When he entered high school, Breland was a self-confessed shy kid. The New Jersey native had grown up harmonizing with his musical family in church, but wasn’t naturally inclined toward performing. He made a decision to reinvent himself.
“I was like, yo, no one here knows me at all,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I can legitimately be and do whoever and whatever I want. I started telling people I was an artist and that I wrote songs. It wasn’t really entirely true, but I just went for it and started singing for people around campus. I became the kid on campus that sang. It gave me a voice.”
That reinvention and embrace of his talents turned out to be a prophetic move. Breland’s 2020 single “My Truck” was an irresistible viral hit that mixed country lyricism and banjo with hip-hop cadences and trap beats. It spawned a remix with Sam Hunt and an EP of songs that further showcased his ability to blend styles, from the hip-hop production he’d learned while living in Atlanta to the country and gospel he’d absorbed along the way. Last summer, he dropped the Rage & Sorrow EP confronting his own flood of emotions in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody.
He takes a step even further down that path with the new single “Cross Country,” which doubles as biography and mission statement. A stripped-down tune driven by fingerstyle acoustic guitar and an insistent four-on-the-floor beat, “Cross Country” — written by Breland with Sam Sumser, Sean Small, and Will Gittens — recounts his journey from Jersey to Atlanta to the present, feeling ever more confident in his hybrid sound. “Know they might judge me/I ain’t gotta prove ‘em wrong,” he sings, skillfully showcasing the voice he used to be too shy to use.
There’s ultimately a message in “Cross Country” about one’s right to take up space that, while not explicitly political, still feels like a defiant gesture to make in an industry that is undergoing a reckoning around race and white supremacy.
“It’s not super political, a lot of the stuff I’m saying, but I do think my mere existence in this space is inherently political,” he says, “because there aren’t a lot of people doing what I’m doing. Reaching across the aisle and creating this musical fluidity and genrelessness is pretty progressive in and of itself.”
You relocated from Atlanta to Nashville in the last year. How would you compare their artistic and songwriting communities?
It’s different. In Atlanta, it’s partly different because of the city and the way people create, but it’s also largely based on the genre people are writing and the way those genres tend to be created. With hip-hop and R&B, it’s more about the vibe of the song, so it’s more melody-based and track-based. If it has a good vibe to it, people are cool with it whether or not it has a strong concept or lyric. In Nashville, it’s a lot more based on the concept and the lyrical execution of the concept. In Atlanta, it’s pretty normal to go into a booth and freestyle a bunch of melodies and you could probably write the whole song just from a bunch of a people taking turns. But in Nashville, it’s going to be a group of people with a guitar and someone’s on pen and paper debating whether they should be saying “and” or “but.”
It’s been almost a year since “My Truck” really blew up. How did the rest of the year measure up, and what were you supposed to be doing that got squashed by the pandemic?
I would say touring would have been a really cool thing to have been able to do. Anytime you have a song that’s viral and a breakout single, you obviously want to be able to perform it in front of people, but there were a lot of silver linings for me not being able to do those things. I was able to stay in and be creative, obviously keeping myself safe and the people around me safe in the process. Just continuing the work over Zoom, finding ways to stay creative. A lot of the songs I’ve written since then, including “Cross Country,” came about from that quarantine. If I had been on the road, I’m not sure I would have a lot of the songs I’m about to drop.
“Cross Country” sounds like the closest I’ve heard you come to a straight down-the-middle folk/country ballad. How did that come together?
I started throwing around the term “Cross Country” as kind of a sub-genre — a catchall genre that fits at the intersection of country music and other genres of music. From there I was like, yo, it’s kind of catchy, this “Cross Country” thing. Then I was like, yo, that would be a really good name for my album because I think a lot of the songs I’m putting together over the summer and throughout quarantine, they all kind of fit within this space. I wanted to have a song that could be titled “Cross Country” and come at it from a slightly different perspective. I feel like this song did a good job of getting a concept across of hey, I’ve been all over the country physically, trying to find this sound and a place where I can sonically say, “This is my home. This is where I belong, and this is how people will recognize me.”
A lot of the things we’ve heard from you so far mix in trap drums and other hip-hop elements, while “Cross Country” is predominantly an acoustic guitar number. Why did you decide to go that direction with the arrangement?
I felt like this song was an opportunity for me to tell my story, and hopefully inspire other people to tell their stories. What’s so beautiful about country music as a genre is that it’s one of the only genres, other than maybe hip-hop, where you can legitimately tell your story and people will listen to that and respect it. There were a couple different ways I could have gone with doing it — maybe doing a rap song that had more rap lyrics would be appropriate — but I felt like with a title like “Cross Country” and being able to show people where I started and how I ended up here, I thought it would be really dope to strip it down and do something a little different. I felt like “Cross Country” could be more of the folky, singer-songwritery, acoustic thing. As a vocalist people haven’t heard a whole lot of that from me, just me singing for real.
There’s a positive message in the song. You sing that you don’t know where you belong exactly, but you aren’t sweating it. You’ve got your own lane. Can you talk about how you reached a feeling of peace about that?
There’s been a lot of conversation around the music I make. There are country listeners who are more purist in terms of the country they consume and they would like to discredit how “country” I am. And there are people on the R&B/hip-hop side that have similar conversations. At first with “My Truck” I was like, well, there’s not really a lot of people who exist at this intersection. It was a little unsettling at first, but I realized it’s good there aren’t a ton of people here because this is a space I have the potential and the responsibility to see through. I can shape it and be a pioneer.
Music is one of the things that gives people common ground and can be very restorative. With a lot what we saw over the course of 2020 as it pertained to Black Lives Matter and the protests and even with the transition of power from a political perspective, we saw so much division and hatred, and I realized that a lot of the people on either side, they don’t listen to a lot of the same music. I felt like me being at this crossroads, being a black person in this space, and also being equipped to talk about these issues and having a message in some of my songs and on my platform with my radio show with Apple Music Country, I felt like this collaboration between genre and this “Cross Country” campaign had the potential to give people common ground because the people who listen to “My Truck” look a million different ways and listen to a million different kinds of music, and it resonated with them.
What do you make of the way Nashville in particular has responded to the Black Lives Matter protests and that ongoing movement?
People are open to having the conversations even more than I thought. I’ve been in a lot of writes with people and things come up and people seem to genuinely want to know what I think about things. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know all the people I’ve been collaborating with have been open to having conversations about this stuff and broadening their perspectives on certain issues. I’m happy to have those conversations and I’m grateful people would consider me to be the type of resource that they can have conversations without fear of being judged or cut down or argued with. Dialog doesn’t have to be a disagreement. I can disagree with someone and still have a conversation with respect, with mutual understanding that we may be on different sides of an issue but we respect each other and we can hear where each other is coming from. That’s the type of conversation that comes about from having a movement like “Cross Country.” I’ll bring my friends up from Atlanta to write in Nashville and that fusion of sound is bigger than just a fusion of sound — it’s a fusion of perspectives and ideas.