Interview: Briana Calhoun

Could you share the story behind your latest song and what inspired its creation?

Well, my background is a bit different than most. I’ve been to prison. I like to joke and say I’m the female Jelly Roll – without the roll. My upbringing was rough. My self-esteem was non-existent. And my drug addiction literally almost killed me – several times. I started speaking and singing in prisons about three years ago (with the encouragement of a dear friend) and it became my passion. That being said, my latest EP and title track “If These Boots Could Talk,” kind of sets the framework for the bigger picture and story behind my music.
Now that I have established the message I want to convey and who I want to be as an artist. I will be releasing a new EP, June 6, 2024. The title track is called “Stop Missing Me,” a song about the conflict of head and heart that love can sometimes bring. I wrote it with Kix Brooks, of Brooks and Dunn, and Grammy-award winning writer and producer Don Cook.
Both Kix and Don are staples in the Nashville Community and are inductees in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Plus, everyone who worked on that record – from musicians, to producers, to engineers – were absolutely top-notch. I feel honored and humbled that such a talented, inspiring group of people were willing to work with me.

How do you approach the process of songwriting, and are there any specific themes or emotions you tend to explore in your music?

The older I get, the less I try to force things to happen. I do the best job I can. I work as hard as I can, and things happen for me. As a songwriter, I like to be as versatile as I can so I don’t really have a set way of doing things. Sometimes I start with an idea and share it with a cowriter, sometimes a story, sometimes a hook, sometimes just a melody that’s been in my head. A lot of songwriters have a system to their creative process, but I find that to be limiting.

On a different note, I’m lucky I guess because I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever experienced true writer’s block. There have been periods where I feel uninspired, and don’t write as much as other times. But give me a topic, a line, or a melody and I always have something to say.
As far as specific themes or emotions go. I typically lean towards heartbreak. It has always been easier for me to write a heartbreak song than a love song. Maybe because I’ve experienced so much trauma in my own life. But, I also think music is the medium for emotional release. Oftentimes, when you’re in love, things are great and you don’t need to free yourself of negative emotions. So, heartbreak usually wins when it comes to my creative process.

As an indie musician, how do you navigate the balance between creative freedom and commercial appeal?

This is something that every artist struggles with. In fact, my upcoming EP “Stop Missing Me” is probably the most commercial record I’ve ever released. However, I don’t feel like I’m “selling out.” I realized a long time ago that I can never be anyone but me and even my most “commercial” effort is unparalleled. And I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. I mean my style and writing sounds like no one else no matter how hard I may try. This is something I have learned to embrace over the years. The more you mature as an artist and a human, the more you learn to love every facet of yourself– especially those unique to you.

What do you find most challenging about being an independent artist in today’s music industry?

Nashville is very humbling. You can be the best singer, songwriter, bassist, guitarist – whatever – from your hometown. But, when you come to Nashville you realize REALLY quickly that 99% of the other people there are also the best from wherever their town is and a lot of them – maybe even most — are better than you. It can be very competitive. So you can do one of two things: let that pressure to perform better and be better drive you to success or drive you to failure. I’ve seen both happen to many people many times over.
Another notion I find frustrating is people in the music industry can be flaky. I feel like this can be true for any industry but it’s especially true for musicians. They don’t show up on time, they don’t follow through, they cancel plans. It’s very hard to find reliable people. Especially if you don’t know anyone. But hang in there long enough and you’ll find that the real pros keep their heads down and stick it out. If you do the same, you’ll find your tribe.

Can you talk about your experiences collaborating with other artists or musicians? How does it influence your creative process?

Before I began working in Nashville I had only written songs by myself and done solo shows. I had a rock band in college and I grew up playing in the church band. I thought I had a wide array of collaborative experiences. Boy was I wrong.

When I got to Nashville and stepped into circles of overwhelmingly talented musicians and artists from all walks of life and backgrounds it immediately made me strive to do better – be a better player, singer, writer, performer – better everything. Collaborating with other musicians holds your feet to the fire. If you keep an open mind you will learn so much and it will drastically improve your art in ways you never expected.

What role does technology and social media play in promoting your music and connecting with your audience?

Social media has become imperative for anyone trying to be seen or heard as a serious artist. I think it’s kind of Yin and Yang. On one hand, you have the world at your fingertips and yes, social media does allow you to reveal your talents to audiences you may not have otherwise reached. However, it also leaves you unprotected. There are wolves out there whose only goal is to tear others down. You’ve got to have really thick skin. I’ve been harassed online by people who hold levels of anger and bitterness I could never begin to comprehend. So, just like anything else, I guess at the end of the day you have to take the good with the bad.

Are there any particular artists or genres that have had a significant impact on your musical style?

I grew up singing Gospel music in the Deep South. My family was the church band. My Uncle was the preacher. And we were Assembly of God, which is like Pentecostal but you can wear makeup and cut your hair. So I have a lot of Southern Gospel and country roots. But as I got older I started diving into different genres. My standard has always been good songwriters. I love written melodies. To me, nothing is stronger than the power of the pen. So if you’re a great writer, I’m into it – no matter the genre. But I would have to say the writers I’ve spent the most time on and have influenced me the most are probably Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, and, later, John Prine.

Indie musicians often have a close relationship with their fanbase. How do you engage with your fans and build a dedicated community around your music?

I try to respond and engage with as many people as possible online. But sometimes this can become exacerbating – to say the least. Personally, the most important and impactful way for me to connect with my fans is through live shows.

There is no connection like the human connection. When you’re playing online or connecting online, it’s not the same feeling that live music produces. So while I understand that technology is important for progress, I hope we never lose sight of the emotional construct that makes connecting with my fans and the music community so special.

Could you describe a memorable live performance experience or tour that has had a lasting impact on you and your music?

I’ve done a lot of cool things. But I was playing a festival in Carolina last fall – the Greenville Country Music Fest – and they have a “Patriot Day” where everyone dresses in red, white, and blue regalia. Before the main act goes on stage they honor veterans with PTSD by giving them service dogs. They have active military up there – it’s a whole thing. Well, they asked me to sing the National Anthem right before Travis Tritt and Brooks and Dunn went on to close the show. I was already so moved by the veteran’s ceremony that when I went out on that stage, I was emotional. I told the crowd we needed to come together as a country and I asked if they would sing along with me. I had 30,000 people all singing the National Anthem with me in unison. It was a powerful moment. I absolutely loved it.

In an era of streaming platforms, how do you feel about the changing landscape of music consumption and its impact on independent musicians?

I mean I could sit here and gripe all day about how Spotify is screwing over songwriters or how digital platforms are muddying the once clear streams of income for musicians. But, at the end of the day, music is meant to be shared. And while it has affected our pocketbooks negatively, sharing music is easier than ever. Plus, if you got in the music business for the money trust me when I say – you’re in the wrong business.