As Blaine Larsen watches his single, “How Do You Get That Lonely,” inch up the charts, he is giving thanks to two particular fans who lobbied on his behalf when he was still struggling to get a foothold in the music business. One of them found him a producer and co-writer; the other helped get him a contract with BNA Records.
A native of Tacoma, Wash., Larsen turns 19 on Wednesday (Feb. 2), just eight days after BNA released his album, Off to Join the World. In spite of the album’s generally youthful subject matter — high school tensions, adjusting to a stepparent, falling in love, hero worship, teen suicide — Larsen brings remarkable maturity to the project, both in outlook and sound. He co-wrote six of the album’s 11 songs.
Larsen first found himself drawn to country music — primarily through the man who became his stepfather — when he was around 10 years old. By his freshman year in high school, he was performing in local shows. Looking back at that pivotal period, he says the songs that made the biggest impact on him were George Strait’s “Nobody in His Right Mind Would’ve Left Her,” “The Chair,” “Amarillo by Morning” and “Unwound.”
“I loved a lot of Haggard’s stuff, too,” Larsen adds, “like ‘The Way I Am’ and ‘Are the Good Times Really Over for Good.’” Indeed, on Larsen’s album, Haggard makes a guest appearance on “If Merle Would Sing My Song,” a tune that, oddly enough, Larsen had no hand in writing.
Larsen was 15 and living in the Tacoma suburb of Buckley when one of his classmates, Kelly Carnahan, sent a letter to Nashville songwriter and producer, Rory Lee Feek, an acquaintance of her grandfather. She apprised Feek that Larsen was “an awesome singer” and asked if he could help him. After hearing Larsen perform, Feek agreed and enlisted his fellow songwriter, Tim Johnson, to help him produce an album on the young singer.
In addition to producing the album, Feek and Johnson were sufficiently impressed by Larsen’s talent to set up a label for him, aptly called Giantslayer Records. In June 2004, Giantslayer issued the album under the title In My High School and released the title cut as a single.
“Me and my two producers made this [album] independently for next to nothing,” Larsen says. “We were just doing it ourselves. They put in some money and were working this record and trying to get it played and recognized all on our own. That’s when BNA found us and started from there. … They didn’t change a thing about it [except] we added one brand new song ["That's All I've Got to Say About That"].” Re-named Off to Join the World, the album bears both the BNA and Giantslayer logos.
Such was Larsen’s reputation in the Tacoma area that nearby Seattle radio station KMPS began playing “In My High School.” Eventually, a few other stations added the song — enough to chart it in Billboard last June, albeit for just a week.
The heavy local airplay of “In My High School” attracted the attention of Sandy Conklin, an employee of BMG Distribution, the company that distributes BNA Records and other RCA-related product to retail record stores.
“She was, like, their receptionist,” Larsen says. “She’d heard it almost every day on the radio, because she would listen while she was working. She liked the song a lot, and she decided she was just going to e-mail Joe Galante [who oversees country operations for BNA, RCA and Arista Records] and tell him about me. She did. Of course, Joe comes back to her and says, ‘OK, Sandy, I went to his website, like you said, and checked out the songs. And that’s all great. I can’t hear anything, though, because the clips are too short. And, by the way, who the heck are you?”
Conklin not only explained who she was, she also made a beeline to Wal-Mart, bought a Larsen album and sent it to Galante.
“He listened to it and loved it,” Larsen says, “and had me and my producers come in an play for him.” Then came the signing.
Life has been busy for Larsen since — what with photo sessions, interviews, visits to radio stations and all the other promotional labors that accompany an album launch. But he’s not complaining. “It feels exactly how I imagined it would feel,” he says. “It’s great. I have good people taking care of me, making it a lot of fun and very low stress.”
Currently, Larsen’s team is working to set him up a summer tour. It hasn’t been decided yet if he’ll sing at the CMA Music Festival (aka Fan Fair) in Nashville in June. He says he plans to continue living in Washington.
And, yes, he does tip his hat to Carnahan and Conklin in his liner notes, asserting that they both “changed my life.”