Interview: Brett Young Discusses Love, Loss, and Being “A Giant Softie”

Photo by Chapman Baehler

Four days before Valentine’s Day, Brett Young released his self-titled debut album. It can’t be coincidence, and it’s certainly a gift; Brett Young is a sonic box of chocolates, and even the darker ones are deliciously bittersweet. The album is laced with heartache and romance, anchored in a smooth voice and a steady writing hand.

“I do feel a theme in the record,” Young says on the phone this week from a hotel in Hollywood, CA. “I think [it] stems from the fact that I wanted a lot of life experience in the record, a lot of honesty, a lot of me. When you’re making your first record the most significant things that you’ve been through probably are going to be love and loss, and so I think there’s a ton of that in there.”

Young’s story seems in some ways to be a triumph of the former over the latter. He was an MLB prospect in high school and then at Ole Miss before an elbow injury demanded Tommy John surgery and a huge shift in life plans. Back in California recovering from surgery, he picked up his guitar, learning some Dave Matthews Band songs. He was drawn to the Gavin DeGraw record Chariot. “That’s when I kind of fell in love with his writing style and the idea of taking an everyday concept and just saying it a little bit different,” he says. “That’s when I decided I wanted to start writing songs.”

The California native took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles, bartending five nights a week to support himself. He’d write and play shows in between, including a Wednesday night set at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. One night, five years ago, he caught the ear of a man in the lobby who had recently sold a company; after a period of getting to know the artist, the man offered to help Young out financially so Young could focus on music.

Writing more yielded the need for the “Sleep Without You” singer to be around people writing every day, and with songs that were inherently story-focused, Young was in many ways country without knowing it. He moved to Nashville and signed a publishing deal, and Big Machine Label Group claimed him as an artist. Young’s music quickly took hold on satellite radio, and late last year, his debut single “Sleep Without You” topped terrestrial radio charts.

Though Young’s rise to country-star-in-the-making has been meteoric, it’s also been hard-earned: it’s a dream that Young, now 35, has been chasing for 14 years.

“It’s a really cool feeling to see this thing start to have a little bit of success,” he says, discussing the crucial role of his investor, ’cause one of the scariest things in the world is taking money from somebody, especially once you start caring about them.” Young now cites the couple who invested in him as some of his closest friends. “I hope they make every penny back through their belief in me that they put into me.”

If the strength of the debut is any indicator, he needn’t worry. Brett Young is a force of personality and perspective, reflecting an articulate and perceptive approach both in and out of the writing room. “Mercy” is a spoonful of heartache; “In Case You Didn’t Know” is the love that makes you grateful for the pain of getting there. You can indeed find Young present in each song, 11 of the 12 of which he had a hand in writing: “Sleep Without You” was inspired by his parents, and how has dad has trouble sleeping when his mom is away; “You Ain’t Here To Kiss Me” is a word-for-word account of a breakup that happened on New Year’s Eve. “I got off that plane, technically, January 1st, and I wrote that on the 4th,” he says.

Putting the truth into a song for the world to hear requires incredible vulnerability, something that comes easily, to an extent, for Young. “It’s extremely natural for me as a human being,” he says. “As a writer, it’s something that you kind of have to chase a little bit because there’s a difference between vulnerable and poetic.” Though sometimes the poetry inherent in being a songwriter pulls away from the truth of what happened for the sake of the song, with “You Ain’t Here To Kiss Me,” he and co-writers Matt Alderman and Tiffany Goss worked hard to stay true to the story.

“The first couple times I performed that happened to be acoustic, very intimate, and I had to fight back the emotions and the tears a little bit,” he says. 

Though he now gets through the song a little more easily – “you’re able to kind of disconnect from the fact that you lived it and start trying to connect with the listener” – he continues to stick to what’s true to himself when he’s creating. “The reason I wanted to write stuff is ’cause I wanted to be able to express something that I felt and have other people go, ‘Oh, I can totally relate to that,'” he says.

Though “You Ain’t Here To Kiss Me” centerpieces the “loss” side of his story, much of the album highlights love. “[He’s] a classic romantic,” Young’s publisher shared at the celebration for the #1 success of “Sleep Without You.”

Young puts it slightly differently. “I was born a giant softie, I always have been,” he says. “Sometimes it doesn’t serve me very well,” he continues with a laugh, “but I think in songwriting it allows me to, back to that word vulnerability, it allows me to kind of embrace that. I have to be careful that I don’t write 100 really sappy, sad love songs ’cause there needs to be a balance, but that’s always just kind of been who I was.”

It’s a sentiment “Sleep Without You” co-writer Kelly Archer echoed at the #1 party. Often, she shared, her role in a writing room is to gently remind her male co-writers that no girl would want to hear the lyric they’d suggested; with Young, no such nudging was ever required. Young’s lyrics are both sweet and respectful, even when the woman in question has doled out only hurt. In discussing the concept for current single “In Case You Didn’t Know,” Young told AllAccess, “It’s what every guy in the world has failed to say enough, and what every girl in the world has wished she could hear more.”

The same is true of Young’s view of women as a whole, which is so commendable that other men would do well to take lessons. As for how he came to that attitude? “I’d say I don’t know, except I feel like that would be disrespectful to my parents,” he says. “They’re 37-plus years married and they’re still each other’s best friend, I’ve never seen them raise their voices to each other. I think having a great example of what love is be set for me growing up, that has to have a ton to do with it.”

It’s an album that’s inspiring love in listeners already. Grab the debut on iTunes, or stream below:

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