When he parted ways with Big Machine, Nick Fradiani could have let it break him. “I never thought I wanted this, but it chose me,” he rallies his heart and his mind on “We Live Forever,” a stark Lumineers-shimmering anthem. Written soon after the record deal fell through with Nashville’s head forward indie titan, he turned his attention to writing his “redemption song,” he says. “What you do goes on far longer when you’re alive, and you have to keep pushing forward. We wanted it to sound as big and anthemic as we could.”
“We won’t surrender,” Fradiani, American Idol‘s Season 14 champion, blazes amidst glistening drums and chest-deep backing vocals. “We live forever / This is forever / We won’t go.” As he rose from the ashes, he left Nashville and returned to his hometown of Guilford, Conn. to wipe the slate clean. “I kind of knew what was going to happen just by numbers and what I wanted to happen. Once it all went down, I went back home and started hanging with my old music buddies,” he tells B-Sides & Badlands over a recent phone call. “Without even realizing it, we started writing which ended up being for this project. We were actually working on some country tunes at one point.”
Still signed with the publishing arm of Big Machine, he flexed those opportunities to sharpen his song craft. “One of those songs ended up getting turned into another kind of song for this EP. All of sudden, we found ourselves entrenched in wanting to finish a new project. I think it was cool for me,” he says. That adrenaline rush made his head spin. “I think I was down for a little bit, but once I got the music going, I was like ‘alright, now I’m motivated again.’”
Where We Left Off (produced with longtime friend and guitarist Nick Abraham) was bred of his reinvigorated sense of self-worth and wanting to prove he wasn’t actually down for the count. Scattered between smokey western flavor (“Outlaws”), searing jungle-house (“I Can’t Be”) and front-porch blues (“Scared”), Fradiani’s first independent release post-Idol clips on the heels of last year’s Hurricane, a staunchly chunky and provocative foray of polished Top 40 hits. “I know it’s a little over a year after my last release, but considering all that went down, I thought we got it all done at a nice, quick rate,” he explains. “I’m looking to get stuff out quickly again. I don’t want to be somebody that puts out a record every three years, especially since I’m doing this independently. I don’t have to get through all that red tape.”
With more than a dozen new songs in his back pocket, Fradiani hopes to keep the proverbial train chugging down the tracks. “Hopefully, once this tour ends, I’ll get back in the studio and get something else out,” he teases.
Below, Fradiani reflects on lessons learned with Big Machine, what he misses most about Nashville and where he’s headed next.
The lessons you learned while on Big Machine, were they crucial to where you and your music could go next?
Oh, yeah. There were a lot of lessons learned over the last year and a half, I’d say. There were a lot of good experiences being on that label, and then, you also learn a lot about yourself and about the music industry. Things that you do, maybe next time I wouldn’t do that or do it differently. The biggest lesson I learned that I definitely took into this current project is basically like anything in life, you have to go with your gut. Nobody knows you better than yourself. Just because someone is in a certain position, doesn’t mean they’re right. Especially with an artistic platform, you have to go with what you believe in and what represents you in the best way possible.
You mentioned writing country tunes and one of them turning into a song on this record. Was it “Outlaws”?
That is my favorite. I think you could tell we were on that kick a little bit. Nick sent me just that guitar hook. I was actually on an airplane. I forget where I was coming from, but I was listening to it. I think he also had that first line. I thought “well, what the hell are we going to do with this?” I thought nothing of it. I kept having it in my head, so I figured out what he was doing on the guitar and came up with the melody. I think we had a radio gig or something, and he and I were at a hotel, and we wrote it all in one quick sitting. That one has been going over the best at shows.
The “country tune” was actually the last song “I Can’t Be.” It was country’d out, and we messed around with the production of it and turned it into something totally different. Even “I’ll Wait for You” has a little country vibe to it. It was just from living out in Nashville for awhile. My old stuff prior to ‘Idol’ had that to it, too.
Who is singing that blistering intro on “Scared”?
That is Melissa Johnson, a girl from the choir that we used. It was so funny how that intro came about. We are going to be putting out a making-of video for that song pretty soon. Basically, that was a gospel choir from New Haven, Connecticut. That one run she did, I told them after we had everything done “how ‘bout you guys just ad lib the last few choruses?” That was one of her ad libs. We were soloing every one of their ad libs, and we listened to Melissa’s and were like “holy shit, listen to that run, it’s perfect.” We didn’t have to tune it or anything. We were just messing around and put that first. It came out really cool.
I told Nick I wanted to write a song that could use a choir. When you do that, usually, the song doesn’t come out that well. But we had it in our head and wrote it. I contacted the choir before the song was even totally finished. That’s how much I knew the song was going to work. Even my buddy Nick was like “dude, you’ve got to slow down, I don’t know if this is going to work.”
What inspired that song?
I was starting to write on the piano, which I don’t normally do. I was messing around with some ideas. I’m a big fan of Ryan Tedder, and OneRepublic had just put out a song called “Choke,” which had a similar vibe to it with a big choir. I was like “man, I gotta write a song like that.” There was something in mind with why I wrote the lyrics the way I did. It didn’t have to do with a relationship. It had to do with a person struggling with substance abuse. They knew it was bad for them but they kept going back to it. Of course, then, I used the verses to turn it into more of a relationship thing.
“I Can’t Be” has such a reggae, jungle vibe to it. How did all those musical layers develop?
My little cousin calls it ‘The Lion King’ song. [laughs] We felt like the hook needed something different. We just had the original “oh oh oh” without the “na na na.” We were looking for an extra hook, and I started singing that one part over and over again. Nick was like “dude, that’s great.” At one point, we just had it in the bridge, and we kept adding it into different parts of the song. The song had already been written at that point, and the hook came in the recording process. Once that part was written, Nick started adding a lot of those hand drums and other things that give it a very jungle feel.
What journey did the EP take you on?
It just sort of happened. Nick had a studio at his house, and he wrote and produced “Hurricane,” which was written with Jason Mraz. He was involved with my last one but not as much as I would have liked him to be. When I came back home, he was obviously still in Connecticut. We had been in a band together. He was in ‘America’s Got Talent’ with me and been through a lot. We always sort of felt like we had a lot to prove in writing. That’s ‘Where We Left Off’ came from. Me and him were saying “this is where we left off before I did ‘American Idol.’” This is what the songs might have been. That’s where the idea of the title of the EP came from. All of a sudden, we had 10 or 11 songs. It started to sound like a sound I wanted to go with.
When did you know the sonic touch points would be so varied?
That’s just me in a nutshell, musically. I listen to so many different things and have so many different influences. This day and age, people listen to so many different types of music. Everybody I know loves country, and then they listen to 21 Savage. I’m not going to sit here and say “oh, I can’t do that song because of this artist.” I just didn’t care. I was like “alright, I feel like this song should have mandolin” or “this song should have an R&B edge.” On “Outlaws,” the chorus drums are very hip-hop over western-type guitar. We did what we wanted. I made sure all the songs I wrote were me, in terms of vocally. It feels really natural to sing them live.
Are you saving most of the other songs you’ve written for the next project?
There are two I think we’re going to include. Nick and I are probably going to get back into the studio in mid-November once I’m slowing things down. We had the idea of ‘Where We Left Off’ and then, maybe, ‘Where We Are.’ The songs we’re saving are a little darker. I want to build around those two and maybe try to get another four or five to put something else out, probably around the spring.
What did you learn from living in Nashville?
I love that town. At some point, I’ll probably be back there. The thing I learned the most, as a songwriter, you’ve just got to go in there and do your job everyday. Of course, you have to be a talented songwriter, but these guys go into the studio every single day, whether they’re tired or upset, whatever it is. It’s their job. They write two songs a day, for the most part. I only write when I’m inspired. I don’t like to just sit and write. The more you do, the more things come out. You have to make it a job. It’s a fun job, but it’s a job. You put time away every day to write and be creative. There is no one more creative than these songwriters in Nashville. They’re grinding everyday.
Is there a spot you miss most?
I used to live in the Veridian, a high rise over Church Street. So, I was overlooking the whole city. I would always see the Batman Building. That was Nashville to me. I know it’s very touristy, but I used to walk down Broadway all the time. I thought it was such a cool environment. I could hear music everywhere at any time of day. It’s never quiet in Nashville. You’re always hearing music.
Spin Where We Left Off below: