Female Friday: Kelleigh Bannen

Written by Cillea Houghton
Female Friday: Kelleigh Bannen
Kelleigh Bannen; Photo credit: John Shearer

Kelleigh Bannen can still recall the moment she was arrested by music. Woken up one morning by her radio alarm clock, Bannen felt the song reach through the radio and grab her attention. It was a defining moment when she felt a divine connection to the craft that would later become her career. Since then, the Nashville native has released five studio projects, debuted on the Today show and is the host of the popular Apple Music show, Today’s Country. In this edition of Female Friday, Bannen shares how conversations with Maren Morris and Eric Church have inspired her artistically, why she calls music an “unrequited love” and reflects on why she was so drawn to the mystery of music.  

I know that you are from Nashville, so tell me about what it was like growing up here and how your musical journey began.

My family wasn’t in the music business, but especially back in the late eighties and early nineties, everyone that touched our lives was in the music business. I remember our babysitters that were students at Vanderbilt [University] they’d be singing jingles as a way to get discovered. It’s so wild to me and funny and such another era. But it seemed like back then, everybody that touched your life was aspiring. But the thing about that was I saw a lot of people come here and move home, so you’d be really aware that not everyone gets to stay and make a living doing this. It taught me in some ways, it steered me off, even though going home for me would not mean moving back across the country. Everyone doesn’t get to stay, everyone doesn’t get to make this their life, so I really stayed out of songwriting and music as a real career path, even though I grew up playing violin. My little brother played the cello, and so we grew up playing music. I think that the music that I was was playing as a little girl even informs the way that I think of melodies now. But it wasn’t until I was going to college and got married right out of college, but started thinking about what would it actually mean to move back to Nashville and really start writing in earnest. I’d maybe written a handful of songs as a high schooler or in college, so I feel like I came late to the process of really pursuing music full time, unlike so many of my peers who went to Belmont [University] and they were studying songwriting.

Music is the unrequited love of my life. It is that guy that you fell so hard for and never quite reciprocated, and I mean that knowing that I get to be a part of this community that I have gotten to make music as my career and that I do get to make a living in music, which is so remarkable. It’s such an honor. But I was thinking, ‘music messed me up. It torments me. It’s that unrequited love.’ I was thinking about this memory that I have of waking up as a kid. I had a radio alarm clock, and I remember waking up to a song on the radio and feeling like it was unnerving. It was this mysterious feeling. It was awakening something in me that I didn’t understand, and that was confusing and that made me feel something. I think that’s always been my relationship with music is it’s so incredibly mysterious to me. It moves me on such a deep level. Nothing chokes me up or moves me like music does, so that’s really what I remember in those early days. My idols at that time were a lot of what I was hearing on country radio, but also a lot of local favorites. I was a huge Amy Grant fan. I really loved her songwriting and because I’m an alto, I’m a lower singer, I’m not super rangy as a singer, I always could sing along to everything that Amy was singing, and that wasn’t true of a Whitney Houston or even Trisha Yearwood. I think it was this gnawing at my heart that was this thing that I love that it’s so mysterious, so hard to pin down, and yet so powerful.

Have you figured out that mystery? Have you gotten any answers about that feeling?

I’ve had a lot of therapy. I know a lot about myself, I’ve discovered a lot about myself, but I think that it has to do with connection. I think that it has to do with feeling known and that thing that is happening through the airways where a stranger who you might not even know their name, who actually wrote the song tapped into something that’s so true about you, and through time and space it is connecting you. So I really think it is about connection. I think also I love storytelling. I love storytellers and I’m always trying to become a better storyteller. I love the challenge of that, of crafting a great story, and I think as a songwriter it’s often about that truly special idea, but not letting the cleverness of what you’re doing get in the way of the connection or the emotional truth. I talked to Sam Hunt and Ingrid Andress about that a couple of weeks ago when I was interviewing them about their new duet [“Wishful Drinking”]. They’re both really clever writers. It doesn’t matter how good the lyric is, how smart it is. If it’s not also connecting on a really human level, if we’re only writing this smart, genius, funny, clever lyric, it’s like we’re just showing off if it doesn’t mean something.

How do you channel that into your own music and your own writing? Are you mindful of that connection when you’re in the writing room or recording studio? How does that manifest in your art and music?

I think this is probably different for everybody. I’ve been around people who they’re thinking about the fan or they’re thinking about the live show when they’re writing and they could see people singing along or lighters in the air. If me and the one or two other people in the room thinks something special is happening, I don’t need to say it out. There’s so little we can control, especially as women in country music, it’s like ‘I don’t know that this song is ever going to be on the radio, it probably won’t be.’ So thinking about what might happen out there doesn’t make sense to me. But thinking about it’s lighting up the three hearts in the room, we’re on the right track.

I want to talk about your Apple Music show, Today’s Country, which has opened up a whole new avenue for you. Tell me about how this all came about?

It all went down in the Instagram DMs, which is so funny. Apple is so corporate, it’s really hilarious to me that’s where it started. This woman reaches out in my DMs and started chatting with me. It was one of those things where we got on a call and I left the call and I called my husband, I was like, ‘I feel I just got off a job interview, but I don’t know what the job is. I don’t know what they’re doing.’ I thought we were meeting so I could connect her with some other people that might be a good fit for what she was working on. I’m one of those wacky people that I choose a word every year set as an intention. It’s not really a New Year’s resolution, but I do in January choose a word. This particular year that I took my gig at Apple, my word was ‘fruit.’ I was about to put out my debut album and I really felt like I had been working for a very long time. It was 2019. I had my first major label deal in 2011. I had done the mainstream, major label thing, had half the songs get on the radio, not as many as I would like [laughs]. So finally, after all these years releasing my debut album, and I chose the word ‘fruit’ because I was like, ‘I feel like I’ve worked really hard. I feel like I’ve worked my a** off and I really want to see more fruit in my life. I want to seed, I want to harvest.’ There’s something to me about intention, putting that focus on that.

The album comes out in October and I make my national television debut on the Today show, that was a big milestone for me performing there that month as well. Oddly enough, a very funny and very literal fruit appeared, and that was Apple. I got the offer and it started as the first role was host of Today’s Country, which was the very first show in the country space for Apple Music. That show was really about bringing to life our biggest playlist on the country side, which is called “Today’s Country,” and it’s really thoughtful conversations around music. Then our show is usually a playlist about 12 songs and then one or two interviews that are related to the biggest stories in music that week. It was funny that all my work in music and making music was my master’s degree that brought me to the table as far as having a skillset where I could have the conversations with artists that Apple was so passionate about me having. It was fun for me to see that through line of the ‘fruit’ not only musically, but also then see that all this work really wasn’t for not and that the things that I learned and the dreams that I have chased and am still chasing set me up to have some really special conversations and talk about music in a really special way and just made all the more hilarious by the fact that it was an Apple.

What have been some of the most meaningful conversations that you’ve had through this show and how do you feel like they’ve impacted you either as an artist or a person?

That is hard. There’s a couple different kinds of conversations that I get to have. Sometimes I’m talking with someone that is really a friend and who I could ask them anything, I could put them on the spot. We have so much comfort that I don’t feel like I have anything to prove with them. I have my own work that’s just my own sh** that’s my own imposter syndrome that I often have to work through, but sometimes I’m interviewing someone who is a real idol of mine or someone that I really admire their work and their art and their story. One of the most special interviews that I got to do this year was the Eric Church interview about the triple album. I only know him to wave and say hi, we aren’t close. We were signed to EMI [Records] around the same time and I’ve seen his live show a lot. The way he treats his creativity with such seriousness and his approach to touring and to record-making is really inspiring me. He’s not somebody that I knew would necessarily be a great interview for me, I don’t have that relationship with him. That was one where we did a ton of prep. We worked through different approaches and so much of it is like, ‘what’s happening for them on any given day? Are they having a sh** day? What just happened in their personal life?’ Honestly, it was so impactful for me because he was so open. It was such a gift, and I feel like I learned so much as an artist. I felt like I was in a masterclass on creativity and on serving the creative muse, and that was so impactful to me. That was a really special one.

We get to do something special for Apple that we call “Essential Album.” Those are usually career looks at an artist. We’ve done one for Alan Jackson, Darius Rucker, Miranda Lambert, Luke Bryan, The Chicks. We also did an [“Essential Album”] for Maren [Morris]. Those have always also been really impactful because they’re really musical conversations. Maren was really crazy special because it was the first time she had gone back and listened to Hero since busbee passed. We talked about what it was like for her to be driving around Green Hills listening to Hero and bawling her face off and her remembering the abandon and the freedom that she had when she was making that record and what she really wants to capture as she’s making this third record. Those are two conversations I think that have really hung with me in my own creative pursuit that have really spoken to my soul. With Maren, there were a lot of amazing quotes out of that I’ve been simmering on. She talked about how you can’t do it for the streaming zeros. You can’t do it for the hit, you have to do it because it makes you happy, and [I] thought that was so simple. That was so powerful. It’s really an honor, someone letting you in like that and getting to help share their story. It’s very powerful.

Thinking about your life and career, what is most important for people to know about you and your journey?

A friend of mine, Ashley Eicher, shared this post on Instagram. It was talking about how optimists they’re actually forged through trial and through sorrow, through loss, through hardship, and I think that’s really true in my story. I think about what I still want from myself as a musician at 40 and an understanding of what is stacked against you as a woman, and especially a woman not in your 20s, in our industry. I also think I have a lot of really great training as far as perseverance goes. I remember Karen Fairchild one time telling me that Little Big Town they were about to get dropped from a label deal, or something really bad had happened, and they were emailing each other and she wrote the group and she was like, ‘we say when we stop. We say.’ I’m thinking about that for myself, and honestly for anyone who’s on this journey at any part of the journey. This is not a journey where doors just open for you and you walk in. This is a journey where you get told no, and in spite of that, you can have an amazing career. I’m really thinking of the ways that we limit ourselves. You get to say when you stop. You get to say what is good enough for you. You get to say what is still left for you to chase and conquer, and it’s something I’m trying to preach to myself. But I also want other people [to know] you’re not alone in that feeling, ‘should I throw in the towel or am I too fill in the blank? Am I too old? Am I not good enough?’ whatever it is. That’s the sermon I’m trying to preach to myself on a daily basis.