The Road to Making an Indie Album in Nashville, Reflections After Recording "Broken Heartstrings"
Brian Mackey makes his living as a singer/songwriter, fusing an eclectic blend of pop-rock and folk-inspired lyrics to music. His songs have been widely used in indie films, TV, and advertising placements. His latest EP Honest Love was so well-received that some of Nashville’s finest singer/songwriter/musicians joined Mackey for his debut full-length album expected this summer, including Sam Ashworth (son of Charlie Peacock- Civil Wars, Switchfoot, Amy Grant), guitarist Jeff King (Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood), and bass player Mark Hill (Keith Urban, Reba McEntire).
Mackey is gearing up for the release of the lead single “America” off his upcoming album Broken Heartstrings on April 22 and took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with me and talk about his journey through the good and bad of the music industry, and what it took to make a successful indie album in Nashville.
KR: How did you go from recording your initial demos in NY/NJ, to getting a break into the music scene in Nashville?
Brian Mackey (BM): I was in Red Bank, NJ, at a local Internet cafe playing a show. I was tucked away in a corner with about 15 people as an audience playing a few songs, including “Painted Red.” One person in particular seemed really into my set and approached me afterwards. He was a recording artist and encouraged me to record my songs. He suggested a producer, Sam Ashworth, and even showed me a few of his songs he’d recorded with him. I was really impressed by his sound, so he reached out on my behalf to Sam and sent him a rough recording of “Painted Red.” The guy had met Sam through Sam’s dad, Nashville producer Charlie Peacock (The Civil Wars, Switchfoot, Amy Grant). Sam had established himself from an early age by writing songs for Sixpence None the Richer’s debut album when he was a teenager. A month later, I was on an airplane to Nashville to record “Painted Red.”
KR: When you were introduced to Sam, what was his reaction to your songs?
BM: Sam liked what he heard and agreed to record one song for a small fee.
KR: What was the process of getting up the money to afford to record in a studio in Nashville for the first time?
BM: I worked my butt off, even doing odd jobs like painting houses. I borrowed money from a few close friends of mine that believed in my music. It’s cliché, but if there’s a will there’s a way. I was dumping everything I had into this recording and not even paying other bills for a time.
KR: When you landed, what was your first day like?
BM: Sam picked me up at the airport. I remember him picking me up with his sunglasses on and with two baby seats in the back. I thought he was a cool guy immediately. I had made reservations at the Radisson near the Titans stadium, the one with the guitar shaped swimming pool that I never had time to use. I hardly left the room, except when Sam took me to Krogers to get sandwich supplies. I ate lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
KR: You've recorded before in the New York/New Jersey area. What was the feeling of recording in Nashville?
BM: I felt free, and felt that I was with a community of people that understood the same way of life. Everyone has a really good sense of music history and a respect for artists and creators in Nashville. The studio I recorded at was on the same street with several other studios. Neil Young recorded down the street. Cool.
We recorded the song in two days. We smoked, we ate, we drank, and we recorded. Once in a while we took a break. There was a restaurant on the corner. As we were sitting outside at the restaurant, I remember there was this guy that came up to us selling one of those seats that you sit in with the surround sound speakers, and he said, "Hey man, you all need one of these!" And the southern guys were looking at him saying politely, "Oh man we just bought a new stereo. Sorry man." I was blatantly honest. I said, "Dude what am I going to do with that?" It was my New York City directness that came out.
KR: Do you feel like this recording experience was similar to or different from the experiences you had before?
BM: I felt more excited than anything else. I felt like I was on to something. I was a little unsure traveling to Nashville at first, but as the recording process started I liked what I was hearing.
KR: It seems like a scary process. You're borrowing money from people, putting it into something with no guarantees, flying 1500 miles away to somewhere you've never been, meeting with people you've never met. What’s that like?
BM: You're following this inner light that is telling you what to do and kind of giving it everything you've got. You’re taking a chance, much like the movie ET, where he had the inner light. :)
KR: So as you were putting the finishing touches on the song, what did you think you were going to do with it?
BM: I had no clue what I was going to do with the song, but the guy that introduced me to Sam was co-owner of a publishing company that wanted to put “Painted Red” in his catalog. I remember I was doing construction at the time and I was just getting out of a relationship. I was on a crew in the wintertime, working outside in NJ. He called me up on the job and told me my song got placed on a show on the Disney Channel called Naturally Sadie. He said it was the fastest song placement he'd ever had.
KR: Disney Channel’s a big opportunity for your first licensing gig. What was your first reaction to this?
BM: My first reaction was, “Cool! How much?” I thought I was going to be able to quit the job I was on, but not so fast.. haha. I did show up for work the next day. Honestly, I think I would’ve taken anything. I'm still grateful for whatever I get. It was a 30 second spot, not huge, but I did get a lot of mileage out of it.
KR: That was 2006. What did you think was next?
BM: I wanted to keep recording songs, but it was getting expensive so I could only do a couple at a time. Then I got hooked up with a manger through my mom, who actually happened to be Barry Manilow's producer for all of those Manilow hits in the 70's. He worked with Pat Benatar too.
My mom met with this lady one day for something else, and when the radio came on the lady said, “Oh, that's my cousin singing.” So my mom told her I was a musician and the lady wanted to listen to my songs. She called me right away to come over with a CD. We went out and listened to it in her car and she really liked “Painted Red,” “Bandage,” and a couple of other songs. She shared my songs with her cousin and two weeks later I flew out to LA to record.
KR: How were you able to afford all of this at that point?
BM: I ended up signing a 3-year management contract with the producer and her cousin. They paid for the recording, travel, etc. She was very generous with her money, and I felt really good. We were doing a toast of champagne on the night of the contract signing and I thought maybe I wasn't going to have to work again except for doing music, but I showed up for work the next day.
KR: So you'd been to Nashville, and then you were going to LA, what were your thoughts?
BM: LA was quite a different scene. It was a guitar player and a computer. No real drummer. I'm not discounting the talents of the producer or engineer; it was just a different technique and procedure altogether. I was still optimistic about the outcome. After I got the results back from the LA recording, I really did try to keep an open mind and really listen to it, but I just couldn't open myself up to the sound I was hearing. I felt the final product was not authentic or my style. Some of the music sounded a little dated, similar to the style of Copacabana, which was cool in the 70's and good for that time, but wasn't something I felt was going to convey what I wanted.
In contrast, it seemed like the style of “Painted Red” always stayed strong for me, even though a few years went by. The way that I was able to communicate with the guys in Nashville to make what I had in my head a reality was always a light in the distance that I knew felt right to me. It was an organic experience and captured what I was trying to say. In LA, it seemed rushed and put together to try to make a good sound really quick. The elements were not there and the bones were not there.
KR: Because you didn't feel that the outcome was aligned to your vision, what were you going to do next?
BM: Against the advice of everyone I signed the contract with, I went back to Sam Ashworth in Nashville. I felt more connected to him and felt he understood the vision I had. They all said don't go back and wanted me to stay on the same track with this ‘new’ sound, but I went anyway and financed it myself with the help of my girlfriend. I pulled up my bootstraps and made it work. We ate PB and J, saved money, and had just enough again to record a couple more songs. So, I got on a plane and went back down, and that is when we did “Come Out of the House”, “Patty Brown,” and most of the Red EP. The songs got more recognition and led me to more exposure online, like In-flight radio and all kinds of other things I feel would have been unobtainable if I had released the recordings from LA. Throughout the time recording in Nashville, the management basically sat on their hands because I wasn't pushing the music that they recorded. I guess they didn't feel any incentive, but I was still locked into a contract.
I didn't stop there. I went on to record more and that's when “Honest Love” happened. That really opened up things further for us. “Honest Love”, “Color Blue”, a remake of “Bandage”, “Out On the Road,” and an acoustic version of “Florida.” We tried to make this a more organized EP release. I designed the cover of the album while I was in a hotel room in Chicago to shoot the music video for “Honest Love.” I got some minor movie placements, more write-ups, and pretty good press. We were seeing positive results, so I started to do 100% of the management end even though I was still in a management contract. Through it all, they were still against us doing it ourselves.
KR: Even though you had this very negative business experience of being pushed down the wrong path for you, what made you not give up?
BM: I just had a quiet knowing inside, where you don't feel like you really need to talk about it but you're guided by something. That whole experience made me want to work harder, I had support of people around me and God helped me. I'd say my prayers at night. There's always going to be something that helps you if you have faith in it. Looking back, probably for the first 6 months under the management contract, I sat back blindly, foolishly thinking, "Oh, I have a management team that's going to help me now." But I didn't realize that they weren't doing anything. Sure they'd put you up in a fancy hotel with a rooftop swimming pool in Hollywood and talk about all the stars that go there. They’d go on a shopping spree for a rooftop photo shoot, but that stuff is only going to get you so far. Sure, you have pretty photos and you feel like you're a big wig, but in the grand scheme of things nothing beats getting in there and doing the work yourself. You get a better product out of it because you are putting in your heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears. If you just have everything handed to you, it doesn't do the process justice. You have to work night and day, night and day, and it does take some amount of struggle for you to learn from it. If you're not going to struggle with the mule while you're plowing the field, then you're not going to have the sweetest vegetables. Anybody that built an instrument or made an invention and didn't struggle with its process doesn't really have anything.
KR: So you decided to part ways, what did you do and how did you recover from that?
BM: It was chaos. When the contract ran out, they actually still wanted to keep me on so they could sit on their hands more and tie me up more. It was an ugly process. There were threats of legal action and I was pretty broke. It was pretty intimidating because they had big homes in the Hollywood Hills with fancy gold chains and Cadillacs and here I was living in a little shack with my cat. They would come strolling up the alley, looking in peoples' cars trying to find where I was. I mean, it took the wind out of my sail, but I realized I didn't need wind because I have oars. I'll paddle my way. It was scary and tumultuous then, but I look back on it now and say, “It's over.”
KR: Everyone loved “Honest Love,” and you wanted to make another album. Tell me about that.
BM: We initially wanted to do the next album with Sam, but his father, Charlie Peacock, who produced the Civil Wars in 2011 needed Sam to do contract work for him throughout 2012 after they won a Grammy and the studio time blew up. Our PR agent in Nashville scrambled and gave us a list of producers. We looked through them and found one that was really interesting. He had some recent success with a band that was charting in the UK and Japan. I liked the sound and felt like he had a pretty good range of work, so we planned to start recording in October of 2012. I flew him up to do some preliminaries and it seemed pretty good, but the chemistry was a bit lacking. I was going through a lot then, so I guess I was overlooking it. I made note to my girlfriend that it wasn’t the same vibe I’d had with Sam, but I was hoping that it was going to get better in the studio.
KR: You originally planned to release your album in the Spring of 2013, but it was delayed. What caused the delay?
BM: There was a course of events that happened in October 2012. I had a family member that was sick and passed, and that came first, understandably. I wouldn't change that for the world. I was financially broken as well, and there was also a major hurricane (Hurricane Sandy) that was going on at the same time as the passing. That made it really hard because we were totally disconnected from the outside world. We had no power for almost 2 weeks, with floods, and lots of destruction. The producer wanted money while all this stuff was going on, and it was a very uncomfortable situation. We gave him $8,000 to get started, which was really all the money we had. We were even selling our stuff on Ebay – clothes we hadn't worn, instruments, a keyboard, a car, just everything. After the events of October, I took some time to recover financially and emotionally, and set plans to go back down to Nashville, with high hopes, in June of 2013.
KR: Tell us about this recording experience.
BM: We had lined up some top guys as musicians in a big fancy studio with a beautiful lounge area. There were tour buses outside and a major country star's banner hanging from the window and all this glitz and glamour again, and I'm thinking, “Oh great.” Usually when something's like that with me, it's trouble. I would have been happier in a home studio making a kick-ass record because it's not about the Keurig with the blue craft landing lights on it. I don't need the fancy part, just the quality.
We traveled 15 hours in the car to Nashville and we were supposed to stay with the producer, but when we arrived he wasn’t ready. He was painting his house where we were supposed to sleep, and we were dead tired and there were paint fumes everywhere. During this time he was also going through some personal and financial problems and stayed out all night the night before we are supposed to go into the studio. So I stayed up all night worrying he wouldn’t come back. And when we got into the studio the next day, he had a stand in engineer who I had never met and had no clue who he was for half the day. And, the producer was nowhere to be found. I’m feeling bad vibes all over the place, plus I’m still shell shocked from everything I’ve been through over the last months. I was thinking, “You can kiss your $8,000 goodbye, Bri, you know it’s gone.”
Once we started recording, every song started out the same with the same formula. He said, “Yeah, we’re going to do the same formula as so-and-so’s album.” I really felt like I wanted to choke him. He wasn’t even trying to create a sound that represented my music. It was really a disheartening experience for anyone who wants to do music as a career.
While we were in Nashville, we got invited to a BBQ dinner at Sam Ashworth's house. I told him I missed working with him. He had really wanted to do this new album, but the timing had been off for him in October. He was busy at his dad’s studio and was about to have a new baby and new house. I told him how bad the experience with the new producer was going, and asked him to take a listen to the songs. I spent the night there and we talked and he listened to the recordings. I offered to pay him for his time, but he said he didn’t feel right taking the money. He advised me to stop the project, which was what I felt I should do as well. I’ve always had a trust in Sam and when the time was right, I was happy to end up back with him.
So my advice to anyone wanting to make an album or EP is to make sure you just record one song as a trial. You’ll see how you work with that person, if they get your sound and if they can create a recording that represents you. You will see their work ethic without losing a huge investment. Also, never stay with a producer or put yourself in a position where you feel beholden and make excuses for their behavior.
KR: After this big setback, how did you recover once again?
BM: I hit the ground running again. I worked hard, sold more belongings, and tightened the belt financially to save up the money. It still almost didn’t happen, but at the last minute money came through and we had enough to start again in August with Sam. I pretty much pay whatever I’m making. If you’re getting into the music business to be rich, that often doesn’t happen. It’s an added bonus. You have to really love what you’re doing and that has to be your payoff.
I’ve had fans asking every day since 2011 when there would be a new album, and I kept updating the site, "Album releasing in the spring", "Album releasing in the summer,” "Album releasing in the fall." It kept getting pushed back, and sometimes that is what has to happen. If you rush the recording process, you end up releasing something that is not as good. A lot of people, especially listeners who aren’t in the industry, don’t understand what all it takes to get that finished piece of artwork coming through those speakers.
KR: What was your second attempt at this album like?
BM: We went to a studio in Franklin, Tennessee, called The Chapel, to lay down tracks. It is run by Mark Hill, the band leader and bass player for Keith Urban. We recorded with Richie Biggs again (he did the Honest Love EP for me, and also engineered and co-produced The Civil Wars) and Jeff King on guitar (Reba McEntire and Dave Matthews). Then I finished up vocals and overdubs at Arthouse Studio, which is Charlie Peacock's place. The whole experience was a 180° from what happened in June. Every song was strategically planned. Thought and care was put into it. That is how you end up with something that is really great.
KR: What are your expectations for the album, given your journey from 2006 until now?
BM: I'm not expecting anything specific. I feel like whatever will be, will be, and we made some great songs. We will see where it goes. The album took great effort, care, long hours, and thought, so hopefully people will like it.