“I want people to broaden their definition and understanding of country music because this is the time for exploration,” reflects country newcomer, BRELAND.
Very few people have had the success of the New Jersey native spanning just two years. In 2020, his country-trap song “My Truck” launched him to viral fame and put him on the radar of SiriusXM The Highway, Music Row executives, tastemakers, and even country superstars. Over the short span of his fast-rising career, BRELAND has collaborated with Keith Urban (“Throw It Back”), Sam Hunt (“My Truck”), Jimmie Allen (“Somebody), Mickey Guyton (“Cross Country”), Rascal Flatt’s Gary LeVox (“All I See”), Nelly (“High Horse”), and most recently, Dierks Bentley, whose single “Beers On Me” features Hardy and the genre-blurring up-and-comer.
Without prior knowledge of BRELAND’s backstory, one would assume that he’s amassed years of experience to clinch these big-time collaborations. But unbeknownst to many, the Bad Realm Records/Atlantic Records artist’s first time performing for a live audience was actually at his high school (Peddie School) when covid restrictions eased this year. His second time was at a bigger, televised stage- the 2021 CMT Music Awards in June.
As green as he was, BRELAND has proven himself a talented, hardworking, and adept artist who, most recently, opened for Bentley on his Beers On Me tour. Proving to be a mainstay in the growingly diverse and inclusive format of country music, BRELAND’s career is just getting started. His brand of country may differ from that of the genre’s elder statesmen’s, but it is weaved with an excellent thread of authentic storytelling that offers multi-genre artists and fans a welcomed seat at country music’s table.
Sounds Like Nashville spoke with the “Cross Country” singer for an exclusive interview about his collaborations, musical upbringing, influences, and what fans can expect from him in 2022. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
Introducing the next promising newcomer you have to “get to know”: BRELAND
What was life like growing up in Burlington Town, New Jersey? A lot of people think you’re from a big city, but it’s actually not, right?
Yeah! Being from New Jersey, a lot of people think of it as big Metropolitan-like suburbs. Obviously, there are people in New Jersey who are part of the New York metropolitan area, but I’m from Burlington Township, New Jersey, which is actually a small farm town. It’s in South Jersey, closer to Philadelphia. The thing about Burlington is that people don’t usually leave. It’s your traditional farm town and the type of town that country singers are always singing about. That’s the kind of town that I come from. Everybody knows each other. You grow up there, raise your family there, and then you died there. That’s kind of how that cycle goes and I think a lot of people find comfort in that because it’s very safe. But for me, I feel like I was put on this planet to do something bigger with the gifts that I have. I feel like I was put here to reach millions of people- and you can’t reach millions of people in a small world. I had to leave [my hometown] so that I could experience other things. That said, I definitely do love being from New Jersey. It’s a lot of talented people from New Jersey and my parents are still there. I have a lot of love for it.
Did you grow up in a musical household?
Everyone in my family sings. My parents actually made an album when I was a kid and I was watching them try to pursue a gospel music career on the side of what they were doing professionally in the ministry that they were involved in. But they had a family to raise, so they couldn’t really pursue it in the way that they wanted to even though they’re super musical. I credit a lot of my musicality to them.
How has your upbringing informed your music career?
My upbringing in New Jersey and in a house that was so musical definitely set me up for what I’m doing now. But, there were also a lot of things that I had to learn on my own in this journey. That’s why the song “Cross Country” is so special to me because I really did bounce around from New Jersey to going to college in DC, and trying to figure out whether music was for me, and then moving to Atlanta and focusing on songwriting, to ultimately coming around to Nashville and finding a musical home. It took several tries.
Was there a moment in your life that you knew for certain you wanted to pursue a career in music?
It wasn’t really until middle school or high school that I really started to realize that music was something that I wanted to do as more than just a hobby- I wanted to do it as a career. That was a different way of thinking because, in my family, it’s a lot more practical. My mom just went back [to school] and got her doctorate. They believe that education will open all of the doors that you need to open, which I do think is generally true. I’m grateful for the education that I’ve got and I learned a lot throughout high school and college at Georgetown University. But in the entertainment industry, there’s no education that prepares you for entertainment There’s no audition or interview or application to be an artist. You just become one and then people eventually either catch on to that or they don’t.
Your made your Grand Ole Opry debut last month and got a standing ovation! What was that whole experience like for you?
It was really special for me because I know there is only a handful of black artists that have ever sung on the Opry stage. It’s also a premier location because when you think about country music and the place that houses country music, you think about the Opry. People who don’t even listen to country music know about it. It’s just a part of American history. For me to be able to make it a part of my history, add to its history in that way, and have the audience be so receptive, it’s incredibly special. To think that in the past two years, I went from not even believing that I was an artist, to believing that I was an artist, to putting out music, to having my first performance after Covid, and then now [playing] the Opry and the CMA Awards. These are opportunities that I definitely don’t take lightly and for granted because there are so many different possibilities and worlds in which none of this may have happened.
You said you didn’t believe you were an artist. Why is that?
Before covid, I wasn’t even really a performer. I had performed with my a cappella group in college but in terms of me as a solo artist or BRELAND in any capacity, I hadn’t had any performances. Coming out of covid, a lot of people were getting back into performing while I was just getting into performing for the first time. It’s pretty unique when you have a platinum single, a radio show on Apple Music, and a national campaign with Chevy, but have never played a show. I feel like there was a lot of pressure leading up to some of those first performances. I went back to my high school to play a show in May, and then the CMT Awards was my second one a couple of weeks later. I was so nervous and didn’t really have a whole lot of confidence because I was so new at it. But I had a chance to get out on the road on the Cross Country tour and the Dierks Bentley Beers On Me tour and [walk away with] a lot of performance experience. So when it came time to play the Opry and the CMA Awards, which were obviously bigger deals than just a regular show in a random city, having all of those experiences made me a better and more confident performer on both of those stages.
Who would you cite as your biggest musical inspiration? Because just listening to your music, it’s such a great blend of R&B, hip-hop, pop, country, and gospel, which is amazing.
Some of my biggest musical influences are Stevie Wonder, Rascal Flatts, Justin Timberlake, Nelly, and Drake. Each of them has something that I like. For me with Stevie, what I really love about him is the timbre of his voice and the control that he has when he’s singing. He can hit so many crazy notes but it doesn’t sound like he’s straining. He also has this vibrato at the end. He’s got a certain tone in his voice that I’m always listening to and figure out how to add elements of it [to my singing]. There’s a warmth in it, but there’s power, control, and just a lot in there vocally. From a Drake perspective, he’s a genre blender himself. He’s someone that obviously is a hip-hop artist, but he has these massive pop hits and these R&B songs and Caribbean dancehall records. I like seeing that progression and versatility. From a Justin Timberlake perspective, he’s one of the only people I know that can literally switch up whole genres. That to me is really special. From a Nelly perspective, he’s really the first person that I saw blend country and hip-hop. A lot of the cross country as a sub-genre stuff that I’m doing is influenced by him because he’s the first person to really unite those worlds. The collab he had with Tim McGraw (“Over and Over”) back in the day, and then the collabs that he’s had Florida Georgia Line and now having the Heartland project and me being able to be a part of that, a lot of that informs the stuff that I’m making now. For Rascal Flatts, Gary (Levox) was the first country star that I heard that was really bringing some of that gospel soulfulness in his vocals. And he’s got an incredible range. So, I take little bits and pieces from all of the different artists that I admire and try to add that to my repertoire. I would say you can find elements of all of those artists in my work.
Speaking of Gary from Rascal Flatts, you collaborated with him on a song called “All I See” earlier this year. How did that come about?
I’m glad you asked about it because it wasn’t a single and doesn’t get as much attention as the songs I do with Keith, Dierks or Nelly! Gary was actually one of the first artists to actually reach out to me even before I was doing country stuff. He came across some covers I was doing online and was like, “Hey man, if you ever come to Nashville, we should write.” And then “My Truck” popped off and he said, “Yeah, I really want you to be on my project.” When I got up with Gary when I first moved to Nashville, literally it was a couple of weeks after I moved to town, and we had plans to meet up. I really just wanted to get him on my Apple radio show Land of the BRE and get an interview with him. We ended up doing the interview and writing after, and he told me he was working on this gospel EP. I was like, “Wow, are you going contemporary Christian or are you gospel?” And he said both. So I said, “Well, if we’re going to go gospel on it then we got to come [at it correctly], both vocally and lyrically because I grew up on that.” I can’t just be a part of a gospel song and not have it have all the things that I love in a gospel song. Whether you listen to gospel or not, I wanted people who listened to that song to feel something in it. So the producer we were in with, Matt McVaney, just started playing some chords and started singing over it, and that hook, “Focus my eyes Lord, till You’re all I see” just kind of came out it was like a phrase. The lyric and the melody both happened at the same time, [which is] very rare. Usually, when that happens, it’s a really special moment. We wrote that song in an hour.
What does “All I See” personally mean to you?
It’s a song that’s honest to my experience. I’m not a perfect Christian. I drink, I’ll be out partying with friends, and I don’t go to church every single week. With “All I See”, it’s about wanting to do better. Whether there’s a God angle to it or not, it is something that everyone can relate to. But when you add that that that God element to it, it’s like, we all want to to do better and be more like whoever it is that that we worship. I think the song was really honest and I’m really happy to be a part of it. Hopefully, more people will get a chance to hear it because it’s a side of my artistry that is significant.
You have a song out now on country radio with Dierks Bentley and Hardy called “Beer’s On Me.” What’s the story behind co-writing this?
It actually preceded. Hardy, Dierks, Ashley Gorley, Ross Copperman, and a couple of other writers were all out in Colorado doing a writer’s trip. They wrote a bunch of songs, and that was one that they wrote that Dierks cut when he got back to town. He was kind of flipping through the Nashville Scene Magazine and saw a spot that they had done a spot on me, and was like “oh snap we should get him on the song.” So he shot me a text [introducing himself], sent me a demo, and I said would love to be a part of it. I pulled that demo the next night and wrote my verse. Even then, I didn’t really know what he wanted to do with the song because I make a lot of songs with artists that never come out. But he made this a single, the name of his tour, and performed it at all these high-profile events like the CMA Summer Jam and the CMA Awards, and I get to perform it on tour and watch the song rise on country radio. Many great opportunities in my career this year have come about because of that song, that collaboration, and that friendship. It’s really cool to watch how It’s grown and what opportunities it’s presented to all of us. Dierks is just such a good guy that even if we didn’t have music together, I would want to be friends with him.
“Strawberry Wine” is just a song that I love. It’s a classic. What I really love about country music is the storytelling, and that story is just so universal. Obviously, she’s talking about it from a young woman’s perspective, but I think everyone who has had young love or first love, it always comes to that. Some people do end up marrying their high school sweetheart but for a lot of us, it comes and goes and we remember it fondly. [Deana] just nails it on that song. The delivery is just so cool and I wanted to be able to add my flavor and some additional soulfulness to it. I never knew when I did that cover that she was ever going to hear it or respond to it in that way. It just lined up with it being the 25th anniversary of [Did I Shave My Legs For This?] and that song. When she heard my cover, we started to connect and talk over social media, and she invited me to play the Ryman with her. Country music does a really great job of giving people their flowers while they’re here. A lot of other genres don’t do that. If we look at some of the 90’s hip hop and R&B stars, they don’t get the same reverence and respect that artists in country music do. I think they should do that. We’re all inspired by that era of music across the board and really, only in country have I seen people really taking the time to cherish those artists. For Deana to be able to have this resurgence at the 25-year anniversary just speaks to how faithful and loyal country music fans are and I’m happy to celebrate her.
Now that have collaborated with so many artists over the last year or two, I’m curious. Who’s an artist that you’d love to collaborate with but haven’t got the chance to yet?
Kane Brown. I’ve written with Kane a couple of times, we’re friends, we hung out after the CMA Awards and had a really good time. But, we have not yet really come up with a song like “this is the one.” You have to have that moment for something to come out. I wouldn’t even want to put out just an okay song with Kane. He’s got so many hits and so many songs that I love that whatever we do has to be on that level. I want it to feel like one of those songs. That’s a collab that it’s in the works, but I would really love to nail it.
Looking ahead into 2022, what do you have lined up in the new year? What can fans expect?
Fans can expect a full-length project from me. I’ve only put out two songs this year in terms of [a solo release]. Obviously, I’ve had a few for collabs that have been really useful in helping me tour and everything, but I really want people to hear this full cross country album. I think it’s a special moment in history. I’m already calling right now! [laughs] I’ve got people on this album that you wouldn’t expect them to be on. Like with Keith on “Throw It Back,” you don’t expect Keith to be on a song like that but then when you hear it, it makes sense. That’s what all of the collabs are on this project. It’s hearing me and these artists in a different sonic space than you might normally hear them. There are also some really great solo songs on there that showcase my writing, voice, and versatility. I’m really looking forward to that and then taking that out on the road!
Will we be hearing some of your soulful, gospel-influenced vocal runs from “All I See” on the upcoming album?
Yeah, we’ve got a few songs on here where you will definitely be like “okay like he’s bringing it!” It’s easy to do the fun turn-up type of songs, but you need to have moments where you can showcase those vocals, and I definitely have some of those on the project.
Lastly, what do you hope fans and country listeners take away from listening to your music?
I hope what they learn is that country music is more diverse than they might think. I want people to broaden their definition and understanding of country music because this is the time for exploration. For me to be able to collab, play shows, and have a friendship with Hardy, Parker McCollum, and all these people that are so musically different just shows where country music is at. You can have the more traditional, more southern rock or the more hip-hop-influenced cross-country stuff that I’m doing live in the same format. I’m just trying to show people what that can sound and look like, and hopefully inspire them to go out and try something different in their own fields or lives.
Stream BRELAND’s music, including “Cross Country” and his single “Beers On Me” with Dierks Bentley and Hardy below.