Randall Bramblett is a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist whose credits include work with Sea Level, Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, and Robbie Robertson. Bramblett released his third solo album, See Through Me, in 1997, two decades after his previous solo release. During that 20-year period, Bramblett was a member of the Southern jazz fusion group Sea Level and a touring member of the reunited Traffic, as well as a busy studio musician.
A lot of people are labeled singer/songwriters. Which do you facy yourself being more of?
I like writing songs and getting to produce and perform them – the total package for me. I have been a sideman a good bit of my life playing with different groups like I’m sure you’ve got a list of who all I’ve played with. That’s fun in itself too, but there’s a lot more fulfillment to me of being in the creative process of writing songs and getting them on a record and actually performing live. The whole package is what’s exciting to me, although I love playing with some people as a side person. It’s a lot of fun and a lot less pressure. This is like fulfillment of a dream for me to be able to write and get it on record and get out and play the songs in front of people.
Does writing come more naturally to you than picking up an instrument?
No, writing is much harder to me. I have to really get in a writing mode, which is totally different from performing. If you’re going to write something from the heart it requires getting in that space where you’re in touch with more stuff than just the sounds; like the lyrics and what ‘s going on in your life, relationships with other people. To me, that’s what goes into writing. I can’t just pop in and out of there. I have to spend some time in there and get into that mode because normally just the playing the music mode, you play the songs, play the solos and have fun with it. It’s a lot different than sitting in your basement trying to come up with inspirational stuff – getting in that mode where I’m receptive.
Do you ever worry when writing that you’re being too honest or open?
Not so much that. My songs are not too terribly confessional. It all relates to stuff going on in my life. I usually don’t write autobiographical songs like somebody like Alanis Morrissette. (laughs) I don’t worry about that. I worry about the song being worth a damn or not. The lyrics not sounding stupid is what I’m worried about. (laughs) Sometimes you look back and think, “What does that mean?” Or it’s too obvious or too cliché, those are the kinds of things I worry about more than being too honest or too personal.
How did you come into writing? Was it a need to write?
I started writing for real when I was a senior in college. I had a guitar and was sitting in an old house where I had a room. I think listening to people like James Taylor, Traffic and people like that, doing good songwriting stuff at the time encouraged me to sit there with a guitar and come up with some kind of early real James Taylor-ish kind of songs that I started writing. And then I went off in lots of different directions with writing, and then found more of my voice since the 10 ten or 15 years where I found something that seems solid to me – otherwise genuine and authentic writing that comes from my experience and my music rather than copying off somebody else. It took a while. It’s still a challenge. But I’ve been writing since the seventies and only took a short break when I moved to New Orleans for a while. I kind of let go of everything for about three years then came back into music kind of by accident – or fortune, or whatever you want to call it. I went back to school thinking my music career was over back in the late eighties. As soon as I got back into school I got a call from Steve Winwood, who is somebody I really admire and had never met. They asked me to be in that band [Traffic]. Okay, that was a sign I needed to be back in the music business; not just the business, but the writing and playing of music again. I was really missing it anyway. I just couldn’t figure I could do it or make a living at it.
How have you handled the change in the music business since you’ve first started?
I think it’s harder now to get heard than it was back then because there’s so much more stuff out there and I think competition from other various entertainment things like games and DVDs – millions of other distractions. The number of groups make it really hard to get heard and I think the situation with radio is much harder, unless you happen to fit in the slot and do rock or country, or whatever format they have. It’s just harder to get heard. Back when we were with Sea Level we got played a ton. I’ll bet you we don’t get played anywhere now except AAA radio. Things have tightened up I think and gotten bought up by huge conglomerates. That includes radio. It’s just hard right now to get your stuff heard, even if you’re on a label.
Do you find it easier to write today than when you first started?
No, it’s not easier. In some ways it’s harder because I can’t just reach for the right inspiration and come up with several songs in one night or something like we used to do. What I do to write when I’m in a writing mode is to show up every day in my basement with my instruments and something to record on and just keep showing up and keep taking notes during the day. Eventually something does pop out and you get a kernel of a song. It’s like any kind of writing. Once you get the idea and the kernel of the thing, the rest falls into place. But getting that kernel to me is not easy. Some of it is being aware I think, and having something to write on and write it down. All you need is a sentence and a couple of words. Then the song appears. It hasn’t gotten easier doing it the natural way. You have to have patience with it. Sometimes you go down for many days and nothing happens. That’s discouraging.
Which do you prefer, performing live or recording?
I have to do both, but I love recording. There’s something about taking a song from birth all the way into a full production – whatever that may be. It’s really exciting for me. But, that wouldn’t be enough for me to be a recording person, either. Performing, especially with the band I have now has given us all a new lease – especially me – a new lease on playing because these guys are always pushing the envelope. They’re such great musicians. You have to play good every night. So both of them are necessary for me.
What is your writing process? Do you write with the intent for recording?
When I go down to write I just pray to God that something comes up. (laughs) I know in the back of my mind I need songs for the next record, but I’m not actively trying to put something together like that. I’m just looking for a song that will maybe point the way, like what direction we’re going in on this next record. I just go in and hope something happens.
What influence did growing up in Jesup, GA have on you?
It has a lot to do with the kind of nature that’s around there, which is swamp and woods, and the river. That and being near the coast had a spiritual affect on me. Those images appear in songs all the time because to me that’s my soul in there where the coast is and the swamps are. There’s something about it that I don’t know how to put in words. Those images do appear in songs. I also think growing up in a small town also forms your psyche somehow. It was really an idyllic place to grow up in some ways even though we missed out on a lot of culture. It was like a place you could walk around and go and know everybody. There’s something nice about growing up in a small town.
Being from the South, how have you grown musically and culturally since you were young?
I know I’m more in touch with myself than I used to be. I’m not living in some fantasy world anymore. So, what I write is not as much bullshit as it used to be – if that makes any sense. I’m more real I think. Culturally, I don’t know. I think it’s just more growing older. It’s given me a sense of compassion for people, because I’m there too. It’s not going to be long before I’m not going to be here. I see my parents getting – my dad’s died and my mom’s really, really old. You see things fading away and passing away. It does lend a certain weight to things – a certain meaning. I don’t know about culturally, but I feel I am deeper than I was.
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