Breland’s Career Is About So Much More Than Music: ‘I Want to Be a Cultural Bridge’
Since releasing his single "My Truck" in early 2020, Breland has found himself collaborating with a number of like-minded artists: Sam Hunt remixed that debut track. Cam, rapper and frequent country star collaborator Nelly, and Florida Georgia Line member Tyler Hubbard all contributed to a campaign supporting his single "Cross Country," also released as a collaboration with Mickey Guyton. He and Keith Urban have written numerous songs together, including the recently released "Throw It Back."
"I find myself drawn to those people," the New Jersey native says of the kindred spirits he's found. "And I also find myself drawn to people who think differently."
When it comes right down to it, Breland says, he's simply looking for people with a perspective — any perspective, even if it doesn't directly line up with his own.
"I would love for other people's perspectives to help inform mine and vice versa. So I'm always very, very cognizant of the fact that we can't just exist amongst the people who are like-minded and have the same influences and the same objectives," he reasons. "To be able to work with some artists out here who are very passionate about strictly making country music, that is an important perspective, and I think it's important to the genre to have people who are continuing to root it in whatever they think it is, because then it gives contrast and it helps provide diversity."
While in college at Georgetown University (he studied business there after turning down admission to New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music), Breland began songwriting and earned cuts by rapper Trey Songz and R&B artist YK Osiris. On Instagram, you'll find him freestyling about his NBA playoffs predictions and turning Justin Bieber's song "Peaches" into a rich a cappella track, completely alone; his equally talented family make appearances from time to time, too.
"I don't see a ton of artists ... actually fully embracing their musicality," Breland says by way of explaining his active social media presence. Like a literal puzzle, each piece of Breland may seem incongruous, but as they fit together, they reveal a larger picture of a multi-faceted entertainer.
"More than anything, and I would love to be the type of artist that people can identify by the energy and artistry that I bring to my songs, rather than just being able to put a label on it or categorize it," he says. Of course, he understands that's a bit of a revolutionary idea, especially within country music.
"I think sometimes we cheat ourselves out of enjoying certain things because we don't know how to categorize them, right? And people are really unsettled by what they can't define," Breland continues. "And so for me to be making this type of music in the way that I'm doing it, and looking the way I look and being from where I'm from and having my background and all the things that make me unique, it is revolutionary and it is somewhat inherently political, but at the same time, it's just music, and I think people should be able to find it within ourselves to enjoy it for what it is and not try to hold it up to a standard of 'Is this country enough? Is this hip-hop enough?'"
As Breland notes, whether he's mixing country themes with trap beats or singing a ballad that tells his life story, he — a Black man — faces a scrutiny that, for example, his one-time collaborator Sam Hunt does not while doing the same things. He's also cognisant of the fact that he's coming up during a larger conversation — in country music, in music in general and in the United States as a whole — about the racism and race-based inequality that still exists in 2021.
"I think us having that conversation is important," he says. "And I think it's creating space for a lot of people to be able to share their stories, because it's like, we have to be able to have the conversation about what is country music, what makes something country vs. something else — does that distinction even matter?"
In particular, Breland credits Mickey Guyton — with whom he performed at the 2021 CMT Music Awards, his live television debut — for paving a path for artists such as himself. "She's been doing this a lot longer and has taken a lot of heat for things that's made it easier for artists like me to come in after her," he notes.
"She's fabulous," he adds of Guyton. "I think that what she stands for, and her vocal ability and how she writes, and how unapologetic she is about her identity, and the significance of her identity in this space — all of that is really inspiring to me."
In September, Breland will begin his first-ever headlining tour. The Cross Country Tour will take him to Bonnaroo and Governor's Ball, and to clubs across the country, with opening acts Ashley Cooke and Robyn Ottolini in tow.
"I think having people of color in the conversation in country is really important, but I also think having women in the conversation in country is really important," Breland notes (both Cooke and Ottolini are white women). "I think there are systems in place that have made it really difficult for women to win in this space ... [and] I think both of them are fabulous."
Breland has written with both Cooke and Ottolini, and found them to be of "the same Millennial/Gen Z, using our resources with the internet to leverage art" mindset. Cooke founded the 615 House, a Nashville-based space for artists to collaborate, particularly with TikTok in mind, while Ottolini earned her record deal with Warner Music Nashville partially on the strength of her viral-on-TikTok hit "F-150."
"I think all of us have been very clever and resourceful in terms of using the things that we have at our disposal to get our art to people, and so I'm really inspired by both of them," he continues. "And I think what they stand for as women and being themselves in this space is really important."
Breland and Cooke have met in person, but he and Ottolini — an Ontario, Canada, native who has been riding out the COVID-19 pandemic in her hometown of Uxbridge — have only ever worked together over Zoom. She says, however, that even via the internet, he's "easy to talk to" and has great energy, which made for an easy co-write.
"I love Breland's music; I like what he does," Ottolini adds. "I think he breaks the rules, which is a lot like my brand: You just do you and love it."
Ottolini's praise bodes well for Breland's future goals. Charismatic, personable and talented as heck, he's ready to go forth and bring people together.
"I definitely want to be a cultural bridge, as someone that loves a lot of different types of music and has a lot of different types of friends and has grown up in really diverse communities," Breland says. "I think it's important for people to have common ground, and I think that's really what the whole 'Cross Country' movement as a whole is about: In creating music that plays around with genre and in a way that we don't typically hear or see, it creates conversation amongst the listener base that is inherently more diverse, because there are people who are traditional country listeners [and] people who aren't traditional country listeners coming together around songs or projects that they like ...
"And I think," he adds, "that is a really powerful thing to be able to engender with music."
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