Interview: Country Songstress Kelleigh Bannen Talks Luke Bryan, College and More

WRITTEN BY: Adrianna Velazquez
Image Source: Adrianna Velazquez

Kelleigh Bannen didn’t get her start in country music until after graduating college where she studied political science. It wasn’t until she returned to her hometown of Nashville that she began writing again and set out to pursue a career in music. Although music was far different from her initial plans of earning a law degree, friends convinced the songstress that she lived in Nashville for a reason and she oughta make something out of it because according to her friends, you don’t accidentally end up in Music City and that they were right about.

Since pursuing a career, the singer-songwriter has shared the stage with country superstar Luke Bryan and seasoned acts Cole Swindell and Lee Brice all of which have taken country radio by storm. Bannen released her single “Famous” in 2012 which received rave reviews and recently released her latest single, “Smoke When I Drink” earlier this year and hopes to release her debut LP in 2015.

We caught up with Bannen during her time on tour with Cole Swindell on the Down Home Tour when it made its stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We sat backstage with the songstress and talked about touring, falling into music, obstacles and future goals.

College News: How has it been touring with Cole Swindell?
Kelleigh Bannen: It’s been  so fun, it’s been really awesome.

CN: Have you learned anything from him?
KB: We were friend before. One thing I think Cole is just really great at— and I don’t want to say he learned it from Luke but there’s a trend there— they’re really great at connecting with fans and being present on stage and connecting. On stage you do have a lot of things you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about the music, your entrances and exits but you’re also trying to connect, make eye contact with people so you’re thinking about a lot more than you may think you are. He’s really good at being in the moment so I love that and I think that’s really great. They obviously plan a lot but he’s really in the moment and I think that’s great.

CN: So when did you initially get your start? You grew up in Nashville right?
KB: Yeah, I grew up in Nashville, went to college, came back home to Nashville and I got signed to my record deal right at the end of 2010, early 2011. We put out our first single in 2012. Hopefully the album will come out next year but it’s a long, long process. For me, the turning point was getting a producer on board.

CN: What initially sparked your interest in music? What did you study in college?
KB: I studied politics.
CN: Oh, nice.
KB: Yeah… I thought I was going to law school.
CN: Did you finish it?
KB: I graduated. I was studying for the LSAT when I started really writing again. I’m curious..like how you got into what you’re doing. Like there’s a part of me that was always doing it, I was always singing, I played classical violin and always loved music but I wasn’t really sure I had a special enough sound because in Nashville...growing up there, you see people come and go. You see people chase it and it not happen. And so I think I was probably, I don’t know if I was intentionally more cautious but I knew that the odds were that I wouldn’t get to do it. But I have really great friends that were like, ‘You live in this town for a reason, you don’t just accidentally live here. You gotta go out there.’

CN: Yeah. Is anyone in your family musically inclined at all?
KB: Well, my mom was in a— like she and her sisters had like a little singing group and one played the viola and one played the violin and they sang. They were called The Singing Strings. Actually, up here in Michigan.
CN: Okay.
KB: In the Detroit area and so they all played. And my cousins actually is in the Houston Orchestra as a violinist but as far as like songwriters, not really. And my mom’s not really a singer but yeah.

CN: What inspired your song “Famous?”
KB: You know, I actually didn’t write that but I am a songwriter and I am kind of always jealous of a really great idea. I heard it and I was like, “Ah! That’s such a smart angle!” and I probably personally wouldn’t have— that’s not maybe my strength would have been writing that that way so it was almost like envy. I was like. “Ah! That’s such a great angle, I have to cut that song!”
CN: Yeah.
KB: And it was so infectious, I mean we were all just like “That is a hit song.” We loved it, you know? But it’s fun and everybody has those relationships where somebody kind of hurts you and you wanna get even, you don’t wanna do anything really bad but you’re like, “I’d really like to stick it to you.”

CN: What would you say has been the hardest obstacle you’ve had to overcome since pursuing music?
KB: You know, I haven’t overcome it yet but what’s odd is I think the biggest obstacle for me right now is that I’m a woman.
CN: That’s actually a good point.
KB: Yeah, it’s crazy.
CN: A lot of the guys dominate, it is true.
KB: This is what’s crazy… There was an article that came out and I thought they were wrong and so I looked it up. They were saying it’s been two years since a woman has had a number one on the Billboard Country chart. Now Miranda had a number one on the Airplay chart, so there’s two different major charts, right? And I was like, “That’s impossible. Miranda had a number one.” But it only went number one on the Airplay chart, it didn’t go number one on the other one. So that’s 52 weeks times two so 104 weeks of number ones with not a single solo female act at the top.
CN: Wow...I didn’t know that.
KB: I mean that’s crazy right? So that’s what I think is frustrating. That’s why I’m so thankful for Luke and Cole have been particularly supportive of me. If there’s a boys club I feel really thankful they’re bringing me into it but you know the radio question is huge.

CN: What would you consider to be your biggest achievement?
KB: Hm...maybe like there’s songs I’ve written that I’m really, really proud of. You know the moments that have been the real “WOW” moments for me have been the big performance moments… In front of Luke, getting to do this tour in front of fans like that. Those are the “Wow, I can’t believe I get to do this,” and then certain songs I’m really, really proud of.

CN: What would you say are some of your short term goals?
KB: Well gosh, we are after country radio. I am relentless. I mean I love country music, I love country radio, I fell in love with country music on the radio. We gotta figure that out and I think all the girls that are kind of up and coming with me, we’re all wondering the same thing. I have asked my label to support us putting out a remix of “Famous” abroad. So I hope that that comes together too because I think that there’s still more life for that song. I want another life for “Famous” and I hope that the label— they’re trying to help me take it overseas. Touring..it’s so fun, it’s so amazing to finally be out as an opening act.
CN: So you toured with Luke, that’s impressive.
KB: You know, we only filled in about 5 days. Luke...even if you don’t love the music, and I do. I’ve come to really love him so much as an artist, as an entertainer, he’s undeniable. He’s so himself. He’s so connected to the audience. You learn every time you watch another great entertainer. We were out with Lee Brice and same thing, I watched that show from front to back.

CN: Where do you find inspiration for songwriting?
KB: Everywhere! I’m that person making notes on their phone all the time. If someone says something, if I see an image or a phrase I’ll write it down. I like to start from a concept like a title. Like “You Are What You Love” was a phrase I had written down that I brought into the writing room. I like having something to stand on like that in the writing room. Observing people, observing life. 

CN: What’s your perspective on cross-genre collaborations? That seems to be something people either love it or hate it especially in country music.
KB: I honestly think that our fans don’t always love it because we do have a little bit of, “We do this, we’re not that.” But I think as an entertainer, we all have— I have fans in other genres and I think there’s something inspiring about getting to learn from them and there is so much similarity. I feel like we like to draw these boundaries and say this is this and this isn’t. But I think it’s a lot blurrier than we like to admit sometimes. Especially with all the Luke, loopy stuff that’s now happening on country radio. What do you think about it?
CN: I like it. I think music is music. I do think country is distinct in its own way but I feel like it’s perceived well, at least among fans, maybe not critics. Like Jason Aldean does it well with the rock influence and Florida Georgia Line masters it. It sells.
KB: It does sell. And it expands the genre too, right? Because we gain new fans, they’re like “Oh, wait that sounds like music I listen to.”
CN: Yeah, exactly. I have friends didn’t like country who like Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.

CN: What advice would you give to anyone pursuing a career in music?
KB: Be committed to it taking ten times as much as you think it possibly could. Be ready to make that commitment and work harder than everyone else.

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