Country artist Brett Young didn’t try to ignore the prospect of facing a sophomore slump. In fact, well before his 2017 self-titled debut had ended its run, having given him four No. 1 singles and status as one of country’s biggest rising stars, Young was already facing the follow-up challenge head on.
“I was so scared of that sophomore slump that everybody talks about. I was scared of it like the moment we put (the debut) album out because I knew we had a great record,” Young said in a late-March phone interview. “It was such a great feeling to know that record was solid all the way through. And the second I realized that, I went how do I follow this up?”
His answer was not to sit around worrying and waiting for writer’s block or some other issue to rear its ugly head. Young simply went to work, bringing out a variety of Nashville-based songwriters for sessions as he was on tour in summer and fall 2017 opening for Lady Antebellum.
“I wrote almost all of my second record (the newly released “Ticket to L.A.”) during that Lady Antebellum tour because I was so scared to not have the songs for album two,” he said.
Before all was said and done, Young had a stockpile of some 500 songs from which to draw from for “Ticket to L.A.” – and a few leftovers that may be in play for album number three.
That project won’t happen for awhile. Right now, Young is doing a run of headlining shows – including Tuesday’s sold out show at the Knitting Factory – before he teams up with Kelsea Ballerini for a spring run of arena shows. He’s also watching to see if “Here Tonight,” the first single from “Ticket to L.A.,” continues to climb from its current No. 3 slot on Billboard magazine’s Country Airplay chart to become his fifth chart-topping single.
It’s all been a meteoric rise for Young, who quite literally could be part of the club of 10-year overnight sensations.
The music career started when a promising baseball career came to a sudden end. A pitcher who passed up signing contracts with the Tampa Bay Rays and Minnesota Twins, opting instead to go to college and pitch while he pursued his studies, Young blew out his elbow in 2003 and faced the reality that he would never pitch again.
That’s when the idea of writing songs and chasing a music career came around.
“The one thing that I realized when baseball was done or taken away – after a couple of weeks of pretty legitimate depression – was I don’t have it in me to sit behind a desk,” said Young, who had played guitar since high school.
In the aftermath of his injury, Young started using some of his newfound free time to go to concerts, spending a chunk of time following the Dave Matthews Band, including attending a three-night stand at California’s Concord Pavilion.
“On the drive back to Fresno, I popped in the Gavin DeGraw CD, the first one, ‘Chariot,’ ” Young recalled. “And I went, OK I’ve been loving music pretty hard this weekend, and now this record is making me love songwriting. I think I need to write songs. I think I just do it. Maybe it’s just therapeutic, maybe it’s just for me, I don’t know. But this record makes me want to write songs. Four months later, I got into a second bedroom home studio with a friend from high school’s husband and we recorded my first six songs I ever wrote. I sang the vocals in a coat closet with a blanket over my head on a rented microphone. And I was hooked.”
Young found he could make a living – first in Orange County before moving to Los Angeles, the West Coast home for the music industry – by playing covers of other peoples’ songs at local restaurants and other venues.
In the meantime, he kept writing songs and recorded a pair of EPs and three albums he released independently, hoping to get a record deal.
“I had a handful of people walk through my gigs, but in LA, it seems to be so oversaturated that you become jaded,” Young said. “At the time, I just chalked it up to being not good enough. But after awhile of having every normal layman everyday person tell me I was great and have every industry professional kind of walk on by, I went ‘You know what, I think I’m just in the wrong place.’ So I made a living playing music for 10 years in LA, but I never got one meeting with a label or anything of that nature.”
Realizing that the songs he had been writing fit the country genre, Young moved to Nashville, where he quickly made contacts and within nine months got a deal with Big Machine Records.
In short order, he was in a studio making the debut album with noted producer Dann Huff, then watching as an advance single, “Sleep Without You,” topped the Mediabase Country singles chart (and went to No. 2 at Country Airplay). Then “In Case You Didn’t Know” did one better by topping Country Airplay and reaching the top 20 on Billboard’s all genre Hot 100 chart. Two more No. 1 singles, “Like I Loved You” and “Mercy,” kept Young on the radio through last summer, by which time “Ticket to L.A.” was being readied for its release.
The debut album was filled with agreeable acoustic-centric mid-tempo tunes and ballads, many of which were inspired by Young’s breakup with long-time girlfriend, Taylor Mills. But by the time Young was set to make “Ticket to L.A.,’ they had reunited, and in November, they got married.
Naturally, Young was in a very different headspace when he made the second album, and the result is an album that retains the pop-tinged, acoustic-centric sound of the debut, but is considerably more upbeat, mixing more measured songs like “Change Your Name,” “Catch” and “Let it be Mine” with songs that are more assertive and upbeat, such as “1, 2, 3 Mississippi,” “Used to Missing You” and the title track.
But where the first album was highly autobiographical, Young said there is more storytelling on “Ticket to L.A.” At first, he was concerned the album would feel less authentic if it wasn’t so autobiographical. But one of his main songwriting collaborators, John Knight, helped Young with this bit of advice: ‘Hey, just because you’re writing somebody else’s story doesn’t mean you can’t put your life experience in it.’
“Once I realized, OK, this isn’t my story, but I have a version of this that I’m going to draw from to contribute to this story, once I figured that out, I went there’s just as much of me in this second record as there was on the first record,” Young said. “They’re just not all my stories.”
The brighter and more energetic feel of the new songs is also helping Young’s live show.
“There are a lot of really fun uptempo covers that we’ve mixed in, but there’s more tempo on the second record, too. The show itself has a lot more energy,” Young said. “The first record was kind of sleepy, and that was intentional because that’s my heart. I like to write ballads. But I think now with the second record having a little more fire to it, the goal is to make the show have a little bit more energy and tempo, and I think we’ve been doing that.”
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