Interview: King’s Bullet
The duo of Emmy award-winning American Idol songwriter Trey Bruce and singer-songwriter Loni Rose talk about ‘making it’ in Nashville
t’s lunchtime in a state-of-the-art recording studio around 40 miles south of Nashville, where we find Trey Bruce at home – both literally and spiritually. The male half of King’s Bullet and an Emmy award-winning songwriter-producer in his own right, Trey plied his trade for over 20 years, writing country hits for the likes of Randy Travis, Faith Hill, Doug Stone, Trisha Yearwood and Trace Adkins. More recently his cuts have been used in feature films and television shows such as American Idol, so Trey’s no stranger to this songwriting business.
Joining us on the trans-Atlantic conference call is the sweet tone of Loni Rose’s voice, who completes the duo and provides the ying to Trey’s yang. The two have a lot in common and, listening to their debut single One Brick Shy, their voices gel beautifully with an obvious chemistry in their collaboration. In fact, as Trey will put it, Loni’s “really me with a bra!”
Loni is also in Nashville, sitting comfortably in the living room of her house, with the door open to the sun-porch – a perfect setting in which to reminisce about where it all began…
How did you get into music and songwriting? What were the early memories of your family and upbringing, and of writing music?
Loni Rose: “I grew up with parents who both play guitar and they’d sit around singing folk songs. I’d always loved music, but when I was nine years old I was living in Nairobi in Kenya, where my parents were missionaries, and I remember walking into the kitchen and announcing that I was going to be a singer when I grow up. From that moment on, it’s just been kinda music, music, music! My dad told me ‘a singer is a diamond, but what would really set you apart is if you can write your own songs’. At first I was kinda mad at him and like ‘hey, I can just be a singer!’ But eventually it made sense and I found my way into songwriting.”
Trey Bruce: “I was a kid in 5th and 6th grade when I first started writing a little bit, and naturally I was really bad at it. By the time I was in middle school, I was getting in bands and it became a round-the-clock obsession. I was a drummer in rock bands all through high school and, being from Memphis, the music was either hard rock or R&B, no matter what part of town you were playing in. There’s no country music in Memphis really that I remember. Then I moved to Nashville and set out to be a songwriter. It was pretty quick for me once I finally got here, and the transformation from an amateur to a pro writer happened kinda fast. I’ve been doing this forever and I can’t really remember doing anything else!
What instrument did you pick up first?
[cc_blockquote_right] EVERYONE SPEAKS THE SAME WORDS, BUT IN A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE [/cc_blockquote_right]
LR: “Piano was my first instrument, then I played violin, saxophone and then wound up getting my first guitar when I turned 16. I’d come home from school and play piano for like four or five hours. They’d have to stop me to eat dinner! Then I started writing songs on guitar and I’ve been writing ever since.”
Do you write songs on the guitar now, or do you ever go back to the piano to write as well?
LR: “I mostly use guitar, but yes I write on piano. I love old upright pianos – they’re really inspiring.”
Trey, do you think being a drummer effects your approach to songwriting?
TB: “I think it does. I play a guitar like a drummer with a guitar, basically. I picked it up along the way as a child, but I think all instruments inspire me – acoustic, non-acoustic, plugged-in…whatever.”
What instruments do you use to write?
TB: “Always guitar. Of course, if I’m writing with a piano player then I don’t pick anything up; I’ll just work on the lyrics.”
When you moved to Nashville, did you think ‘I’ve got to write country music’?
TB: “I definitely knew that I had to learn how to write country music and I had no experience first-hand with it, so I got Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel Of Love and that became my Bible. I studied it and it wasn’t country, but it was the bridge that got me to where I wanted to be. It’s still what helped me learn the different dialect – to know there was a different dialect for country music, a dialect for pop, for R&B, for hip hop. Everyone speaks the same words, but in a different language.”
How do you approach collaborating with one another? Do you write independently and bring an idea to the table, or do you prefer to create fresh ideas together?
LR: “It can be all of the above. Sometimes you’ve got an idea which is really burning inside of you, that you bring to the table, and sometimes you show up and you don’t have anything and you find something. It’s so magical really. All these songs are just out there, and I always feel that it’s a total gift – it came through me and what an honour to be able to be the channel for that song. We all have our list of titles, especially in Nashville and the way the songwriting circles are here. You might show up to a co-write and throw titles back and forth to find something that moves you. With Trey and I, it’s been a totally whole other experience. It’s been incredible.
[cc_blockquote_right] I SAID, ‘WOW, YOU’RE REALLY ME WITH A BRA!’ [/cc_blockquote_right]
So how did you both meet and form King’s Bullet?
TB: “An old friend of mine from Memphis, who was in the music business at an A&R level, cold-called me out of the blue and said there’s this girl that’s flirting around with moving to Nashville. He said she’s from Seattle and has got something kinda unique and you may want to write with her. I hadn’t heard from this guy in years, so I thought just do it. So we started writing commercial music to be on Carrie Underwood’s record, or whatever, and we found that was a good way to get started. But we got side-tracked early on in the process when people pointed out that we had something else which was better. I don’t often run into situations where I can write a kind of song you write by yourself, with another person in the room.”
LR: “I didn’t do a lot of co-writing until maybe three years ago. I’d done a little bit, but mostly songs on my own that would be recorded, stuck on albums, and found their way into film and TV placements. But they told me in Nashville there are songs being written…I don’t know, Trey how many songs are written every day in Nashville?”
TB: “A couple of hundred”
LR: “Yeah and it’s EVERY day! You’re gonna get in rooms with people and some of them you’re gonna click with and some you won’t. But then there’ll be this other level where it’s like you’re in a dark room, you’ll meet somebody, and it’s like a light being switched on. It’s just magic and it’s very rare that it’ll happen, but it happened when I started writing with Trey. I’d been a solo artist for a long time and Trey was never interested in being an artist, so there was nothing about this that was contrived. We didn’t plan it, it just happened.”
How did the songs on the album emerge? One Brick Shy for example, how did that come about?
TB: “After Loni and I realised we were gonna do this project, I started throwing ideas aside in a folder that I knew that I would keep and show her later. So I had some of the lines of the song, and I had a vision for what the verse melodies were, but I didn’t know where the melody was going to go in the chorus. When I realised we were writing really vulnerable and honest songs together early on, I said, ‘Wow, you’re really me with a bra!’ We lived the same life in a lot of ways, for the good, bad or worse. So we just had to get them all in the mix and make songs out of them. So when I came up with the concept for this song, a lot of it was based on some stuff Loni was going through. I’m a complete mercenary when it comes to that – if you’re having problems and it’s breaking you’re heart, I’m sorry but tell me about it so I can make words!”
Is there an inspiration or theme to the album, or are they independent stories?
LR: “Well [the album’s opening track] Watermelon Sun was Trey’s title and we were both so excited about it, but in this town you wouldn’t write a song called Watermelon Sun because it doesn’t make sense in the country format. Most country writers would be like ‘what the hell are you talking about?!’ y’know. But we were happy with the freedom we were giving ourselves, to just do whatever we wanted. We thought that image was so striking and so powerful, and we just poured ourselves out. I’m glad there’s a song on the album that has hope in it like that, because some of the other songs are a lot more tragic.”
TB: “Once we’d identified the nucleus of our music it was easier to write more like them. We just had to change the stories and come from different angles, and different emotional places in each song. King’s Bullet was the catalyst, but it’s not a love song in the slightest. The first verse is about, if I’d been Hank Senior’s cadillac, maybe I could’ve popped out of gear, rolled into the street and caused a wreck of some sort to wake him up, so he wouldn’t die. And the second verse is what if I’d been James Earl Ray’s bullet that shot Martin Luther King. Maybe I could’ve veered a little off-course and not killed him. So basically I’d taken two objects in history and made them come to life. It’s all about whatever you could do to make a difference in life. I wrote it for myself, but then I wanted Loni to sing it because she’s such a freako singer. She has no peers here that sound like her, so putting her voice on it just made it pop like crazy. We just lined stuff up that fitted emotionally – y’know introspection, heartache and things like that.”[cc_blockquote_right] THE SONGS HAVE TAUGHT ME ENOUGH OVER THE YEARS. I KNOW THEY’RE SMARTER THAN ME [/cc_blockquote_right]
That lyrical concept of King’s Bullet is pretty deep – did you come up with that idea first, or did it just emerge as you were writing the music?
TB: “I think for maybe five minutes then the idea occurred to me. I tried to write a song with a couple of verses and grab something that everyone would identify with. There’s no way Hank’s car or King’s bullet could come to life, but everybody knows what those two instruments were and they know what part they played in history. It was just a fleeting second, so if I hadn’t been somewhere I could stop and write it down, it may have gotten away from me. You’re always looking for a new concept, a new way to say ‘love’ or whatever. I’d always want to come up with something original, that I’d never heard before.
“I start a lot with lyrics, but I never write the same way twice on purpose. If I’m writing with an artist, my job that day is to make them happy, no matter what they want. If I’m writing for a movie, I’m writing just what the script calls for. But, if I’m just writing from the hip and I’m just trying to write a better song, then there’s no formula. I may have seen something in a movie, or read something in a book. It usually happens a lot when I’m driving in the car – I’ve written a lot of songs in the car. I’ll scribble it all down and I’ll go back to it as soon as I get where I’m going.”
Do you specifically jump in the car to come up with an idea, or does inspiration just hit you when you’re not expecting it?
TB: “No, I expect it because I go after it. I’m proactive about it. It doesn’t matter to me, even when I don’t have an idea. I’m a morning person, so early in the day I know if I pick up a guitar or if I listen to some music for a minute, or if I’m running, then that’s when I’m probably going to stumble across something. I can play the same D chord I’ve played a million times before, and there’s going to be a song waiting behind it that I had no idea was there. I’ve gotten to a point where I’m really relaxed – I don’t tense up over the song anymore because I’ve written enough, and the songs have taught me enough over the years. I know they’re smarter than me and, if I just open the sunroof, they’re probably just gonna fall in!”
How about you Loni, do you have a songwriting process at all?
LR: “I think I probably like to get going in the morning, but there’s something about lighting the candles at night on your piano too, y’know? I think that if you show up, and you’re open, then the music comes. Trey and I have gotten together and maybe I’d have a melody idea and then he catches it halfway through and throws in more of the melody. I’m probably more of a melody person than a lyricist. Trey can write lyrics day and night, 24 hours a day – he’s just absolutely brilliant with lyrics, but I would say my strengths are probably some of the melodies that I bring to the party.”
Finally, what’s next for King’s Bullet?
LR: “Well, we’re just taking one day at a time. Like we said, it’s not like we planned this! We’re not consciously going after this career as a duo, we just fell into this so it’s all really starting right now. We’re open to touring if the opportunities surface. That’s what’s so refreshing about this – I’ve never been so relaxed in my life! I just feel like it’s so special and it’s got its own legs, and I’m not worried about it. I’m just gonna follow the ride and see where we end up.
TB: “As a writer-producer I’m always working with other established artists, but my favourite thing is unestablished artists that still have that sparkle in their eyes and are really hungry for something. And so I’m working with a group called One Armed Train, that I’m over-the-top excited about. That’s one of them and I’ve got several right now, but when I’m not working on King’s Bullet which is a good bit of time, unless we take off and go somewhere, I’m going in the studio every day writing or recording. So it’s pretty much a non-stop thing.”
Interview: Aaron Slater
King’s Bullet’s debut single One Brick Shy is out now and the album is released on 30 October. For more about the band head to www.kingsbullet.com.