Admittedly, an artist “preferring” to stay away from major labels seems like a backwards notion, like an actor choosing to perform Off-Broadway or a baseball player opting to remain in the minor leagues. But in the brave new world of Youtube, iTunes, advanced home recording technology, satellite radio and customized ringtones, artists are finding that exposure in the music industry is no longer controlled by a handful of powerful labels. The independent route affords today’s artists a wealth of creative and business freedom.
“I think there’s a level playing field now,” Brantley says, speaking by phone from his Atlanta home. “I think the artists that should stand out will stand out. I think it’s a little easier to get a good recording of your music than it was even 10 years ago. You used to put a record on and that was as close as you could get to an artist. Now, you’ve got concert DVDs and Youtube.”
Kelley concurs that it’s an empowering time to be an artist, given the removal of the industry’s traditional gatekeepers. Kelley also understands the importance of separating oneself in light of increased outlets available to listeners and viewers.
“You’ve got to be sure that you’re keeping the content fresh,” Kelley says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “Last year, I put out three albums. You have to know what you stand for — that’s how you differentiate yourself first and foremost. I’m not going to try to be somebody I’m not. Once you know who you are, it makes it really easy to put it all together.”
On Monday, April 20, Kelley and Brantley will perform at Workplay. Kelley will be joined onstage by singer/songwriter Ryan Cabrera. Brantley and Brandon Whyde will open the 8 p.m. all-ages show.
“We’re basically doing ‘Two Men, One Stage’ like Simon & Garfunkel,” Kelley says of his set with Cabrera. “Nobody’s opening up for anybody. He’s learning my seven best songs and I’m learning his seven best songs. We have similar audiences, but different enough so that we’re bringing a lot to the table for each of us. We’ve been rehearsing for days now and we’re going to play and sing on each other’s songs. This tour is going to be an amazing tour. This tour is called the ‘Tell It Like It Is Tour’ and we wrote a song called ‘Tell It Like It Is’ and it’s going to be available on our websites and iTunes probably in the next few days.”
Like his wife’s career, Kelley’s profession demands that a tremendous amount of time is spent away from home. But Kelley and Heigl have a positive perspective on the situation and Kelley opts for short tours to maintain a healthy quality of life.
“It actually works in our favor because it makes you really appreciate the time you have together,” Kelley says. “It’s a nice jolt for the relationship in a positive direction. We love each other and you make time for the things you want in life and we’re good at making certain sacrifices. I’m looking forward to this tour, but I’m also sad because I’m leaving my girl behind. The road will absolutely age you if you don’t do it right. Eating properly is a big thing when you’re on the road [because] your diet is not great. I can only handle a month [at a time] – you get really ragged at the end of a tour.”
While Kelley’s music is closely associated with the crop of artists that provide the musical backdrop for television shows that include Grey’s Anatomy, One Tree Hill and Scrubs, Brantley’s sound is reminiscent of early Bruce Springsteen and Warren Zevon. Brantley’s latest release, Goldtop Heights, plays like a great lost album from 1975.
“I spent a lot of time on it and I tried to capture a sound,” Brantley says of the album. “I feel like I got pretty close. One of the major influences in making it was early-'70s rock. On a lot of the songs – and this is how my process usually works – I’ll come up with an idea and it will go in a safe place and I’ll revisit it when I’m ready to sit down and do something. That way, instead of writing a song and getting sick of it by tinkering with it, I’ll put it away and pick it back up. It makes it really stressful because you leave yourself a lot of work to do while you’re recording, but you feel like you’re doing something in the present rather than just capturing something you wrote in the past.”
Brantley is also old-school when it comes to his approach as a listener and fan.
“Personally, if I’m a big fan of an artist, I try to delve as little as possible into what they’re doing. For a lot of people that love an artist, it becomes an obsession and they want to see everything and hear everything. Me, I’ll listen to a record and I’ll skip the concert DVDs and Youtube videos. I want to maintain that mystery – I don’t want to hear about their political views or their opinions in the media because I’m not able to enjoy the music as much,” he says.
While Brantley opts to perform straightforward versions of his songs in the live setting, Kelley is prone to alter the arrangements of his songs. However, both artists acknowledge the importance of touring in today’s competitive musical climate.
“You can’t make money now unless you have a live show, which is good because it weeds out all of the fakers. The fakers can’t survive in the business, which is great. It’s about the people and how they react. We do it a little different every night because we don’t play to a template — we play to have fun. This business is crazy but there’s a lot of money to be made. I hate to keep bringing up money, but you have to eat,” Kelley says.
“These days, everybody’s touring so you have to set yourself apart,” Brantley says. “One thing I’m really conscious of is to not bastardize a song just for my own pleasure. I try to represent the song I’m singing and I don’t want to change melodies when people are singing along. You have to do something that nobody else is doing — you have to be at your very best all the time. There’s so much competition out there and you better be good when you step on stage.”
Josh Kelley and Ryan Cabrera will perform at WorkPlay on Monday, April 20, with Tim Brantley and Brandon Whyde opening. The show was originally scheduled for Saturday, April 18; tickets for that date will still be honored. Advance tickets cost $15; after April 18, tickets cost $18. The all-ages show starts at 8 p.m. Find out more at (205) 380-4082 or www.workplay.com