Dave Brainard, producer of Brandy Clark’s Grammy nominated 12 Stories, appeared on The Producer’s Chair, Thursday, February 26, 2015 at Douglas Corner Cafe at 6 p.m.
By: James Rea
No one knows better than Dave Brainard how far producers must go to prevent greatness from slipping into obscurity. Such was the case with newcomer Brandy Clark and her multi-award-nominated album 12 Stories. The talented 38-year-old female artist—who had been turned down by every label in Nashville—was propelled by Brainard’s impeccable production to accomplish the impossible.
Clark received a CMA nomination for New Artist of the Year, and won Song of the Year. She received two Grammy nominations for Best Country Album and all-genre Best New Artist. Going in to the upcoming ACM Awards, she has nominations for Female Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year “Follow Your Arrow” (recorded by Kacey Musgraves). Brandy was also named MusicRow Magazine’s Breakthrough Artist of the Year in 2014. All of which was largely due to the fact that Brainard and engineer Brian Kolb stepped up to the plate to finish the album.
Brainard is self-taught, starting in 1993 on a TASCAM 4-track cassette recorder, progressing to an 8-track, then to a Roland VS-880 and Pro Tools (2000). Brainard established his own deciBel Productions, and Mix Dream Studios with Kolb. Many of Nashville’s most prominent songwriters record there, including Steven Dale Jones, Dallas Davidson, Ben Hayslip, Rhett Akins, Mark D. Sanders and John Goodwin.
Brainard’s father was an Air Force Master Sergeant who moved his family from Seoul, South Korea (where Brainard was born) to Omaha, Nebraska, then to Germany and back to Nebraska. Dave picked up guitar in eighth grade and was eventually teaching 40 students per week at a local music store. Brainard attended the University of Omaha Nebraska, majoring in piano for one year, before being stationed in Omaha with the United States Air Force Band, serving 5 years.
His inspiration came from artists like Garth Brooks and Diamond Rio, and musicians like Brent Mason.
Since arriving in Nashville in 1999, Brainard has produced an independent album on Jamey Johnson in 2002, a Western Underground album in 2007, two Ray Scott albums and two Jerrod Niemann albums. Niemann brought Brainard his first No. 1 single as a producer, the Platinum selling “Lover Lover.”
During the same period, Brainard has had publishing deals with Balmur Music and Bigger Picture (formerly Big Picture). As a songwriter, he has had cuts by Neal McCoy, Sammy Kershaw, Kellie Coffee, Ricochet, Brooks & Dunn and the Hunter Hayes/Jason Mraz’s duet “Everybody’s Got Somebody But Me,” all while touring as a sideman with Rebecca Lynn Howard, Anthony Smith, Marcel, David Nail and Jessica Andrews.
The Producer’s Chair: How did you get signed to Balmur?
Dave Brainard: Tammy Brown (A&R at Sony Records) was working with an artist by the name of Gina West that I happened to be writing with. Tammy took an interest and referred me to Scott Gunter over at Almo Irving [Publishing]. Scott is now one of my best mentors and friends. He drug me over the Gunter coals in a great way. He opened up the door at Almo and I started writing with some of their writers. Thom Schuyler was signed to Almo at the time and he left Almo to go run Balmur. Thom was looking for a couple of young writers and Scott said, “here’s your guy.” So it goes back to Tammy.
My first cut was by Neal McCoy with a song called “What If.” The single got 17 ads the first week, 9 ads the second week then, nothing. A friend who was in-the-know said, “They’re going to pull that single.” Meanwhile, I was out looking at houses thinking, “Man, this songwriting stuff is easy.” Then the promotion staff at Warner Bros. was fired and they dropped Neal. That began my long line of songwriter heartaches—artists that cut my songs and lose their record deals. I became known to myself as, the guy that killed careers. Tebey Ottoh, Emerson Drive, Kellie Coffee–It was weird. There were at least a half a dozen. Then the big one was Brooks & Dunn. They changed producers and recorded all new songs, after recording my song, which ended up as a bonus track for Best Buy.
At that point I had a bunch of cuts but didn’t really have the track-record to score another deal after Big Picture. So I ducked out for a while to start my own studio.
Have you always been a risk-taker?
Because of my compulsive tendencies, I’ve poured myself into a lot projects without upfront compensation, costing a lot of money without a proportionate equity in the end. Dave Ramsey would not be happy with me. But it was what I had to do to build a body of work to give me credibility. Through the process, I realized I was doing more than just producing records. I was developing artists.
My company, deciBel Nashville, came out of a necessity to park equity in those different values that are created for an artist beyond the studio. To build the foundation of a business for an artist—finding investors, strategizing touring and marketing, social media—all those things that can be done before a major label. Ultimately it’s much more appealing to a label nowadays to partner with a developed artist, one that has a sound, a brand, and a fan base. I see a lot of room to create value in all of those areas. My belief is that the 4-point producer royalty is an antiquated model. So my version is to fairly earn other parts of the revenue streams that can come from a great record. The main thing is production and touring but somewhere in there, publishing can be an element.
Why were all of the top writers coming to you for demos?
I always thought the experience had to be great. No drama, no bitchin’, let’s make music and let’s have fun. It was always fun and sincere and a good vibe and it felt really creative. So we built up this great clientele. Brian was doing the full demos and I was doing glorified guitar/vocals, hiring a piano or a fiddle where we needed it. It was reputation, price-point, it felt musical, and they were having success getting cuts. For the glorified guitar vocals, the price-point was less than a demo and many times it was more effective because I think it covered that gap between filling in the imagination for A&R people and capturing the organic-ness of the song without getting in the way—right in that sweet spot.
How did you meet Jerrod Niemann?
We moved to town around the same time. We became pretty good friends though we never really rolled in the same circles. We kept in touch, and I’d occasionally do some demo work for him. Then we re-connected and in 2008 Jerrod had lost his record deal with Category 5 and he was on the road working his tail off and basically needed something to sell at those dates.
When did you produce Jamey Johnson?
Before I got my Balmur deal. Within a year and a half of being in town I had a small reputation doing this cool VS880 thing and I’d just gotten into Pro Tools. Jamey found me through a friend and asked me to demo a couple of things. His investor said he wanted to do a record. Fast forward a decade, it was through Jamey Johnson’s team, specifically Emilie Marchbanks, that I connected with Brandy Clark, who was looking for a producer.
Were you disappointed when country radio didn’t embrace 12 Stories?
I thought that if you could get Brandy’s music through to radio, it would be great for the format and help take it back to where it used to be—perhaps turn the lights on and expand the demographic back to a place where listeners get to enjoy more substantive music. I always thought country radio would be great with it. But radio never had a chance to embrace it, with the exception of John Marks and Sirius XM. In Nashville, it just didn’t make it past the gate-keepers at the record labels, so you can’t really blame radio because they never really had a shot at it.
Do you agree that Brandy’s album has done the impossible?
That’s probably what I’m most proud of. I believe the quality of content drove a lot of it, but to see how hard Brandy has worked to make this happen can’t be taken for granted. I also have to applaud Jackie Marushka and the folks at Shorefire. They did some amazing things, from a publicity standpoint, to break down the barriers.
Why do you think Brandy didn’t get signed in Nashville?
My understanding is that Nashville’s distribution channels aren’t compatible with how an artist like Brandy should be marketed. It’s a head-scratcher for sure. When Warner Bros. in Los Angeles fell in love with the record they said they were going to do whatever it takes to develop a marketing plan around Brandy. That was refreshing to hear.
I understand that during production, you had an epiphany about your production philosophy.
I remember sitting in my studio with Brandy and having realizing that it’s not about about the money. I just want the best for this person. I wanted Brandy to have an amazing life, and great career…whatever it took. And the cool thing about Brandy is that, it was reciprocated. Every time I would say something like, “Your vocals are so great on this track, you’re amazing,” she’d say, “No, you’re the amazing one. If it weren’t for all the time you put into it, it wouldn’t be this way.” …and so on.
The inspirational process is that you want the best for them and they want the best for you. It fuels inspiration. I realized with Brandy that this sets the benchmark for what I need to be doing from now on with anybody I work with.
You said: “I believe in making a difference, and in excellence.” What difference do you feel that 12 Stories has already made and will make?
It opens the door for female artists to take on edgier subject matter and let their hair down a bit. I think it inspires young songwriters to want to dig a little deeper. From a production standpoint, I think it’s a good example of what can happen when there’s more space around a great song or vocal and not so much compression, and I really see it raising the bar all around for anyone wanting to come to Nashville to make music.
I come from a Beatles, rock, jazz, classical background, but I love what I discovered in country music. I love Nashville. I love the traditions. To me, it’s worth fighting for. It’s nice to be a part of something that swings back to what makes this town great.
When did you start to trust your judgment, of what excellence is?
That’s probably military. It goes back to the Air Force’s core values: integrity, service before self, teamwork and attention to detail. It comes from experiencing what it feels like having a 4-Star General command a room of other powerful men and women. It comes from learning proper protocol and observing the teamwork and leadership that it takes to achieve certain things. In this industry I look for that too. I’ve felt that in a room with Joe Galante and Tim Dubois. It’s very rare to feel the weight or the gravity of leadership in a room the way I used to feel when I’d see Admiral Childs give a speech. Excellence comes from somewhere in there. That illusive thing that keeps making you want to achieve the best you can. Kinda like a carrot on a 50 foot stick.
What has been the most pivotal moment in your career, thus far?
Not winning the Grammy. It’s great. It feels like we just got a chance to sit at the table and now we’ve gotta work a lot harder.