10 Questions with ... Frankie Ballard
August 21, 2016
BRIEF CAREER SYNOPSIS:
The best music is about connection, that place where words and music allow an artist's reality to fire real emotion in listeners. And it's just that connection that has been at the heart of Frankie Ballard's rise as an artist. That connection has also led to back-to-back-to-back #1 singles with "Helluva Life," "Sunshine & Whiskey," and "Young & Crazy." Ballard is one of the genre's most nuanced singers and writers, someone whose long road history and wide musical taste add substance to his obvious surface appeal. From appearing on the Grand Ole Opry to playing packed arenas opening for Kenny Chesney, and on major tours with Taylor Swift and longtime idol Bob Seger, Frankie has honed his stage show and forged his own unique path through the Country landscape. Through it all, he has never lost his love for doing what he does best -- taking his music to the people. Ballard recently released his critically acclaimed "El Rio" album, and is currently on the road in support of that project's second single, "Cigarette." He most recently partnered with Allstate Insurance for a motorcycle safety initiative and to acknowledge the first-ever "Guardians Of The Ride." Ballard took time out of his busy schedule to talk to All Access about the music, how life has changed in recent years, and what he loves about motorcycles.
1. Frankie, thank you for taking time to speak with All Access. You've had a lot going on recently, and I want to start with discussing "El Rio." There's a favorite saying of mine that "Not all who wander are lost." This album feels like that quote to me -- like you've wandered off the beaten path in order to find yourself. How much Frankie Ballard lives in this project?
That's so cool - great quote. I mean, fully. Fully, fully, ya know? I am 100 percent committed to be 100 percent committed. I'm all-in, all the time. All I've been doing for the past 12 years since I started this band in Kalamazoo, Michigan is this. Just trying to make it better, trying to refine it, trying to write better songs, and trying to tighten up the band. Just trying to reach more people and be a musician. And so when it came time to make this album, I am just head over heels.
2. For "El Rio," you wandered off -- quite literally -- to El Paso, Texas. Why did you choose that location; what was the appeal that took you outside of Nashville to record; did you work toward a new sound with the project intentionally, or did it happen because of the location?
I get so distracted in Nashville. I do a lot of recording there, but it's always people stopping by to say hello and bringing you over little sandwiches. Which, that's great. They want to see if you're cutting any hits in there! It's always, "How we doing?" But I get pulled by living in a town and working in that town. I just get pulled in different directions. And I knew that this project needed to go to the next level, and that I needed to continue to sharpen my sword. The only way to do that was to really focus, and I couldn't do it in Nashville. I tried. So, I started looking for places outside of town, and I discovered this place in El Paso, Texas. I thought immediately, "Now this is what I'm talkin' about!" I've always been on that search, though. I'm sort of afflicted with that in a way, ya know? I'm always looking to make my thing better and to make my sound more of my sound. When I was a kid in my bedroom, I dreamt of being able to play on stage for people someday - but I also dreamt about being the guy with the hot, new sound. So, I'm always trying to do that - to find what's next, and figure out what's the next part of my evolution. I always want to be growing as an artist, and I think that's what this project is all about.
3. Your first single out of the gate with this album showed a little bit of a softer side. I even had one radio guy tell me "It All Started With A Beer" was the song he and his wife were going to use for a vow renewal ceremony. Was that a conscious decision on your part to take the music in a different direction from the onset of the "El Rio" launch?
Yeah, it was. We had come off of "Young & Crazy," which was an up-tempo, party, feel-good kind of thing. And I guess I was feeling sentimental about things at the time. I certainly was feeling sentimental about my career. For me, "It All Started With A Beer" doesn't have to be a relationship song. And I think that's what attracted me to it. On the surface, it smells and feels and is so much of a relationship thing. It reflects back on this long, important, monumental, big-picture thing in your life - this relationship. And, it's crazy how something can start in such a small, humble way. But for me, I just thought about myself back in those bars and honky tonks trying to make it - a lot of times, just playing for beer! And seeing those people out in the crowd - that's really what I was thinking about. I'm really excited to be moving on to "Cigarette" now.
4. Speaking of "Cigarette," you've turned up the dial -- a lot! Not only is there a gritty, rock vibe to this newest single, but it is straight-up sexy! I believe your label VP referred to this one as "a song about lust." What made this the right single choice for you at this time?
I think it's a really great example of what the new sound is. Of all the new stuff, I think "Cigarette" encompasses the vision, sonically, of what we were trying to go for. It's a smaller band - it was just a five-piece band - recording live. That's something I wanted to do for the sound. But we were trying to make that hip, ya know? Trying to make that cool - just five guys, playing old-school kinds of instruments. I think "Cigarette" succeeded in that, and I think that's why I'm so excited to get that one out there. That one feels, to me, like the gold we were looking for - the treasure at the border. I don't think music has to be overly complex. It can be, and it's amazing when it is, and you can connect all these complex dots in your head. But the truth is, sometimes, it's good to have a song to listen to that's just simply about something. And lust - that's something! Let me tell ya! And I think it's something people don't talk about a lot. Being in love is one thing, but being in lust is a completely different thing. And that's this guy in the song - he's sitting in a bar, and he's looking at this girl, and he's thinking, "I don't want anything else. I don't want a relationship; I don't want her phone number." All he can think about is just wanting to be the thing that's on her lips. That cigarette, that red wine - a toothpick - whatever it is! That's just red-hot focus, and lust is that red-hot focus. It's that simple, and I celebrate that. I think it's going to be cool, and I can't wait to see how people react to it.
5. When we talk about the gritty, rock vibe to "Cigarette," and the unique sound of "El Rio" as a whole project, we have to discuss the players. How did you put together the band you wanted to head out to Texas and play this album live as it was being cut, and what was the experience like taking that team of players out of town to record?
That was kind of a diligent process. It was my producer, Marshall Altman, and me. We sat down and looked at each other, and we just said, "Okay. This is part of the deal and part of the process. Who's going to be this band?" And we really toiled over it. But we felt like it had to really be right, because we were taking this band down, and it was going to be the whole thing. So we started on the process of really discovering the lineup. And it really was so perfect. It was actually a spiritual adventure for all of us, to get to go and do this record in a retreat-style. We were down there on the border for ten days eating Mexican food and doing nothing but making music. We could barely even get a cell phone signal. So it really had to be the right guys; they had to be the right players, but they also had to have the right attitude about all of it. We were looking for more - for that extra fifteen percent. That extra percent from just being out of the regular studio and being out in the desert. That extra fifteen percent of inspirations from the band, because we were on this mission. We wanted all those extra bits to try and make the music better. And it's translating live every night. We're playing the new album, and I think that's important for everyone to know. In a lot of ways, we're treating this like our first album. We're playing "Sunshine & Whiskey" and doing all of that stuff, but we have a five-piece band out there live on the road, and we're playing this record just as it was recorded - live. It has been such a fun experience. We're going for it, and we're standing on it. We're not being shy or apprehensive about it in any way; we're really being very bold on the road. I would encourage folks to be bold in how much they play "Cigarette," too! Haha! Because we're playing it live every night - from the bottom of our hearts, just like we recorded it live. I want my radio guys and gals to know that - I want them to know that I'm standing behind the work we did in El Paso every single night on the road. The majority of this set is new stuff, and we're taking it to the people.
6. With "El Rio," you took a lot of chances and stepped outside the box to create something very special. As a whole, what do you hope the project says about you, and what do you hope fans take away from the album after a full listen?
Well, I really hope they understand that I'm an artist who will always be evolving and growing. I'm trying to get closer to my influences. I think that's the best thing an artist can do, is to just be as genuine and honest as possible. I'm trying to be the best that I can be for them. I think they'll hopefully learn a lot about me from this, because I poured a lot of myself in to this album. If an artist is honest about what influences them and is honest about what turns them on, musically, that's when you're going to get the best out of them, and you're going to get the most realistic snapshot of who they are as an artist. That's what I want people to see, ya know? It's a lot of stuff that I had to get off my chest, and now it's for the people. I hope that people hear this music, and they go, "Yeah, man! That's just what I needed." Because I need music in my life. I needed to make this so I can move through my life and get through the things I need to get through. And I'm certain there are a lot of people in the world who are like me. I've always been a person who has really counted on music and relied on it in a big way. Whether I'm feeling down, or I need to get jacked up to do a workout, or I'm trying to be inspired - I've always turned to music. So, this is for those people who are looking for music. And hopefully they'll get it and go, "Yeah! This is just what the doctor ordered!" But I was just trying to be the best I can be, and I'll be doing that again when it comes time to make another album - just trying to beat this one and find what's the even more focused version of Frankie Ballard. Trying to find what's an even better version of me. I hope the fans celebrate that, because that's really who I am.
7. Who you are is also an avid motorcycle enthusiast, am I right? It's something you've been involved in for over a decade. What kind of bike do you currently have, and do you have a favorite location to ride? Is there a "dream ride" you'd like to take somewhere specific?
Great question! I've had a lot of bikes over the years. I'm currently mostly riding this Triumph Bonneville. I don't have a lot of time to take long trips, and the Bonneville is a good around-the-town sort of thing. You can throw a gal on the back and ride down for an ice cream cone, no big deal, just kind of a café style. I love going on long rides, though. I love being out in the wilderness. I've also done the Tail Of The Dragon over in the Carolinas down in to East Tennessee. The Baja in Mexico. California is a wonderful place to ride. Anywhere, really. Anywhere! I'll take it any time. I want to do the French Riviera, down through Monaco. I want to feel like James Bond, but on a motorcycle. You can hop on the back and come with me.
8. You've also partnered with Allstate Insurance Company for the Guardians Of The Ride initiative to recognize safety advocates who have dedicated their lives to improving motorcycle safety through the education of riders and drivers alike. Can you tell us about this partnership, how the program works, and why this is a passion-point topic for you?
I'm in Sturgis, South Dakota right now. And there's about - oh, like - a squillion motorcycles in town, and we're enjoying life right now. Sorry it's so loud, there are so many motorcycles going by - but it sounds pretty good to me, actually! This initiative, though, is all about motorcycle safety. It's new, and it came out in May, which is Motorcycle Safety Month. The Guardians Of The Ride are people who are elected by Allstate Insurance Company, and they're heroes - they're local heroes in their community who have brought motorcycle safety to another level. For example, from my home state of Michigan, there's a lady who has been the one gathering information, organizing people, writing letters, and getting it done. And now, there has been legislation passed in the state of Michigan - because of her - that says that in order to get a driver's license in the state of Michigan, you have to pass a certain amount of motorcycle safety knowledge, even if you don't intend at all on riding. Which, I think, makes the road a safer place to be on two wheels. So, Allstate Insurance Company has picked five of those people this year and has honored them in their hometowns. But that wasn't quite enough, so now Allstate has brought us all out to Sturgis, and we're going to honor them all again! It's all about the celebration of the motorcycle at the biggest rally in the world. It's a community, it's a culture, and it's something that I'm a part of that I love. The way to preserve that is by keeping everybody safe and making sure we can all show up here next year. So that's what we're doing - celebrating them, celebrating motorcycle safety, and celebrating everything on two wheels!
9. Frankie, you've always been so focused on making connections - connecting with your motorcycle community, of course, but also with your fans and the industry at radio. A lot of the guys and gals at radio have been with you on this ride for a while, and really consider you a friend and want to see you succeed. What does your relationship with radio mean to you, and how do you continue to foster your relationships with radio as your schedule continues to fill up?
You know what's crazy is, my schedule has always been busy. I'm always playing shows, and I'm always trying to do my thing. We're like a 70s Rock band in that way - we're always out playing a new album! So, for me, what does that really mean? It means that you're out there living your dream. And as you're trying to do that, radio has been one of my biggest partners in trying to make that dream come true! Since that very first time I went out and started going around to meet everybody when I was just a punk-ass kid from Michigan. I didn't know anybody, and I was out in Seattle, then I was out in Texas, or then down in Florida - and I was just trying to meet everyone I could so I could introduce myself and say, "Hey, I'm Frankie, and I've got this music. You should check it out, and you should play it." And then, people started playing it! Now, over the years, seriously just look at everything they've done for me! Just by playing that music - by sharing my thing with their listeners. That's everything; it's paramount. It has gotten me from being a regional guitar slinger in a bar hollering and kicking around and putting on a Rock and Roll show. And now, we're getting to do it everywhere! That's the power of radio! So for me, it's like a fundamental thing - it's like putting gas in your car. These people are your partners. I don't look at it - I've never felt entitled to one spin that I've gotten. I think every spin I've ever gotten has been because somebody made the decision and said, "Yeah, Frankie Ballard. That's a yes from me. I'm going to play this on my radio station." That's a partnership, ya know? I try to stay in touch with my partners, because I love my partners. They're everything to me. It's easy for me to text somebody or see someone and ask how they're doing - these guys and girls are my partners and my teammates!
10. The last time we had a chance to talk with you was over a year and a half ago when those teammates of yours got together and voted you as one of the CRS "New Faces" Class Of 2015. You've been a working musician and hard-core touring act for over a decade now. Did that show and being named as a "New Faces" member of that class give you any kind of positive reinforcement or change your outlook on your career in any way?
Absolutely! The writing is on the wall. The one reason you're standing up there at the "New Faces" show is because those people decided you should. That's the community of people that you're trying to be in a partnership with, and with that comes great responsibility. At least, that's how I feel. So, when I was down in El Paso cutting "El Rio," for example, that really was on my mind. I was thinking, "I have a responsibility to these partners of mine. They're counting on me to come back with some great music, because they've told people that I'm going to be around and that I'm a guy you should be looking out for in the future." They put their name out on the line by putting my name out there. They stood up for me, and they've written my name down as a vote. Then, they went one further and really played the music! So, yeah, I've got to deliver. I've got to come through for these folks and really be the best I can be. And I felt that responsibility to my partners. So that changed a lot of things - it changed my whole perspective on what I'm doing. We're not going back - we're going, and this is what we're doing. We're in this thing together, baby! Thanks for inviting me out to the island - I'm going to get all the firewood and take care of my chores! I'm going to do my best to be my best, because I don't ever want to let you down.
Since everyone is currently in the Olympic spirit, can you tell us what Olympic sport - either Summer or Winter - you'd fare best in, and at which you'd fail miserably?
Wow. It's hard for me to say that I'd crush anything in the Olympics. I mean, if I could, I'd probably be there. Let's just be honest, these people are superior athletes! And, I'm going to be just straight-up honest with you, I've always really admired the gymnasts. I think those guys are just so strong! Just the physical prowess of those athletes is really second to none. The gymnastics I've always enjoyed, and I've also really always enjoyed the track and field events. It's so traditionally Olympic. But I tell you what I'd be terrible at - the pole vault! That just seems so hard! And the hurdles look terrible - it looks like just the worst event to ever have to train for, so I have nothing but respect for our Olympic athletes. And our American athletes are really rocking it this year. I can't imagine all of the training and the work - and the years of dreams - that these athletes have behind their performances every four years. Their journeys to get there are so extensive. That's something to be proud of for them, and for America.