Trent Dabbs was tuned into Nashville’s local music scene way before the stylish ABC drama Nashville started using his songs.
His long list of credits include founding member of Tenn Out of Tenn, a collective of Nashville singer-songwriters that launched in 2005 and spawned a documentary and a 10-year anniversary show at the Ryman. He’s in a duo with Amy Stroup called Sugar & the Hi-Lows and they’ve opened a number of tour dates for Kacey Musgraves. On the business side, he and his wife, Kristen Dabbs, run a label called Ready Set Records.
As for Nashville, his songs on the show include “Undermine” (written with Musgraves), “Don’t Throw Dirt on My Grave Just Yet,” “Shine” and others. He also co-wrote six songs, including the title track, for Ingrid Michaelson’s 2014 album, Girls Chase Boys.
Now he’s returning with his 10th solo pop project in 12 years, The Optimist. (He’s partnered with Postmates to have it delivered directly to Nashville fans on release date.) During a lunch break at Edgehill Café, Dabbs chatted about the new music, co-writing in Nashville, and why he’s reluctant to compare his career to anyone else’s.
MusicRow: I was listening to The Optimist this week and I was thinking that you have a real eye for detail. Some writers are always looking into themselves for material, but you seem to be very observant, and drawing on that for inspiration. Is that a fair assessment?
Trent Dabbs: Yes, that’s definitely a fair assessment. Most of it is little narratives on Nashville and friends around me. I had almost two albums worth of music. But when Amy and I got back from the UK tour with Kacey, I started realizing that a lot of my songs aren’t literal—and [those kind of songs] really connect with people. And what’s my fear with doing literal songs, you know?
So I had one album that was literal and one that wasn’t. I couldn’t make my mind up, so I started from scratch and called Daniel Tashian. We wrote for a week and a half, and then recorded it the next week. The worst thing an artist can have is time on their hands, because they second-guess everything. So I thought it would be cool to give fans a Polaroid that seemed like a moment in time.
You’re known for connecting people, but with so many people moving here, are you having a harder time with that?
I feel like I’m just getting introduced a little faster, you know? I’ll still reach out to someone who I feel like has a fresh sound that I might not be familiar with, but want to work with or write with. And then they’ll introduce me to someone else. For that Nashville Indie Spotlight compilation on iTunes, we held the release party at our office because I was like, “Well, I don’t know more half of these people and I need to meet them.’ I guess the best way to do it is through a party. So I’m looking at all these people who are insanely talented, and a much younger age.
And you can’t pretend that they aren’t here.
No, I’d rather work with them. I was working on a song the other day with a girl who’s amazing, and I said, “This one has kind of a Sundays/Cranberries feel” and she was like, “Who?” (laughs)
But did she make references that you didn’t get?
Totally. I told her to send me a playlist of a couple of songs that she was into, and I was like, “Well, these are great. I’m a fan of this now.”
Let’s talk about co-writing. What do you get out of that experience? It’s a big question.
Yeah, it’s like a novel. I guess when I can see the connection happening with someone I respect, that’s my favorite thing in the world. It’s what I wake up for. I can recall certain times where it happens, but it’s that point in a co-write when I hear their voice match some melody that I have. And I feel like millions of people can hear it—and even if they don’t, I feel like they could. That’s what does it. … There’s really nothing better than writing with an artist who has something they’re excited about, with something started. Or I’ll have something started. But I’m not a big fan of waiting for it to show up.
I wanted to talk about about Nashville, because you’ve had several songs on that show.
And the show must go on! When the first season started and “Undermine” was on there, that was both amazing and hilarious because Hayden and Charles [a.k.a. “Juliette” and “Deacon”] were writing in the bed of a truck, and then went skinny-dipping, and I’m like, “I’ve never had that in a co-write.” (laughs)
What sort of traits does it really take to have a successful career in the real Nashville?
You have to be driven and be kind. A lot of the people that have been here since we moved here are still doing what they’re doing for those reasons. They didn’t burn bridges, even when they could have. People root for those people as well. And also that “comparison is the thief of joy” thing. Don’t get caught comparing because you’ll just drown. Just do what you love and do it with your heart.
I think of that all the time. For a lot of people, most everyone, that would hinder their writing processes, or their releases. If you start comparing yourself to other people, it’s going to be a lose-lose. I’ve always surrounded myself with people who inspire me, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do.
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