The Producer’s Chair: Forest Glen Whitehead

Forest Glen Whitehead

Forest Glen Whitehead

Don’t miss Forest Glen Whitehead on The Producer’s Chair, Thursday, Oct. 27, 6:30 p.m. at Sound Stage Studios

By James Rea

If ever there was a success story that needed to be told, Forest Glen Whitehead is it. He is one of the youngest major producers in Nashville thanks to his work with rising starlet Kelsea Ballerini.

Whitehead moved to Nashville in 2009 at age 19 and bunked in a travel trailer at the KOA Campground near Opry Mills. Only two years later he was signed to Black River Publishing by Celia Froehlig. His talent led to cuts by Terri Clark, Brantley Gilbert, Dylan Scott and six songs on Ballerini’s debut album The First Time.

The album’s first three singles were “Love Me Like You Mean It” (writers: Ballerini, Whitehead, Josh Kerr, Lance Carpenter), “Dibs” (Ballerini, Kerr, Ryan Griffin, Jason Duke) and “Peter Pan” (Ballerini, Whitehead, Jesse Lee). These singles made Kelsea the first new female artist to send her first three releases to the top of the charts since Wynonna Judd in 1992.

With similar influences, the magic emerged when Kelsea and Forest started co-writing and found the unmistakable sound in her first single, “Love Me Like You Mean It.” After Kelsea got her record deal, she insisted that Forest produce. He decided to bring in co-producer Jason Massey (ole songwriter), to achieve his vision for Ballerini’s sound. Their work together led to Ballerini being named 2016 ACM New Female Vocalist and CMA nominations for Female Vocalist and New Artist.

Forest began playing drums at 10 years old, and his grandmother bought his first guitar at age 12. He learned to play by ear and began writing songs. His musicianship led to him playing banjo, bass, guitar, mandolin, piano, and contributing background vocals to Ballerini’s album. He also played guitar on Carrie Underwood’s “Smoke Break” and Brandy Clark’s Big Day In A Small Town.

The Producer’s Chair: How did you get into recording?

Whitehead: It started with cassette decks, where I would have two separate stereos overdubbing, and with a Radio Shack mic, press play on one tape that I already recorded, press record on the other and overdub while the first one was playing. You got all this noise and hissing, but it was so interesting to me. Then in high school I downloaded a free program on an old PC. I think it was called Audacity. That’s when I started learning how to layer different instruments, while doubling parts and putting guitars on the left and right sides and learning what sonically made a record sound great.

When I moved here I was in a blues band and I did demos for other songwriters, but my main job was working in a pawn shop and at McDougal’s Chicken in Hillsboro Village. I did writer’s nights at the Commodore, Douglas Corner, The Bluebird, The Listening Room, any open mic night I could find and I made a lot of connections. There was a big process coming to Nashville and learning song structure, melody, imagery — things that make country songs great. I absorbed that. I would find out cuts by Craig Wiseman or Jeffrey Steele and just study them. I was such a fan of songwriters for a long time that I was just obsessed about learning their credits and what set their songs apart.

I would examine songs and ask myself, “Why do I feel more drawn to this song than others that I’ve written?” I still write songs that I’m less proud of, but you have to go through the OK songs to get to the great ones.

Had you ever co-written before you came here? 

Yes, but I feel like I’m still learning to co-write. It’s a unique thing to be creative and to learn how to communicate your vision while putting it into words to explain to somebody else. When you’re writing solo, you know how you want it to be and just go for it. It’s been an evolving process for me to be a better co-writer. I would say I probably wasn’t the best co-writer early on because I probably liked my own ideas more. I had to learn to be humble and learn how to collaborate and make the best song together. I feel like I am a lot more skilled in that area now that I’ve done it for years. You may not gel with every cowriter and that’s okay. It’s writing with enough people to find who you do connect with.

Were you inspired or overwhelmed by the competition?   

A mixture of both. I was pretty naive because I didn’t really understand how competitive it was. I was walking up and down Music Row with a CD, handing it to whoever would take it. But I knew that I had to do this. I didn’t really focus on the competition. It was more about getting from Step 1 to Step 2. I focused on surrounding myself with people who made me better. For two or three years I thought I was writing songs that only a brick wall would hear because I couldn’t get in the door. Then I met songwriter Bonnie Baker through Jason Massey who then introduced me to an ASCAP representative Robert Filhart who started introducing me to publishers. That’s what really got the ball rolling.

Did you get discouraged? 

Creative people, we have ups and downs. I would get discouraged weekly—when you’re working on a song and one minute you think it’s great and the next you think it’s a disaster. I believe the power of the mind can overcome doubt. I’m going to invest in this and I’m going to learn and grow and make this work. This may not be pretty now, but it will be one day. Those kind of thoughts, overpowering the discouragement, is what helped keep me here.

When you listen to a song for the first time, what’s the first thing you hear? 

Melody. If it’s a great melody then I’ll replay and listen to the lyrics. A lot of the time production can catch my ear too, but if the melody isn’t there, I probably won’t play it again.

Could you share the story behind “Peter Pan”? 

Before Kelsea had a deal, we were writing with Jesse Lee and she came in with the title “Peter Pan.” It came together pretty quick. For “You’re just a lost boy with your head up in the clouds,” that pre-section was the first thing that fell out in the room. Then we wrote the chorus and then we wrote the verses. The whole idea unfolded very effortlessly in the comparison of never growing up, going into the relationship thing and being relatable. We all felt like it was a hit the day we wrote it.

Are you writing for Kelsea’s next album? 

Yeah. Jason and I actually cut one song on Kelsea last week called “Legends.” Hillary Lindsey and I wrote it with Kelsea. We’ve cut a handful of things and will be cutting some more stuff coming up very soon. The songs for Kelsea’s second record are definitely different than The First Time. It’s a lot of growth and darker in some ways. I can’t wait for it to be released to the world!

What do you like most about being part of the Black River family? 

I feel like it is a family because they believed in me and supported me in ways that I feel like more corporate places wouldn’t have. Other companies wouldn’t have given a new artist to a young producer, who doesn’t yet have a resume. They believed in me from the get-go. It’s the comfort of knowing they believe in me long-term rather than just me delivering financial success right off the bat. It took me four years of writing for them before something started really happening.

What’s the best advice you could give to new songwriters?

Don’t write what you think people would like. Write what you like. Write what you resonate with, no matter what style or content it is, if it inspires you and you feel good about it, chances are it will inspire somebody else. That’s actually something Dave Berg told me a long time ago. Commercial success didn’t happen for me until I let go of trying to make a radio hit and started writing what I love and using the influences that I had to create something new, rather than something familiar.

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