A native Nashvillian, Kelleigh Bannen has watched her hometown change before her eyes. While the city continues to rapidly develop and become a must-visit destination, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that Music City remains a song town.
“I still believe that the reason the vast majority of people get out of bed in the morning and make their way - even if it's just metaphorically - to Music Row is to write a truly great song,” she says. “Regardless of trends and musical fads, I think that is what remains, and I think that's what attracts talent to this town.”
A self-described “chronically late bloomer”, Bannen admits that, despite growing up in the country music mecca, the music business seemed intimidating. In fact, it wasn’t until college that she considered pursuing music as a career, when, thanks to some urging from close friends, she left a law degree behind to focus on music.
It's been a rollercoaster since then for Bannen. She signed with EMI Records Nashville - who released her debut single, 'Sorry on the Rocks', in 2012, where it peaked at No.41 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. She then went independent - releasing her Cheap Sunglasses EP in 2016 and The Joneses EP two years later. This was all before releasing her debut album, Favorite Colors, in 2019.
Catching up for a chat, Bannen discusses how she navigated her major label deal before going independent, her new career as a host of Apple Music Country’s The Kelleigh Bannen Show and Today’s Country Radio and how she’s still trying to find herself.
Take me back to the beginning of your artistic journey. Did you always want to be a singer?
My parents were always really guarded about heaping praise on my brother and I - I knew that I loved to sing, but I didn't know that anyone liked my voice. Some of my childhood friends were early champions, as far as giving the encouragement of “You're a good singer.” You need a little bit of that to even start to dream about it. But for me, it wasn't really until college at University of Virginia, when I was in an a capella group called the Virginia Belles, that I considered it. I had a friend who was the musical director of that group; she came to me after practice one day and was like, “Why aren’t you trying out for a solo? You’re in this group because we see you singing solos.” Those were the voices that combated that practical part of my brain that said, “You know this is a terrible way to try and make a living.”
You released your debut single, ‘Sorry On the Rocks’, nearly a decade ago. Is there anything you’d go back and tell yourself ahead of that release?
When I look back on that season, I think I was naïve. I was young and didn't know a lot about how this town really works, and I do still beat myself up about some of the things I was doing and believed back then. I can go back and nitpick at a lot of my decision making, or want to change it and fight for certain songs that I didn’t fight for. Often, when you get signed, you get put in the machine and work with all the fancy writers, and it's difficult to hold on to the essence of what was interesting about you to begin with. I think I was eventually able to achieve that, but there were always so many voices in my head, so I was just trying to learn from the stories that were being told to me.
What I would tell myself is that you can only make one first impression. You have a lot of power, because in that moment you’ve got something that you'll never have again: mystique. You got signed because something is unique and special about you – hold onto whatever that inner voice is and let that guide and filter your decision making. I am thankful for my journey. It has been wonderful, and it has been painful. I hope that it’s made me more generous towards other people.
Was ‘Church Clothes’ one of those songs you didn’t fight for?
‘Church Clothes’ means a lot to me. For [songwriters] Liz Rose and Nicolle Galyon, I wish that song had a bigger life. That song didn’t get much of a big shot at the time because Little Big Town’s ‘Girl Crush’ had huge priority, and Mickey Guyton’s ‘Better Than You Left Me’ was happening then too. No one was rooting against any of us as women; they wanted us all to win, but calculations had to be made around what songs were getting what resources. It was the reality of balancing multiple female-lead ballads at the same time - that was ultimately why we couldn't put out ‘Church Clothes’.
But what’s really wonderful about songs is that they continue to reinvent themselves. Even right now, I'm going back to some early songs that we moved on from because we needed a hit single. Just because 10 years have gone by, it doesn’t mean that songs don’t deserve a second chance.
You’ve also been working with Apple Music Country over the past year hosting The Kelleigh Bannen Show and Today’s Country Radio. Both shows advocate for equal representation at a time when the lack of women on country radio is noticeably apparent.
We try to never have more than two to three men back-to-back, and we also try to challenge ourselves to not freak out if there's two or three females in a row. Let's put women where they’ve belonged all along! I think the general rule of thumb for us is not to program something because that person is female or because that is a person of color, but program it because it should have been there all along.
Has your work with Apple Music Country changed your perspective on writing and recording music as a country artist?
It definitely has, and I'm still coming to terms with what exactly that means. I think one thing that all creatives, writers and artists often struggle with is impostor syndrome. I have wrestled with it openly for probably five-plus years, but there are whole new waves of it now. I find myself spending so much time with other people's music, and less time with my own, on a daily basis. I've been in this role at Apple for just over a year now, and knew I had to put my writing on the back burner for it, but we're starting to get back into it.
When can we expect new music from you?
I really don’t know. I wish I did. I bought myself a piano when I got my new job. I’m a horrible player, but I've tired to discipline myself to sit down and play in the truest, most childlike sense of the word - not even try to write a song. I just say, “I’m going to play and explore with no agenda.” I think I had become so outcome-oriented about music. I’m trying to get back to the place where I'm doing it because it's so damn fun and it brings me joy, so I can get back in touch with that person in me. That's where I'm at right now; almost going all the way back to the very basics and making music because you love it. More than anything, I think I'm trying to become more myself and make music that’s reflective of that. But it's no less intimidating making music now than it was then.
Photography courtesy of Whiskey Rain.