"I like delusion," says Dave Brainard, sitting in his Nashville studio, which is hidden in a building behind an Off Broadway shoe store, right off Music Row. Not uncommon in such spaces, the walls are adorned with framed records and various guitars, including a stunning 1956 Gibson LG that was a gift from Jerrod Niemann. It's 10 a.m., early by creative standards, but he takes it down and strums a few chords anyway. "Coffee?" he offers, before adding, jokingly, "or Adderall?"
It's not that the producer, responsible for Brandy Clark's Grammy-nominated LP, 12 Stories, is out of touch with reality (or dependent on stimulants) — he just chooses to gamble on worthy acts that scare him a little, rather than banking on a sure thing. More than once he's done records for little to no initial compensation, just because he felt so compelled. "Voluntarily delusional, maybe," Brainard tells Rolling Stone Country. "I'm a champion. A believer. Crack the whip — let's dream. Let's manifest this thing." His business manager has scolded him for this more than once.
Brainard moved to Nashville in 1999, and he wasn't born into the music business — rather, his familial legacy was a military one, with a sergeant father and a Korean mother who just happened to love Kenny Rogers. Playing guitar in high school, he worshipped rock and hair metal — with the locks then to show it — but, after one year at the University of Nebraska, he visited the barber for a nice crop and joined the United States Air Force Band.
"It was there I learned all my scales and my theory," he says, "and I met a guy in town who was local and gave me the country bug. We'd take trips to Nashville, and I started to see the complexity in things that were so simple, and what you could do with three chords." Brainard would often experiment with a home eight-track digital recorder and "matured," as he puts it, into loving country.
In his early days in Nashville, Brainard became a sought-after writing partner and touring musician, compiling a makeshift studio in the rather untrendy neighborhood of Antioch. It was working with Jamey Johnson, who came through looking for demos, that ushered in his first big breakthrough: some casual recordings turned into Johnson's debut, They Call Me Country. Since then, he produced two records for Niemann, two for Ray Scott (who eventually became his business partner in their label deciBel) and one for Brandy Clark, which recently scored them a Grammy nomination for Best Country Album. Clark was one of those cases where Brainard's "delusions" proved both rightful and fruitful — but it took a while. The two made the LP for pennies, and shopped it around with little hope.
"It became a two-year ordeal of, 'What?' Everybody liked this record, but nobody would sign her," he says. "I was like, 'I swear this is where country music should be.' It was really a head-scratcher." The tides did turn — with many award nominations and a major-label deal with Warner Bros., along with a nod from the Recording Academy, Brainard's first. "I’m just thrilled that Brandy’s talent, which I've been passionate about from the beginning, is finally being fully recognized," he says. "I'm not a total hermit, but I tend to enjoy keeping my head under a rock in my studio world, so sometimes when I come up for daylight, it's nice to know that what I'm doing is working. I guess that would mean I'd be in the cool crowd. I'll take it."
Brainard describes his approach as often painting "vignettes" or movie scenes, each song its own story with a mood, a texture, an identify. His military background has helped in unexpected ways (discipline, teamwork) as has his tendency to balance both the left-brain and right brain — a successful producer needs to be able to juggle finances, timelines and management as well as being a vital creative force. "I'm a creative person," he says, "with a clean car."
One thing you won't find is a studio stashed to the brim with vintage gear. Instead, his set-up is rather basic, even simple by some standards. "I'm not a gear-head at all," he says. "And I'm self-taught in the studio. I'm more focused on the song and the vibe of an artist. A couple preamps, a couple compressors, really good mics and really good songs. A song is the first part of the signal chain." Or he adds, on second thought, "maybe it's just a shot of whiskey and a great singer."
Here, he tells Rolling Stone Country about four of those great singers; about Niemann's lost Martian-themed LP; why Clark scared him half to death; and the one thing he'd like to say to Johnson, if he could. With no comment on how much whiskey was involved.
Jamey Johnson, They Call Me Country
Jamey was sort of new to town, and I was in town maybe a couple years at this point, still waiting tables. I think I had just jumped to recording full-time out of my condo in Antioch. Jamey came over through a mutual friend, clean cut at the time, and he just wanted me to do a demo. He sat down and sang — it's funny, because at the time I wasn't in town long enough to know how great he was. I just thought, "Oh, I'm in Nashville, everybody sings this well." He did a song and then asked me to do the record. We did it low-budget and became really good friends through the process. We started to get feedback from people and it went from there. Sometimes I'll have a drink and listen back [to that LP] and think, "Man, we were kind of ahead of our time." I wish we had the master. At the time, I wasn't experienced enough to actually back up my work and the drive it was on crashed and we have no access to the master. Those records, one went for 350 bucks on eBay. I've always been a huge fan of Jamey and his talent and he's one of those guys that, no matter whom he may have distressed relationships with, we are all a huge fan of his artistry. I'd say to him, my only disappointment is if he participated a little more in the format, he might be a little bit more of a champion, and change things. But he also may have a master plan in mind.
Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Emilie Marchbanks, Brandy's manager, brought this artist to me on a CD and she goes "Well, Dave, she is 35, she's a lesbian, but she's the best fucking singer you're ever going to hear." She said, "We're going to meet with all the producers but we wanted to meet with you first." So I said, "Ok, cool." I took the CD and I got in my car, put it on — the work tape of "Pray to Jesus" came on and my jaw dropped. I was like, "Is this really happening?" I started getting butterflies and at that point I'm nearly scared to death. I was like, "There's no way this is that good, and no way I was even qualified for this!" Everything in me said to walk away. And I thought, "Well crap, then I gotta do it." A month went by and I was meeting with producers and I got into that mindset of "I hope they don't call me," because I just want to move on. They called me and said Brandy wanted to work with me, and what's your schedule? I said, "What are you doing tomorrow?" From there, it was about a six-month process. We had so much fun hanging out, going to dinner, hanging out with her friends, just being friends and making music. It was a very small budget that didn't cover the making of the record, so I did it for free. About three months into the record we were listening to a rough mix and looked at each other and said, "We didn't screw this up, did we?"
Jerrod Niemann, Judge Jerrod & the Hung Jury and Free the Music
Jerrod was a friend of mine, and he had this vision for a project. He said, "I have this concept record and I want to do it with you." It was just like two friends. It wasn't even a production until we were twenty or thirty thousand into invoices. We never really said, "What's our agreement?" He was like, "Man, I don't have any money, I'll give you some of my publishing." I said, "Let's just be co-producers on this." We'd recorded a song called "Old School New Again" — that song is what tipped it for me. We'd spent a bunch of time on the skits [the comedy bits on the Judge Jerrod record], all of our friends in here partying with the microphone on and Jerrod had roughed out the concepts. We finished it, mastered it and it was done. Out of nowhere, Warner Bros. and Arista wanted to sign it. And for "Lover, Lover," we never went into it thinking it was a radio single. But when it went Number One, I didn't realize what that meant — I'm very secluded from that. I thought, "Oh, that's cool." He initially had a three-album concept — it was going to be called Martian Moonshine, Alien Beer. And the concept after that was going to be Brassoline, a record of all horns with acoustic drums. For some reason they skipped out on the second record idea and Jerrod came back and said that we'll do the Brassoline concept, which was the working name [of Free the Music]. We had the freedom to make the record we wanted to make, and I love Jerrod's artistry, but I think we took too much liberty. I was following the artist's lead but we maybe took too many liberties, in terms of growing his brand within the format. It was fun to take those liberties but ultimately it wasn't a huge commercial success.
Ray Scott, Rayality and Ray Scott
I've always been a fan of Ray. He was always gracious when we ran into each other. After the Jerrod record, a friend recommend he come to me, and we played and did a couple songs and I was like "Man, this stuff is so great, we need more of that in the format." I said, "I'll do this for free, we'll use my studio and we'll make a record." As we started recording, he wrote more songs and once we started making the record it generated songs like "Those Jeans." It was cool because not only did I take a chance on something, but it opened things up for him creatively. And at the end we had Rayality. So we made this record totally organically, no budget. That lead to a new publishing deal for him and they shopped his record around town, but nothing went through, I think with him being an older artist. All of a sudden SiriusXM picked up the single ["Those Jeans"] and the reaction was amazing, and it gave that record a life. We didn't do anything to push it. For the next record, I said, "This time, we're going to make the record but we're not going to make it for major labels. We're not going to pitch it, we're just going to make a cool record and have fun with it." I was writing a business plan, getting investors, getting social media. At that point I was like, "Well, we're basically a record label at this point. Might as well make it official."