College was, to say the least, a very busy time for Brynn Elliott. She would play “something like 260 shows” while excitedly pursuing her degree at Harvard, the two passions existing symbiotically. What she’d learn in the classroom would often direct her songwriting, and when eventually making the jump to a label, Atlantic helped her prepare her first release while she finished up school.
That first release, “Time Of Our Lives,” is explored in full here, along with why she felt at home at Atlantic, how she started up her creative partnership with writer/producer Nathan Chapman, and how they answered the question: “What’s my sound?”
Interviews: Brynn Elliott, Nathan Chapman (Writer/Producer), Pete Ganbarg (President of A&R, Atlantic Records), Bruce Flohr (Management), Carla Wallace (Big Yellow Dog Music).
Jesse Cannon: Hi. My name is Jesse Cannon, and I’ve devoted my life to trying to go deep and figure out what goes into making great records. I’ve produced over 1,000 records, written two books and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears. Now I’m proud to present to you Atlantic Records’ Inside the Album podcast, where we get to go deeper on how some of Atlantic’s artists have made the amazing albums in their catalog. We will hear firsthand from the artists and the team behind them that helped craft these amazing records and get to know the little secrets that go into making an amazing album.
On this episode, we’re going to talk about Brynn Elliott’s new EP “Time of Our Lives.” It seems like music critics are constantly bemoaning the choices they have when it comes to the pop stars they get thrown at them. They’re just never intellectually piqued by them the way they wish they would be. These critics seem to tweet on a monthly schedule. I just want a smart pop artist who talks about real things and has substance. Well, guess what? She’s finally here. I don’t want to go into all her accolades since everyone interviewed in this podcast is going to gush about them over and over, but what I will say is I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with Brynn Elliott, who’s the subject of this podcast and her brain just works better than most people’s. She’s clear, concise and the enthusiasm you see everyone around her have is because she’s really good to be around, so without further ado, I’m going to let Brynn tell you her story.
Brynn Elliott: I started writing songs when I was 16. I really want to go to college. My parents didn’t go to college so I was the first one to be like, “Hey, this is something that I’m really passionate about,” and my parents were like, “OK, let’s Google what a college application is and let’s apply.” At the same time that I started writing songs, I was applying to college and I used all of this energy that I had from applying and at the end of the day, would just play music and that became my safe place, just like for me to feel human again.
This is happening in Atlanta, Georgia, good ole Fulton County, so I started writing. I put those songs on my college application. I really wanted to go to Harvard because I felt like I loved books to such a degree, such a nerdy degree that, that was going to be the only place I would fit in socially, so I was like, “I think I need to go there.” I applied, didn’t get in the first time and then I applied again after a year, took a year off, did music the whole time and then I finally got in. When I went into school, I was just like, okay, I want to do school and I also want to play as many shows as I possibly can and I want to write as many songs as I possibly can because in high school, I was writing songs about novels I was reading. Well, I was learning about the California Gold Rush in my history class and I wrote a song called “Gold Dust,” so I knew that college was gonna be really inspiring song wise.
That’s actually what I ended up doing. I played something like 260 shows throughout my time at school, which was amazing. I literally was just like, any show anywhere, let me do it, and then my junior year was when I started getting into some label conversations. I had a manager, Bruce Flohr. He’s amazing, and nothing was really feeling right. It was a very hard process, very weird, and then I found Atlantic and everything changed.
Jesse Cannon: So now that we know Brynn’s story, I asked her about what touchstone she has in music and what she really wanted to make with this EP.
Brynn Elliott: I went on this road trip with my dad. We were in the car and we were listening to local radio. I think we were in Mississippi, grew up in Georgia, so we were just all around the South. This song comes on and it has the longest intro I’ve ever heard. At this point, I had only listened to Jessica Simpson and pop stuff, which is great and that’s also important to me now, but it was the first time I heard real rock music, and it was “November Rain.” And I just was like, “Dad, what is going, what is this?” And he was like, “Are you kidding me right now?” ‘Cause my dad grew up listening to Guns N’ Roses, Doobie Brothers, the whole kit and caboodle and he was kind of upset at himself for never teaching me. I was 14, 15 at this point, and so it was from that moment that I got into rock music and I loved just the anathematic parts of it, and so, yeah, I think I carry with me today and I play electric guitar. It’s a really important part of who I am in my art.
Jesse Cannon: If you’ve listened to other episodes of this podcast, you probably know by now most people are sitting around the house writing songs, but Brynn does it a little bit differently.
Brynn Elliott: Yeah, I think for me, it’s actually it’s pretty fluid and it’s happened every which way. But I will say that for most of the songs on the EP, they all kind of started their beginnings in the classroom.
Jesse Cannon: Really?
Brynn Elliott: Yeah, so here we go. Here’s the nerdy part.
Jesse Cannon: You graduated, so they can’t get mad at you now.
Brynn Elliott: Yeah, exactly, no, no. So each one really has some kind of tie to something I learned in a classroom with a bunch of people and a professor or a teacher and so I would then take those concepts that would be floating around in my head and I write a lot with Nathan Chapman. He’s kind of the only person I really write with at this point. I have such a good relationship with him and he kind of can read my mind. I’ll sit down and I’ll just say the word or the concept and he’ll just be like, “Oh, that’s so right,” and so we have just a really good vibe and the way that each of the songs themselves were made is kind of different and we can get into that. I think for everything on this EP, it’s the concept. That was so important to me that I was communicating things that I really cared about and that I felt like I was learning about.
I think sometimes in school, you learn stuff and you’re like, “That’s just really just not gonna help me and I just spent three hours on this problem and I’m just never gonna look at it ever again,” and so because I’m so passionate about education, it was really important that I found things that I really wanted to carry with me the rest of my life. So, I think some of these songs on EP were kind of coming from that place and they were really made in that way of like, hey, these ideas that I think are really important right now, is what’s going on our world or what’s going on just on the internet. There’s a whole thing just about the internet.
And then just in general, when I go to write, I’m always looking to write anthems. That’s something that has always been really, really important to me, and I’ll write quieter songs, but it’s definitely not my default. I’m much more inclined to write something kind of like big that has a lot to say and that’s powerful and strong because I grew up listening to rock music.
Jesse Cannon: Speaking of the classroom, she obviously had to write a thesis to graduate from Harvard and I that played into this record too, so I asked her about the women she wrote her thesis about.
Brynn Elliott: I wrote my thesis about two, specifically, one named Anne Conway who was a woman. They both were writing in the mid-1600s England and the only reason they were writing is because they had access to education through their husbands or their fathers. Anne Conway and then Margaret Cavendish was the woman who said, “I’m going to publish my own philosophy under my own name.” What you didn’t do, if you published anything as woman, you had to take a male name. That was amazing, so I wrote my thesis actually just on Anne Conway and she kind of, here we go. We’re going deep.
She was super not about Descartes, Cartesian philosophy, so simple rough, rough rundown is just Descartes came into the world and said, “Hey, the mind and body are separate things and they’re really just not the same thing,” and she was just like, “No, no, no. That makes no sense,” so I wrote my whole thesis basically about that, about how she had this very strong sense of the unity of the mind and body and the soul as they would call it back then. And so I don’t really write a song about the unity of the mind and body, but I do think that music itself intuitively speaks to that, and I think that’s why we have this thing called dancing, which is so important.
Also, I take a lot as existentialist philosophy, so studying people like Kierkegaard and Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who’s an amazing feminist philosopher and Heidegger. I loved them because they were songwriters. They wrote philosophy from a very metaphorical place. You get some metaphors with early modern metaphysics, which is the women I was talking about, but the existentialists, they’re really digging deep. And so things like “Time of Our Lives,” the kind of verses that I wrote for that song is like very much inspired by those existentialists and kind of thinking a little bit outside the box and saying things that are a little weird. I don’t believe in the weekend is how the song starts off and Sartre has this really, I would never say this in a song ’cause it’s too much, but he has this phrase from a play called No Exit saying hell is other people.
I’m always searching for those verses, those words that are kind of like, “Oh, that’s a really weird way to say something that’s so true to my existence,” and it’s almost like Beatles-esque of they’re saying things that are so simple, but they’re so real. I think if existentialists and the Beatles got together, they would make really weird simple phrases in songs, so that’s what I’m trying to do there.
Jesse Cannon: We know about where Brynn gets her lyrical inspiration now, but what about what she writes on musically?
Brynn Elliott: It’s either/or. My natural inclination is always to go to guitar because it was the first instrument that I feel most connected to, I think, because I taught myself and it’s kind of like, you know when you grow through those experiences where it’s kind of really intense? I would look up a song that I liked when I was growing up and I would look up the chords and I would google how to play an A-minor chord and there’d be this amazing human being on the other side of the screen who made a 2½-minute tutorial on how to play an A-minor chord. Those people are my heroes because they taught me guitar and I just think it was a really intense time, partly because I was applying to college and my life felt like a resume, but also because I just sat down to learn this stuff and it just feel like you get those connections with the instruments that you’ve had a brutal time with and was a little brutal.
It was hard because I was just trying to figure it out. Oh, also part of that is because the first song, the first, first song I ever wrote was on a guitar and it was about a woman in high school who I was really, really close to who was almost like another grandmother to me. She was just a neighbor and she passed away, and I had spent so much time with her and I just wrote that song. I was like, I need to write because I have feelings, so I think that instrument will always have that pull for me because it’s the first place I went and learned and started this journey of being a songwriter. Piano, I think is the most beautiful instrument on this planet. I think there’s such beauty in it and so, it’s funny. It’s like, I’m more drawn to writing on guitar but I want things to sound more piano based, so I don’t know how to really explain that but and they can go together too, of course.
Jesse Cannon: We heard Brynn talking before about her collaboration with Nathan Chapman, so I wanted to figure out how they met and came to work together.
Brynn Elliott: Oh my gosh. It’s the funniest story, so actually, Marc Roberge from O.A.R. set us up. I was opening for O.A.R. and he was like, “You have got to meet my friend Nathan,” and I was like, “Cool, okay,” so I ended up meeting him and the first day that we wrote together was the day, it was three days after I broke up with this guy. And before this, you have to know that because I was very in my nerdy world, I did not want to write songs about boys and I was also trying to be an empowered female and I was like, “Don’t want to just do that. I just don’t want to write about boys. They have too much air time,” so I was very much conflicted because I was like I’m feeling all of these feelings. I went through this breakup and I don’t know what to do.
So I sat down in Nathan’s little room. We sat there talking and he was like, “How do you feel about just writing a breakup song?” And I was like, “Nathan, you have found me. You’ve caught me at a really good time for that. Yes, let me do it,” and I started telling him all about this boy and how this relationship had gotten really competitive and how I was traveling a lot for shows and this guy didn’t like that and felt like I needed to spend more time with him and I just felt like I had to really dim my light and not be myself around the guy. And then I started telling him about these classes I was in at the moment and one of them was this class about women philosophers in the 1600s England, and they were women who said, “You know what? It’s not really a thing for women to write philosophy right now, but we’re going to do it anyway and we don’t really care what other people think,” and so I was in this moment and I was like, “It doesn’t matter if people don’t like these women,” and I was like, “People might not like me,” and then Nathan was like, “Oh my gosh,” and then we wrote the song in 15 minutes.
We wrote “Might Not Like Me” just from that, those experiences I was going through that day and I just think that that was the most incredible first song to write together because it kind of set the tone of hey, I think we have something really special as a duo. Yeah, it just kind of spiraled from there.
Jesse Cannon: I wanted to get a little bit deeper about how their collaboration works and how the ideas form.
Brynn Elliott: I always am writing and I’m always on my voice app on the phone. I’m coming up with melodies and just in virtue of his life being a songwriter, he’s always coming up with ideas. But when we come together, we’re pretty much together and we’re like, “We’re gonna finish this song and we’re gonna make it today,” but all of the songs are just us. I written with other people and it’s funny how it just kind of ended up being the songs that were just the two of us.
Jesse Cannon: Now Pete Ganbarg, the head of A&R at Atlantic Records, had a little bit of insight on why this collaboration works so well.
Pete Ganbarg: She’s an artist who can write the songs herself, so I don’t need to pitch outside songs to her and we were lucky enough on this first EP for her to do many sessions with another friend of ours, Nathan Chapman in Nashville, who we had worked with here in Atlantic shortly after I got here 10 years ago with a country act, but who’s probably best known for producing the first several Taylor Swift albums and co-writing a lot of that material. And so he understands how to work with a young woman who is finding her own voice and I think he did a great job with Brynn. For me, my job was more to listen to the body of work that they created and to try to distill the perfect five-song statement as a debut EP.
Jesse Cannon: One of the hardest things as an artist is a blank slate and when you haven’t put out an EP before, you have these infinite options of where your sound could go. So I wanted to start figuring out how they came to find this sound for Brynn.
Brynn Elliott: Well, we went through a whole, actually, for one of the songs, and I’ll tell this story for “Time of Our Lives,” we went through a whole moment where we like, “What’s my sound?” And we had some John Mayery-type situations going on and that was really interesting and weird, not ’cause John Mayer is weird. John Mayer is amazing, but because I’m not John Mayer.
One of the first songs I wrote that was a pop song was “Might Not Like Me” and it kind of morphed itself into this ’80s synth-pop anthem and I think that was kind of the defining sound for the rest of the EP. Which is just like try to make everything some pretty big, but also a little bit of synth flare happening all over the place and Nathan had just got, I wish I knew the actual synth name, but had gotten this new synth right when we started writing “Internet You” and he was like, “I want to use it,” and I’ve always loved Cyndi Lauper and just kind of ’80s power lady jams, so I kind of was like, “Let’s do the anathematic thing also with ’80s thing, also something that could translate live with a rock band,” and that was where the sounds came from.
Jesse Cannon: It’s always funny because musicians always say the equipment doesn’t matter, but sometimes the equipment is really inspiring. Here’s Nathan talking about those synths and how it shaped the sound.
Nathan Chapman: Yeah, well, at one point about halfway through the production, I felt like I had exhausted all of the soft synths that I had and the tones and textures of that were kind of not really doing it for me at a certain point. I had owned a Prophet-6 a while back and had sold it and I bought a new one again for this record ’cause I needed to have those analog synths around. I needed to be able to tap into that sound. It kind of goes back to the organic pop feel of her voice. I felt like an analog synth would support her better than, some of the soft synths can get a bit brutal and plasticky when you try and re-create those things, so I just went for the real thing again. I will not so this one again. I love that keyboard.
Jesse Cannon: But finding a sound takes more than just play with some synth patches, so I wanted to see what happened behind the scenes to shape this EP. Here’s Brynn on how they found that more organic feeling in her music.
Brynn Elliott: What’s interesting because playing live is so important to me because I had told you I was just playing all the time and I played guitar and piano and when we go to write a song, it was funny. We wrote “Might Not Like Me” on acoustic guitar in 15 minutes and then we would start writing other songs and I would be at the computer and Nathan would be at the computer and I would be trying to figure it out and Nathan already knows what’s up with the Pro Tools and we looked at each other one day and we were like, “We can’t do that. That’s not healthy for us as song writers. We need to stick with starting with something raw and real and just writing real songs.” That’s always our goal and that’s definitely always my goal, so we wrote “Might Not Like Me” and “Internet You” and “Time of Our Lives” all that way.
I think the sounds developed as we got to know each other more and once Nathan saw me play live, it was like what you’ll hear in the record is, you know, “Might Not Like Me” is very synth-pop based and I was always something that we were both down. But then as you hear later, “Time Of Our Lives” has a little bit more electric guitar on it and “Tongue Tied” is just me and a piano vocal. We had lots of freak-outs about what may sound was, but we were overthinking it a bit and I think each song needed something different and then at the end, if you look at them, they all kind of go together and they’re all kind of different sides of me, so having a piano vocal was really important to me because that’s something I do. I just sit down at a piano and I can sing in front of people. I wanted something simple like that and we had a version of it that was very Hawaiian and ukulele. It just wasn’t right, so we decided to be simple with that.
“Time of Our Lives” has that electric driving guitar throughout the whole thing, so which is kind of reflective of my live show. “Might Not Like Me” and “Internet You” are kind of these synth worlds that I love. I mean we will sit and listen to synth sounds all day to get the right ones and so, yeah, somewhere in between ’80s pop rock is the main inspiration, kind of based off of what I was just saying with the synths and the guitars.
But Nathan was just like, “What is your sound as an artist?” ‘Cause I didn’t really come from a tradition. I came from being a girl who loved pop music that was on Disney Channel growing up, but then also being introduced to rock music and I learned how to play guitar on YouTube. I just was kinda like, “I love good songs and I just want to write songs that are good.” He was like, “No, but we have to have a sound and a vibe,” and I was like, “I think we have it,” and so it was like four days, we took one of these songs that we wrote and we produced it every which way you could imagine. I told you it was the John Mayer thing. There was an orchestra pop thing going on, and it all just felt very forced because I don’t play violin, so orchestra pop’s not going to fly. I don’t come from this amazing jazz tradition like John Mayer, so I was like, I really just want to write simple anthems. That’s really it and that’s all I know to do and so we are just like, whatever, okay. One day, I was talking my mom, the end of this four-day trial period in the desert. It was so intense.
Jesse Cannon: Where in the desert were you guys?
Brynn Elliott: We were not in the desert, but we were at a metaphorical desert. We were in the desert of Nashville songwriting and I just looked at Nathan and I said, “We need to not overthink it. We need to just write something that we know when it’s good.” I think there are certain people that you work with, especially when in the music industry where it’s like there isn’t explicit language and I think that’s what we’re all trying to find, and I was like, “Nathan, we’re here. We got it. We don’t need talk about it. Let’s just do it.” We started this riff. It started off as like life goes on. We were like, and there’s this Robert Frost poem that’s talking about life going on and he even says that and I was like, “Oh, I am gonna write a song like the Robert Frost poem,” but then something that my mom said really stuck with me, which is like, I was about to go into my senior year.
This was last summer and I was talking to all my friends on FaceTime and we were freaking out, like this is so scary. This is our last year of college. I’m seeing a lot of my friends who were a little bit older than me graduate on Facebook and they’re all crying and all their families are all there and I’m just like, I’m like, “Nathan, I’m just in this moment where it’s like I just need to be really present and I want to go into this year, this next year, and just soak up every moment with my friends and with this incredible experience that I’ve been afforded at college that my parents didn’t get, and I just want to be like really in it,” and so he’s we changed the lyrics to “Time of Our Lives” because my mom said, “I just want you to have the time of your life this next year,” and so really, my mom wrote the song.
Jesse Cannon: Question is, did she get a cut?
Brynn Elliott: Yes, we’re just going to go with that. Yeah, she gets a forever cut of everything ’cause I owe her so much, but her and my dad. But it just turned into this anthem from that. It happened so fast and then sound wise, we just let loose so much to the point where Nathan had these big plastic bins in the room we were writing in full of books and just stuff and I was like, I looked over and I was like, “Those are our drums,” and so I went. I was like, “Can I use them?” There’s literally, and I have a video of it somewhere of me just banging these plastic containers together to make the drum sound. That is still on the song.
We were overthinking it so much that we got to the point where we both were like, “We got to stop,” and then we wrote the song and sounds just came. We actually worked a long time and that song to get the sound right, especially with kind of like the fusion of guitar and synth. It’s hard to put guitar in super-anathematic pop songs and that’s always I think an interesting conversation nowadays, but I was committed to it and we did it.
Jesse Cannon: With all this soul-searching, I was curious if it took a toll on her mental health and if it was ever really a huge struggle.
Brynn Elliott: I think from all sectors, I’ve just gotten the advice of just be yourself and that sounds so simple and everyone’s saying it. I think for me, “Might Not Like Me” talks about living in fear of other people, so maybe hell is other people. I don’t know. But that’s definitely something I’ve struggled with my whole life is just really, really caring way too much about what other people think about me and about saying the right thing or looking the right way. For this EP, everywhere I was going, even when I walked into this building, it was like we just want to know the real you and we want to talk about that and we want to write songs about that. And so, if I’m going to do that, I got to know who I am, but I think we all kind of know that we are intuitively and I think where it gets a little messed up is where we run away from that. And so that was the best advice. My parents are really involved in the process of because they know me so well and they can just see right through it when I’m not being myself for when I’m a little afraid and so, yeah, I think it was just like, be Brynn. And then those songs came and they were just me.
I was talking with one of my friends and ’cause kind of in the songwriter world and she heard Alison Krauss talk one time about songwriting and she said, “Whenever I go to write a song, I always have one message that I’m wanting to write,” and she talked about how it’s kind of like hopeful loneliness. Every song is about that in some form or other and I was thinking about that and I was like oh no. I have a similar thing where it’s like when I go to write a song, it’s all about that moment of self-realization.
I think that’s why I love philosophy and pop songwriting is because it’s like let’s talk about what we’re all feeling, what we’re all experiencing and yeah, I’m trying to take it to that place where it’s like, “Oh my gosh, the internet is fake. I don’t want to be fake” or oh my goodness, I am so grateful for my friends and what’s happening in our lives right now. Let’s just be in it, right? Which is let’s just be together and ourselves. “Might Not Like Me” is just be yourself and so I just think that that advice turned into songs and so it’s simple, but sometimes, the simplest stuff is the heaviest.
Jesse Cannon: Next, I wanted to turn to Nathan since he had a lot of really interesting insight on how to shape Brynn’s sound.
Nathan Chapman: We wrote about 14, 15 songs or so for the five-song EP. We went a lot of different places musically and it took us a few songs to really kind of hone in on exactly what we needed to do and once we got there and once we knew exactly what the plan was, it really kind of helped get us to the right place. Once we got to that place, we went back and visited older songs and we knew, okay, this song works or that song doesn’t and this production’s cool, but we need to tweak that and we went for more of, we leaned everything a little bit more electronic. It still has an organic feel to it. Brynn’s voice has a very organic feel to it. It’s very pop, but it also has a warmth.
The instruments needed to reflect that, so there’s some guitar in there, but there’s also keyboards and synths. The drums go from more organic drum to more electronic drums, like “Internet You,” is a more electronic kind of feel on the drums. “Time of Our Lives” is more organic. We were actually hitting Tupperware lids on the floor and doing crazy stuff to make the “Time of Our Lives” drums really sound big and have more of a stomp, an organic feel to ’em. “Miss You” is kind of somewhere in between all of that, so those are kind of the boundaries. We wanted the organic to be in there, wanted the electronic to be in there, but every time I work with an artist, I try to make sure that the track pivots off of the tone of the vocal because I feel like Brynn has a very really fantastic pop voice, but she also has this organic warmth to her voice. I wanted the production to reflect all of that and for everything to support her.
Jesse Cannon: I hadn’t heard that point about supporting the vocal very often so I asked him to expand upon it.
Nathan Chapman: I think that sometimes you just listen, for me, I just listen to the vocal and then I try to understand the almost EQ curve and the punchiness of the vocal. When a voice is harsh, you want to make sure that it’s not the harshest thing in the track so you would, maybe that’s why rock singers have this edge to ’em and then the guitars have an edge to ’em and that all works, like AC/DC, you get this super screaming awesome raspy voice and the guitars do the same thing. If you’re Josh Groban, you want, he’s got this beautiful golden set of pipes so there’s orchestra around him and it all works together.
For Brynn, she just she sounds like, when she just sings a cappella, to me, she sounds like my favorite kind of pop music and I just want to make the track be a bigger version of what her voice is doing. One example for me from my past work is I was very careful to choose different guitar tones to sit around Taylor Swift’s voice when we were doing the “Fearless” album and stuff because that’s just how I think. I hear the voice and then I want the track to wrap around that voice and support it and not get in the way, just help the voice of the artist just be the thing that you hear, so when you hear the song, you walk away thinking. “Man, that’s such a good singer,” as opposed to “Wow, that was a really synth part.”
Jesse Cannon: Now that we know what Brynn’s all about, I thought it might be cool to hear from her team about how they came to work together. Here’s her manager Bruce Flohr.
Bruce Flohr: I’d have to check the dates, but I’m going to say 3½ years ago, a gentleman at Paramount Studios, a gentleman by the name of Randy Spendlove, called me and asked me if I would do him a favor and take a meeting with a young artist who was a big fan of a lot of the bands that I’d worked with, Brandi Carlile, O.A.R., Allen Stone, et cetera. He arranged for me to meet with Brynn and we met and had lunch and Brynn at the time was just finishing her freshman year at Harvard and she proceeded to tell me that she really loved artists that I work with and wanted to be a musician and sing and have a career.
I’ve heard this story many times. I’ve had many people sit in front of me and play me their songs and tell me that they wanted to be a successful musician, and candidly, nine times out of 10, it’s just a polite meeting you never hear from the artist again. I gave Brynn the six-month roadmap of hey, if you’re really serious, you should do this. You should do that. We said goodbye, shook hands and I thought, “Well, that was pleasant. That was nice.” I got a call from her almost six months to the day later saying, “I did what you said. I went and practiced my craft. I played a bunch of shows by myself. I went out on a little tour. I think I’m ready for the next step,” and I said, “What do you think the next step is?” And she said, “Well, I really would like to and for Brandi Carlile.” That’s a pretty big next step and I really appreciated her gusto so Brandi, who’s part of our Red Light family, I called and asked if Brandi would be open to having Brynn play with her in Minneapolis and Brandi said sure, she’d be happy to.
So Brynn went to Minneapolis and opened for Brandi Carlile and Brandi loved her so much she had her sit in with her and sing with her. I talked to Brandi and her team afterwards and said, “How was she?” They said, “She’s really, really good. I like her a lot,” so that was the first indication that I was Brynn maybe had something because Brandi, she’s very particular. She’s also a world-class artist and doesn’t need to do anybody favors. The next move was okay, let’s start getting her out on the road and start really honing in on her live show because Brynn and I talked about how she could be separated from all the other female artists that are out there, female pop stars, et cetera. One of the things that separates Brynn from a lot of other artists is that she plays live and she puts on a real show. It’s part pop, but it’s got tinges of rock in there so we started road-testing the show and I had her tour with Allen Stone and Alanis Morissette and O.A.R. and Switchfoot. She probably did 200 shows during the summer when she off school. She would play in front of a couple thousand people who didn’t know who she was and didn’t care and it really taught her being comfortable on stage. It taught her what putting on a show was all about, taught her how to sing live and perform live and also taught her how to handle the road, the grind that it is. Now, looking back on it, it gave her a real work ethic of how hard this job really is.
Amongst all that, I thought, well, if this continues, and I still wasn’t her manager at the time. I was really just giving her advice, consulting her, so to speak. The summer before her senior year, again did a major tour where she was the first of three. Her and Nathan continued to write songs on off days, then we released our first song in the fall of, gosh, I don’t even know the year. I’d have to check it. Maybe fall 2016, we released the first song “Might Not Like Me” independently on Spotify and other DSPs and it started to get some nice traction and some notoriety and then we sat down and said, “Okay, you’re heading into your senior year. Let’s make a goal of trying to have a label partner by December so that you can then finish school, graduate and we can hit the ground running.”
I started putting her in front of record executives and many labels, several labels which don’t need to be named, but several labels had a high interest in Brynn. Wasn’t until I was in Nashville and I had “Might Not Like Me,” “Psycho Stupid Crazy,” “Internet You,” “Miss You,” and a song called “Like a Man” in my pocket and I was going to, starting to play it to labels and I went to a woman named Carla Wallace who runs a company called Big Yellow Dog and I went under the guise of talking to her about something else. I had a project in Nashville at the Hutton Hotel where we were building a new venue called Analog and I wanted her to know about it.
Jesse Cannon: Now here’s Carla Wallace of Big Yellow Dog Music to tell her side of the story.
Carla Wallace: Played me just the song itself, “Might Not Like Me.” I was like, “Oh my gosh,” kinda like is there a video? And so he pulled the video. I don’t know if I said there’s a video. Maybe he just played me the video. I think that’s what he did, but I remember this original video that she had was so fascinating because I couldn’t figure out what she looked like, but the song was such a smash. It was huge and I just thought, “I got to meet this girl.” I got to see what’s her problem. How did you walk in here and play such a smash for me? What’s behind this? I just felt like this is shady, right? You can’t just walk in here with a smash like that. That’s outrageous. People, they don’t just do that.
I mean we talked, obviously, about who she was and how he’d been working with her and she wanted a publishing deal and a record deal all at the same time. Could you do that? Anyone that knows me, I’m so particular. First off, that was the only song I heard and I was like, “Yes, I can do that.” We just signed a deal with Atlantic, I mean, like the night before. It was so magical that this all took place. This was like it’s a dream. I couldn’t believe that.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Pete Ganbarg to talk about how he saw things go down.
Pete Ganbarg: As an A&R guy, you’re always trying to make sure that you’re not missing anything, you’re not missing the next great artist because there’re so many, not great artists, but there so many artists and it’s only human nature that you’ll get a few. You may miss a few, so sometimes when you miss one and you realize where it came from, you say, “Hey, how can I avoid making that mistake again?”
A few years ago, I have a friend in Nashville. Her name’s Carla Wallace. She is an incredible music publisher. She has a company called Big Yellow Dog in Nashville, and Carla has been sending me music for years. She sent me Meghan Trainor when Meghan was still in high school. She sent me Maren Morris when Maren Morris was not yet 21 years old and at a certain point, I’m like, “Hmm, maybe I should start paying more attention to Carla,” and she is the greatest person in the world and such a sweetheart and so talented that we started talking about doing a deal together for Big Yellow Dog, her company, and Atlantic Records to be in business together.
Around a year and a half ago, we decided that we would try to make that happen and we did it. We were successful. Big Yellow Dog signed a deal to become a partner of Atlantic Records and literally, the day after we did that, Carla called me and said, “You are not gonna believe what just happened to me,” and it turns out, she had heard the day after signing the Big Yellow Dog deal with Atlantic, she had heard Brynn’s music, specifically the song “Might Not Like Me” for the first time.
Well, it was one of these things where she was so excited, she sent it to me and called me like 30 seconds later, “What’d you think?” I’m like, “I haven’t listened to it yet.” Five minutes later, Carla’s on the phone, “What’d you think?” I’m like, “Oh my god. I got to listen to this,” so when I finally listened to it, it’s a one-listen song for me, and I said, “This is awesome,” and she’s like, “Yay. We found one,” and it turns out that Brynn is managed by Bruce Flohr, who’s a good friend of ours who used to manage or still manages the band Switchfoot, who used to be signed here. Bruce and I have been buddies for a long time, so was an easy phone call to say, “Hey, Bruce, why don’t we figure out how to make this official? And Brynn Elliott will be the first signing between Big Yellow Dog and Atlantic.”
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Brynn to talk about what happened after she signed to Atlantic.
Brynn Elliott: I had written a bunch of songs throughout college and so the songs that we’re about to release are those songs. I just came to Atlantic with them already in tow and everyone here has been so supportive of me these last six months because I just graduated two months ago. I signed in January and we’ve just been working on getting everything together for this first release and doing that whilst I’ve been in school and that’s just like, that’s crazy that first of all, that Atlantic would let me do that and also it’s just been an amazing creative journey just being in a place where these songs came from and in getting ready to release them.
Jesse Cannon: Next, I wanted to have Brynn and Nathan talk about the song “Internet You” and give us some deeper insight on it.
Brynn Elliott: This is a song, I took a class about authenticity and we talked about the internet and philosophy and it was one of the most amazing classes I ever took. I wrote my essay on the Like button, why? Why do we have a Like button? It comes from this deeper need of wanting to be validated in our lives and it’s like really heavy and so I always wanted to write a song about the internet and then it’s 2018. I’m in college. I’m dating people. It’s not going very well because I’m sitting down in these coffee shops with these guys and maybe I know them from a mutual friend, so I’d seen their Instagram or I’ve just not so casually with my friends stalked their Instagram in our dorm room. It’s fine, whatever.
I’m seeing them post these incredible photos, first of all. I’m like, how does that happen? Not sure. I’ve never been able to do that, get that game down on Instagram, no idea. Yeah, I’m like, “Why are you in a safari right now and how do I get there?” But then they would quote T.S. Eliot or Margaret Atwood or all these incredible authors and I would just sit down with them at coffee, and I’d be like, “Can we talk about Margaret Atwood? I’m such a fan,” and they were like, “Margo Hartwood?”
Jesse Cannon: [inaudible] you know.
Brynn Elliott: Yeah, I’m just like, “There’s a show right now. Are we not?” He’s like, “Oh, I just googled a quote about X,” and I’m just like, “Oh, no. This is not okay,” so I just had this moment where I was like, okay, I want to write a song about the internet, but I think one of the most scary things about the internet is how it’s influencing our relationships, and I think it’s because we can curate these beautiful picturesque quotable lives and then who we are when we sit down is not that person.
I’m definitely susceptible, like I do this, so it’s not like a judgment thing. It’s not like a, oh, dating’s so hard. It’s just the internet. It’s just a hard time and so, yeah, this idea like I want to fall in love with the person that you are on the internet was always a song I’d been wanting to write and I was like, we’re writing it and yeah, it was one of those songs where it was just a crazy story in that I had had that title for so long, really since I took that class. It was actually freshman year, so for almost five years.
And I think that that’s the biggest thing is never give up on those ideas that you think are really good but it’s like maybe the right moment or not the right time. If you think it’s good it’s probably good and you should do it. That was the story that I always keep with me when I go and write, which is like, hey, if you have an idea that you’re passionate enough about, you can make it into a song. I mean what was really funny about that process was I thought it was going to be one of those things where Nathan was like, “Okay, this is like a girl song,” but he had this, I mean he wasn’t dating, but he had the same experience of people and you’re just like, “Oh, those people are so obnoxious on the internet,” so we both were just getting it off our chest basically. That was almost the whole first day. We didn’t really do much music. We just related on the topic.
We started on the piano and you can kind of feel that in the song. It’s a very synth piano-based song and we started it with a little guitar then that didn’t really fly. It was a song that started with those pretty simple chords, three actually, three chords and it’s a kind of morphed into this big thing. We finished it as I was singing it actually, so we had the basic structure laid out and we actually had a totally different chorus for it originally that was pretty good. One thing I admire most about Nathan is he’s always, he’ll never settle, so that if it’s pretty good, we’re going to be writing a new chorus ’cause we want a chorus that he really is committed to those slamming choruses and so I think that’s the thing admire about him most actually and also, it’s so frustrating because I’m like, we’re in there and it’s like, this isn’t good enough, and I’m like, “No, but it’s fine.” But no, he’s amazing in that way, so yeah, we finished the chorus the day we finished singing it and we actually also had a whole different verse.
I had this other lyric in my head that I always wanted to put in a song, kind of is like, I had some friends who would always call me America’s Sweetheart. Like I get really excited about things, but I’m also kind of like, I can hang, so I’ve always tried to be like the cool hangy person. They would always call me America’s Sweetheart when that part of me would come out and I’d always get so upset and so mad, so I was like, I want to try to find a way to like put America’s Sweetheart in a song, but in a way that not cool to kind of get back at them and so the line is in there. We had this whole other line as I was singing it, I was like wait. I was like, “Nathan, I want to write a line that like America’s Sweetheart in the land of dreams. That’s the line that I want to talk about,” and then the whole verse took shape after that. Kind of what you see on the internet, the sort of like ethereal inaccessible kind of thing and that was what I wanted to communicate ’cause I always felt like I was called America’s Sweetheart, it just felt inaccessible. It didn’t feel real and so putting that in the song was like a moment for me.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Nathan speaking about shaping the song.
Nathan Chapman: Yeah, that was the last one we wrote for the EP. It’s the most recent song. She had that concept of people’s lives and personas online and then who they are in reality. She had that kind of her idea journal that she brings with her, it was just burning those pages up. She needed to write that song really bad and that was such a perfect thing to talk about right now because just from a where we are as humans in modern culture, that is something that we need to think about. I feel like the story kind of talks about that without it being preachy. Musically, we wanted to have something that was like that’s the more electronic leaning, the darker song on the EP and we just felt like that fit that message. It was kind of a sobering moment to think about that and we wanted the music and the melody to reflect that.
Jesse Cannon: And now I wanted to talk about the song “Tongue Tied.”
Brynn Elliott: When I was in high school, it’s pretty obvious at this point that I’m a little bit of a nerd and I had this whole geek-out session over Leonardo da Vinci because I just thought he was so fascinating and the fact that he painted and did science and wrote poetry. It’s just like the guy’s unreal, and I just have always been fascinated. So when I walked in one morning to Nathan’s writing room, I sat down and he was mid-sentence, like we weren’t even like, there was no, “Hi, how’re you doing?” It was like, “Oh my gosh, Leonardo da Vinci,” and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I know,” and I was like, “Nathan, I really want to write a really sweet love song today.” I was like, “What if we what if we wrote something that was like, that had like Leonardo in it?”
Yeah, we kind of came up with that line, which is in the chorus where only Leonardo can articulate how I’m feeling about this other person and the other part of the story, which is really hilarious, which I’m not going to try to go talk about this, but I met this monk at school. I don’t know what kind of monk he was, but he was a philosophy person and I was just so fascinated by this person and you ever meet people where you’re like, “You are so amazing, I can’t even talk around you.” I don’t know if I was in love with him, but I was just so like, ’cause he’s monk, which is so special and beautiful and it was just so amazing and I was like, “Oh, I love that,” so I put lines in the song, just that feeling of wow, you’ve given me this vow of silence. I can’t even talk around you because you’re so amazing. That was kind of a funny story. The song’s semi about me falling in love with a monk. But we’ll just keep that on the down-low, but it’s totally fine if it’s out there. We had a ukulele version of it. We were trying to maybe do a Colbie Caillat situation and the first pass was a piano vocal and that’s how we wrote it. This is going to be so horrible and it’s going to show my lack of musical knowledge but you know the song that they play at weddings? It’s called, it’s like (singing).
Jesse Cannon: Yes, and I don’t know it either and let’s-
Brynn Elliott: Okay, cool.
Jesse Cannon: You’re fine. If between the two of us, we can’t figure it out, yeah.
Brynn Elliott: It’s something in D. It’s a concerto in D of some sort and we were like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we wrote a love song with those chords?” Which I’m sure has been done a bazillion times. We kind of did that with the chords and that kind of funky and a little Beatlesy, which I’m always looking out for so, yeah, it’s just always been a piano vocal, which I love because I can just go sit down and sing it wherever I am.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Nathan talking about writing with Brynn.
Nathan Chapman: Well, Brynn being a Harvard grad now but at the time, she was a Harvard student, she just comes into a writing session with just a different perspective of what it means to write a lyric. She’s been trained and educated to look at word crafting and writing and reading from the highest level and I could kinda keep up ’cause I went to a small school in Tennessee, but I really just kind of looking for lyrics that were in the right space for where her mind was ’cause she would leave school and come to write, but also make sure that what we were writing felt like it connected with the basics of the human experience. We weren’t trying to be complicated.
We were trying to just articulate the human experience, where it’s relationships or breakups or any that kind of stuff just from an angle that worked for where she was in her life and what she was doing every day at Harvard. I think that’s why some of the lyrics have kind of a different flair to ’em, like on “Tongue Tied,” the line about Leonardo da Vinci, I love that kind of stuff. I love pushing the boundaries on a lyric for how far you can take something in any direction. We were trying to take things to a place that was just that higher level of articulation so we could say one thing and it would mean everything.
Jesse Cannon: Lastly, I wanted to talk to some of the people who know Brynn best about what they find to be unique about her. Here’s Bruce Flohr, her manager to talk about that a bit.
Bruce Flohr: Well, I will tell you that I’ve never seen a young artist where the education, and regardless of whether or not she what Harvard or Cal State U, the work ethic that she has inherited or had to have, we’d be on tour, I’d be like, “Brynn, it’s time to get on stage.” She goes, “Hang on one second. I’m almost done,” and she’d have to push send on a 12-page term paper before taking her stage. The balance between having a college life as demanding at Harvard is and having the demands being a musician and an artist, her ability to walk both sides has been very impressive and served her well as she’s able to approach this thing methodically.
She’s definitely using her instincts. She’s very smart and I appreciate that. She knows the good, the bad and the ugly. She’s not naïve to the fact that not every day is going to be the best day ever and she also knows that in order for people to hear her music, she’s got to work. We joke that she’s on a campaign trail right now running for president. Every hand she shakes is 10 people she hasn’t met.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Pete Ganbarg talking about Brynn’s perseverance.
Pete Ganbarg: Yeah, I think the fact that not only did she just graduate and graduate from Harvard, but she’s the first person in her family to go to college. She was also homeschooled and when she was finishing up her homeschooling, she applied to Harvard and she got rejected, not deferred, not waitlisted, rejected. Any other kid would say, “Okay, I’ll apply to, I’ll have a safe school or I’ll…” Not Brynn. Brynn said, “All right, I’m gonna take a year off and I’m gonna apply again.” She went out to Portland, Oregon. She met a producer out there, a guy who’s had a lot of hits over the years and she workshopped for a year on her craft, on her writing, on her songs and then was able to use that as part of her application process to tell Harvard what she had been doing between last time and this time. And this time, she was accepted. I think that really shows her perseverance and her ability to say, “Yeah, I don’t care if you’re saying rejected, give me a minute and I’ll be back.”
We work with several artists who have been signed to other record companies and dropped. And when you are dropped from your recording deal, assuming you haven’t had success and you’re just dropped because either you couldn’t figure it out or they couldn’t figure it out; you couldn’t find your audience. The day that you find out you’re dropped, most of the time, is a very low moment. At a certain point, most artists then dust themselves off and they figure out, okay, I’ve fallen down. I’m going to get up. I’m going to dust myself off and I’m going to figure out what’s next. The same perseverance that Brynn showed after receiving her rejection in the mail from college, I work with artists all the time here who were signed, who were rejected, and then came back, guns a-blazing saying, “You know what? They were right to drop me ’cause I wasn’t ready. Now, I’m ready. Let’s go.”
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Carla on what makes Brynn so unique.
Carla Wallace: First of all, I don’t see that many people walk in with a hit as a songwriter. You just don’t walk with that. That’s such a gift, it was a gift that…that’s why I was looking at Bruce like is he joking. Is some guy going to jump out of the wall with a camera and be like, “We got you. She doesn’t exist. She’s not real.” I don’t know. I just couldn’t believe that something like this could happen, but then just getting to know who she is, she’s such an authentic person and she’s a deep-rooted individual that has a great family and I don’t know. I don’t know if you could say thoughtful is unique. Her ability to just take simple things in life and turn it into something that everyone wants to hear and can be empowering at the same time is pretty unique.
Jesse Cannon: Thanks so much for listening. To find more of our podcasts, head to atlanticpodcasts.com. Brynn Elliott’s “Time of Our Lives” EP is out now in all formats. Thanks for listening.