Interview: Kelleigh Bannen’s Long Road to Success Taught Her to Be ‘Unapologetic’ About Her Musical Identity
In a way, Kelleigh Bannen's upcoming album, Favorite Colors (out Friday (Oct. 11)) will be her studio debut. Back in 2008, she released what she describes as "a little songwriter album," Radio Skies, but that music was largely scrubbed from existence when she signed a major-label deal, "because when they're launching an artist, they don't want it to be confusing, with old music," she explains. "So this really is my first album."
In 2018, Bannen shared The Joneses, an EP whose three songs are also included on the track list of Favorite Colors. Those songs, Bannen explains, were always meant to be part of a larger project. They emerged out of the same stage of life as the rest of the album, so it made sense to include them in the collection.
Especially if you consider Favorite Colors Bannen's studio debut, the singer's road to her first album looks long and circuitous, and it is -- longer than the proscribed decade that artists should expect to spend paying their dues in the "10-year town" of Nashville. At 38, Bannen knows she's older than the average emerging artist, particularly for her gender.
"Especially as a woman, you know, I am a late bloomer. And I hate that about myself sometimes," she admits, adding that, in some ways, she feels that honesty came more easily before she got swept up in the business of music-making: "I actually think I was probably better at telling the truth in 2008, before I had, maybe, some industry voices in my head," she relates.
"I think there was probably a part of my tenure at the label where you're just trying to give them what they want so you can get music out," Bannen adds. "And they want you to be you, but it gets a little lost in translation. You have singles that don't work, and they say, 'It needs to be more this,' or, 'Can you try to be a little bit more like this?' and in some ways, you're kind of growing up in front of a camera, you know?"
The pressure to make it -- and fast -- is high for all artists, but especially so for women. With a few notable exceptions (such as Ashley McBryde, who put out her debut album in her mid-30s), female artists tend to find commercial success, if they're going to find it at all, in their early to mid-20s. Despite the self-evident challenges that come with being an emerging artist in your late 30s, however, Bannen says that her position is not without its benefits.
"I don't know if the stakes are higher or not, but you really know what matters," she points out. "So while the stakes might be high, you're almost willing to risk it even more, because you know that, like, 'At this point, why would I not be truthful? And not take risks?'"
As someone who has been described as an "emerging artist" for a long time, Bannen acknowledges the possibility that her version of success might simply not look like she thought it might when she set out to pursue a career in country music. "Also, I think, maybe my role isn't what I thought it would be. Like, I wanna be on the radio. I wanna have hit songs. But it's also really important to me that I give my younger peers an example of somebody that is somewhat unapologetic and is using an empowered female perspective, even when it is a lighthearted song," she continues.
Over the course of her tenure in country music, Bannen's dynamic with that peer group has shifted dramatically. "Probably me eight years ago would have felt that I needed to be competitive with those women," she admits. "And me now, it's like, 'Girl, how can I help you? This is going to be hard. You may not know that yet.' Because, to me, the sooner they can figure out what they really want to say and what they really want to sound like, the more successful they will be."
Doling out advice to young, wide-eyed upstarts is, of course, much easier than applying that same wisdom to your own circumstances. Bannen says she leans on her support system, including a husband who works as a therapist, to gain perspective on her own life and career.
"Because I'm married to a therapist -- and in my friend group, too -- we talk a lot about having 'accurate mirrors,'" she goes on to say. "Depending on how [I] grew up and [my] family dynamics, or early friendships, I may not have an accurate mirror of myself: what's true about me, what I'm good at at, what I'm not good at.
"And so, for me, the mentoring part of the album-making process is really my friends going, 'Hey, you're scared, but let me remind you of what's true about you,'" Bannen continues. "'Let me remind you of how long you've been doing this. Do you remember that time you were singing on the Ryman Auditorium stage opening for Little Big Town? You knew that you were doing what you were supposed to be doing. Let's remember that right now.'"
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