Interview: Chase Bryant Leans Into the Pain on New Album, ‘Upbringing’
Chase Bryant hasn't learned to be happy as much as he's learned to love misery. A Hollywood version of his story might end with him celebrating the release of a new album — perhaps the just-released Upbringing — and riding off into a Texas sunset with his new girlfriend riding shotgun.
But that's not how real life works, and it's certainly not how his life works. Surviving a suicide attempt didn't cure all of his ills, and it didn't turn him into country music's Ned Flanders overnight. Take the song "In the First Place," a pivotal (if late) track on Upbringing: Producer Jon Randall had Bryant cut it several different ways over a week-and-a-half-long recording session at Arlyn Studios in Austin, Texas. The best take found him slumped in a diner chair in the middle of the tracking room.
"I was just sitting in there smoking, drinking Lone Star beer," Bryant recalls, "and I was probably a little bit miserable."
"In the First Place" (penned by Stephen Wilson Jr. and Ryan Beaver) is a piano-led ballad that relies on a brilliant turn of phrase to express regret for how a relationship ended. Listen closely or you'll miss the hook, but through it all, the singer is committed.
"When I get into a song, I’m trying to be like Heath Ledger in the Batman movie when he is playing the Joker. I commit to that feeling and that emotion."
Sometimes, this kind of commitment takes real imagination; other times, not so much. In March, the "Little Bit of You" hitmaker did a full media tour to talk about a moment from three years ago, when he pulled the trigger on a gun he was sure he'd fully loaded. It didn't fire.
In those conversations, Bryant alluded to the end of a relationship as well, and it's this part of the story that comes front and center when you listen to the 12 new songs on Upbringing, technically his debut full-length album.
Be careful with assumptions, however: Even though the artist wrote 10 of the 12 tracks, they're not all necessarily based on his truth. Bryant is a kind of Sal Paradise of country music, in that he rolls through life picking up bits and pieces of stories while living a few of his own adventures as well.
The results make for one great story, even if large portions are fictional. Honestly, this is how the majority of country songs are written: A seed of truth is watered with imagination and melody.
That said, the admittedly private 27-year-old concedes that "In the First Place" tells his story, even if he didn't write it. An executive with BMG who knew he liked dark songs suggested it, so he grabbed the demo on his way out the door one day.
“I was driving home down Music Row, out the south end of it, going back to Green Hills, had the windows down, was smoking a cigarette and already had kind of a rough day. I heard that song and I just bawled my eyes out after the first chorus," he says of a song that goes, "You were second to the whiskey / You were third to my mama / A fourth to the mortgage and a fifth to all my problems / I put it all before me, now it's me that has to face / An empty house, an empty glass and the truth / I never loved you in the first place."
Prior to making Upbringing, Bryant cut a full record in Nashville and another he describes as "Nine Inch Nails meets Steve Earle" at a cabin in Alabama. Some of the songs survived for this one, too, but Randall worked with him to find the right arrangements.
They call it a guitar record, but that's not quite accurate because he's a different kind of player than slingers such as Keith Urban and John Osborne. Even the most casual fan can hear it; In lieu of hot solos, you'll find smart noodling to begin a song such as "Paradise," easily the most progressive on a pretty Texas blues-inspired country record.
There's a wildness to this record that doesn't come at the cost of commercial viability, not that the newly independent artist was concerned with that. An all-star group of studio musicians (Charlie Sexton, J.J. Johnson) back him, but where Randall succeeds is in never letting any of the music step on the storytelling. That's essential, because Bryant's malaise is the key to his art.
“Sometimes half of me hates my hometown and the other half hates what I had for lunch," he says without sarcasm, as a boom of thunder interrupts what had been a very hot Texas afternoon. "This is how I write songs: I go to bed dreaming about the worst thing that can happen to me in a relationship or — not even in a relationship — just, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Like, how can I get into a song that is something that my heroes would sing?"
Then, once the story is on paper, it's a matter of conjuring that darkness. Often, it takes a beer or two. It used to take a few cigarettes, but he's quit now.
“When I get into a song, I’m trying to be like Heath Ledger in the Batman movie when he is playing the Joker. I commit to that feeling and that emotion," Bryant says just before the conversation rides off into a storm. That feels a bit more on-brand for this reborn, but still moody, artist.