The first couple of country songs that hooked Brett Young when he was a teenager in Costa Mesa, California were Ty Herndon’s “What Mattered Most” from 1995 and Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl” from 1994.
“That’s when I really started digging into lyrics,” Young told CMT.com of the story songs that ultimately lured him from California to Nashville. “It is the hardest thing in the world to tell a life story in three and a half minutes. My dad is a pastor, and his responsibility to teach through the bible beginning to end is a really long commitment.
“But if you want to just go, ’Let’s just talk about loving thy neighbor,’ then it’s like, ’Okay, let’s go there then.’ But the hardest thing about writing a song is to fit enough details in and still feel like you told the whole story of these two people.”
On Thursday (May 21) at 2:00 p.m. CT, Young will be taking over the the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Instagram Live for a Words & Music at Home session. He’ll play a few songs, share some stories of his path to songwriting success, and will answer aspiring songwriters’ questions and offer advice for getting started.
CMT.com had the chance to ask Young some questions before the Thursday session, and here’s what we learned from the man who’s had six No. 1 songs in the four short years since his debut single, “Sleep Without You.”
CMT.com: Instead of starting at the beginning of your singer-songwriter career, let’s talk about the new “Lady” in your life: your latest song and your brand new baby girl, Presley.
Young: We were about five months pregnant when I wrote that song. We knew we were having a girl. And I had the title in my phone, but I just didn’t know my take on it. It took throwing the title out in a few other writes, and not getting anywhere. But then with Ross Copperman and Jon Nite, it worked. Jon put together the twist that made it a song to my daughter but about my wife. Once we nailed that down, it was the perfect direction for the song.
And those subtle heartbeats at the very beginning of the song?
I can take credit for that. It was from the ultrasound when Taylor was about six months pregnant. I like to think Presley was recording major-label songs when she was negative three months old.
Is that your usual M.O., to find song inspiration in your personal life? And how do you get your co-writers to be on the same page?
It’s always different. I know some people have their formulas, but I change who I write with often enough that my method changes from song to song. With “Lady,” I was so intent on making sure the other writers were as excited about it as I was, because if not, they weren’t the right writers. Ross and Jon both have daughters, so it started with a 30-minute conversation about that. And then Jon just said, “What if it’s about your wife teaching your daughter how to be a lady?” And I was like, “Yep. That’s the one.” It moved on to Ross fiddling around on piano and we felt it was the right song. Then we got to the chorus that started with, “I hope you look just like your mama.”
It sounds like that came so naturally. You’re making songwriting sound easy. But other songwriters maintain that writing a song is the hardest thing to do. Where do you stand on that?
I’ve written both of those songs: the easy ones and the tough ones. On my first record, my fourth single was “Mercy,” and once Sean McConnell and I figured out what we were writing, it only took about 45 minutes. But then I’ve had other songs where I’m finishing one that I started ten years ago. It didn’t have a chorus, and it took me getting in a room with four other songwriters ten years later to figure out how to make the chorus fit.
Is it somehow more rewarding to have a song that took some serious blood, sweat and tears to write reach the top of the charts?
I don’t know. But I do know that nobody is killing it in this business if they’re scratching and clawing at it every single time. The best songwriters are the ones who are willing to keep revisiting a song that — even though it’s not perfect — it could be. With a little more work.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Yes. It was about 15 years ago. It was called “Define Me.”
So you would’ve been in your mid-20s. What inspired you to sit down with a blank sheet of paper?
I had a crush on someone who knew I had a crush on her, and she would ignore the topic and just treat me like a really good friend. So it was this idea of, we’ve been dancing around this for a really long time and you’re going to have to define me.
That actually sounds like solid country song. Right out of the gate.
It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. It was right down the middle. My phrasing and rhyming were so obvious, like “while” and “smile.” But I knew I wanted to write songs, and I hadn’t tried it yet. I’d bought a $100 Casio keyboard to teach myself how to play a five-chord progression, and I liked the melody so much that I put lyrics to it. Looking back, that first song’s not embarrassing. It doesn’t hold up to what I’m putting out now, but I’ve written much worse songs since. But I don’t think it would be helpful for someone to write their best song ever the first time they write. It becomes like a drug: it’s something you’re always chasing, but you’ll never catch.
Mark your calendars from Young’s Word & Music at Home session on Thursday (May 21) at 2:00 p.m. CT here.