “because they understand when you need something you have to say it, and all they care about is making you say that.” Lo-Fi, released last year, is those raw emotional moments transcribed directly to song.

It’s dynamic. “Waterloo” is steeped in context and history; listen to a Rick Brantley song and, like it or not, you’re going to learn something. On his EP-accompanying podcast, Brantley’s co-writer Selby refers to the song’s Achilles’ heel-fueled pairings as describing a fatally flawed love – “you can have people that are really seriously, madly in love with each other, but the tectonic plates always rub in a way that it is just maybe not going to work for the long haul – it’s almost more pain than love ultimately, and maybe the pain wins.”

“Hurt People,” Brantley’s latest single, is as poignant as it is succinct: “Hurt people hurt people.”

On stage, Brantley quickly draws the audience into his songs and the stories they tell.

“Let’s all feel shit,” Brantley says of his live show. “Let’s see what happens.”

“That’s what rock and roll is,” he continues. “Believing in one thing at one time. That’s all that matters, is that for 60 minutes or 90 minutes you just believe together. That’s why when I go onstage every night I want it to be my full self. You’re gonna see something that you’ve never seen before. Tonight will be a truly special experience because I’m going to give you whatever is happening at that moment. That could be me falling down on stage, that could be me forgetting a lyric, that could be me singing the most beautiful I’ve ever done. But you’ll never forget that. Because that was our time together.”

Connect with Brantley on his website, Facebook, and Twitter, and grab Lo-Fi on iTunes.