Music has always been a passion of singer-songwriter Brenna Williams. But after hearing ‘no’ over and over again when it came to music, it looked like she had settled into her plan B: studying fashion design in college. But music kept coming around and she could no longer ignore it. She ultimately decided to leave school to pursue a career in the music industry full time and hasn’t looked back.
I got the chance to talk to her about how she got to the point she’s at with her music career today, what she wants to convey with her music, what inspired her single “All I Know” and so much more. Keep reading to see what she had to say!
Tell me a little bit about how you first got into making and performing music.
Okay, I don’t even know where to start. If we go all the way back, I was listening to country all the time. My mom always had classic country playing in the car, like Dixie Chicks, Shania Twain, Tim McGraw and all that. That’s where I started loving music. I had this little metallic pink walkman that said “princess” on it and I would take all of her CDs, put them in my CD case and listened to them on repeat. And I told myself when I was probably like five or six years old, “I want to be a country singer when I grow up.” And that’s not where I am now but I guess you could say kind of in the same vicinity of that.
But when I was in high school and middle school… I wasn’t a popular kid; I was a weird art student in school. So I was super quiet, completely kept to myself. When I got to high school, I wasn’t really big into musicals or anything. I wasn’t in the band or any of that, I wasn’t in the chorus. So I want to say [around] mid-high school, I started auditioning for TV shows, every TV show in the book, like American Idol, X Factor, The Voice, all of that. I auditioned for every single one of them and I did not even get past the first round, not even the TV round, like the first round of the producers.
Then, in all of that too, I started doing a couple of charity events. I started singing the National Anthem, which was super cool; it’s terrifying, but it’s cool. My senior year, I went to school the last day that we had before graduation and we were rehearsing graduation out on our football field. The vice principal came up to me afterwards and said, “So you’re doing the national anthem tonight, right?” I had no idea and I was completely terrified. I drove home crying. When I got to graduation, I sang it and I don’t think anybody was expecting that because no one had really heard me before, aside from middle school. That was my redemption and it was the coolest thing. So that kind of got me over any sense of stage fright that I ever had.
After that, going into college, I was so school oriented. I cared about my grades way too much and I knew that if I had to go to school for something, it wasn’t going to be music. So I decided to go for fashion design. I was really into art and I thought it was a cool idea to go for design. About a year and a half in, I decided that it wasn’t for me. I don’t know if you know the website ReverbNation, but I made an account on there and didn’t know how to use the website, so I ignored it. Two months later, I had a message from a guy in music who was a producer and helped network artists, helped them with their writing skills and all that. I reached out to him and that was probably the hardest decision I made thus far: leaving college to pursue music… I worked on my writing, I flew out to LA for the first time, we recorded a song and it all kind of started from there. It was just like a domino effect. It just got a little better, little by little, and it was pretty cool. It kind of crazy, kind of ridiculous because I could not believe I left college but that’s pretty much where I am now.
So there wasn’t necessarily one specific moment or person that made you realize that music was something more than a hobby and actually something you want to pursue professionally. It was something you were always, at least outside of school, trying to see if you could make happen.
Yes. And I was super quiet about it. I didn’t even tell my parents until later in high school when I recorded myself singing and I showed them. They couldn’t believe it was me.
Wow. So they didn’t know about any of your American Idol auditions or anything like that?
They knew about a couple; they knew about American Idol and X Factor. The American Idol audition was online and I got a response saying I had been cut. The X Factor [audition] I did in person and I probably waited outside for about four to five hours. I remember the day so vividly because I did get through the audition; I sang for about 30 seconds and they cut me off and they said, “Well thank you, but it’s going to be a no today.” That was the first audition I ever had. I remember driving home, and I was kind of crushed because I got my hopes up; I’m 15 years old, but I kind of took that as not an end point but more of like, “this is just one step that I had to get through to get to where I want to be.”
Through all of those no’s and all of those turns where like it looked like maybe music wouldn’t be like the path for you, how did you keep pushing yourself to be like, “No, I’m going to give it one more chance.. I’m going to keep going at it”?
When I was a sophomore, I was taking this pre-college course in fashion design in New York City and I figured that would help me with whatever I went to college for. I remember being in this classroom at FIT, one of the best fashion schools in the world, and I was sitting there doing my project I had to do and I had music playing in my headphones and I stopped what I was doing for a second and was like, “I don’t want to be doing this. I want to be making music.” Listening to music kind of got me through it. I look at everything as if you want to do something with your life, you have the power to do it. Nobody has the power to change that. It’s all your control. So you could literally change your life at any given moment. I figure if you tell yourself you’re going to do something, if you want it bad enough, you can get there; you just have to keep pushing it. It can take you 1,000 tries. You just can’t give up on it. I feel like too many people give up on what they really want; that’s where I feel like the world’s kind of lacking in that creativity and that passion. If you have a passion for something, by all means go for it. No matter how many times they tell you ‘no’, use each ‘no’ as motivation to push harder.
So how long has it been since you joined Reverbnation, got connected with that producer and actually started doing music as a full time job? How long ago was that from now?
That was about three years ago.
Wow, that’s awesome.
So yeah, it’s not too bad. About 3 years since I left school and I started doing that. What’s happened since then and now, it’s crazy to think because I never [thought], I mean I’m pushing and I’m still working, but just to think that I am where I am now and that I have a song on the radio, I can’t believe it.
In terms of your song that’s on the radio now and the music that you’re working on now, something I’ve always been genuinely curious about is what artists want to convey with their music. So like how would you describe your sound without using genre names?
It is acoustic, but I guess that’s kind of a genre. It’s focused on lyrics. Lyrics definitely play a big role in it because I’ve always enjoyed writing and I love poetry; I find that a song is just a poem with a melody. I’ve always loved art and it’s difficult to convey feelings through art. It’s just as difficult to find the right words to convey those same feelings. If you can do that successfully and then you’re doing something right. Because it’s not easy and a lot of times on the radio nowadays, you don’t really hear songs that mean as much. I’m not trying to put down anyone by any means, but a lot of music that you hear nowadays I feel is kind of like filler music. It doesn’t have meaning. I mean, maybe that’s just me; I look at the lyrics more than anything else. But when you listen to lyrics, you don’t necessarily hear that story, you don’t get that emotion that you would get if you listened to a song from the 80s for example. I want to [put a song out there] that’s centralized around lyrics. I want [to create] a song that’s going to mean something, that someone’s going to hear and they’re going to feel something listening to it.
When I was taking vocal lessons, my second vocal lesson I ever had, I had to take song lyrics and my coach told me to read them as if I were an actress. He told me that when I’m performing on stage, everyone in the audience is there for their own reason. Yes they are there to see you, but they are all there for their own reasons and they’re all going to take something unique away from that concert and it is your job to supply them with whatever it is that they’re there for, even if you don’t know that reason. So you have to have that feeling and that emotion, you have to evoke something in them. I’ve used that every time I’ve written a song, every time I’m sang anything.
Yeah, that’s a great way of looking at it. I would have never thought about that, but he’s right. Everyone takes something different away from a song. It might not be what you originally thought about when you were writing the song or performing the song, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not valid just because someone else is feeling it and it’s not the same as your [thoughts and feelings].
Kind of going off of that, who are some of your musical influences, whether it be as a lyricist or even just sonically?
As a lyricist, since he became popular and even before he became popular, probably Ed Sheeran. He’s a phenomenal writer and he’s huge now, but when I first heard his stuff I thought, “How does a person actually come up with this and write this and make this music?” That was unbelievable. Vocal wise, since I was a little kid, I love Shania Twain and Carrie Underwood. But from my parents’ taste, I’m definitely into jazz too. I’ve been told I have a little bit of a jazz tone to my voice and I credit them for that one.
Talking about your first single, “All I Know,” what inspired that song?
Before I started dating my first boyfriend who I’m still with after almost three years, I was kind of struggling. I thought, “I’m not going to come up with a story or make up a story because it won’t be authentic if I try to sing about something that hasn’t happened.” I love creative writing, but I’d rather be honest. So after I started dating him, I remember sitting on the edge of my bed one night and I started writing the song. I had the melody in three seconds; I don’t even know where it came from. But I started writing and it was pretty much about the story of him and I. Looking back on it, a lot of it seems a little vague, but it all means something, whether it’s literal or figurative, you can kind of take it how you want it. But it was my first relationship and I didn’t really know how to feel or if I was doing anything right or wrong. And that’s where all that came from.
Talking about your songwriting process a little bit more, specifically what was it like for “All I Know”? Did you write this song solely by yourself or did you, at any point, bring in co-writers?
It started off with me writing a complete song. I kind of had a melody for it. I would sit in my car and record voice memos; that’s what I would do when I had an idea for it. But I had it written on my own and then the producer that I work with, Kevin [Declue], I sent it to him and he loved the lyrics and had a guitar melody so he was like, “try to do it with the guitar” and it matched up with the guitar pretty well. With the lyrics, I didn’t have to change anything and the guitar complimented it great, super minimal. But It worked with the feeling of the song.
So is typical of your songwriting process? Are you maybe like half write by yourself, half co-writes? Was this like an anomaly in your songwriting process? What normally is your songwriting process like in terms of working with other artists or working by yourself?
Usually, in terms of lyrics I am a 100% on my own there. I’m a perfectionist and I’m always in my head and I have so many ideas going around. As soon as I have anything, even if it’s just three words or tiniest piece of melody, I’ll go ahead and record it on my phone; I have hundreds of them saved. With the music, it’s definitely helpful [to have other people there], I mean I know some guitar and piano, but it helps us somebody else in there to get a little bit more input. Everybody has their own take on things, so that’s definitely cool to have somebody else come in with their own ideas. But with lyrics, wherever I am, I’ll sit and I’ll write something.
Were there any major changes made to “All I Know” once you got into the recording studio and actually started recording it, whether it be something in the lyrics or something sonically?
Actually no, which was surprising cause that’s happened with every song I’ve recorded so far. But when I got into the studio, the only thing that I changed, so I was doing a couple of scratch vocals at Kevin’s house at the time in Oceanside, California. We were sitting in the living room for hours and he had a mic set up, a piano set up and his guitar. I did a million different takes of “All I Know” and so we could cut it all together. And then once it got to that last line, “Blindly following, getting lost and letting go.” That’s the last line of the chorus. And in the last part of that where it repeats twice, I said, “All right, I’m going to change something.” So I changed it to “I’m still falling, getting lost and letting go.” Super slight change, but it ended up working out pretty well. That was the only change we made, but once we got into the studio, we did full run throughs and then we just cut it together however we liked it. But that was the only real change that we made.
That’s so interesting. I always just like hearing about it because I know sometimes in the studio, it can be a completely different song once you add everything in or you can be like, “no, I want to slow it down, speed it up.” So I just always love hearing about what happens once you get from the initial idea and into the studio and actually like create it.
Oh it’s crazy. It’s crazy hearing yourself and you have the monitor in your ear so you can hear what’s going on.
Yeah, I’m sure. I can only imagine. So I know you also got to shoot a music video for this. What was that experience like?
That was odd. I don’t look at myself as a performer performer, like I’m not an actress. I can’t act. It was a last minute thing. I got in my car with my mom, she wanted to tag along, and we drove up to Vermont; it was five and a half hour drive and we were at this reservoir in the middle of Mendon, Vermont, which is a super small town in the middle of nowhere [with] no phone signal. We were by this lake and it was beautiful. It was the middle of the fall and all the leaves were turning colors. It was freezing, but I had this videographer who does snow sports photography and videography. He’s insane. He pretty much followed me around in the woods with camera and that was the video. It was weird because I’m not used to that. I can take a picture I guess, but I can’t act.
So was this your first time shooting an official music video, something more than just a little promo?
Off this small town, how did you pick this place in the middle of nowhere that was like five hours away? Was it something that he [the videographer] suggested?
Kevin, who I work with, he actually grew up in Vermont. He spent the summer there and was doing a lot of hiking. During one of his hikes, he actually met up with this videographer and he reached out to me right away and was like, “the scenery here is insane. It’s wonderful. It’s perfect.” So a couple weeks later, I ended up driving to Vermont.
Wow. That’s so funny. Crazy how it all works out.
Yeah. Super last minute, but it was cool.
You’re still relatively new to the music game, so I’m curious what are some of your music industry related goals that you’re aiming to reach with your career in the next couple of years?
Right now, I’m in the process of doing a radio campaign at smaller, local stations [that are] awesome regardless. But I definitely want to get on to a primary station. I actually kind of made a promise to myself that when I’m in my car and I hear myself on the radio, I’m going to get a tattoo of the date that I heard my song.
Yeah, so I made that deal with myself. I don’t know when I’m going to hear it, but that’s a promise I made. I want to get down to Nashville. I want to live there at some point. It’s beautiful area. I mean there’s music coming out of the sidewalks; it’s crazy. So I want to be there. I feel like that’s a great place, not only inspiration-wise but to be surrounded by people who are all kind of after the same thing. I think it’s great. In the next couple years, I definitely want to be performing, playing in a festival. But, I kind of take it little by little. I think my next goal though is to definitely hear myself on a New Jersey station.
That’d be awesome. I think that tattoo idea is so cool Do you have tattoos or is that going to be your first, whenever you get it?
Yeah, it’ll be my first one.
That’s so freaking awesome. Last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd. So what is something that you are currently nerding out about?
Currently, Game of Thrones. I think everyone can agree on that. I like American Horror Story. I’m not really a huge TV person and I beat myself up over that because there are too many good shows on TV that I wish I had watched. But my boyfriend convinced me to watch it because he had been freaking out over it. So I finally got every single season in; I’m completely up to date and I’m losing it because the character poster just came out today.