Singer/songwriter Bryan Simpson is back in the Top 10 of the Billboard country singles chart as the co-writer on Blake Shelton’s hit song, “A Guy with a Girl.” The tunesmith has also co-written several other hits including “I’ll Just Hold On” (Shelton), “Better Than I Used To Be” (Tim McGraw), “Before I Knew Better” (Brad Martin) and “Yeah” (Joe Nichols). He also has penned songs for George Strait, Jason Aldean, and Billy Currington.
Simpson is also an artist—he helped form the progressive bluegrass band, Cadillac Sky. The group’s debut recording Blind Man Walking, was released on Skaggs Family Records in 2007 and was followed a year later by the album Gravity’s Our Enemy and the 2010 release, Letters in the Deep, produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. The group opened for Mumford & Sons in 2010, the year Simpson left Cadillac Sky.
Two years later, Simpson ventured into a solo musical endeavor, The Whistles and The Bells. He self-produced and self-released the debut album that was later picked up by Simpson’s new label home, New West Records. His next album, Modern Plagues, comes out in late April.
We are pleased to present this new Q & A interview with Bryan Simpson. We talk with Simpson about some of his songwriting successes, his fascination with the written word, and teetering between the worlds of commercial success and personal musical fulfillment.
BC: Congratulations on co-writing Blake Shelton’s hit “A Guy with a Girl.” The song talks about a guy who is unnoticed when he’s with the girl. Can you relate?
Bryan Simpson: Definitely, man. My wife’s beauty casts a long shadow. Every friend that I have also has thankfully married up. My wife is more play-it-close-to-the-vest and definitely never wants to be the star of the show. When she shows up somewhere, she thinks everybody wants to talk to me. I’m like, ‘No, no, everybody wants to talk to you. You’re the interesting one and intriguing one.” I’m kind of an open book.
BC: Can you describe how the songwriting process works for you?
Simpson: I think I’m a slave to the song, as opposed to me figuring out how to make it work for me. I first started writing songs when I was 12 or 13 years old. I’m just starting to try to figure out how to manage it, so I can actually hear other people talk. The process is simply to try to write what’s in the room as often as possible. Kind of let the spirit of the moment, the spirit of God move and listen to what’s happening in this moment. I try not to have a set idea of how something’s going to go.
BC: These days there are a lot of songwriters that collaborate. Are there any times when you prefer to write solo?
Simpson: Sometimes I can be strategic and think this guy would really add something to this song. I try not to be so super-creatively selfish that I don’t allow for someone to bring something new to a song. To me, that’s the biggest part. It’s more just wanting to have total autonomy to some degree with the creative process.
Here is Blake Shelton singing his hit “A Guy With A Girl” on The Voice TV
show. This song was co-written by Bryan Simpson.
BC: Would you say your strength is about equal in writing lyric and melody?
Simpson: I don’t know. If people hear a song, they go wow, that’s an amazing melody, and then before long, someone will call you an amazing melody guy.
All my heroes are guys who wrote lyrics that changed my life and the melodies as well. Being a good lyricist is more than trying to be a good songwriter. Being a lyricist is somebody who can have the spiritual gift to be able to be vulnerable enough and open enough with who he is to let the rest of the world take a peek inside. I don’t know which one I’m better at. Some days I feel like I’m better at one than the other, but I guess that will be left for somebody else to decide.
BC: You can really paint some vivid verbal imagery. Do you like to play with words?
Simpson: I’m fascinated with words. I used to draw when I was a kid, and I would just draw words and color them in and decorate them. The last 8 or 9 years I’ve been really more fascinated with words. They’re sort of the duct tape that, to some degree, God uses to hold us together as people. Without words and what they mean and what they communicate, we’re left without any kind of way to speak to each other. They carry a lot of social value. I’m sort of intrigued by that. I’m intrigued how certain words are grafted into certain groups, and they’re polarizing. How does one word become [culturally popular] for a little while, and then it fades into the background.
BC: When you write for your alter ego, The Whistles and the Bells, the songs you write seem deeper to me, than what you’re written for commercial country. Is that right?
Simpson: Definitely. There are limitations that I can put into other people’s mouths to sing. With The Whistles and the Bells, I risk vulnerability and the nuance of who I am and sharing who that is. The things I love I’m sharing, because I want other people to have the opportunity to fall in love and then let it be some sort of impetus for them to share with me what they love.
BC: Was it difficult to be vulnerable and share that side of you at first?
Simpson: Yeah. I had a spiritual rearrangement in 2008 that sort of allowed me to know that I’m loved by my Creator with grace, and there’s a forgiveness on my life. So, it allows me to be open and communicate. I don’t believe that my life is based upon some moral resume being presented and that allows me to be more open, honest, and more human.
BC: You’ve said that your first record with The Whistles and the Bells was about spiritual transformation. What is the next album, Modern Plagues, about?
Here’s the video of the The Whistles and The Bells (featuring Bryan
Simpson) song, “Harry Potter.”
Simpson: The new record is about the light coming on. There’s a lot to be exposed. It’s dealing with the aftermath of where that leads me…who I am and a reflection of that in light of who God is to me and how he feels about me.
BC: The first single, “Harry Potter,” is written from a female perspective. How do you get inside the mind of a woman?
Simpson: (laughs) This is math that I cannot do. I have no idea. It was probably a flawed exercise to even suggest that I could. There is nothing more bewildering or beautiful and mesmerizing than certainly the mind of a woman.
I don’t know how that happened in that song. I just kept picturing in my brain this place … somewhere between Carpe Diem and apathy, this intersection I feel the oldest I’ve ever been. Yet, there are times where I feel like there’s a part of me that’s very childish, and there’s a part of me that feels like I’m being dragged into thought processes of an adult. It sounds crazy. I thought I would have to a lot more sorted out. Am I going to do the things that I feel called to do? Am I going to be responsible in these efforts, or am I going to lay back and chill out and be cynical and mock and ridicule? Am I going to live in this sentimental place for the rest of my life, or am I going to see if we can’t do something about what’s around us and being a part of the redemptive work? Seeing things that are ugly not be as ugly. That’s sort of the everyday wrestling match. For some reason, I decided that should be said through the lens of a young girl sitting there while her boyfriend plays video games.
BC: What’s the story behind “Better Than I Used To be,” the hit song you co-wrote for Tim McGraw?
Simpson: That’s a song that sort of poured out from a bunch of my blind spots all at once being revealed to me, and some that I knew about but I just didn’t care to look at. Starting to march forward and operate with grace and forgiveness.
That song has had a crazy life. I’m really thankful to be part of that song, and to see a lot of people it seemed to have helped to some degree, or at least spoke as a spirit a word of encouragement.
BC: Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. What advice so you have for aspiring songwriters who are reading this article?
Simpson: Quit while you’re ahead. Just kidding.
[Seriously], the inspiration won’t always strike, but you’ve got to be there when it does.
I think the biggest thing for me is to try to have something to say and something to sing about. Try to live a life that’s brave, and try stuff and attempt stuff and be courageous, so you’ll have brave and courageous things to write about. Then, when you fail at those things, you have heartbreak and humility to write about. You just can’t sit in the middle, trying to walk this thin line between the valley and the mountains. You’ve got to chance one for the other and you’ll be better for both.
I think the main goal of someone is to not just look at yourself as a songwriter, but to look at yourself as an artist.
You have a responsibility. The truth is first found in the hands of the artist. I think that’s super important to know you have a responsibility when you take a blank page and put your ideas on it. You’re a part of the human narrative.
We’ve got to say, what if this happens? I think Woody Allen said, ‘We make the world like it should be.” We have a responsibility to that, and we can’t just slap things on the page that mean nothing to us.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, ParentLife, Homecoming, and Singing News and is currently writing a biography on The Osborne Brothers with Bobby Osborne. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also on Google+