Queensland singer-songwriter Brittany Elise recently released her debut album, Something More, and saw it go straight to number 2 on the iTunes Country Chart, and 20 on the iTunes All Genres Album Chart.
Brittany Elise has been singing and performing since she was a seven-year-old growing up in Mackay. Her talents were recognised early by Lee Kernaghan, who asked her to open for his Mackay show when she was just 9, although she didn’t take him up on his offer until she was 12. When I spoke to Brittany Elise recently I found out more about her impressive musical journey and about the new album.
Congratulations on the album, which I really loved listening to. It must feel great to have it out in the world.
It is an amazing feeling. I think it’s been a really long time coming. I’m quite speechless with the response to the album. It’s just incredible that people you don’t even know are loving the album just as much for their own experiences and their own stories. It’s just such a humbling feeling to have it out there and hearing so much great feedback.
How long ago did you record it?
It would have been August 2018.
So you’ve been waiting for quite a while to get it out.
Yeah, I have [laughs]. Just waiting for the right timing and I just knew 2019 was going to be the right time. I just kept working at it and there’s so much to the business of producing an album anyway, so between August and February there was plenty of work to do.
So many artists these days are independent and it does mean you taking on all the responsibilities and tasks of being a record company, and if it’s your first album, you have to learn as you’re doing that.
Absolutely. Learning the tricks and the trades and all the small little pieces that make the puzzle fit together nicely to really have something that you love and in the right hands of people that have never heard it before. You do absolutely learn as you go and things that I’ll learn on this album to work towards for the next album.
I noticed some strong themes coming through in the songs, particularly family and the bonds of love. It’s not romantic love so much as this really deep sense of feeling. I get the sense you don’t shy away from working with emotion in your songs. Has that always been the case with your songwriting?
Yes. [My] family has been a massive support on my music journey, so I really wanted to capture that in the album, between ‘Love You’ and ‘Dorothy May’ – even ‘Last Words’ sits in that really strong emotion of people around me. Even ‘Another Day’, ‘Something More’ – all of those … Then ‘Pit Stop’ and ‘Dear Girl’ are really about that: love, honesty, relationships, kind of themes. So slightly different but still in that same category of emotions. I’ve always been like that. I think that some of the best songs are written when you really just let the words come out rather than trying to write a particular song in a particular way.
I did notice that you have not necessarily an unconventional lyrical style, but I did get the sense that you weren’t going to constrain yourself: ‘I don’t necessarily need to have a rhyming couplet here. I can follow the follow the thought through.’ It made for a really interesting, absorbing listening experience because I didn’t know where this song was going necessarily. And that was great.
I tried to have it a little bit of diversity on the same album with that as well. ‘Dear Girl’ was a bit of an experiment in itself. That was probably the one that most didn’t necessarily have a set pattern at all. I wanted it to write it in the form of a letter, [so it’s] a little bit different in that way rather than, you know, start to finish and it tells this particular story following the same rhyming pattern. I really tried to experiment with that a little bit, but still captivate what I wanted to say in the song.
I would imagine also it makes it interesting musically because the structures of songwriting that you’ve learned and other people have learned are there to serve a certain type of lyrical set-up. But, of course, when you’re playing with that, I guess it then means you’ve got to find ways to musically serve those lyrics that are a bit different.
Absolutely. And I think if I was to reflect on it, that was probably the most exciting and fun part of the experimentation: what music then sits over the top of those types of lyrics and that pattern of songwriting. I had a lot of fun creating different rhythms and different rhyming patterns to fit with each other, to still create this sound and song that I was looking for.
And it was still very much country music. I do think there is that flexibility within country music to do that. Bu I suppose there’s also who your audience is. So I would imagine there’s a balance between following those genre conventions, for lack of a better term, and playing with them a bit.
And I think that’s the joy of all the art isn’t it? Being in the music business and having that opportunity. But, as you said, I’ve always got that country spin that’s always been my style, that classic country. But with a slight twist, I guess we could put it.
I think it’s great to have a twist. Did you grow up with country music?
I did. All of my life of every road trip was country music sitting in the backyard. Family barbecues, it was always country music. I wasn’t actually the first one in my family to start in that, though. My sister did and I used to actually sleep under the table as a young child at talent quest with my sister performing. They actually came up to Mum one day and said, ‘Why don’t you put Brittany in the little juvenile section?’ And I actually won the encouragement award that year, and I guess you can say the rest is history.
So at the time that was suggested that you enter that competition, had you already been doing some performing?
Backyard concerts [laughs] would probably summarise it a bit better. But I’ve always been singing and dancing around the house. I was about six or seven that I actually had my first performance on a stage.
And did you love it?
Apparently I never wanted to get off the stage. In fact, I just wanted to keep learning and that’s when I added all my instruments as well to keep defining my sound.
So how many instruments do you play?
Guitar has always been my love, but it was actually the third instrument that I learned. So I started with piano and violin and then took up the guitar at the age of nine, but as soon as I picked up the guitar I think that was just the end of it. I play harmonica and mandolin now as well. But guitar is definitely my number one.
I’ve played piano from childhood, but I’m now learning guitar and I think guitar is harder.
I definitely felt that at the time as well. I liked the challenge. I just find with country music, for what I was looking for at the time, guitar really summarised my country style of performance. I still remember getting that first guitar and that was just the best Christmas ever.
So that’s the performance side of things. When did you start writing songs?
So I first started writing songs probably the age of 12 but I’d say more in my older years is when I really started. You’ve had actual experiences that you can call on and relate to a lot more. So probably more in 2015/16/17/18 was when I really started songwriting. But 2017, 2018, were massive years for me with songs actually flowing out and sitting how I would like them to sit. So 2018 was a massive year for me in finding my sound and my style, really what I would like to put onto an album.
So are you one of those songwriters who’ll just write when the song comes to you and then you have this nice little store of songs to draw from when you want to record?
Yes, absolutely. I think I’ve got a couple of books here that are full of songs and ideas. Sometimes you get two lines, sometimes you get a burst of chorus straight out, sometimes you’re walking around a shopping centre and you have to stop and write it in the notes of your phone. I don’t think as a musician you ever have that off switch. So I just write whenever I can and whenever it comes to me. And then other times I sit down and I’ll have an idea and I’ll really want to work at that song on that day. I definitely have my songwriting book, which has got all those initial ideas of the songs off the album as well, which is quite funny.
How did you come to choose the songs for your album?
I’m a high school teacher as well, and that’s probably why it took me so long to write the album. But I really had that idea of something more and creating my album to represent that I really wanted to follow my music journey. And so that’s how the ‘something more’ of the title of the album came about. And then from there I thought, So what are some of the experiences and stories that really impact that?And I think that’s how those little stories came along, with ‘Dorothy May’ and ‘Love You’. Obviously family’s been a big impact and ‘Another Day’ and ‘Last Words’ are actually based on my time as a teacher. And people that have encouraged me within the teaching business as well.
So you teach full time?
I’m a part time as of 2019 but I’ve been full time for three years.
That is a lot to manage, particularly when you’re thinking about when you’re going to record something and, as I said, when you’re independent and it’s the first album, you basically learning a whole lot of new skills. So you now have two careers going.
They’re definitely two full-time jobs, I think, within themselves. Music has such a business behind it as well, which I got to learn at the Australian Academy of Country Music Excellence, and I think that was the best step for me. And that was at the start of 2018 and so that really set me into motion for end of 2018 so 2019, [thinking] I really want to have my album finalised and ready for release
More and more I’m seeing the influence of that academy on emerging artists and established artists. There are so many established artists in the industry who will teach at that academy and mentor artists through it. I think it’s having this incredibly positive impact. Did you make a lot of good relationships and do any songwriting while you were there?
Absolutely. I, I just think it’s such an incredible experience. You’re working with some of the top musicians in the country but in a completely supportive environment, who are shaping you as an artist. And I think one of the best things they ever said there was, there’s room in the music industry for everyone and it’s about finding your style and your song and your place within that big Australian country music scene. And that thought really stuck with me. I actually wrote ‘Something More’ at the Academy at the start of 2018 and so I wrote that with Kevin Bennett and Fanny Lumsend, and they are incredible people and musicians as well. And Simon Johnson, who produced my album at Hillbilly Hut Studios, he is the instrumental band leader. I actually met him in 2010 at the Junior Academy and then worked with him again in 2018. Graeme Connors, Lee Kernaghan, they were all references for me to get into the academy. There are just some incredible musicians out there that you look up to musically. But also the inspiration for you working hard and follow your dreams, because they’re just such great people and great supporters of young up and coming artists, which is amazing.
I can’t think of anything else in the world like it. It may exist, but not that I’ve heard of it. But I think for the established artists it’s that acknowledgement by them that this is a continuing body of storytelling. It’s Australian storytelling in song, as I like to say. And so it’s part of the culture of Australian country music to want to work with others, want to continue that storytelling and pass it on to new artists, whether they’re old or young. There is a place for everyone in the industry and you can emerge at any age. The impact of it I see, now you said you’ve been to the Junior Academy and you’ve gone to the Senior Academy, I could hear that level of, of maturity and professionalism in your songwriting. I’m sure the talent’s there already, the talent and skill, but the skills that you get from being at the academy really come through in the music.
You learn certain things that sometimes you just never imagined because you’re living in your normal everyday life, but to learn from people that have done it before, they talk about their mistakes and obviously you still make your own anyway. But it’s just that learning curve. And I think the biggest thing was also just that business side of it. There’s almost a business degree in the music industry as well as the performance as well as the songwriting as well as the producing of the album. I think it provided a lot of skills and experiences that I don’t think that you can get anywhere else.
You also recently travelled to Nashville. Were you there for a while?
That was amazing. I did spend a little bit of time over there, within December, January. I had the opportunity to pre-release my album and perform it over there. I had a performance set up for when I was there at the famous Tootsies Orchid Lounge, so that was incredible. The reception that I got there was just insane. People are just so lovely and telling their stories. And then that day that I performed there was someone else in the crowd and I ended up having four or five gigs organised after that one performance. So I actually ended up playing my album to a pretty decent amount of people within Nashville. To get that many gigs, it was just incredible.
Is it a bit hard to settle back into your teaching life and also your Australian music career life after you’ve had that sort of experience?
Oh, I think it’s just one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Nashville is music 24/7. I think it’s every musician’s dream just to be amongst that. But it has been a bit of a adjustment to come back, obviously on the back of Nashville and then Tamworth and then my launch and the album. So it’s been a great end to 2018 and a great start to 2019. But it was incredible. I learned so much while I was there as well.
What are your plans for this year? Are you going to do any interstate gigging? You’re in Central Queensland, aren’t you?
I am. So a few of those dates are just being finalised now. I’ve got a few exciting festivals coming up as well as like I’m getting gigs continuously at the minute and I’m really hoping to get some of those dates finalised to do a bit of a tour towards the back end of the year. To get to some of those places that I haven’t been before, and who are really getting behind the album and supporting it. I think that’s a really important thing. Up north Queensland way where I’m originally from, Mackay way, and then try and get a bit more interstate and to some of those places that love country music but I’ve never had the opportunity to go to yet.
And I think those places are always happy to see country music artists come to visit.
And the people you meet, that’s the best part. I still think the best part of country music is the people that you meet, the stories that you hear. And that’s how we can in Australia produce so many great songs that are literally just everyday stories of everyday people.
It is amazing – artists like you go on the road, people come up to talk to them, they have stories. That’s the kernel of a song. Then you go to Tamworth and you make professional associations. So that might be someone who ends up producing your album or someone you end up writing with. And so there is this lovely body of work that encompasses the whole nation.
Yes, and it’s a big team effort as well. I’ve got a big team behind me and always have. It’s obviously my face on the album, but there’s a lot of hardworking people that go into something like one of these projects and it’s incredible to be a part of.
Something More is out now.