Note: This post is about Singer-Songwriter Brian Keith Wallen’s new album, “Going Back Home.” You can listen to songs from the album and download it by clicking here.
In the tradition of artists like Bon Iver, the Black Keys, and Sufjan Stevens repping their home states, I give you “Going Back Home.”
Indiana is my birth home, my foundation, the place that made me and supports me. The UP is my community home, the place where the people make me feel welcome and fill my heart with hope and belonging. Colorado is my spiritual home, where the mountains take away my troubles and the rivers give me peace.
I came up with the concept for the cover artwork before I even had all the songs; I knew I wanted to do the map of America, and the initial idea was to highlight each state where a song had been written. But as time went on, that vision evolved into wanting to highlight my “home states.” I reached out to Rachel Hart, who’s done all of my graphic design work for the last year, and she stunned me with the gorgeous cover you see above.
I feel drawn to all three of these states, and you’re likely to find me going back and forth between them at any given time. Let me take you song by song and tell you how they inspired me.
Crazy Beautiful World
I wrote this song in February 2016 in Marquette, MI. It snowed one night, about 7 or 8 inches. The next morning, I walked half a mile down to Lower Harbor. I gazed out into the fog hovering over Lake Superior and pondered life for a while. Here I am, in that moment.
I could feel a song coming on, so I rushed back to my room, grabbed my Dobrato, and wrote Crazy Beautiful World. Suffice it to say, Lake Superior makes you feel a lot of things. (Side note: I ended up playing the Marquette Blues Fest at that very same place, Lower Harbor, in the summer. That was a cool moment!)
“When you get to to the edge of the earth, you’ll see how little you’re worth.”
This song started in Indiana, in May, with this hook.
It evolved over time, and I tried a bunch of different lyrics. Nothing seemed to work particularly well. My friend Ted said the hook sounded “laid back and cruising”, and that gave me an idea of a travelling/road trip theme. I finally broke through with something in late August/early September, right before a trip to…you guessed it. Gareth, my bass player, really brought this song to life with his part.
“So I’m back on the road, and I’m going back home…to Colorado.”
This song came to me in Fort Smith, AR in mid-April. I was on tour, and I’d lost two shows last minute. I put out a plea for help on Facebook, and my buddy Matt Dodd hooked me up with a show at a fantastic venue called R. Landry’s New Orleans Cafe. It has the coolest vibe; beads hanging up all over the place, a funky stage, crawfish and gumbo on the menu…
It inspired me, so I grabbed my Dobrato, went outside, and started playing the hook for what would become Arkansas Blues. Like with Colorado, I shot a video of my initial thoughts and posted it on Facebook. My engineer/producer Corey came up with the idea of doing the stomp/clap pattern on the back half of the studio version. It gave it a whole different vibe!
The origins of this one go back the furthest; I had lyrics floating around for this as far back as September 2015. I wrote the words in Colorado, and shelved it because I didn’t like the music. I finally came up with the right hook and music in January 2016, on a cold Indiana winter day. (In Elkhart, with snow on the ground.) It’s a ballad, a love song, which is unusual for me. It took me a while to get comfortable with it, but I really want to write more songs in this vein.
“We can cross that Mississippi River, where the cornfields turn to wheat…break away with me.”
Give Me Peace
I was on tour in Colorado back in June 2016, and I found myself stopped in one of my two favorite Colorado towns, Buena Vista. After eating lunch at Eddyline Brewery, I grabbed one of my Taylor guitars, walked down to the Arkansas River, and sat down on a bench. I looked around, and saw the river, the mountains, the trees, the sunshine…before long, a melody was ringing in my head. Fortunately, I had a guitar and my phone to record it. I finished the lyrics later, but the heart and soul of the song was birthed on that riverbank. I’ve got a picture from the moment.
“I’m gonna sit here on the riverbank, and let the world pass my right on by. When the water starts to rise, I’ll let it wash the trouble out of my mind.”
More Heart, Less Attack
I knew I wanted to do a cover song on this record. But deciding which one proved to be difficult. I tried out a bunch of different things, and none of them felt right at all. It got to be the day before I was scheduled to go into the studio, and I was at a loss. Fortunately, my producer Alexis came to the rescue. She asked: “what’s the most meaningful song you’ve ever played?” This NEEDTOBREATHE tune popped into my head immediately. I’d covered it exactly once on a show, when an audience member asked me to play the most meaningful song I could think of. Ironic, right?
Corey, Alexis, and I came up with the arrangement pretty much on the fly. Like I said, I’d only played it once before! It ended up being one of those raw, spontaneous moments that I treasure. This is my favorite song on the record.
“Be the light in the cracks. Be the one that’s mending the camel’s back. Slow to anger and quick to laugh…be more heart and less attack”
Turn the Lights On
This one started with the hook, that little acoustic guitar part you hear in the beginning. I started writing it in April 2016, right after I got back to Indiana from Memphis, TN. The lyrics took a long time to solidify, as did the whole feel of the song in general. I wrote it during a break-up, so that’s what it was initially about. After Merle Haggard and Prince died, it evolved into being about losing your favorite artist or band. The last line of the chorus references that feeling you get at the end of a show, when they turn the house lights on and it’s time to go home.
“What do you say when the end has come and gone? And left you waiting around for more, until they turn the lights on.”
This is the last song I wrote for the album, in October 2016. It’s directly inspired by an event called the Durango Blues Train, which I was fortunate enough to play back in June. The DBT is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. It’s a steam-powered train that goes up into the Rocky Mountains, and twice a year they do a Blues Festival ON THE TRAIN. With a different artist in each car! It’s magical, and I feel so fortunate to have played it.
“There’s rhythm in the rails, and the whistle wails and moans…so fill up your cup, and let the blues train take you home.”
Of all the songs on the record, I felt it was the most important to get this one right, and it wasn’t easy. The initial melody and lyrics came to me in July 2016 as I was driving down the road in West Virginia. I had to pull over in Beckley and grab a guitar and my phone to record the idea. I messed around with it over the span of a couple months, and nothing felt right at all. It had multiple verses initially, and it felt really clunky.
I met up with my brother Dean Phelps in Denver later on in September, and pulled it out while jamming with him one evening. All of a sudden, everything kind of came into focus. I pared the song down to a single verse and chorus, and Dean’s additions and input on guitar really helped me point the song in the right direction. We went into the studio, and our version of it ended up on our EP collaboration, Mountain Roads.
I loved that version, but once I had all the other songs together for Going Back Home, I knew it needed a bit of a different feel to fit on this project. Alexis suggested I slow it way down, do it fingerstyle, and bring in another one of my friends and brothers, Randy McQuay, to play harmonica. He gave it just the right feel, and you can really hear his personality on what he played.
“Whenever trouble comes my way, I pray a grateful heart will lead the way.”
So, that’s a more detailed look behind the songs and the production of “Going Back Home.” I could NOT have done this without my creative team; Corey Miller at the Lodge studios, Alexis Klosinski, Rachel Hart, Dean Phelps, Randy McQuay, and Gareth Somers, who all contributed in significant ways. I look forward to working with them on many more projects in the future.
“Going Back Home” means more to me than anything I’ve ever done. I put everything I had to give into it, and I hope that shows when you listen to it.
You can download the album for $5, or get a physical copy for $10 by clicking here. Thanks for reading.