He’s known for his amazing country ballad “Trail In Life,” but British Columbia’s Dean Brody truly knows what it means to have trials in life.
In the past three years alone, the 36-year-old singer and songwriter – a recent hat trick winner at the 2011 Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Awards for Album (Trail In Life), and for Single and Songwriter of the Year (both for “Trail In Life”) – has survived both life-threatening and career-threatening episodes and come out smiling on the other side.
When he was promoting his first album, the self-titled Dean Brody, in the U.S. in 2009, a waterskiing adventure on the Potomac almost killed his career before its momentum began.
“I hit my face with a waterski and had to get reconstructive facial surgery,” recalls the former sawmill worker. “They put in three titanium plates and 12 screws to elevate my face back to where it was. It had kind of caved in a bit.”
The painfully slow recovery took a few months and Brody admits there were concerns as to whether he’d be back to his old self.
“There were some scary moments,” Brody concedes. “When they’re (surgically) reconstructing, they were actually boring out and rebuilding the sinuses, so it was a pretty freaky thing. I was wondering whether I was going to have the same tone or whether my voice would change. But it didn’t. Everything worked out in the end.”
“My most inspired moments are usually when I’m not even thinking about music.”
Brody admits he was initially a little jumpy when he entered the studio for his first post-surgery session with producer Matt Rovey.
“It was funny because when I first started singing again, I could hear a rattle in my head, and it felt like maybe there was something loose, so I’m freaking out,” Brody chuckles. “I’m looking at my producer Matt and he’s saying, ‘No – there’s nothing coming through on the mic, anyways. You’re safe!’”
Brody has also shown the same resilience when it comes to his recording career. Relocating to Nashville and signed to Broken Bow Records (home of U.S. indie chart-topper Jason Aldean), Brody found his first single, 2009’s “Brothers,” breaking into the Top 30 of Billboard’s U.S. country singles charts. It was also named 2009 Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Single of the Year. For a while, the future looked rosy.
According to Brody, however, Broken Bow then issued an ultimatum that made it impossible for him to continue with them.
“The reason I ended up leaving the U.S. was because Broken Bow wanted me to go with their management,” Brody explains. “I said, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ and they said, ‘Well, if you don’t, we will pull funding from your singles.’ Then they said, ‘We’re going to take away your ability to work legally in the U.S.’ I told them, ‘If you do that, I have to go back to Canada,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, it’s just business, Dean.’”
After negotiating his release from the label and having his work visa cancelled, Brody, his wife Iris, and their two children relocated to Chester, Nova Scotia. He signed with Open Road Recordings, issuing the sophomore Trail In Life in late summer 2010, and is feeling re-energized.
“I have creative freedom,” states Brody. “I’m allowed to put the songs I want on my records. That means a lot to me, man. The guy at my first record label wouldn’t let me put ‘Trail In Life’ on the first album.
“I feel like I’m in a really great spot creatively, and there’s something about the U.S. market and the U.S. machine – at least the one that I was involved in – that took away that joy and that fire of creating and loving music – it kind of doused that. Whereas here, I feel like I’m alive again and ready to go.”
Broken Bow’s loss is Open Road’s gain. The title track “Trail In Life” – a tender and poetic take on reconnection that cleverly spans generations – deservedly won the aforementioned CCMA 2011 Song of the Year honour and reveals Brody’s depth as a writer.
“I think a lot of my songs are a melding of my own personal experiences and also me trying to put myself in someone else’s shoes,’ he says. “The first two verses [of ‘Trail in Life’] are a part of me. I was thinking one night of the people that have been in my life and just started feeling nostalgic.
“When it comes to the turn at the end of the song, I thought, this is about the hope of seeing those people again, wishing somehow that their life turns out well. What’s the ultimate hope? A mom who has given up her child for adoption reuniting with that child years down the road.”
What’s also unusual, yet endearing, about “Trail In Life” is its chronology. “It kind of works backwards,” Brody admits. “I think most songs go through the stages of life, and the timeline usually goes forward. This one goes backward: First love, college buddies, college friends, and then the last part, where the twist occurs, it’s going back to birth…and yet it’s still in the future. I didn’t really know it would work.”
Brody, the writer of such other hits as “Dirt Road Scholar,” “Wildflower,” and “Roll That Barrel Out,” is something of an anomaly when it comes to country songwriters: he prefers working solo rather than partnering up, although he’s perfectly capable of co-writing. “I wrote my first song when I was 15, and I had no real opportunities to co-write, so I did it all by myself, just because I had to,” he recalls. “My first song was obviously my first girlfriend. Then I just kind of messed around with it, and it was just for fun. It was always just for fun until Nashville, and then it became like a job.”
Brody was working at a B.C. sawmill camp when he received the initial invitation to Music City, U.S.A.
“I’d gotten some interest from a publisher but I didn’t have a large enough repertoire,” he recalls. “He said just keep sending me songs. So I’d record them on CD and send them down. All we had for communication at the forestry camp was a CB radio, and I’d check for messages. And eventually, one message said, ‘Send your song ‘Brothers’ down. A week later, I got a call and the message on the CB radio was, ‘Yeah, I’m in. Let’s do this. C’mon down and let’s talk terms. That was it – I spent six years in Nashville.”
Brody started out in Nashville like everyone else – writing as often and with whomever he could. “It’s quite expected, when you work with a publisher, that you co-write,” he says. “For two years, I really did try. I wrote every day and I forced myself in an office to write every day for at least six hours. And that burned me out.
“But I write a lot differently than most people do when it comes to writing. It’s a real personal thing for me – something that I can’t really plan. It just kind of happens. So to have a structured songwriting regimen was probably one of the worst things I could have done for myself. After those first two years writing, I had to take a year off. I just couldn’t stand it. I was so burnt out.”
Usually, extended time away from your craft can prove to be frustrating. For Dean Brody, it was just the opposite. “Actually, it was a real relief,” Brody chuckles. “It sounds crazy, but because I had kind of been forced to write every day for two years, I needed some space. I find that for me to write a song, it’s always been a formula: there has to be space and time, and my most inspired moments are usually when I’m not even thinking about music.
“I don’t have a guitar in my hand. I’m out by the ocean or in the mountains or somewhere quiet. For having that year off – I dabbled a bit, I wrote, but I didn’t force any regimen – it really helped me get my feet back under me as a songwriter.”
Today, Brody says his inspiration is chiefly triggered by something visual.
“I do write a lot from imagery,” he admits. “When I sit down and write a song, usually it’s not a feeling at first. I usually see a picture and I try to paint it so that other people can see it.”