Dean Brody: It’s Become Bigger Than Just Him
No doubt Dean Brody is a gifted storyteller. The rising Canadian country music star proved his singing and songwriting readiness last year with three hit songs off his self-titled debut album on Broken Bow Records–all three broke the Top 10 at Canadian country radio. His smash “Brothers” peaked at #26 on the U.S. charts and went on to be honored as the 2009 Single of the Year at the CCMA Awards. He also earned five 2010 CCMA nominations: Single of the Year (“Dirt Roads Scholar”); Album of the Year (Dean Brody); Songwriter of the Year (“Dirt Roads Scholar”); CMT Video of the Year (“Wildflower”); and Male Artist of the Year.
With a new label behind him, the soft-spoken British Columbia born and bred artist recently released his impressive sophomore effort, Trail in Life. Its first two singles are still on the airwaves: “Roll That Barrel Out,” an island lullaby slash drinking song, and “Wildflower,” a waltz written for his wife, Iris Rose. In the fog of his fairy-tale success, though, lies the reality of ups and downs in an unforgiving music business. It’s a story that’s less glitter and more guts, and at the core of it all stands the things that matter most to him: the artist’s family and his songs.
He’s been called laid back by some, but that term doesn’t quite nail down Brody’s demeanor. Calm and thoughtful more accurately describe who the man really is. His record producer Matt Rovey probably says it best, describing the young singer as “an old soul.” That kind of organic self-confidence is very evident in his songs. He seems to understand himself and what makes others tick. His lyrics are gimmick-free, written from an honest and mature place. The same depth of character can be heard in his voice, which has a direct line to emotions, delivered with a wood-grain richness of tone reminiscent of Brad Paisley. But unlike many of his contemporaries, Brody shows vulnerability, poignancy, dynamics and range. Many of his lines end with a whispery release of breath that is somehow comforting. One can analyze on and on, but really, when it comes down to it, Brody is just being himself.
I asked him about his year so far: “It’s been pretty awesome, you know, especially the CCMA nominations. I grew up listening to country music in Canada and obviously watching the awards show on TV. I never dreamed when I was a kid that someday I’d be on that show performing stuff in the company that I am in.” Brody performed at the 2010 CCMA awards for the first time, sharing the stage with George Canyon, Terri Clark, Doc Walker, Corb Lund and other Canadian stars.
Persistence seems to be in his DNA. He first moved to Nashville back in 2004 after signing a publishing deal, then moved back to Canada two years later. He returned to Nashville after signing with Broken Bow, then back to Canada after leaving the label. “Yeah, it’s been a crazy year. Exciting, but it’s also been a tough transition. I requested to be let go of my Nashville deal [with Broken Bow] just because of a disagreement that happened over management. So it was really rough. We had to leave the country right away. Kind of had the rug pulled out from underneath us and had to leave the USA–like immediately. We scrambled and found a place here on the east coast [of Canada] that was very good. It’s really a blessing–10 acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We just got reacquainted with home, with Canada, and had an offer from Open Road Recordings. Finally, yeah, I’d love to move on and move ahead and so it was good. It was a “crazy” year–I guess that would be a good word for it.”
The music business isn’t easy on anyone, especially a new artist. “I think it’s pretty tough. I don’t know the whole inside scoop as to what makes a new artist break, as far as what it takes from the label. But it’s tough, you know, ‘cause there’s a lot of competition and then there’s just the way the business works. Nashville’s got a lot of great people there; there are a lot of great friends and talented people there.”
Open Road Recordings is a major Canadian label, but I wondered if Trail in Life would be more than just a Canadian release, with U.S. promotion perhaps? “My label had asked that, and right now I don’t know if I want to put my family through that again. It’s one thing to put myself through what it takes. But at this point, it’s become bigger than just me. My wife Iris and I have a son Isaac and a daughter Molly. Having two kids–it’s good to be in one spot. It’s kind of tough in a way when you go to Nashville. Both times we had to move [from Nashville], it was because of legal reasons, not because we really wanted to. As soon as a visa–the work permit–expires, you have to leave the country. So we built all this stuff around us–we had our friends, we had a church, a basic community support system for us–but as soon as the job was gone, we had to leave all that behind there both times.”
Back when he was promoting his first record in the U.S., Brody was in a serious waterskiing accident. “Five weeks into the tour–it was right in the thick of that first push so it’s hard to tell whether that hurt or helped [the record’s momentum], I’m not sure. I still don’t know. I busted my face up and had to get reconstructive facial surgery. Yeah, they put three titanium plates and bolt screws in my face (laughs) right in the middle of the radio tour, eh. We were rocking, and then we had a night off. My regional Broken Bow Records took us waterskiing and I smashed my face in. After that I took six weeks off. I wanted to get at the GM at the time (laughs): ‘Look, man, you can’t go into the radio station with a big ol’ black eye and bulging veins in your eyeballs.’ There was a little bit of press about it so maybe that helped. But maybe it didn’t with six weeks off.”
Luckily, his injuries had little effect on his voice. “At first it did–my voice seemed kind of weak. The biggest thing that scared me was I had a rattle feel in my nose and I heard it in my sinuses. I could feel that vibration. I remember the surgeon saying, one of the reasons you need the surgery is so you don’t have complications with your sinuses someday. So I was freaked out. I didn’t tell anybody at the time ‘cause we just had this record–I think the record was just finished and we just made this push for the first single out. [I was] on pain killers going up to radio stations and singing, trying not to think about my vibrating nose (laughs). Nobody said they could hear it–like my producer Matt Rovey said, ‘I can’t hear that.’”
Writing songs has now become a “leg up” maneuver for new artists in Nashville. Brody agrees: “I think it helps to be an artist; part of being an artist is being involved in what you sing. For myself anyway, it’s hard to imagine not singing my own stuff. It’s real important that you’re involved in the songwriting. Also helps with networking in Nashville–meeting up with the right-minded people. It’s really crucial that you’re in that process. I think it’s more appealing to record labels because a lot of them are moving into this 360 deal, where they got a part of your publishing, they’ve got the record thing down and they want your management. So, the more that you can do will make you more appealing to them.”
Music has always been a part of his life. He grew up in the little town of Jaffray, British Columbia, in the Rockies just north of the Montana border. “Yeah, it’s beautiful. There aren’t a whole lot of people around. It’s really quiet, but my dad always had the radio on. He loved music. Same with my granny: when I went to her house, she always had the radio on and I think that had a big impact on me when I was a kid. My mom played a little bit of guitar for Sunday school, so there was a guitar sitting around a lot. It was easy once I decided to get in music to go down that path. [I listened to] an AM station. They didn’t have a specific country station in the place I was at. They played Anne Murray and Aerosmith and Bryan Adams and U2 and George Jones. They played everything. A lot of my influence early on was pretty much a mixed pot of everything you could think of. When I got older, I really got into country with Dwight Yoakum and George Strait.” Brody started writing songs when he was 15 or 16.
Some of the tracks on his debut album were co-writes and two were outside songs, in contrast to all of the tracks on his sophomore album being written solely by himself. It is quite unusual to find a writer, let alone an artist/writer who writes solo. Maybe that’s why there is an overwhelming, heartfelt quality in his lyrics. “Oh, I guess it’s easier to write that way from the heart, and I’m all about writing an easy song if I can (laughs). It’s tough to write a song that takes a month to write. Have to get together with your co-writer five or six times to finish it and finally work it into submission. Somehow it’s easier I guess just writing from where something matters. I’m actually going to be making some trips down to Nashville a week at a time and writing with a bunch of Nashville guys.” He now lives in a rather secluded area on Nova Scotia’s South Shore; it’s far from being a songwriting community like Music City. “These few weeks right now I have some time off so I’m just writing by myself. I’m [mostly] writing solo because it’s more that there isn’t a whole lot of opportunity to co-write here.”
One of the stand-outs on Trail in Life is “Angelina”–a soft-rocker performed in a Keith Urban style. It’s the singing that makes it an exceptional recording–his voice has an emotional longing that is magnetic. “I wrote ‘Angelina’ probably six years ago. I was in the garage and I had my guitar. That was the first song I wrote with an electric guitar. I had just had that guitar going and I wanted to write something fun, kind of upbeat. I love the ocean. It’s easy to be inspired by the water. That’s one of the appealing things about living here in Nova Scotia right on the ocean. So I just wrote a song about falling in love but at an age and place in my life where you can’t really commit because you’re each going different ways. I was trying to write that ocean into a melody and that’s how it came out.”
Brody’s title track is the drop-dead stunner of the album and will be his next single. “Trail in Life” finds the singer addressing three different groups in the verses: an old girl friend, his college buddies and his biological mother. The last one really surprised me and brings me to tears whenever I listen to it. This is a major song–a career song–up there in the heart department with “Brothers.” There’s so much honesty in these lyrics that it echoes raw and personal. I had to ask if he was adopted in real life. “I wasn’t–no (laugh). I was trying to put myself into someone else’s shoes. And it’s always a difficult thing for me to do. When I write a song like ‘Brothers’, I feel it. I get all choked up when I write these things. When I hear ‘Trail in Life’, I still get messed up on the road when listening to that last verse ‘cause I can see the girl. I can feel the loss–having this child of hers she has no idea about, out there growing up, and the longing in her heart to be able to go back in time and watch him. I’m weird that way.”
“But the trouble with writing that way is I don’t know if it’s accurate until I put it out there, like with the soldiers [listening to ‘Brothers’] and I’d go, ‘Are they going to think this sucks? Are they going to like it?’ And it came back overwhelming [that they liked it]. So it’s really rewarding when I feel like I wrote someone else’s story accurately. I’m just really inspired by people and characters. I like personal stuff, but I also love serving other people, and trying to get inside of their life and [writing about] how they see life.”
I asked Brody if the song was written in linear fashion, meaning in order of verse 1, verse 2, and then verse 3: “Yeah. Just like that in one night–maybe an hour and a half. And then there was some tweaking with words, but the overall gist came out in just one night. Those songs are gifts. Like I tell Iris, [while writing] when I hear a song, it’s like it’s not mine. It’s just there and that’s a gift to me.”
The first verse in “Brothers” is particularly vivid and moving. “Yeah, you can see the kid, eh? You know, there’s a scene in ‘Private Ryan’ that partially inspired the beginning of that song. Remember in the beginning of the movie, the camera was behind this mom who’s standing on a porch with a prairie in front of her and there’s three or four cars coming up the driveway–black cars. It’s the military coming up. No words, right? But you know what’s happening. They’re coming up to tell her that she’s just lost three of her sons. And you see her from the back–she can’t stand anymore so she kind of kneels on the ground and sits there. Scenes like that–sometimes I see those when I’m writing a song. I can see this kid chasing his brother down.” Brody paraphrases his hit song in a pleading speaking voice, “‘C’mon! I’ll give you my baseball cards, I’ll wash your car, whatever–just don’t go.’ From there, I can usually write the song, if I can see a picture.” So he sees it all play out in his mind’s eye. The visuals are important, helping him tap into that emotion.
How had the success of “Brothers” affected his life, his career and the lives of others? “That song helped people to relate to me somehow. What you call career songs do that. People still come up to me today, saying that the song means a lot to them, even though they don’t have family in the military. I don’t know exactly what makes a song make people feel like they can accept you and dig what you do, but that song was it for me.”
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