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THE GRAMMY CLASS SPEAKS: BROTHERS OSBORNE

EMI Nashville's Brothers Osborne won the CMA Award for Best Vocal Duo in November. Now, they're out on their very first headline tour and are up for the Best Country Duo/Group Performance Grammy with their song "21 Summer." How do they stay true and stand out in a format that seems to be continuously expanding? And what do the Grammys mean to them?


INTERVIEW BY SAMANTHA HISSONG

What do the Grammys mean to you?

JOHN: The Grammys are something that you dream about as a musician at every level. The most crowning achievement that you can get is a Grammy. And obviously, we haven’t won a Grammy, but to be nominated is something special; whether we win or lose, it’s something we’ll have for the rest of our lives. A big part of being a musician is questioning yourself and pushing yourself, and I think having a little bit of self-doubt is healthy as a musician, because you strive to better yourself and to create something special. And when you get a nomination like that, it reminds you that you must be doing something right. It’s definitely something that we’ll never take for granted.

TJ:
Whether you’ve had success monetarily or not, it’s amazing to just have the nod from your peers, the people you respect, the tastemakers and the artists of all genres. I think it means keep doing what you’re doing. Sometimes in music, it’s hard to define successes. We tend to do it by how many people you can pull in a room and how much you can make and how many albums you can sell. But, sometimes, you just can’t really quantify what success is, and I think getting a Grammy nomination early in your career gives people like me and my brother confidence to really keep our eyes and heads in the right space, so we can continue to keep doing good music to the best of our ability.

And tell me about the CMAs and what they mean to you. You recently won Best Vocal Duo.
JOHN: That was one of the more unexpected moments of our lives. In fact, at the CMAs, we were sitting right behind Florida Georgia Line, and I had fully intended on standing up and just giving them a handshake or a hug congratulating them as they went up on stage, so when they said our names, we were really taken aback. We didn’t have a speech prepared. We actually had way too much to drink beforehand too. It really didn’t even set in for like a week, and then all of a sudden it was like, “Wow, this is actually happening.” I mean, my brother and I have been watching the CMAs since we were kids. For a country music artist, it’s one of the highest honors. That’s another thing we’ll be able to show our kids and our grandkids. My brother and I have been doing this a long time. This isn’t just something we picked up a couple years ago. I’ve been in Nashville for over 15 years, and it’s proof that if you just keep working hard and trusting yourself, it can happen.

TJ:
That was totally a mind-blowing thing. Don’t get me wrong; I’m very, very proud of what we’ve achieved this year, and think we’ve done a whole lot in a short period of time. But, I felt very content with us not winning that award. FGL is a really well-known band and they’ve had a lot of success, and even this year had one of the biggest songs of their career. That said, we could not have been any more shocked to win that award. It was just not expected whatsoever, and so it’s kind of the same thing as what I said about The Grammys. To have your peers and everyone just give you a pat on the back and say, “We think what you’re doing is awesome.” There are so many things that give you reward beyond money—things that money can’t buy. And those are the situations where you’re just like, “Man, this is just one of those things that we’ve achieved. We have it. We’ll always have it to share. We’ll always be a CMA winner or a Grammy-nominated artist now.” That’s a really crazy prospect to think about.

Walk me through the birth of Pawn Shop.
JOHN: It was a long race. My brother and I signed our deal maybe four years before our record Pawn Shop came out. And in that time, we were just writing. We were just trying to write songs that we loved, while trying not to think about it too much. Just sit in a writing room and write song that makes you really happy and proud when you leave. And that doesn’t always happen. If a songwriter tells you that they write a great song every time, they’re lying to you. No songwriter writes a perfect song every time. It takes a long time to get there, to hone your craft and go through the weeds and find those songs that are really special. It took us a long time. It took playing them out at clubs and trying them out in front of people and seeing what sticks and what doesn’t stick, not only honing our songwriting, but also honing our abilities as musicians and singers and performers. And along the way, you get to meet people who inspire you, like Shane McAnally, like Maren [Morris], like Jay [Joyce] and Ross [Copperman]. Getting Lee Ann Womack to come in and sing on a song? Wow. We had an amazing opportunity and thought, “let’s make music with the people that we love.” Maren, how could you not love her just as a person? She’s one of our best friends, so let’s bring her on and write. Jay, we respect the hell out of him. And Lee Ann Womack is one of our favorite singers in the world. Let’s just go for it. It’s about just making music. And there’s no better way to make music than to make it with people that you love and respect.

I find the recording process to be really intense. It’s hard; it’s a struggle. If you try to do something great that means a lot to you, it should be a bit of an emotional experience. I do envy the artists that can kinda just sit back and sing the song and then leave, and then they have a record. But my brother and I aren’t like that; we’ve worked for everything that we have. We’re also a bit of control freaks too, so we can’t help but want to be there every step of the way. I’d say my favorite part is being able to listen—when it’s mixed. My favorite part is the very beginning and the very end; everything in the middle is the biggest pain in the ass, because it’s a lot of work. At the very beginning, you’re getting sounds, you’re getting really cool drum sounds, you’re hearing the creation of a song. And then with every step of the way after that, you’re just chiseling away at this thing and carving away and being frustrated and questioning yourself and staying up way too late thinking about it. There’s a lot of swamp you have to walk through to get to the other side. But once you get out the other side, you have this amazing mixed product that sounds like a record…especially when you’re working with Jay Joyce and his engineer, Jason. I wouldn’t say they make them sound pristine, because that’s not what they’re there to do; they make records sound really fucking cool. When we got to the end, we heard tracks back for the first time and we were like, “Oh my god, that was our work.” It’s like dominos, you spend all this time setting up dominos, and then at the very end, you just push ‘em over and watch the whole thing happen. Listening back to a product that took painstaking effort to do is definitely like reaping one of the great rewards.

TJ:
Ultimately, we wanted to make a record that had great songs on it… different songs. And we just wrote. It’s certainly no coincidence that the co-writers you see on this stuff have had a lot of success recently, because they’re really talented people and great collaborators. And we all kind of have the same philosophies when it comes to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ music. We wanted a record that, from the time you played the first track, you’d want to listen to all the way through. We didn’t want it to be like, “Oh, okay… well, I heard this song and there are two other songs on this record that sound just like this.” And so, we wanted each one to be different but still, at the same time, be John and I. And we thought, if we can kind of jump around a little bit musically, it could really start to shed light on what we do. I thought that changing the music around a little bit here and there—with John and I being the glue—provided this really cool opportunity for people to hone in on our sound. And with that record too, we were touring really, really heavily. And Jay was in the middle of a ton of projects himself. So, we had to have this really weird broken up spots of time. We’d fly in off the road and jump in the studio for three days, and then we’d fly back out and tour a little bit and fly back in, so we had this very broken up process, which seems undesirable, but in some ways, it was actually awesome because we never really got bogged down. It’s nice to have a mixture. It’s nice to write a little bit, it’s nice to perform a little bit and record a little bit. If you do too much of either one of them back-to-back, you start feeling like you need to switch gears. It kept us fresh in the studio. We always came in and didn’t feel deflated. And I felt like we really collaborated well with Jay, and Jay is a really talented producer. John and I are very comfortable in the studio, so we knew we wanted to work with someone who could tell us that we were wrong and we would respect his opinion. Jay has been very successful, but he’s also been successful producing music that I like. I knew we would really trust and value his opinion going into it. We had all these people around who were just inspiring—people who were fun to work with.

“Stay A Little Longer” went #1 at Country radio. That must have felt amazing.
JOHN: We were actually out on tour with Jon Pardi when that happened. I wanna say it was at the beginning of the year; it was around the time our record came out. And we found out while we were on stage soundchecking. We were in Texas. I remember because Maren Morris’ parents were there; they came out that night and we all hung out. Right as we got done soundchecking, our radio rep from EMI came in. He kept saying, “I don’t wanna jinx it, I don’t wanna jinx it. Anything can happen.” And it’s true, anything can happen. And he knew right at that moment when the charts closed. He was like, “We got it!” And then we just partied our asses off all night.

TJ:
I think we were in Florida somewhere the first time I heard that song on the radio. And it was funny. Obviously, I’d heard my own music on the radio before and wasn’t so excited, but when I heard “Stay a Little Longer” for the first time, it just really clicked for me. I was like, “Oh, man. I think this song’s really, really got something here. I think this is it. This is our song.” And you know what’s funny? We almost lost the song in the 40s. We had a thing called a bullet, and if you get more than two weeks backwards in spins they pull the song. And that almost happened. We went backwards two weeks, and then the third week came in and we got a little bump and it just kept us on, and then all of a sudden, it took off. It’s just funny to think that a song that went #1, that would eventually go platinum and that would be an ASCAP Song of the Year was a song that almost couldn’t make it out of the 40s. It’s just funny. It’s such an unpredictable business. I think that’s what keeps everyone on their toes. You can’t really get complacent, because you have no idea where the wind will blow.

What do you think of the current state of the format and the direction it’s heading in. The country genre is definitely widening, and you guys are a part of that evolution.

JOHN: I think a lot of people saw this coming for a while there, with the “bro-country” thing. It was so massive. A lot of people saw that there was money. That’s what happens in every genre; when they see a lot of money, they go where the money is, because it’s a business… I get it. I mean, everyone’s trying to make a buck. And that became so huge so rapidly that everything followed that trend. And that was like right at the beginning when TJ and I got signed, and we knew at that moment, ‘Holy shit, this is gonna take a while.’ Because we don’t sound anything like that. We had a decision to make. We could have changed the way sound or we could just double-down and sound way more like ourselves. And we chose to double-down on who we are, and we just kept making music that we loved, despite what radio was playing and despite our initial struggles at radio. And that’s what we’ll continue to do forever, until it just stops working entirely. That’s all we know how to do—just be ourselves. Then we noticed a big change. And I think everyone saw it coming. The artists that record labels were signing were pretty cool and left of center. There was this thing kind of bubbling up—this kind of counterculture that’s happened with country fans that aren’t “anti country,” but kind of “anti trendy country.” It started happening, I would say with the Sturgill Simpsons and the Jason Isbells. Then, the Stapleton/Justin Timberlake performance was really what set the whole thing in motion. I don’t mind things being different or poppy, or anything like that, but I do mind when things aren’t genuine. And you can tell. You can smell bullshit from a mile away. When you turn on country radio, it’s the most genuine it has sounded in a long time. And I’m not saying that bro-country is bad. When Florida Georgia Line does it, it’s genuine, it’s real and it sounds legit. When other people try to copy it, that’s bad. And I think, when you turn on the radio now, you’re hearing such a wide array of artists, you’re hearing so much diversity and you’re hearing so much truth. That, to me, is amazing. When country music is at its most honest, it’s the best genre in the world.

TJ:
I personally love that it’s becoming this very broad genre of music. Country used to be very narrow in its delivery. It was one thing, and if it deviated from it at all, it just wasn’t country and you would just get shot down. Now, it’s just amazing to me that country has become the most diverse genre out there. You listen to it and there’s rock, and there’s pop, and there’s real country, there’s blues and Americana. That’s awesome. I think it drives the competition up. I think everyone’s got to be at the top of their game. The past couple years have been awesome in country music. Some artists have come up that have been really, really great. Stapleton blew up. Our friend Maren Morris has awesome songs and she’s an awesome singer. Little Big Town’s past two records have been fantastic. I think people are finally like, “Oh, wow, these hillbillies over here are actually pretty good. Wait a minute… I can’t really discredit this anymore.”

Now, you’re on tour. How’s that going? Any highlights or road stories you’d like to share?
JOHN: This is our first headline tour, The Dirt Rich Tour. It’s been a very eye-opening experience. We’ve learned a lot out here. We were suffering a few growing pains because it’s our first time around, but all in all, it’s been a huge success. We’ve been selling out quite a few markets. In other markets, we’re still having to work for it, but we get it; we’re new. But it’s been so much fun to be able to play to our fanbase. People are coming out and they’re singing every word to the B-sides on our record that will never be on radio. Those kinds of things are really cool to us because we’re getting to see who our fans are. When we’re on tour opening up, we’re playing for other artists’ fans. That’s just how it works. And we’re having an absolute blast out here. We couldn’t be more fortunate.

TJ:
We put in a lot of groundwork to get to this moment, so it’s pretty rewarding to get here and see a lot of the fruits of our labor. The crowds have been great. Our audience has been incredible, and I feel very fortunate. And we’re just having an awesome time. It’s been honestly one of the most fulfilling moments of my career and I’m sure my brother would think the same. Probably the most memorable thing happened just a couple nights ago. The roof started collapsing in the theater, so we took the show to the roof of the bus. Just moments before the show started, a huge piece of plaster fell off the roof and crashed onto the stage, and they were worried that more of it would come down. It was really high, and plaster is really, really heavy; it’s basically just like a sheet of concrete. So we were worried about it potentially being a problem that could run into the audience, and people could get hurt. The owner of the building and our tour manager came to the collective consensus that it needed to be rescheduled, but then John and I thought of these people. Even though they can get another show or get a refund if they want, some of them have babysitters, some of them went out of their way and some of them probably drove a couple hours to get here for this show. And they wanted something to remember, so our bass player just jokingly suggested to do it on top of the bus, and my brother and I were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’ So, we just threw up some PA and threw up a couple rugs. All our production guys threw some stuff up there, set up some microphones and we just did a little acoustic show on the top of our bus for a little 30-45 minute show, just as a little consolation—something to remember. Honestly, it all happened in a matter of like 30 minutes. This happened just as the show was about to start and we knew we had to do it real fast if we were gonna do it because people were gonna start getting irritated, and we didn’t want to tell them that we were doing it until we knew we absolutely could and were ready. It was pretty wild. It’s ultimately all about the fans. Without them, we wouldn’t be leaving the city of Nashville to come out and tour; there’d be nothing to sustain it.    

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