Music has always been a part of Brynn Elliot’s life. Born and raised in Atlanta, the discovery of her dad’s guitar as a teenager led her to discover songwriting as a form of expression, teaching herself guitar chords from YouTube videos. As she was heading into her sophomore year of high school, she decided she wanted to be the first person in her family to go to college. Her high school English class introduced her to writers such as Jane Austen and William Shakespeare, leaving her enthralled with reading and learning what one could do with words. Setting her sights on Harvard, Brynn was rejected the first time she applied but applied again a year later, sending her music in with her application this time, and was accepted. Majoring in philosophy, she balanced her studies with writing and performing music during her time at Harvard, pursuing her two dreams-writing songs, many of which were inspired by her studies, and graduating college. For Brynn, philosophy and music are two sides of the same coin, with both trying to get at the universal human experience and she hopes to share her experiences and philosophical studies through the lens of pop music. Having performed 200+ shows while in school, touring with artists such as Brandi Carlile and Alanis Morissette, she graduated from Harvard in 2018 and landed a deal with Atlantic Records. She soon released her debut EP Time of Our Lives, followed by an intense period of soul-searching and self-improvement that led her to write her new album Can I Be Real?, which is out today! “I think most artists typically write from their deepest place of insecurity, and for me that insecurity has to do with feeling like I can’t be my truest self with the people around me,” says Elliott. “All these songs came from trying to express what I sincerely, authentically feel —they’re about embracing who I really am, and allowing myself the freedom to be that way with everyone.” The album was recorded in LA, where Brynn now lives, and was mainly produced by the production duo The Monarch [Kelly Clarkson/Nicki Minaj]. One of the singles released from the album, “Tell Me I’m Pretty”, was co-written with songwriter Michelle Buzz [Kylie Minogue/Katy Perry], who co-wrote other songs on the album, as well. “In school there was a scandal with the men’s soccer team, where they had a group message that rated incoming freshmen based on their hotness,” Brynn recalls. “It made me think about how, especially in the age of social media, we can’t escape being confronted with other people’s ideas of how we should look. “Tell Me I’m Pretty” came from wondering what it would be like if we moved past being so focused on image, and recognized that there’s something bigger and more important going on inside you.” The process of writing Can I Be Real? helped her to develop a sense of confidence that she hopes she can pass on to her audience. “I started working on the EP after a tour where I was seeing all these teenage girls in the crowd, and as I was writing I kept asking myself what would’ve been helpful to hear when I was that age,” says Elliott. “So if anyone hears these songs and walks away feeling more encouraged to be themselves —in whatever moment of life they happen to be in —then I’ll definitely feel like I’ve done my job.” You can connect with Brynn Elliot and purchase her new album via the links below:
Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Spotify | SoundCloud | iTunes/Apple Music | YouTube | Deezer
You have said that you first discovered songwriting as a teenager when you came across your dad’s old guitar in your basement. What can you tell me about your childhood and the role your dad played in instilling a love of music in you, as well as the early songwriting you did and how that process has evolved for you?
Yeah. So, my family had a huge role in sort of instilling my love for music. I was around my grandparents quite a bit growing up and would be, like, in the kitchen and cooking dinner and singing to each other these old, kind of standard duets. Singing and using our voice to express how you were feeling was a very intuitive thing. My dad apparently played a little bit of guitar in high school and that’s why he had this guitar. I took the guitar up to my room and shut the door and no one in my family really knew what I was doing for about three years (laughs). Then one day, I got the courage to show them. I think music was just a part of our life and I kind of came to realize that it was an integral part of my life and my own expression.
As a teenager growing up in Atlanta, you were motivated to be the first member of your family to apply to college and set your sights on Harvard. Where do you feel that motivation came from at such a young age for you and what drew you to Harvard specifically?
That motivation to go to college I think really began my sophomore year of high school. I had just completed my freshman year and was going into my sophomore year and took my first English class. I was reading novels from, like, Jane Austen and reading Shakespeare for the first time and was just enthralled with reading these things and learning what you could do with words. I just thought “Man. I think I’m a huge nerd!” and just kept reading and reading. I sort of said Harvard as a joke one day when someone asked me where I wanted to go to school. I was like “Well. I’m a big nerd and where do the nerds go? They go to Harvard” (laughs)! I sort of said that out loud and realized “Wait. This is actually something I want to see if I can do.” I do come from a family that had no experience with college at all. No one had ever gone, so I had to google what even a college application looked like. As I said it out loud and started getting curious, I realized “This is actually really what I want to do” and was drawn to trying to pursue it. I did not have the grades at that moment in my life, but I think I really shifted trajectories and worked really hard at school. That was really where the guitar playing at the end of the day, after long school days, came into focus. I think it was kind of like a therapeutic thing for me, because I was entering this world that I didn’t know and I wanted it so badly and it was stressful. I was basically becoming a human resume and music helped me feel human again.
Your first application to Harvard was rejected, but you tried again a year later and sent in some of your music that time and were accepted. What can you tell me about your experience at Harvard, being your dream school, and how you balanced your studies with your performing, as you performed a lot of shows and toured with a lot of artists while in school?
I would say that my life at Harvard was not balanced (laughs)! It was very cattywampus and all over the place, but I think there was sort of this through line of passion for what I was doing. I knew that I loved the work I was doing in school and what I was learning about, and I knew that I loved performing live. For me, I think I had to really see those two things as sort of accomplishing the same thing and the same dream and writing songs about things that were inspired by the classroom. In terms of just the daily life, there was not a lot of sleep. I was reading on public transportation and making it work. I look back on that time, not as a stressful time at all. It was one of the most magical things because I really was pursuing these two dreams at once and I am really grateful for that.
You graduated in 2018 from Harvard with a degree in philosophy. What can you tell me about your interest in philosophy and about your thoughts on philosophy in music? You have referred to philosophy and music as two sides to the same coin, so how do you feel they play into each other?
Yeah. So philosophy and music for me really are two sides of the same coin. I think I started to realize this when I was in school and was studying and doing philosophy and writing songs on a daily basis. I started to realize that the method I was using in my philosophy papers in school was very similar to how I would write songs. Philosophy papers start with this core idea and every kind of movement of the essay comes back to that core idea. When you’re writing songs, that’s essentially what’s happening in the chorus. You are stating the idea, and then the verses and the bridge will feed into and kind of expand upon that central idea. I think what ties it together is that music and philosophy are trying to get at this, like, universal human experience. I do often go back to philosophy, now being out of school, to spark some ideas and I think that’s become an integral part of my own songwriting process.
In 2018, you signed a record deal with Atlantic Records and released your first major label singles “Time of Our Lives” and “Might Not Like Me”, as well as your debut EP Time of Our Lives. What can you tell me about signing with Atlantic Records and the evolution of your sound at that point into more of a pop direction?
I had this session with a man named Nathan Chapman about 2 years before I signed with Atlantic Records. I was writing sort of folky pop music prior to this session. I sat down and was very curious about pop music and writing pop, and Nathan just looked at me and said “You know, I think you could do this. I think you could just write a pop song. How about we do that?”. I had just gone through a break up and that day we ended up writing “Might Not Like Me”, which was a pop song, straight pop and a very anthemic female empowerment song. I put that out independently and from that release, it got good streaming on Spotify and some record labels started hearing it and reaching out. I was just like “Wow. This is crazy!”. I had sort of named for myself as a goal in college that I wanted to get a record deal by my senior year. It was one of those goals that I wrote down in my journal. I didn’t know that it would actually happen, and all of the labels I was meeting with, I was not feeling totally at peace with it. Then a woman named Carla Wallace heard my song and she is a publisher in Nashville and her company is Big Yellow Dog and she’s worked with Meghan Trainor and Maren Morris and all of these amazing women. She heard my song and she was like “This is amazing!” and introduced me to Pete Ganbarg at Atlantic Records and I started meeting the whole team at Atlantic and felt very comfortable. That was the fall of my senior year. For me, writing that pop song felt so good and I immediately wanted to put it out. It felt like who I really was and I think that’s sort of what drew me to Atlantic, that they saw that. It’s really special and I’m very grateful to them and to Carla for taking a chance on a nerd who wants to write pop music (laughs)!
You will soon be releasing your sophomore EP Can I Be Real?, which explores topics of identity, self-image and finding your place in the world. You’ve talked about how you threw yourself into an intense period of soul-searching and self-reflection while writing the EP, so what can you tell me about that process?
The beginning of this EP started right after I got off the road from promoting my first project. I had spent essentially 2 years performing and I’m sort of a natural people-pleaser and think that’s maybe why I love performing so much. I know I have a job to do, to make people feel good and have fun and be in this moment of music. I think what I started to realize was that this life of performance and the glitz and glamour of all of that can start to feel inauthentic if not approached in the right way. So, I just sort of recognized those tendencies in myself and I think in some ways that’s always what I’d been writing about. My first project, “Might Not Like Me”, was, like, “It’s ok if someone doesn’t like me. I have to be myself”, so I just wanted to expand on that concept given what I had been through. I was reading philosophy and a guy named Soren Kierkegaard, who has this quote where he says “The most common form of despair is not being who you really are” and I thought about how I wanted to write a whole project about being who I am and exploring those concepts of how I don’t want to people please. I want to be who I am, even in this age of the internet, where we’re constantly trying to present certain sides of ourselves. That’s really where the title came from, of can I be real? I think that question is really a guiding question of the project.
You’ve also said that achieving the honesty of your upcoming EP took some encouragement, which you found in co-writer Michelle Buzz. How did you meet and come to start writing with her in 2019 and why do you feel you had that instant comfort level and creative flow when the two of you started writing together?
I love this question! I had been writing a lot of songs in Nashville. Most of my work I had done in Nashville. I was talking to Pete Ganbarg, my A&R at Atlantic, and he was like “You should go to LA” and set up a few sessions for me out in LA. It was the first time I had really written in Los Angeles and one of those first sessions was with Michelle Buzz. She walked into the room and it was a very magical, mystical experience because we sort of look very similar. We both had this moment where we were like “Are we twins separated at birth?” (laughs)! There was this instant connection, and we’re the same age and are both women in the music industry and I just felt immediately comfortable with her. One of our first conversations was about posting selfies on Instagram without makeup and how we felt about that. That’s where the song “Tell Me I’m Pretty” came from, from that conversation. I think I had never really written with someone who was at the exact same stage of life as me, and I think that sort of opened me up to feel very comfortable and very seen and known in our conversations that led to the songs. Michelle is, to this day, one of my best friends and I’m really grateful that we wrote good songs, but also that we got a friendship out of the experience.
What can you tell me about your recently released single “Tell Me I’m Pretty”, and the process of writing the song, which talks about the age of social media and not being able to escape being confronted with other people’s ideas of how we should look? Also, what can you tell me about the really cool music video you made for the song and that experience?
“Tell Me I’m Pretty”, I think, is one of my favorite songs and favorite music videos that I’ve ever made. It really did just come from that conversation with Michelle, and this idea that the internet sort of makes us question our appearance and distills beauty to physical appearance and beauty standards. I think a lot about women and a lot of the philosophy I read in school was from female philosophers. I wanted to kind of show in the music video that women, in every sort of generation throughout history, have to encounter this question of what we look like. We’ve been objectified in the media for so long, and social media is another iteration of that. I don’t think it’s necessarily anything new. One of the things I thought about and wrote down as I was planning the music video was how in the past women had corsets and today we have filters. I don’t think there’s anything particularly wrong or evil about corsets or filters, but I think the way we think about ourselves is important and we have to have a conversation to sort of say “I’m using this filter because I want to use this filter, not because I feel this societal pressure”. I think that as women continue to have those conversations and lean into the freedom that they have, I think it will help. I think everyone, regardless of who you are, feels pressure from social media. I think it’s becoming such a source of anxiety and we are facing ourselves in a new way on social media. I just think it’s important to have a conversation about it and think that’s why it comes out in my music a lot.
You also released a single recently called “Letter To A Girl”, written as a letter to your younger self. After all of the months you have had recently of self-reflection and soul-searching, what do you feel you have learned about yourself and from that perspective now, what would you tell your younger self if you could go back and talk to her?
That’s a great question! I think I would go back and tell my younger self that beauty is a very broad concept and can’t be reduced to physical appearance. Beauty is taking a walk and enjoying nature and this world. Beauty is the kindness we can give to others and ourselves. I think that is the biggest thing I would say. Living a beautiful life is not just about the makeup we wear or the clothes we wear; it’s who we are. I think that took me a long time to really learn and that’s where that song comes from.
You also worked with the production duo The Monarch on your upcoming EP. What can you tell me about that experience?
Oh my gosh! I love them so much! The Monarch are some of the best producers in the entire world and have such good pop production sensibility. I think one of my favorite stories from working with them was when we wrote “Can I Be Real?”, the song I wrote with Michelle Buzz and a songwriter named Sully. We just wrote it with a guitar and laid down a guitar track and I sang over the guitar track and sent it to Dre and Sean and was like “Hey. Do whatever you want with this. Take this where you want it to be”. I gave them some idea of where it came from. I was listening to a lot of Nirvana at the time that I made this song. They sent it back and it was perfect! And I don’t know. It’s just so rare that I’ve encountered that. They just have such good instincts and I’m so grateful, because I think as a songwriter artist that it’s hard for me sometimes to really know how say what kind of production I want, because I’m not a producer. They just kind of knew and I’m really grateful for that.
What’s next for you? Having surviving the past year as an artist through the pandemic, do you feel that has changed the goals you have for yourself going forward?
I think that after this last year, I don’t know that it’s changed any goals for me, but it’s made me keep my hands wide open and humbled me, genuinely, because the world could literally turn upside down in a moment. I think it’s freed me from a lot of the sort of, I don’t know. Just in thinking about myself and my career, I think it’s opened me up to the importance of music to help people. I think that music got me through last year, so for me it’s made me want to release a bunch of music this year and not hold it so tightly and to keep calling that artist spirit in myself and not hold back, because life is precious and we should embrace it.