Brett Young Talks Getting Raw & Real on Debut Album: 'You Only Get One Chance to Make a First Impression'

C. Baehler
Brett Young

Almost exactly one year ago, Brett Young released his first major-label EP, which spawned his first No. 1 song on country radio: the cute, feel-good single "Sleep Without You." With another single already gaining speed on country radio ("In Case You Didn't Know"), Young drops his full-length debut today (Feb. 10). But if you think his success happened practically overnight, think again -- Young has been writing songs for 13 years.

At 35 years old, it hasn't always been one good fortune after the other for Young. While in college, the Orange County, Calif., native had a bright future as a baseball pitcher, even getting offers from professional teams early on. But after being plagued by injuries, he took up songwriting and eventually moved to Los Angeles.

Starting out, Young wasn't writing to any specific genre. "You don’t really pick anything, it’s just you and your guitar and it is what it is," he recalls to Billboard. Even being a versatile aritst, in a town like L.A., he seemed to get swallowed up by the competition.

"I had a lot of success, but with a really shallow ceiling," Young recalls. "I had reached my limitations of what I could do in LA. You get to a point where you’re like 'Okay, I’m ready for the next step.'"

The only problem was Young wasn't quite sure what that next step was. He'd heard plenty of times that he should "go country," but in a town where it was more common for singer-songwriters to be genre-less, he wasn't interested in going any certain way musically. That is, until one person phrased it a little differently: "Dude, you’re already writing country songs. These are country songs."

"That finally made sense to me, because it’s the stories in country music that drew me in in the first place," Young explains. "And every time I write a song I've always had trouble saying it if it wasn’t true because I want to stay true to the story."

After 10 years in LA, Young took those words to heart and decided to move to Nashville. Within a year of being in Music City, he got himself a record deal. "I moved to Nashville with the same kind of mindset that I had in LA, and that is to make sure you don’t get outworked by anybody, and make sure you’re always writing songs, and take every opportunity to play that you can. The difference is in Nashville, it’s such a small town and everybody’s accessible, that I found myself in the right rooms on a regular basis," he explains. "It was pretty crazy how fast it happened, but it all felt really natural."

Part of Big Machine Label Group (home to Taylor Swift and Rascal Flatts), Young has been sifting through 13 years worth of songs, totaling somewhere between 200 and 300 tracks, since his fateful move to create his first record.

The set's 12 songs  -- which Young collectively refers to as his "babies" -- make for a balanced blend of uptempo numbers like the Billboard Hot 100 hit "Sleep," and ballads such as heartfelt second single "In Case You Didn't Know" or the heartbreaking "Mercy." No matter the sound, though, the entire collection is "a very clear picture of me as a person," he says.

"You only get one chance to make a first impression, so I'm meeting the world with this record. And I’m not giving an opinion on something -- I’m actually, from experience, telling a story. I would say of the 12 songs on the record, 10 of them I lived, and the other two I can completely relate to," Young suggests. "What I hope is that [fans] feel connected to the lyrics and because of that they feel connected to me, getting to know me a little bit. So when they buy a ticket to come out to a show, they feel like they’re coming to a show from somebody they know."

Young stresses the importance of being honest in his music, something that, while admirable, can often result in vulnerability that's nerve-wracking for a musician -- which he says is especially true for him with "You Ain't Here To Kiss Me," "Mercy" and "Memory Won't Let Me." When it comes to performing these truthful songs live, though, Young says it's not necessarily as hard as you'd think.

"It is something you have to get over early because that sort of vulnerability, when they’re your words, you feel kind of naked on stage -- that level of vulnerability does feel weird at the beginning," he admits. "I’m still learning, but I think I’m getting better at going into performance mode ... I’m trying to connect with the audience, but in that moment sometimes I forget to connect with the lyrics and get distracted enough to ignore the emotions almost accidentally. Which is probably good, because if I was getting emotional all the time it’d probably be a little strange for everybody. [Laughs.]"

In the first few post-album release months, Young will serve as an opener on legs of tours with Luke Bryan, Lee Brice and Justin Moore, and Thomas Rhett. Come summer, he'll begin his first full tour trek as an opening act for Lady Antebellum (along with fellow opener Kelsea Ballerini).

Although he hasn't gotten a chance to talk to Lady A about the honor, he's excited for the opportunity to learn from their stage presence and "take a page out of their playbook." But frankly, Young is as much of as a storyteller onstage as he is in his songs, so he may not need much help from the country vets at all.

"If I want people to connect to my words and my stories, I need to tell them where they came from," he says. "Because then when you break into song, they have kind of a blueprint for why I wrote that song so they can come to it with something they went through that helps them connect to it. It’s like speed dating -- I’ve got 25 minutes to make you want to see me again."