Though the temperature was hovering around 90 degrees when Bailey Bryan took the stage at CMA Music Fest in downtown Nashville earlier this month, the 19-year-old country-pop singer and songwriter had a flannel shirt cinched around her waist. Besides adding to the casualness of her look, the unseasonal attire linked her to her native region, the Pacific Northwest. She grew up in a tiny, sleepy town less than three hours from Seattle, which she knew both as the mythologized birthplace of grunge and a present-day incubator of indie music and hip-hop. It seemed natural to her to welcome the influence of both idyllic and citified settings, even as she accessed a broader world of teen pop and contemporary country online.
After fixating on the possibility of a songwriting career in her mid-teens and developing her chops with Swift-ian savvy, Bryan emerged this year with her So Far EP, a burnished, rhythmically carbonated set of sharply crafted and eagerly confessional songs. What could feel more of-the-moment than "Own It," her sweetly smart-assed debut country-pop single about embracing personal fluidity, complete with a music video that looks like a series of Snapchat posts?
New artists often start off by playing CMA Fest's smallest stages in the toughest time slots, but Bryan had built up enough buzz that her first time on the festival bill was a marathon of full-band and acoustic performances, live interviews, autograph signings and fan club parties. Even when she perched on a stool in the artist green room for this interview, a passerby stopped to interrupt, asserting, "I'm a huge fan of not only what you do, but who you are."
You made several trips to Nashville with your family before moving here. Did you participate in things like CMA Fest as a fan? Or were those trips all about business?
Up until I moved to Nashville, up until months after I moved, really, every time I came to Nashville, it was just writing songs, kind of developing myself as an artist. ... So people see a 19-year-old [and they're] like, "Oh, she has a record deal. Must be nice." I'm definitely fortunate for the way it went for me, but I had those years of coming to Nashville, writing songs and even struggling to be able to find people who wanted to write with me, because I was just a 15-, 16--year-old girl from Washington state like, "Oh yeah, I want to be a singer." Just like everyone else here.
That's part of why every single fan event that I get to do, the meet-and-greets after the shows, the signings, all of that — I remember being the person in those lines and thinking, "Man, it would be so cool to be that artist someday." I've experienced it from that side, so now every time I get to do that, even if it's a short line — it's not like I have all of Nashville lining up to see me — but anybody that has even remotely heard of me, I'm like, "Oh my god! Thank you so much!" That's the kind of thing I fantasized about.
A lot of hopefuls come to town after high school or college and spend years hustling to get a music career going. But there were people who took your songwriting seriously from a young age. Didn't you meet your publisher when you were 12?
[Becky Devries] was actually an old family friend. I was best friends with her niece when I was like 4 years old. And she moved to Nashville, started a publishing company. I didn't see her until I was 14 and she came back to Whidbey Island, where I lived at the time. I mean, that's where her family lived. And she did a songwriters' workshop. ... That was the first time I'd seen her since I was, like, 4 or 5.
I played her the songs that I'd written. At that point, I'd never co-written a song. I'd never recorded anything. It was just me and my guitar in my room. So I played those songs for her and she saw something. She asked my parents, "So what are you planning on doing with her?" And my parents — not musical people at all. They owned a gym. Mom's a personal trainer, dad has a master's degree in exercise physiology. My little brother's the son that you would think they would have. He's very good at academics, very good at sports.
The family business.
He fits into the family business. I was very vocal about the fact that I wanted to sing growing up. ... So when she asked them that, they were like, "We have no idea [how to help her], but we want her to do what she loves." She invited me down to Nashville for a week and booked me [writing appointments] for the whole week with anyone that would do it, and I ended up writing and demoing 10 songs in the days that I was there. At the end of it, in the Pancake Pantry, I sat down with my now-publishers, Becky Devries and Dennis Matkosky, and I signed my very first publishing deal at 15. That was the start of it.
What difference do you think it made that there were people invested in your aspirations at that age?
When I meet new people, I don't know what they're expecting from me as a 19-year-old that sings, but what was instilled in me was that if I'm working hard and if I'm passionate about this, then I have just as much of a right to be here as anybody else. That's the most important thing. A strong support system is what keeps you from going crazy, I think, especially in a career like music and songwriting where there's so much uncertainty. I mean, from the time I was young, got my first guitar, then got my publishing deal, my parents and my publishers always said, "Just go in and be you. We believe in you." That's allowed me to do everything that I've done.
What convinced you that country music was where a young, autobiographical, pop-savvy singer-songwriter belonged?
This is probably an answer that a lot of people give, but it's the stories in country music that I fell in love with. I think when people hear "Washington state," they don't often think, "Country music!" Because I grew up near Seattle, where there's an amazing underground hip-hop scene, and obviously grunge, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, all that. So I was exposed to a lot of different kinds of music.
At the time when I first started writing songs, Taylor Swift's first album was out. That was everything to me. I heard that and I was like, "I wanna do that." So it started by me just emulating my favorite songwriters, and then it kind of molded into my own way of telling stories.
A lot of country artists emphasize strictly the small-town aspect of their roots. That's just part of your story. You're from Sequim, population — what? Less than 10,000?
Mmhmm. I got stuck behind tractors on the way to school and all that.
So there's that element, and then you were within driving distance of Seattle. You're also of a generation where you had access to all sorts of music online. How'd that combination shape you?
I think that the access to and the passion that I've always had for so many different kinds of music is what has made me into, hopefully, a unique artist. Everyone kind of has their thing that gives them their own voice. For me when I started writing, it was Taylor Swift, it was the Dixie Chicks. But then it was also Macklemore, [who] was just coming up in Seattle. That was my first taste of hip-hop where I was like, "This is a whole other kind of storytelling. This is a whole other sound, but there's honesty in it too."
One of my favorite artists of all time, that I'm gonna go see tonight at Bonnaroo, is Chance the Rapper. On his most recent album, he combines a modern hip-hop sound with gospel, and then there's the straight-up piano tracks. I heard that and I was like, "That's what I want to do" — not in the [sense] of making a hip-hop album, but combining different influences that draw people in just because it's honest. Every story he told on that album was honest. I think the combination of different sounds and basically different ways of telling the truth in music is what kind of made me as an artist.
What about vocal sensibilities? Who were big influences for you in the country world and beyond?
I recently listened back to some old voice memos that I had saved in my email from when I was really young and I was using my parents' computer. ... And I realized I sounded exactly like Miley Cyrus when I was 12. Her Hannah Montana debut CD is what I had on repeat. And a couple years later I sounded exactly like Taylor Swift on her first album. And then I had a phase where I sounded a lot like Ellie Goulding. As I've gotten older, the same way that my songwriting has come into its own, now [my singing] is kind of a combination of all those things.
Over the last several years, the emerging generation of country artists has introduced a vocal delivery that's worlds away from what people used to think of country singers sounding like, with relaxed, conversational, often hip-hop, R&B and pop-influenced phrasing. You're positioned interestingly, signed to both a country label out of Nashville and the same New York-based label as Migos. What's your perspective on how fluid things are between country and pop right now?
Yeah, same label as Migos, Fetty Wap. I think that putting yourself in kind of a different position is the best way to grow as an artist. I think anyone probably, by listening to my music, can guess how I feel about the fluidity of sound and all of that right now. I think it's great.
The thing that drew me to country music the most is that it's about authenticity. I'm so passionate about the songwriting side of things, and that's why I moved to Nashville and that's why I'm releasing my songs in country music. I need to go up there and sing in my own voice, because to me that's what it means to be a country artist, even if my own voice doesn't have a Southern drawl.
Love and lust are two of the most common themes in country and pop, but they're relegated to the background in the songs on your EP. You give a lot more attention to self-consciousness about how your peers see you — the fear of being considered weird — a theme that might feel especially relevant to younger listeners. Does that seem to be helping you build your audience?
Yeah. I hope that it does. I wanted to write and talk about and release songs that are relevant to people that are my age and younger. All five of the songs on my EP span a time period from when I was 15 to now at 19. I have long songs and breakup songs I could've put on there, but I realized relationships with boys haven't been the things that have made me who I am over this period of time. Everybody's different, but these are the things that made me who I am a lot more than any high school relationship that I had.
I wondered how I'd hear you introduce your songs "Scars" today, whether you'd speak about it in a broad way or say that it was inspired by the scar you got from scoliosis surgery. And you did get that specific.
I've wrestled back and forth, like, "Well, how in-depth do I get into the story? Do I make it broad, or do I say exactly where it came from for me?" People will still find their own story in the song, but what if somebody out there in the audience has gone through the exact same thing?
I usually get a pretty good response. Either someone knows the song that I'm singing and they're super stoked that I'm covering Drake, or they think that I wrote the song. The reason I do that is because a big part of what has helped me figure out my own sound as an artist is taking songs that don't sound like what I sound like and kinda fitting them into my mold and seeing what that means.