Makin' Tracks: Newcomer Brandon Ratcliff Breaks 'Rules' Out With a Tinge of Blue-Eyed Soul
As new Monument artist Brandon Ratcliff’s first radio-promoted single makes its way to terrestrial airwaves, listeners will find a lot to like about the sound. It features a Stax-like guitar riff, an ingratiating melody and Ratcliff’s airy, blue-eyed-soul intonation.
But the song also benefits from a visual component: “Rules of Breaking Up” is a left-of-center title, and that makes it likely to stand out in a list.
“When I’m looking on iTunes or Spotify for new songs, I always know which songs I want to click on just from the title,” reasons Ratcliff. “For us, ‘Rules of Breaking Up’ was just one of those titles where you go, ‘That sounds interesting. I need to hear that.’ ”
“Rules” was an accidental byproduct of a different song during a 2017 writing session with frequent collaborators Pete Good (“Rockin’ All Night Long”) and A.J. Babcock, who has landed album cuts with Walker Hayes and Darius Rucker. The original tune, now forgotten by all three writers, wasn’t really working, and the trio brainstormed hooks or phrases that would help knit its storyline together.
“If I recall,” says Babcock, “I said the phrase ‘the rules of breaking up,’ and it was Brandon that said, ‘No, that’s another song. We should just write that.’ ”
Ratcliff and Good fashioned the curvy, melancholy guitar intro, and it set an emotional tone for the words and melody to “Rules of Breaking Up.”
“We just started going down the road of ‘What are the rules? What would they look like? What are those things you can’t do?’” recalls Ratcliff. “We kind of just started listing those things in the verse.”
The opening list was fairly easy: The ex can’t go to public places in hopes of seeing her, can’t go back to being friends, can’t call her to share his day and definitely can’t show up drunk at her door.
The verse received a fairly linear melody, creating a conversational tone and fitting snugly with the end cap of the signature riff. At the close of that verse, the song transitions into a swirling melody and lifts into a higher register as Ratcliff introduces the “Rules of Breaking Up” hook and creates a distinct separation between the verse and chorus.
“There’s a massive contrast in this one,” observes Babcock. “That was on purpose. Also, I think more than any other song we’ve ever tracked, it has the biggest vocal jump, which is also to showcase Brandon’s singing ability. It’s dramatic to go from this very down, almost monotone listing thing and then up into that much higher range, which, I think, not a lot of guys in country can really do that [well].”
Ratcliff is the son of Suzanne Cox, whose country/bluegrass/gospel act The Cox Family won a Grammy Award in tandem with Alison Krauss, and his traditional-country heritage showed itself most in the bridge, where the lyrics use a classic twist of a phrase to tie a bow around the storyline.
“We kind of got this chorus nailed down, and I had this weird epiphany moment,” he says. “Usually I’m kind of a melody-first guy, and I was like, ‘Guys, I know the bridge.’ Usually that means I’ve got a rough little thing that might be a bridge idea, but I literally just said the words, ‘They say we need time apart, but I can’t stop hoping/Hoping that rules are just like hearts, and they can be broken.’ Pete and A.J. both looked at me and were like, ‘Yeah, that’s the bridge.’”
When they adjourned for the day, they still had some holes in “Rules,” and they sent a work tape -- along with two other songs -- to songwriter-producer busbee (“My Church,” “H.O.L.Y.”) to see if he could bring it home. In a happy accident, they sent him a version that was 10-12 beats per minute faster than they had intended, and the new speed influenced some of his work. In addition to filling in the lyrical holes, busbee came up with a poppier arrangement and put a more emphatic finale on the chorus by repeating “broke up” and giving it a melodic lift.
Ratcliff, Babcock and Good all met at busbee’s studio in East Nashville to record a new demo of the updated song, and Ratcliff used one of busbee’s Telecasters to create what became the final version of the core guitar riff. The echo and faint hints of finger noise make it sound like a lonely musician playing in a small hotel lounge. They had studio guitarists attempt to replay it, but Ratcliff’s interpretation gave it a unique character that no one was able to match.
“It’s just different, and you believe it differently coming from Brandon,” says Good. “It’s a little less polished.”
Ratcliff’s Monument recording deal came about as “Rules” took shape, and label co-president Shane McAnally, who already produces Old Dominion and Walker Hayes, joined Good to co-produce the final master. Ratcliff’s guitar part and several other elements from the demo became foundations as drummer Fred Eltringham, guitarist Derek Wells and keyboard player Matt Stanfield formed the core studio band with Babcock playing bass at Nashville’s Ocean Way Studios.
The arrangement provided an ever-changing backdrop for Ratcliff’s forefront vocals. It vacillates from spare patches to lush sections and mixes brisk staccato elements between smoother passages. Ratcliff sang a bevy of background vocals that added to the effect, some of them thick enough to evoke memories of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” or LeAnn Rimes’ “I Need You.”
“Brandon’s voice is so airy and it stacks so well that when you put them all together, it really creates a cool, pad-like effect,” says Good.
Monument digitally introduced “Rules of Breaking Up” in October 2018, then pushed it out to country radio via PlayMPE on April 8. Its numerous atmospheric changes are designed to hold listeners’ ears, and its universal message ought to resonate with a few minds. If consumers encounter it in a playlist, it’s likely to play well with their eyes, too.
“It sounds more like a title of a work rather than a song -- like a record or a book,” says Ratcliff. “That’s kind of the thing that gave it legs. I always thought this song was powerful.”