Recently I had the pleasure of spending some time with the UK’s reigning country artist of the year Danny McMahon to find out a little bit more about what’s going on in the production room, what’s so special about Nashville, and of course – what made him country. Read on to find out more.
Introduce yourself – what have you been up to?
I’m a singer-songwriter, country-pop artist from Bristol, current UK country artist of the year for 2019 – my journey into that was as simple as I got into country music through hearing the song Letter To Me by Brad Paisley, first modern country song I heard, and that helped me understand how country music works from a songwriting point of view and that’s what brought me into the realm of country music. I was blown away by the realness and authenticity of what Brad Paisley was doing in that song.
Then I ended up writing for people for a long time, I didn’t really see myself doing the artist thing for a period of time and then I saw Chase Bryant at the o2 Arena at C2C in 2017 and thought ‘ah, okay, that’s what I wanna be doing’. And that was that! I had an amazing experience at my first C2C, and I went home and wrote an EP!
One of the things I’ve been asking people is their journey into country music as an artist but also as a fan of country music – I’m assuming you wouldn’t make the music if you didn’t enjoy it?
I think you’ve got to be (a fan); I always say that by listening to music in general you’re educating yourself in it, I think that especially with country music you need to understand it and that goes from the way that the songs are written to the way you play your instrument(s), the way people engage with it and the way the culture works around country music, especially with the people that listen to it and I think in order to make music that people truly relate to, you need to be a fan of country music yourself because at the end of the day you want those people who are fans to relate to your music so I think you need to understand that to make your music the best it can be.
So how did you come to make – and also discover – country music?
That Brad Paisley song was the one that really stands out for me. I was doing a lot of pop writing, I was working as a commercial songwriter for Paramount Music at the time and I heard that song; I remember I was in a place where I was getting really fed up with the regurgitation of how pop music was working at the time and I heard that, and I was like – “this feels like me. This feels real and fresh and like something I’ve been missing out on for a very long time.”
It’s not in the culture so much, it’s not as accessible or something I’d delved into too much. I was a massive fan of Americana growing up, my parents listened to The Eagles a lot so I loved that style of songwriting, but that was the moment where I really thought ‘maybe I need to explore this a little further’
I think it was when I was working part-time in a sports shop, and the boss there was mad into his country music and he used to show me all this stuff I hadn’t heard before and bit by bit I’d find myself exploring new stuff all the time. I think it was the moment he first played me – on the same afternoon – Road Trippin’ by Dan & Shay and House Party by Sam Hunt. I said “that’s the kind of music I wanna make. If I’m gonna make country music as an artist, that’s the kind of thing I wanna be doing.”
Being a producer, I love stuff that integrates really cool experimental production elements; I think that’s why I’m so drawn to the likes of Keith Urban and Sam Hunt because that’s what they do, they push boundaries as far as production is concerned, with their sound design and synths and the way that the soundscape matches up with the lyrics and melody of the songs. That really draws me in. I love the way that Keith Urban somehow seems to move in every single record that he makes, every record sounds different and grows into something else. That’s what I’ve loved about the new Sam Hunt album as well. His first one is one of my favourite records ever, but the new record is very different in terms of its approach. It’s got that recontextualisation where you bring in the older concepts – like the start of Hard to Forget; I absolutely adore the fact that he’s sampled an older country song – and brought it into a modern-day context with that hip-hop beat behind it – and then the twangy acoustic guitar in the background. For me, it clicks; it kind of integrates everything that I’ve had in my musical life as one thing, which is really cool.
There’s an interview where he says he wanted to bring in the elements of what he loves with his country music and then everything he loves about R&B and hip-hop and just fuse the two things together; you can tell that’s exactly where it comes from. It sounds very commercial but he says just based on what he likes, it just ends up sounding in line with what modern-day pop culture is which is cool, it is real and it is authentic and I think you can tell that in the way the songs are written.
So is that the kind of process you follow in your own songwriting?
I try to! I try to create and reference real-life situations that I think are going to be relatable for other people, that’s where I try to start from. I try and be to-the-point and direct; sometimes I’m all for metaphorical things and sometimes it works, but unless you have songs that are going to relate to your audience and other people, then as an artist you’re not going to get anywhere, because at the end of the day you’re only going to be remotely successful if you have a fanbase and people that are going to be able to relate to what you’re singing about. So that’s what I try and encompass in what I’m doing.
That’s definitely the way my last EP, Boys Cry Too, panned out. I came to the end of it and I had four songs that were about real-life situations that were relatable and not off the scale. There’s a song about a breakup, a song about male mental health, a song about somebody passing away and the last one is about my journey into country music and how I felt unsure whether I should do it or not, so it was four songs about completely different areas of my life but still areas of my life that I feel other people would be able to tap into.
Is that relatability aspect something you’re always conscious of when you write?
You have to write about what you’re thinking or feeling, especially with country music, it has to come from the heart, you have to feel it because otherwise, you’re not authentic, you’re not genuine and for me, in those situations, it wasn’t until I’d finished writing it that I looked back on it. The reviews started coming in, all really positive, people were saying good things and we were getting good radio play, but for me – I’m a super analytical person – it was like, okay, people seem to like this more than they liked anything else – why? Why do they like it more than other things I’ve put out? For me, that seemed to be what it was. Particularly for the proper heartfelt stuff, it tapped into two areas that are relevant to a lot of people – mental health and someone passing away. I think it was things that everyone can say “yeah, I relate to that” or “I know someone who’s gone through that.”
How did you get into producing?
Yeah, so producing is a weird one. I started my hand at producing in college and I just didn’t get on with it at all, and I actually failed my first year because I didn’t enjoy it, I couldn’t click with it and I couldn’t understand the way it was being taught. And then I met the guy who is now my business partner at Puzzle Maker Studios and when I started doing my commercial songwriting, I spent a lot of time in the studio. So I saw the process of how music is created from the bottom all the way through. That fascinated me, all the elements of the music – how the drums, bass, synth design, guitar layers all come together – and when I very first started uni, that’s what we started to look at.
I met Drea, my business partner, and we started recording and producing a bunch of projects for people who needed them for exams, for free, with our mates – that’s how we got into it. And then suddenly we were putting stuff out and we suddenly had people coming to us saying “I really like what you’re doing, can I pay you to produce my record?”
Bit by bit, that turned into other projects and labels and TV and suddenly we were like “oh, we’ve got a proper business here.”
The way it’s turned out now since I’ve put my stuff out and since things have been doing well, I’d say 90% of what we do is country music, which is amazing. That would’ve been a dream come true, I just didn’t think it was ever going to be a thing, but it definitely has been. It’s great to not only do what I do but work with other artists doing the same thing.
I studied songwriting and music business as an undergrad and songwriting for my masters, so there were production modules along the way. I always say that with production in particular, there’s so much to it, it’s a very complicated, long-winded process and so many things to learn and things you need to mess up before you get them right. It’s a minefield, and the only way I feel you can do that is by going and doing it – by sitting in studios and getting that experience. I reckon you need to sit in a studio for at least two years, and learn it.
On a piece of paper when you’re doing an exam, you can’t allow for getting halfway through a vocal day and the singer throws a massive strop and disappears down the stairs because they feel like they’re not good enough. That’s something people don’t take into consideration; the technical element is one thing but it’s such an invested personal experience at the same time.
To be honest, most of the time the singer will go through that at some point in the recording process. It’s inevitable, because it’s the only sound on that record that is directly and physically coming from a human being. There are so many mental and physical elements that come into play. That’s the most important part, the thing people are going to click with, but you have to be so reactionary in those moments to be able to engage with what’s going on there and then.
So when you’re making your own music, do you self-produce or do you have someone else do that for you?
I work with Drea Succi who tends to mainly produce what I’m doing. I do self-produce – for my first two EPs I played everything on the records, other than drums, so it was basically all me, all in my head. The last single that I put out (Lonely) and the next one (My Kinda City) are all other people playing on it – apart from the bits I’d normally play, like the guitars. So I had bassists, I had keyboard players, steel players and drummers – it was two very different experiences.
I remember watching a John Mayer interview a few years ago when he made Continuum and he said that was the point at which he’d learned the art of self-producing and that allowed him to put out the very best material. I think with self-producing you have to have that ability to sit back and look at it from an outside perspective. I think that’s why I’ve got into that process of ‘am I creating something that’s relatable?’ because that’s the mindset a producer has to go into. I have to have two of me when I’m doing this stuff.
I’ll do the take and then I’ll ask Drea “is that good enough?” and he’ll say yes – and that’s the point where I have to say okay, I’m happy with that. You have to, to a degree, do stuff again and again, if I know it’s not good enough I’ll do it again, but you also have to put yourself in a headspace where you’re with a trusted person – and this is where some artists struggle, because you have to trust your team, you cannot do it by yourself – if you try to do everything by yourself you will self-implode at some point. It’s inevitable. You can’t do the job of a manager, a producer, a mix engineer, mastering engineer, lawyer, booking agent, all those things – eventually you have to give those things up to people who are designated to just do that, because that gives you the best output at the end of the day.
So I have to sometimes listen to my vocal take and ask “is it quite there?” and Drea will say “yes, just leave it with me – I’ll mix it, come back and we’ll listen with fresh years.”
I’ll never forget the first time he mixed Worth Waiting For from my first EP. I listened to it and I really liked the song and I was really proud of where we’d taken it but I just wasn’t sure about the vocal. I came back a week later and sat in the studio and listened to the way that he’d mixed it and said “you’re a genius.”
And that’s what you’ve gotta do. If someone who’s been there and done it a load of times tells you “this is fine,” you’ve got to trust them.
After playing everything on your first couple of records, and having musicians come in on the third, how did those experiences compare – and how do the records themselves compare?
The first two EPs where I did everything myself, I did it out of necessity because I didn’t know the right people and I hadn’t met the right people that understood what I was trying to do. So I just tried to get everything out of my head and do it the very best I could. I know as a producer that when you’re doing a record, you bring other people in and everyone plays their own instrument and brings their own thing to it – that’s what gets you the best output.
But those first two records, it was a necessity, it was a new thing, I didn’t really have anything to bring to the table in terms of telling musicians ‘look, this is what I’m doing’. By the time we got to the third record and the latest singles, I’d done a bit more and understood a bit more, and I’d met Emmylou Harris’s steel player for example. I wouldn’t know where to find him beforehand. I only met him through playing shows and meeting people and going out to Nashville. Tyler Spicer, who plays bass for me, he is the biggest country music fan I’ve ever met. This goes back to that earlier question about understanding the genre – I think you really need to, even as a player on these records, to get what I wanted to achieve.
I guess in those first two records I didn’t really know what I wanted to achieve. I was just writing songs that meant something to me and basing it on what I was listening to, whereas after that second record, I went to Nashville for the first time. I think that’s what changed my mindset.
The first time I went to Nashville, I spent a week in the studio over there, I met session players and had a couple of guys come and play on my demos. I met Steve Brewster, who’s played for Brett Eldredge and Faith Hill, and he was a really big turning point in understanding how it worked. Getting to meet these people and understanding how they work really changed my mindset on how it all needed to work, so I made it my mission to go and find the right people to come and play on my record and get it sounding the very best that it needed to.
And once I’d been to Nashville, I wanted to set my sights on making it sound the way Nashville does. I wanted to drive everything towards getting there and playing in the States as much as possible – which is what we’ve done ever since, really. We’ve had some really good responses in America, I’ve been working with American songwriters ever since. My latest single coming out in May was written with a Nashville writer (Tyler Bank). We’ve played at the Bluebird, done a bunch of writers’ rounds in Nashville, played other places in America and hopefully going to go back and do some more this year, COVID-19 depending. We’ve built up decent traction over there and people seem to relate to the music pretty quickly, which is great. I guess you only know when you put it out and you get reviews, when people turn around and say ‘the production sounds like Nashville’.
The way those guys mix is so different to how you mix anything else, in terms of the production side of things, and that’s what I learnt whilst I was there and what I brought back here.
You’ve talked about the evolution in your music and in the production of your previous records; do you think your songwriting process itself – conception to recording – has evolved since the early days?
100%. I guess being in your 20s the main thing you experience in life that’s reflective in the music is maturity, and the way that you start to see life from a different angle and a different perspective and I think that’s reflective in the music. Something like Lonely which is a really upbeat song still has a very defined underlying message. That song is actually about a situation I experienced with a friend of mine who had been through a really toxic relationship. It was a really dark situation but the tone of the conversation was quite lighthearted so I wanted to reflect that in the music but even the more upbeat stuff still has a serious message. I think that’s what’s changed. And I think purely as a songwriter I’ve just experienced so much at this point, having been to Nashville, experienced that, I think that’s really changed the game for me.
A lot of people have called Nashville a turning point in the way that they approach their music. Do you think there’s a reason?
I think the reason comes from the fact that everyone is so good and you’re pushed to be that good while you’re there, otherwise you just sink. The first time I went there I just sat and I learned and I listened; I went to studios and I wrote, and I did all my learning behind the scenes.
The second time I went over, we had six or seven shows booked, I just played and played and played but obviously when you’re playing, you’re in the public eye. So it’s kinda like “okay, I learnt this last year, so I’m coming back this year so I need to implement everything I learnt whilst I was here before, from what everyone told me and what I watched and what I saw.”
I think we played only two shows the first time, one of them was the Bluebird which was a big deal, but even then I felt like I wasn’t quite ready for it. Whereas when I went back the second time, and we played a ton of shows, I felt like I understood how it worked.
I remember when I went back the second time, I was sat in a writers’ round, and the two guys before me were absolutely unbelievable. The standard was superb, and there was me at the end, and I was the last one. I had enough time to process that I was here, in a packed room in Nashville, and the songwriters are really good. What am I gonna do to make this the best that it can be?
It went well, but that was the specific moment where I thought “right, okay, the game has got to rise here otherwise we’re going to sink.” You have to, because that is everyone’s work ethic because at the end of the day, people have moved there from all over the world to do country music, so inevitably that’s the way it’s going to pan out. The quality is going to be amazing and you’re gonna be surrounded by really hungry people who really want to make it, and if you don’t go in with that mindset too, you’ll get forgotten about pretty quickly.
You’ve worked with songwriters and collaborated with plenty of people; do you have a dream collaboration?
If I could ever write with someone, it would be one of two people. As an artist, it would be Sam Hunt, all day long. I love his approach, his musicology in the way he approaches things from a sociological standpoint, the way he analyses and looks at music, I really relate to that, so I’d love to sit down and write a song with him someday.
And then the other one – well, there’s two more, actually. It would be Matt Ramsey from Old Dominion; he wrote one of my favourite Sam Hunt songs anyway, and I love Old Dominion’s music and the way that he writes about real-life situations, again. And it’s really clever, lyrically – he’s a really intelligent lyricist.
The other one that I love is a commercial writer called Josh Kerr. Again, he writes on a lot of the stuff I really click with – a lot on the new Sam Hunt record, he’s written for loads of commercial country artists, but a lot of the songs of his that I listen to, I really relate to it.
Tea or coffee? Tea
Cats or dogs? Dogs
Favourite biscuit? Custard cream – it’s on my rider!
Early mornings or late nights? Late nights – being a musician, it’s gotta be!
Favourite emoji? Winky face!
Five songs that you grew up with or that defined your journey into country music either as a fan or artist.
Well, ideally towards the back end of summer we would be heading back to the States to play some more shows out towards the west coast, then we have a show booked in Lithuania at the end of August at a festival there, so that’ll be great. I had a bunch of festival dates, but we’ll see what comes off and what doesn’t! The new single is coming out in May, written with Tyler Banks, called My Kinda City and then probably another two more single releases before the end of the year. And we’ve also got a new merch store coming soon as well, so keep your eyes out for that!