Brandon Heath likes the little moments.
Those opportunities to observe, process and act upon what he witnesses in the world surrounding him are the primary traits of a great songwriter, something Heath continues to showcase on his second Reunion Records release, What If We.
Even the album’s title grew up out of one of those little moments, a conversation Heath was having with a mentor that sent the Nashville native, now Houston resident, spinning off into thought.
“Every part of that phrase, ‘what if we,’ is important,” Heath says. “I don’t even look at it as incomplete – dot, dot, dot – because the ‘what if’ part is about possibilities, obviously. But the ‘we’ part is saying, ‘let’s do this together, let’s not do this alone.’”
“One of the things that bothers me about this world is that we’re all in this for ourselves. We’re looking out for number one. I don’t want to be alone, I want to live life with other people. God even says it’s better to join together in service to Him.”
Community is at the very core of who Brandon Heath is both as a private person and public figure. He shares this idea with friends and followers alike, both of which have grown considerably since the release of his 2006 debut project Don’t Get Comfortable which produced national touring and multiple radio hits, including the No. 1 blockbuster song “I’m Not Who I Was.”
Heath has garnered professional accolades, to be sure, with the success of songs like “I’m Not Who I Was” also generating the steam that earned him multiple Dove Award nominations in 2008, including taking the trophy home for New Artist of the Year. He was also nominated for Songwriter of the Year and Song of the Year for “I’m Not Who I Was.”
Heath has also been able to take that public platform and merge it with his heart for community, working with Young Life, Blood:Water Mission, Restore International and unofficially many other human rights agencies on the larger global scale, even turning his attention to trials near his hometown of Nashville. After parts of the city and surrounding areas were ravaged by a string of tornadoes in April 2008, Brandon quickly organized a highly-effective benefit concert for the storm victims, evidence of living big in the little moments.
But even as success as an artist started to come his way, Heath knew that his personal, creative satisfaction was always going to come in the form of his songwriting. And where many new artists get caught up, for good or ill, in the swirl of activity surrounding that first record, Heath buckled down and maintained his focus on the talent and skill that brought him to the table in the first place.
“One of the things I think was good about the season around the first record is that I didn’t stop writing,” Heath says. “Going out and singing songs every night was kinda something I initially dreaded, but I loved it way more than I thought I would, which is why it took me so long to become an artist because I wasn’t sure I wanted to perform for a live audience.”
“But my first love is songwriting,” he continues, “so I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote with my favorite songwriters, and I wrote with some people I had always wanted to write with but was too afraid to ask. I put myself out there a little bit more this time.”
Heath, both working solo and together with co-writers, wrote more than 40 songs in preparation for What If We, and of the 11 that finally made the cut, it’s fascinating to take a look at how many deal with those little moments -- moments of loneliness, of triumph, of questioning, and of longing.
Heath admits the process of collaboration with people like Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine, Charlie Lowell, Stephen Mason, and Matt Odmark, plus award-winning writers Jason Ingram and Chad Cates, helped draw out and sharpen those individual moments. “I think the great thing about collaborative songwriting is that you can take some of their life experiences and meld them with your own, and come up with some truly original thoughts.”
And so songs like “Give Me Your Eyes,” about God letting us see the world as He sees it (which was born out of yet another little moment opportunity; people-watching at an airport) and “Sunrise,” about holding out hope through what seems to be one’s darkest period, and “Fight Another Day,” about identifying those situations where seeing trouble through to the other side is the best option, grew up out of those collaborations, taking Heath’s ideas and observations and sharpening them for maximum impact.
“There are things I wanted to say on this record that I wouldn’t have been able to without the help of another writer. In turn, you’re getting to help support them in what they do, but you’re also bettering your own art in allowing other people to help mold what you do,” Heath continues. “The other part of songwriting is relationships, and I think that’s what the human experience is all about. So what better place to draw from than relating to someone in a room? You inevitably get into a conversation about the song that you’re writing, and you get these great moments.”
On the sonic side, Heath and producer Dan Muckala set the course for What If We with a purposeful groove, letting Heath’s voice convey both story and emotion as primary instrument, but also paving the way for a certain kind of sound. That intentional sound came out of what Heath was feeding himself, from a pop culture perspective, as the songs were coming to life.
“We had some songs that had a real Brit-rock feel to them, but I had been watching all these movies that were set in the West, dark movies like There Will Be Blood and 3:10 to Yuma. These films showed a period in our country where society was still figuring out wealth – oil, gold, land – and what order was going to look like, because we were still civilizing ourselves,” Heath says. “Dan and I both started thinking, let’s put something that sounded a little more American on there, let’s put more growly guitar on it, more Stratocaster than Rickenbacker.”
Tracks like the autobiographical “Wait and See” with it’s updated country shuffle, the power pop of “Sore Eyes” and the crunchy anthem “Trust You” line up right alongside What If We’s quieter material, like the abject love songs “London” and “Listen Up” and the album’s emotional core “No Not One,” co-written with Christy Nockels, formerly of Watermark and current Passion worship-leader.
“I love Christy’s voice,” Heath says. “It has always compelled me and I’ve always wanted to write with her. When it comes to Christian music, I think any conversation about vocalist-of-the-century has to have her in it.”
Its relationship experiences like these that have led up to this moment in Heath’s career. “All great ideas start with the phrase ‘what if we’,” Heath notes. “If anything, I love a title that’s a good conversation starter, but can catch people off guard. It is a little bit left of center.”
But it’s those times of being left of center, of being just a bit off kilter, or outside the comfort zone of the everyday, that make us stop, think, and take stock in the little moments all around us.
It makes us wonder…what if we…