One of the time-honored notions about Nashville is that it is a “10-year town,” and it generally takes a decade for new artists or songwriters to make their mark. However, singer-songwriter Breland has defied those odds.
He moved to Nashville two years ago, and in that time, has earned a platinum hit with the trap-country groove of “My Truck” (a song that first gained traction in early 2020), added to his major label team (now signed with Bad Realm Records/Atlantic Records/Warner Music Nashville), earned his first No. 1 Country Airplay hit with “Beers on Me” (with Dierks Bentley and HARDY), and notched performances at the Academy of Country Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards and CMT Music Awards (as well as three CMT Music Awards nominations).
Last week introduced the New Jersey native’s latest milestones: On Wednesday (Sept. 7), he achieved his first CMA Award nomination for musical event of the year for “Beers on Me.” His full-length debut major label album, Cross Country, was also released on Friday (Sept. 9).
Born into a musical family, Breland’s first musical training came via gospel, as his parents were ministers. But it was his college years, while studying marketing and management at Georgetown University, where Breland also became laser-focused on songwriting in a variety of genres. He began working with New York rapper Chinx, up until Chinx’s murder in May 2015. Following graduation from Georgetown in 2017, Breland moved to Atlanta for a few years before his collaborative efforts drew him to Nashville.
In 2020, Breland was already gaining attention thanks to his viral debut hit “My Truck,” but he also saw an opportunity as artists were off the road due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He initially made the trip to Nashville to craft the “My Truck” remix with Sam Hunt, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Within months, he had returned to work with Keith Urban on “Out the Cage” and “Throw It Back,” before moving to Nashville at the end of 2020. Over the past two years, Breland has become one of music’s favorite collaborators, also working with Bentley, Tiera (“Miles”), Gary LeVox (“All I See”), Jimmie Allen and Lathan Warlick (“Somebody”) and Tenille Townes (“Shared Walls”).
“I took advantage of the fact that a bunch of artists were at home and used that as an opportunity to collaborate with people,” Breland tells Billboard via a videoconference call from Los Angeles. “I don’t know if I would have been able to hop on a Dierks song or spend so much time with Keith or develop relationships with Sam and Gary LeVox…those relationships were byproducts of everyone being home. Me being new to Nashville at that time was really fortuitous, from a collaborative perspective.”
Yes, his album Cross Country includes a plethora of collaborations with Urban, Mickey Guyton, Thomas Rhett, Lady A and his labelmate Ingrid Andress — but it is also Breland’s calling card as a keen, visionary solo artist, as evidenced by songs such as “Natural” and “Growing Pains.” Following the release of Cross Country, Breland discusses his musical background, his musical heroes, and why “Cross Country” is much more than just an album title.
Your parents were ministers and pursued music. How did that impact you, musically and personally?
My parents met in the gospel choir and when I was young, they were a gospel duo, putting out songs and singing at a couple of music venues. They were regulars at this little spot up in New York. The dream never really panned out for them, but it was cool to watch them try to do it. When I look at myself getting into this, I feel like those were formative years watching my parents get one of their songs spun late at night on the local gospel radio station, watching them put together an album and pay out of pocket to see that project through.
Ultimately, they decided to focus on leading worship in their home church. They were raising us and they had their jobs and obligations to attend to, and they sacrificed a lot of their own dreams for us. I feel like since I have a similar dream, the least I can do is pursue it as hard as I can.
Why have collaborations been so key for you?
They give me the opportunity to tell different types of stories, and to use my voice and talent in different ways. As someone who started as a songwriter, I often get in with different artists just to make something, whether or not it ends up as a collaboration. I just try to base collaborations off of what I think the song needs.
How did Thomas Rhett come to be on “Praise the Lord”?
I wrote that with a couple of buddies back in 2020 in Nashville. I had just moved to town and had come off this great two-week-long music retreat with Keith Urban.
As soon as we wrote it, it took us about six to eight months to actually get [Thomas Rhett] on the song. I sent it to Julian Bunetta and it made its way to Thomas Rhett. His family loved it and his kids were listening to it a lot and he was like, “Hey, that’s all the confirmation I need. If my kids love it I’m in.” I wanted to make something that really feels like the Black church and the types of churches that I grew up going to, but also plays around with some of the stuff that I’m doing now. One thing I know is regardless of what type of church you go to, nobody’s perfect.
Of course, you have plenty of solo songs on this album, including “Growing Pains,” which is especially potent.
That was the last song to make it onto the album. I feel like I’ve been on a spiritual and emotional journey in the past year, of just wanting to be present, and make gratitude the center of what I do. Energy is powerful and I was getting so drained and so exhausted from everything that was happening, because I was allowing my overall mood to be determined by whether or not I had gotten good or bad news, and whether or not I felt like I was progressing in my career or not. You can’t rely on those metrics to determine your happiness. I decided to be grateful for everything that happens in 2022, whether it seems positive or not. I’m celebrating everything. It has made me a better friend, family member, creative and to all around show love to people in ways they might need.
You released “My Truck” independently and later signed with Atlantic. How do you compare releasing music as an independent to releasing music via the major labels?
I signed with Atlantic and then we brought Warner Music Nashville in at the top of the year. I knew we needed additional help, especially with country radio. It’s been a worthwhile partnership thus far. I love having people in Nashville who understand the country landscape and fan the flames on things that we were already doing really well. But anytime you transition from being an independent artist to being on a major label, you’re gonna have to make compromises because the business gets a little more corporate. You have the freedom to do whatever you want when you put out music yourself, but you don’t have the radio budget, the support at DSPs, the marketing dollars. I think my team has done a really good job of understanding where I’m at and they don’t try to push me too far in either direction.
You first released “Cross Country” last year, both as a solo track and a duet with Mickey Guyton. It is the title track for this project, but it is much more than a song or an album title.
“Cross Country” is definitely a mission statement. I consider it a social movement. You’ve got music and sports, and not a whole lot else that can bring two completely different people with different backgrounds and perspectives together. But if I want to reach a bunch of different people, I have to paint on a broader canvas. A lot of other genres, R&B, hip-hop and pop are all playing together and I realize that country is often isolated and siloed on its own.
I would love more collaboration across genres. I think there’s a lot of incredible music that plays on the periphery of country or includes elements that a country audience might be interested to hear, but there are systems in place that don’t allow for that to happen. But this album has the potential to do that, just based on the way we put it together: Every song is rooted in country in some capacity, but we’re also playing around with a lot of other elements of soul, gospel, hip-hop, pop, just playing around with these different intersections. The whole album is a hypothesis really — asking the question, “What if country music sounded like this?”
What else can the industry do to better support diversity?
It’s a lot of things, but seeing a diversity of acts on tours [would be big]. I thought it was cool to see Kelsea Ballerini on a Jonas Brothers tour. I think it comes down to A&R at labels, where if an artist has a song that doesn’t fit super cleanly into a traditional country box, let them put it out and see what happens.
But then it comes down to country radio, because artists are still playing a game of trying to get something to country radio — but who knows how diverse country radio could actually be, if no one is willing to test certain things against the market? At some point, we have to see if a song like “Grand” by Kane Brown can have as much success as a “One Mississippi” or “Like I Love Country Music.” And then, from a DSP perspective and streaming, where people are more open to the possibility of cross-genre collaborations, we need more crossover playlists.
I heard that there might be a Latin collaboration you are working on.
I did do [a song] and we’re trying to find the right time and place to put it out. I’ve been to Texas and Southern California, and there are so many Hispanic and Latino people that love country music. I sing in Spanish on it, too, which was a lesson for me, because I don’t really speak Spanish. By the time it’s all said and done, I’m probably gonna be singing in like 15 languages to have hits across a bunch of countries and markets that people don’t expect.
I wanna reach underserved communities, people who might really love this music if given a chance. If I can be the person that helps someone challenge a preconceived notion, or a prejudice that they have against something, that’s what I am equipped to do.
You recently joined Pharrell in the studio. What did you learn from that experience, and how do you see your own career evolving?
We have a mutual friend who connected the dots for us to be able to work together and he had a couple of tracks and ideas that leaned country. At that point I was pretty much done with my record, but I’m sure at some point one of these songs will come out and we’ll continue building that relationship. He’s one of the greatest producers, writers and artists to ever do it. The way he runs his whole operation, he’s definitely a mogul. His brain is always working on multiple things at once. He has a bunch of different rooms in his house where people are working on different things. Some of those are dedicated just to music, some are dedicated to like fashion and shoe design, or helping to put his festival together. It was like a constant carousel and very efficient.
The people that I look at for inspiration are like Pharrell and the Jamie Foxxes and the Justin Timberlakes, the Donald Glovers. I definitely see music continuing to be at the forefront of what it is that I do, but having a bunch of other projects, — whether it’s in TV, film, comedy, activism, a lot of different mediums… I’m an ambitious person. I’m always thinking of what the next moves are gonna be.