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Brandon Kinney writes the songs that make the whole (country) world sing

Brandon Kinney
Copyright: Stephen Gilbert

Brandon Kinney is one of Nashville’s top songwriters, crafting hits for artists such as Randy Travis, Lonestar, Randy Houser, Willie Nelson, and Craig Campbell, but his writing happened by accident — literally by accident. Kinney was in eighth grade, passionate about football and bikes, and involved with both. When a head injury while bike riding ended his days on the playing field, his father bought him a guitar. He locked himself in his room for hours every day with that Alvarez acoustic and emerged one morning with his first fully written song.

Although the instrument remained an important part of his life, he set it aside as a student at Jacksonville Junior College in Jacksonville, Texas, some 400 miles away from Lamesa, his hometown. He contemplated pursuing aeronautics or engineering, but his heart was in music, particularly songwriting. In 1994, he transferred to Belmont University in Nashville. There, a new world opened up. He took classes in music publishing, met songwriters, and worked day jobs to survive. Slowly, surely, he gained a foothold with publishing companies, eventually signed a record deal, released an album entitled Smells Like Texas, and toured as opening act for country artist Sara Evans, gaining a strong sense of what audiences want to hear and how to deliver it.

His first cut as a songwriter was Lonestar’s “You’re Like Coming Home,” in 2005. It didn’t take long for publishing companies and recording artists to take notice of his talent and potential, and for publishers to begin pitching his songs. “Boots On,” co-written with Randy Houser, became an unexpected smash and BMI’s second-most-performed country song of 2009. In 2012, Craig Campbell had a hit with “Outta My Head,” which spent 54 weeks on the charts and became the second-longest-charting song in Billboard history. Jake Owen, Kix Brooks, Justin Moore, Luke Bryan, and Tracy Lawrence are among the others who have recorded his songs.

Kinney is now signed to publishing deals with Sony ATV, Love Monkey Music, and Tom-Leis Music. He arrived early for a writing appointment and settled in for a lengthy interview.

On behalf of anyone who has spent hours staring at a blank Word document, what does a writing appointment entail and how does one write on appointment?

Usually you get together with people who are signed to publishing deals; a publisher sets it up. We sit in a room — with blank walls, for some reason — and we might throw out an idea, or play guitars and talk for a minute, and try to come up with something that both parties kind of dig. As far as the days when you’re not inspired, I write five days a week, so I’ve had days, mainly when I started out as a writer in Nashville, where I just didn’t feel like writing. Sometimes I would cancel, but the times I decided to go ahead and go in, those were my best songs. I had a couple that got recorded that I thought about not going in that day, but with those experiences, it doesn’t matter how you feel. You just show up.

If it’s a new co-writer and the chemistry isn’t there — not to make it sound like speed dating, but can it be forced? Can you write with someone if you don’t click?

It’s definitely a lot tougher. At this stage I’m writing about 30 percent of the time with people I haven’t met or haven’t written with before. When the chemistry isn’t there creatively or socially, it’s a lot tougher, and usually one of the parties has to take it and try to carry it most of the way. That’s what I do, even if sometimes you stare at the wall, nobody agrees on anything, you butt heads and sit there for five or six hours staring at each other. That’s when you say, “Well, my wife’s calling. She told me I need to be home.” That’s been my go-to for a good while, but luckily I haven’t had a lot of those experiences. I feel bad for the other person, too, because they’re in that room because they’re qualified. But sometimes it’s one of those things.

Which is more difficult: if it’s not there creatively or not there socially?

I would say creatively because … I hate to sound cold, but I’m not there to make friends. I’m there to make a living. I love it when both of them come together, because then you want to write again. If you write a great song but you don’t have anything in common, it doesn’t matter as much to either one of you because you’re excited, and that kind of helps you like each other anyway!

Can you create a rough sketch of the songwriting process?

I prefer to write the song in one session because my book is so slammed with different writers that they set me up with. It could be three or four months before we can get together again, or we have to pick an afternoon when we’re done with another writing session to finish the one we started. Sometimes we start with a hook. If you can get a good idea before you get in there, and you know the writer, sometimes you know it will work for him. Other times you just know you’ve got something and there’s no way they can turn it down, and they usually don’t.

I’ve been in there with all my titles that I came up with, or a line that I came up with that could be something, but you feel like, It’s nothing, it’s not going to happen, I’m not in the mood to write that, that’s not any good, I just wrote that down. Sometimes you pick up your guitar and try to get a feel. We have come up with good hooks just by doing that. It almost feels like it fits there and it’s a good title, where did that come from? It came from the mood you put yourself in by picking up the guitar and just playing a groove. I’d say 60 percent of the time that’s how it happens with me. I’ll have a line that inspires something totally opposite of what I meant it to be, but it will give me another idea. If I find anything interesting, I write it down, because it’s turned into other hooks that are better. It’s usually a thought that I write down. There’s really no set pattern.

Back in the day, it seemed like you had to have a hook to even get started. If you were writing with a big writer, they wanted you to bring in a great idea, and at least for me, I haven’t seen that be as important as it used to be. It’s “Let’s get in a room and throw around some ideas, if we have any, and if not, let’s make something up on the spot.” “Outta My Head” was one where we got in there and started playing around, started singing stuff, and sometimes the lines just poured out. We got to the chorus and “outta my head” was something I threw in there in the middle of the song. It turned out to be at the end of the song, too, and it became the title. It wasn’t that I had the title and we wrote that. It just kind of fell out. Sometimes it falls out when you’re scatting. You weren’t thinking about it. You just never know. It’s cool how it happens. That’s why I love it so much — because it’s unpredictable.

When did your phone start ringing? Was it after Lonestar?

That was the first single I had. “You’re Like Coming Home” is the first song I ever had recorded, but Emerson Drive recorded it first. Richard Marx produced their record, and I thought it was so cool that he produced a song that I wrote. It was my first cut and it was awesome. It was supposed to be the first single, but that turned out to be a song he wrote with them, and they never got to it. Next thing I knew, the publisher pitched it to Lonestar, they recorded it, and it was their first single. So my first cut was recorded twice and it became my first hit. It definitely opened some doors. It was a good foot in the door, but I would say “Boots On” got my phone to ring. After that, it started ringing a little more. Then I signed with Love Monkey Music, Bob DiPiero’s company, and Tom-Leis Music, and it’s been a three-way venture. When Sony signed me after my deal with Capitol was over, they were pitching my songs because they liked them and people started taking notice more than ever because they’re the big guys, they’re the Yankees here in Nashville! They’ve been consistently pitching my songs, so I’ve been getting a lot more songs recorded. I believe they’ve got 65 writers or more, and they had record labels and artists taking note and talking about me to them. The buzz has been awesome. That and having some success already, coupled with Sony believing in me, has been the thing that pushed me over the top a little bit more. I’m not totally over the top yet, there’s still a ways to go, but they’re getting me there and I’m showing up, which is the main thing.

How many writing appointments do you have in an average week?

Five. Sometimes I have six or seven, if we’re finishing a song, but now that I have four kids and my wife’s in dog rescue, she needs me home earlier. She’s about to pull her hair out by the end of the day, and I get home and save her sanity. So I don’t pull the two-a-days too much. Now and then I will, but I’ll say five.

Are you commissioned by the artists? Do you tailor your approach, depending on which artist you’re writing for? Do the publishers tell you which artists they’re going to pitch? How does that process work?

Most of the time it’s just writing songs. Sometimes I’ll have an artist in mind. I quit doing that, for the most part, a long time ago because it seemed like I could never nail what that specific artist wanted to record. When I tried to dial it in so much, nobody else could hear themselves doing it because it sounded like the other artist. I would cater the production and everything to them. Now, if I have a tie-in with an artist, or I’m writing with someone who has a tie-in with an artist, and they say, “They’re looking for this,” we might take the chance and cater it to that person. Most of the time I’m trying to write radio singles and stuff that I feel will make an artist think, That’s a hit; I’ve got to cut that. When I write with the artist, of course I’m writing songs that hopefully they want to record. It doesn’t always happen because they’re also writing with a bunch of other writers. My publisher always sends us e-mails, but if I’m getting an e-mail that Jason Aldean is looking for a particular kind of song, everybody else on Music Row is getting that e-mail, so you still have to look at it and go, “Do I need to write that, or do I need to write something different so that they’ll think, Oh, that’s a hit; I’ve got to record that”? Because everyone else is going to write about one subject matter and they’ve got to pick from that. Unless you’re good friends with the artist or the producer and you know they’re going to listen intently and look for reasons to record your song, then you might as well try to write something that sounds well crafted and like a hit.

What is a well-crafted hit in Nashville in 2014?

I would say it’s more of a gut thing. I’ve written songs that I really didn’t think were more special than anything else, and they get recorded and they tell me what a hit it is, and OK, I like the song. Then I’ve had those I feel are smashes, and they may or may not be received as smashes. Mainly I know what not to do, which is have stock melodies that sound like everything else, and subject matter, too. You can’t throw a bunch of cliches in there and expect to get a response like, “Oh my gosh, that’s awesome!” The artist wants to say something that nobody’s heard. That way, people will take notice. Or at least the song should have a groove that gets people going. Everything has been said at some point, but if you can say it just a little bit different and have a fresh melody that goes with it, that, to me, is the formula for a hit, but there’s really no formula. As many people think there is, I don’t think so, because if there was, everybody would be writing hits. It’s just a matter of catching what the artist wants to say and doing it with a cool melody and cool production. I go off of my gut. If I would want to sing this or say this, that’s my best gauge.

Has songwriting become more of a job over time? Does it ever feel like a love/hate relationship?

I don’t think so. I have moments when I get frustrated. I definitely have days when I think, I don’t know if I’m ever going to write a good song again, today was awful, I couldn’t think of anything, I shouldn’t even be a writer. That will last for about an hour, then I go home and see my family, I come back the next day and write the best song I’ve ever written, and it’s, "OK, I’m back." I’ve learned that that’s part of it. You’re not going to write a great song every day. Some days you’re not going to write at all, because you’re writing with someone you’ve never written with and it just didn’t work out and you probably won’t write together again. I’ve got to give myself those days now and then when I don’t come up with anything good.

I could never say that I hate songwriting, but I know exactly what you’re talking about. Most of the time I love being there, even if I’m not able to write a good song. I’m thankful that I’m able to do it, because I know how many people are trying to get there, trying to get a deal, are stuck in a job that they don’t want to be in, and they wish they could be a songwriter. I don’t want to take it for granted. I don’t ever want to be ungrateful about this because it’s so easy to be knocked out of it once you get the wrong mindset and start being a pessimist about it. I’ve seen that happen with guys who had a bunch of hits, and then all of a sudden they’re gone. They got the best out of them and they’re not able to do it anymore because they could never focus on what they love doing. They were focused on how the business works.

Bob DiPiero is the guy I’ve looked to. He’s my publisher and he’s written a bunch of hits. His first big hit was “American Made,” with the Oak Ridge Boys, and he’s consistently had hits ever since then. He was huge in the ’90s and he still has hits because he comes in to write. He may not write a song every day, but he comes in to write and he loves it more than you’d love anything. He comes in not for the money; he doesn't need any more money. He just loves writing songs. He’s got a great attitude, and he’ll be able to consistently write and get songs recorded in this town because of that attitude. That’s what I want to do, so I see him as a model for how I want to look at things around here. You can’t sit there and worry about downloads all the time, or think that you’re not getting treated right because they’re not paying you what they should. There are people that handle that and I have faith in those guys. I have to focus on writing the next big hit.

Do the songs sometimes end up in a completely different place from where they began?

Oh yeah. You have an idea, you come in, and they say, “What about this?” “That’s better, let’s try that.” Sometimes you have a verse and a chorus, you change a line, and it’s like turning a key and opening the door. The next thing, you’re knuckle-bumping and high-fiving in the writing room. That happens all the time.

In an interview several years ago, you recalled crying the first time you heard “You’re Like Coming Home” on the radio. Apart from the tears, do you still get that feeling when you hear one of your songs?

When I hear them for the first time, definitely. I don’t cry anymore. That was a moment when I cried and the song was over and I totally missed everything that I would normally listen to and enjoy. It took me back to when I was 13 and wrote my first song. It was like this picture show in front of my face, watching how long it took me to get there, and that’s why I was tearing up. The next thing I know, the last chord was played and I was like, “Dang!” Now when I hear a song come on, I get goosebumps and crank it up like, “I can’t believe it’s on the radio!” I still get that feeling. I get chill bumps even when I hear it on the record. I don’t know if that will ever go away. It’s “I can’t believe this is happening to me. This is awesome!”

Did you have any idea that “Boots On” could become such a hit? Why do you think it resonated with so many people?

I didn’t realize. I wrote it with Randy, it was our first writing appointment, and it was kind of for our dads. My dad always had a crooked grin, and I threw him in there on that part. I was wearing a cowboy hat that day, which I don’t wear much anymore because it doesn’t make sense in the city to me, but at that point I had that, and I had my Skoal can, and we were just pulling from our atmosphere for a little while. Who would have thought that a song about not going home and cleaning up before you go to the bar would be a hit? I can’t tell you how it was a hit, other than Randy sang his butt off, the track was there, and it was a song that felt good. There’s no real deep inspiration to it. It was about having a good time and a guy who didn’t give a crap; he’d been working his butt off and he was going to go tear it up at the bar.

I think it was five years from the time we wrote it that it peaked on the charts at Number Two. Montgomery Gentry said they were going to record it, but they didn’t. When Randy had a record deal, he recorded it and that deal didn’t work out, so he was in the middle of trying to find another deal. Chris Young had just won on Nashville Star, he had a single out, and he wanted it for his first record. Then Randy said, “Me and you need to record this song. I love the song, everybody loves it, I play it out all the time, I’m about to sign another deal. I want that song, or I want you to have it for your record deal.” I said, “Come and get it.” I knew I wasn’t going to be the one to sing it. He stuck to his word. There’s always that chance that they’re going to get tired of the song, but I had faith that he really liked it, and he did. He recorded it and put it out as the second single off that record. Sometimes you have to be patient and have faith that it’s all going to work out. Two artists almost cut it before he did. I knew it was really good, but that’s one of those “I think this is a hit, but why hasn’t somebody recorded it as soon as they got the demo?” You start thinking, If it works out, it works out, but I’ve got to write the next one. That one rose to the top. It was a good feeling to have an unexpected one like that. “You’re Like Coming Home” got recorded pretty quick after we wrote it, so that was one of those instances where it was a little bit easier because you didn’t have the song sitting around for a while.

Did the fact that country radio is so overloaded with love songs and there aren’t enough songs for the male audience play a part?

It could have. I really hadn’t thought about that, but it makes total sense. It was a little more testosterone driven, I guess. The women liked it too. It was something that everybody could rock to, and make you stomp the pedal on the truck and burn rubber. You brought up a good point. I never thought of that, but I think you’re right. It was about being a little bit more rugged, so that does make sense.

You started out on electric guitar and quickly traded it for an acoustic. Do you still play electric?

I don’t. I play my acoustic plugged in at shows, but as far as grabbing a Stratocaster, I don’t really do that. If I was onstage with a band, I would pull it out for a couple of songs, but for writing and playing acoustic gigs, there’s no reason for it. I’m not a lead guitar player. I probably got the furthest in my guitar playing in that first month and a half of learning. I tell everybody I pretty much stayed at that level, because as soon as I could play and write songs, the guitar was secondary. I wasn’t giving extra attention to learning other people’s songs and getting better at the guitar, like I probably should have been. I have gotten better over the years by playing every day, but I never take the time to refine my playing. I would love to be able to pick up an electric and just tear it up, but I don’t have the time to learn what I need to do that.

How many guitars do you have?

I have eight guitars. I have had some given to me. I’m not a hoarder by any means.

What was your first guitar?

It was an Alvarez with koa wood. I’ve still got it. It’s in Texas. I leave it there for when I go home, so that I don’t have to haul my guitar with me. It’s at my mom’s house. It’s a pretty guitar. It was $350, which was probably pretty high at that time. It wasn’t a top end guitar, but it sounds good enough.

What do you have now?

My wife, Jennifer, and a buddy of mine, and I think they got the parents to chip in, too, gave me a 1969 Gibson J-45 for my birthday. They gave it to me a month early because I had some shows, and she thought I was going to buy one if she didn’t give it to me pretty quick. It’s awesome. I’ve always wanted a Gibson. I’ve been playing a Martin for probably ten years. Before that, I bought a Taylor and it was pretty cool, but it was kind of small-bodied. I saw a picture of me onstage with it and I look like I’m playing a ukulele. I thought, I’ve got to get a bigger guitar! I did some checking on the Gibson. I called the guitar shop and asked, “What is the history behind this guitar? I love it and I want to know the story.” They knew which guitar I was talking about because they loved it too. They said, “That was Dave Loggins’ guitar.” I said, “Are you kidding me?” That is not the story I thought I was going to hear. He owned it at one time and I didn’t get the impression that he sold it to them. I didn’t ask because I was too shocked. I was just hoping that he wrote “Please Come To Boston” on it!

Which Martin do you have?

A D15. It’s all mahogany and I really like the matte finish. I loved having it onstage because it wasn’t too shiny. I don’t feel like I’m a shiny guy. I’m not so much “Look at me.” Of course, this Gibson is the opposite. I liked playing the Martin because it sounded good. Mahogany has a different sound. I broke it in, it sounded the way I wanted it to, I still have it and I still like it, but I was ready for a change.

Are you particular about strings and picks?

I use D’Addario strings. Picks — I get whatever I can for free. I use mediums a lot, and they’re all over the Row. I lose them all the time, people lose them all the time, I take theirs, they take mine. You go to certain publishing companies and they have bowls of picks. They’re like candy — take what you want. I’ve stocked them up over the years.

What about amps?

I just use the house sound. I plug into whatever they have. I don’t bring my own equipment, except for my guitar and a cord. I’ve got my Boss pedal tuner and that’s all I need. If I’m lucky, I’m in a place where the sound is awesome and the engineer knows what he’s doing, because if you don’t have good sound, it affects everything. I’ll go sharp in my singing. You can’t hear yourself.

How often do you play?

Once every couple of months, and sometimes a couple of times a month. I try to space them out. When they call me for out-of-town gigs, I’ll do it if the pay is good and it benefits my wife and kids.

Do you have a home studio?

No, but that’s definitely a goal. Right now I use Garageband. I would like to get something set up when we move to a house where we have space for a studio. One reason it’s not an issue is I get what I need on Garageband as far as guitar and vocal. I write with guys who have studios and they can play everything, which is a lot easier than organizing a demo session. You get a good work tape with a couple of different instruments, and maybe a drum loop, and that will get it cut. If it doesn’t, and you really believe in the song and the demo is hurting it, then you go in the studio and do a demo with a full band.

How do you track your demos?

I produce the demos, and I usually go in with an idea of how I want it to sound — “We need to do a stop here,” “We need this chorus a little bit bigger,” stuff like that. They’re usually pretty good at picking up on what I’m coming up with. My buddy Ben Daniel brought in an artist named Jacob Powell, and we started working with him, producing him, and we helped him get a publishing deal at Sony. We’re in the middle of finishing those songs in the studio. He’s got label interest from a show that he played a few weeks ago, with songs that we wrote for him. Everybody is waiting for us to get done with these tracks so that we can put it all together and start hitting record labels with it. I enjoy producing, too, but writing is definitely number one for me. Even when I was signed as an artist, I knew if it didn’t work out, I still had my writing. I’m a writer first.

When did you begin producing artists?

The studio chops came from doing my own demos, getting players, and going in and directing them. I’ve had other people inquire about me producing them, but I’m not interested in becoming a producer other than for Jacob Powell, if this works out. Down the road you may hear a different story. I may be having a good time with these artists and I’ll produce them. There’s a couple of baby acts that I may go in the studio with to help them out and see where it goes, but as far as wanting that label as a “producer,” there’s a lot of great producers out there who actually know what they’re doing. I know the board enough, but I don’t sit behind the board. The engineer does that. It feels like being a choir director to me. I get a feel for what instruments we need, if a lick’s not working I try to work it out with the guitar player, maybe I sing something. Some of it is pre-production, coming up with a direction, because you’ve got to have a direction when you go in there. Once you get that done, you’ve got to find a guy you really believe in to mix it, and then you work out the levels and what needs to be changed. It’s almost like taking a sculpture and molding it to what your vision is. But as far as me sitting behind the console, very rarely do I hit “record.” There’s usually an engineer to do that.

In this day of reality television and pick the new star and vote for the winner, your job is safer than most.

They’ve got to have the songs, unless they quit using lyrics. I feel pretty good about it. I’m not worried about the old way of beating the honky-tonks to a pulp to get to where you want to go. I don’t think that’s gone away. Television and The Voice and all that stuff — they pull a lot of people who have been doing all that and just get them there quicker. I don’t feel like the old way is going away. I think there’s still room for a lot of others. Even some of those shows, the winners, sometimes radio won’t play them. Sometimes it works and it’s awesome. I think those guys are just as deserving. They’ve gone through a very different route, but it doesn’t mean that they haven’t paid their dues. They just accelerated it a little bit and got an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise to get in front of people.

Nashville: How much is fact and how much is fiction?

I don’t know. I was kind of hoping that my wife wouldn’t believe that’s how it works, because there’s a lot of cheating going on. I said, “I can’t believe you’re watching this. That’s not what happens. I go in to write and I come home.” I was, like, surely she’s not going to believe all that. There’s some truth to it, too, I’m sure, but it’s not any different from what happens to a car salesman. I’m sure some of the drama that’s in there happens to everybody else. It’s not all the drama that I see. They’re selling TV. I met the actor who plays Deacon [Charles Esten]. He came to a show in Vegas and got up and played a song with us. He’s a really cool dude. I haven’t watched it too much because I don’t have a lot of time to watch TV, but there are people I’m around, songwriters, who have had songs on that show. Bob DiPiero has had a song. Everybody’s thankful that Nashville is getting some recognition, but all the drama might be overboard — from what I see, anyway.

Jennifer is a volunteer for Big Fluffy Dog Rescue and regularly brings home dogs of all shapes, sizes and health statuses.

Including me, according to her!

Were you always a dog person or have you learned to love them because of her?

I had a beagle when I was a kid. My granddad always said, “Every boy needs a dog,” and so I pretty much always had one. Strays would come up and I’d ride my bike to the grocery store and get Beggin’ Strips and try to feed the dogs. I was always fond of dogs. I had a cat, and we had a couple of parrots for a while. I never did rescue like she rescues, but I would always try to get a dog. I never went to a pet shop. I always tried to get one that needed a good home. My beagle was with me for twelve years. We always took in strays and found them homes. It’s been nothing like having seventeen dogs in the yard at one time. We had one that she took in from Memphis that was pregnant, and at 1:00 in the morning she gave birth to twelve puppies in our bedroom. At that point it seemed like we had sixteen or seventeen dogs on our one-acre lot, but you can’t really count the puppies as dogs. I love it because she loves it. I love to see that side she has for animals and wanting to protect them. She’s the Mother Teresa for dogs. She’s a sweetheart. She’s got me running dogs to the vet in Nashville, picking dogs up, and getting food for them. I’m able to see that side of it and feel what she’s feeling, seeing the condition the dogs are in and feeling for them. I’m happy to do it because it’s something she loves doing.

Follow Brandon Kinney on Twitter: @BrandonKinney and on Facebook: Brandon Kinney Music.

Read interviews with Randy Houser and Big Fluffy Dog Rescue founder Jean Harrison at the links below.

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