Catch up with singer-songwriter Brandon Stansell, look for his new EP, out now, and watch the music video for gorgeous title track "Dear John".
What got you interested in songwriting now?
Brandon Stansell: I've always been a singer and I have always been around songwriters but, for some reason, I just never really felt like it was something I could do and I don't know why, but I knew that it was obviously something I wanted to do. I think the biggest issue was that I never really felt I had much to write about [laughs] so I, a few years ago, went through basically my first big breakup, and it just made me shift gears a little bit and it gave me all the content I needed so I used that as a jumping off platform. Now, it feels pretty second nature to me, like something I should've been doing this entire time but, yeah, that's how I got started in writing. I went to school in Nashville and a bunch of my friends are songwriters down there - super talented, good people - and they were also really, really helpful in sitting down with me initially and helping start the process, so that was really nice, too.
Which musicians have you been influenced by?
Well I grew up listening to country and that's where my passion is, but I listen to a variety of things. I still listen to a lot of country music and I've always [laughs] been influenced by more female country than I was ever really influenced by male country, but Vince Gill was my favorite male country singer, I think that his voice and his music has really influenced a sound that I like and that I like to hear pieces of in my own. Then, just, across the board, I listen to a lot of independent music and I do listen to pop music, but it's really older country that I feel like, when I go into the studio and I have songs that we're laying down, I feel like I reference older music.
Do you remember the first album you ever had?
[Laughs] Yeah, the first CD that I ever got was Amy Grant's Heart In Motion [laughs] oh, which is amazing, because I still love Amy Grant to this day, but she was the first record that I had. I used to jostle between three CDs that my parents bought me; I had that one, I had one of Reba's first albums - which I think is really funny - and then I had Mariah Carey's Emotions record [laughs]. So, between the three of those, that was what engendered my initial sound at 6 years old, it came from inspiration from listening to that hodge-podge of music.
How would you describe your own sound?
I think that, from the way that I write to the way that I sing and approach music, I think that it's country, but it's just a very simple and honest way of writing. I write from personal experience and it's less about how commercial a song can be and more about putting a feeling down on paper and then into production, so when I go into writing sessions, I come in with ideas of things that are on my mind to write about and things that I feel I need to do and want to say and share, so that's how I approach it. I feel like the end product of that is this sound that is country but also, because I listen to music outside of country music, is influenced by people like Brandi Carlile - I love her, I think that she's in my vein of what I like to listen to and what I feel influences a lot of my songs - and newer artists like Sam Smith - I think he's great and he's got a great sound, not necessarily a liking to my own, but I definitely feel like I hear pieces of him come through - and then I double back into music that I grew up on; like I said, I listened to a lot of female country, I reference people from Dolly Parton to Lee Ann Womack in just anything from instruments that I want to hear included to the vocals that we lay down, so I'm really all over the place [laughs]. It's amazing to me that people actually listen to the record and that they like it because it is a hodge-podge of a sound, but I had some really great producers in Nashville and a really good team of musicians there and they helped reign in all of the crazy [laughs] that I brought to the project and helped me put out something that I'm really proud of.
Could you tell us more about the inspirations behind your single "Dear John"?
This was the last song that I wrote for this particular project. With the EP, I had this series of songs that I wanted to write, so it's a bit conceptual in that nature, that each song is a journey through and "Dear John" is a bookend to that. I flew to Nashville and I had planned on doing a five song EP and then I realized that the whole point of making this record was this therapeutic letting go process of this person that I had been with for so long and I realized that I hadn't quite written that song yet so I wrangled a couple of writers that had been on other songs and we sat down and I came in with, basically, the first verse of the song written and then we sat down and, in an hour, we just banged out the rest of it and it was just easy and perfect and exactly what it was meant to do.
Dear John was a working title for the project the entire time and I had every intention of changing the title of the EP into something that was a little less on the nose - 'cause my ex's name was John [laughs] - so I needed something a little less on the nose, but we finished writing this song and I was like, 'okay, so what do we call it?'. They were like, 'I just feel like you have to call it "Dear John",' and I was like, 'I do too,' and so we had written this title track and kept the name and it just all felt right and like something that I needed to do. The inspiration for that song was, basically, the final letting go; it was the idea that things are done and it's sad but you gotta move on and you want nothing but the best for the other person too, and I think that's personally how I felt and how I feel and something I wanted to convey and I think we did it, so I'm really happy with the way it turned out.
How would you sum up the Dear John EP in one sentence?
Breakups suck [laughs].
No, I think that anyone that's gone through loss can relate to some facet of something that is a part of that record because it really does journey through beginnings and that infatuation stage all the way through heartbreak and ambivalence and hatred [laughs] and remembering them, and then there's the final letting go and moving on, so I think that it's very human and I think that most adults have experienced something like that in their lives. There's something there for people to relate to, whether you're gay, straight, or whatever your orientation is, I think that there's something there that you can listen to and feel connected to. That wasn't one sentence, but that's how I would sum up that EP [laughs].
Is there a single song from the album that most stood out to you?
When my friend Trent, who directed the video, came to me, he wasn't set on doing one song, he just said, 'I really want to shoot a video for a song from your record, I want you to pick it and I want it to be the one that you feel is reflective of the project and something that you would want to do,' and so that's the one I picked and I think it is. It's the most special to me just because it sums up the whole record, but I'm also just really proud of the way that it came out; it feels very old school to me in the way that we wrote it. I initially had written it to - like I said, I came in with the first verse - I wrote it to a LeAnn Rimes song. I had this melody stuck in my head, she had a song called "What Have I Done" that came out 5 or 6 years ago; love the song, it's written in a similar way, but I had kind of written my lyrics to the first verse over that and I wanted to follow that same format of a song just 'cause it does feel very simple but poignant and kind of old school country and I just really, really like that. To answer your question [laughs], I think that "Dear John" is the song that I look back and feel most proud of and I'm happy that we got to put it out and have other people hear it.
What do you want your listeners to take away from your music?
It's hard to say. People are going to take away different things but I think, specifically, and for me when I finished this project, one of the things that kept coming back to me was that - again, breakups suck [laughs] - they're terrible whether you're gay, straight, or whatever and I don't think that that's talked about very much. When straight people divorce that's really sad and I feel like they're consoled and it's really taken seriously, but this was a long term gay relationship that ended abruptly and I felt it was treated like it didn't matter as much and, after writing the project, I think that if anyone felt that way that was close to me, they realized that this was a hard thing to go through and it's no different than a straight relationship. Breakups really are tough, regardless of sexuality, because your heart has been broken and I think that that comes through and we very purposefully didn't use any pronouns until, literally, the last line of the last song of the record; I think that again helps people just listen to it and relate, not make any assumptions. It was important to me to make that a part of this project, just so that I feel like, if there is another person like me out there listening, they feel like they have a voice and a voice in country music that's not really there. I don't know, that question's hard [laughs] because what people take away is deeply personal, but that is a thought that I had after finishing the record.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
I'm trying to make a little shift; I'm working on a new project. I'm actually working with Erik Halbig, who produced Ty Herndon's last record. Ty is a friend of mine; we were neighbors in Nashville and we've stayed friends throughout the years and Ty was a big country singer in the '90s and came out publicly a few years ago and so he's like the gay country act, which I think is really fun and awesome, but his producer is taking on my next project, which is really fun. So, I'll be in Nashville later this month writing and then recording some time this Summer, so probably another EP type project, but I'm excited about doing that. We're going to try to make a shift, make this one a little less depressing [laughs] but we'll see how it goes.