Gary Allan: Getting Free

Gary Allan returns with a hit single – “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” – and an adventurous new album.

Originally published in the January 21, 2013 issue of Country Weekly magazine.

It’s a natural response for an artist to grow, adapt and make strides toward some kind of ideal, even when the circumstances aren’t favorable. Just ask Gary Allan: This year has brought about some important developments for the singer, including his biggest hit in five years with “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” and a highly anticipated new album. It wasn’t clear skies every step of the way, but Gary is understandably stoked about the days ahead.

“It feels good—2013 feels like it’s going to be our best year. We need it, too,” says the singer as he relaxes on a sofa in his manager’s office in Nashville. “It’s the fastest [moving] song I’ve had. We’ve been doing this a long time, so I think we’re going to get a chance to ring the bell. It’s been way too long since we’ve had it out there. We’re due.”

Not long after its release, Gary decided to use “Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)” and its message of hope and perseverance to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy in the northeast. His team created a special page for the “Every Storm” video and gave away exclusive downloads of an acoustic version of the song to anyone who donated money to the Red Cross for hurricane relief.

The rapid success of “Every Storm,” which Gary wrote with Matt Warren and Hillary Lindsey, has accelerated the release of Gary’s new album, Set You Free (in stores Jan. 22). The album’s title, taken from a line in “Every Storm,” is a pretty good summation of Gary’s own growth—personal, professional and creative—over the last couple of years.

Though his 2010 album, Get Off on the Pain, was highly regarded by critics, it didn’t make nearly the commercial dent the singer would have liked. He points to record-label restructuring as part of the reason for the unusually long gap between his albums. But he stayed busy in the meantime, writing and recording what would become Set You Free.

In retrospect, the turmoil on the business side of his career may have afforded Gary the ability to create the album as he pleased, and now at last everything appears to be lining up in his favor. “It’s a combination of, the song’s there, the team’s there. We’ve got all our ducks in a row,” he says. 

The Southern California native is sometimes known for his darker-edged material (and there’s plenty on Set You Free, to be sure), but there’s a decidedly optimistic feeling permeating Gary’s trademark gritty vocals in the last few songs. The album carries an overarching theme of change as it documents a breakup’s aftermath and the ensuing self-evaluation—beginning bruised and confused with “Tough Goodbye” and finishing in a much better place with “Good as New.” 

Amazingly, this was a little bit of serendipity at work. “I started to see it when I was sequencing [the album],” explains Gary. “It was fun, because this is the first time I’ve ever sequenced something.” 

In addition to putting the tracks in order, Gary co-wrote five of the album’s songs. Among his co-writes is the undeniably upbeat “No Worries,” which has a hint of the islands in its reggae bounce and promises that better things are ahead.

“I wrote with Pat McLaughlin and he had a ukulele. I went out immediately and bought one,” he recalls. “I’m good at writing the dark stuff—that’s my favorite. [But] when you write on a ukulele you can’t help but get bouncy and happy.”

Adding to the album’s spirit of renewal, Gary wrote with a series of female songwriters for the first time. Making important creative contributions to Set You Free are talented ladies Sarah Buxton, Rachel Proctor and Hillary Lindsey, who also provided vocals on “Every Storm.” The change took Gary to some new and exciting places, producing the single as well as “You Without Me” (by Gary, Rachel and John Lancaster) and “Pieces” (by Gary, Sarah and Odie Blackmon).

“Weirdly enough, it was Odie that said, ‘Man, have you ever written with a girl?’ I said, ‘I never have,’” recalls Gary. It’s a surprising admission, considering how prominently women figure into Gary’s life: The 45-year-old is the father of three girls, Maggie, 22, Dallas, 18, and Tanna, 16.

“That song ‘Pieces,’ that’s the first song I wrote with a girl. ‘You Without Me’ is the second and ‘Every Storm’ is the third,” he adds, laughing. “It just brings in a different angle,” he concludes.

Given his reputation for recording authentic, lived-in material, Gary—who has also perfected the lived-in look as co-owner of men’s clothing boutique The Label—very carefully selected outside songs that reflected his current state of mind. It’s evidence of his great interpretive ability that each sounds like something he could have lived at some point, considering his past trials and tribulations.

“Every album I’ve ever made is a stamp of where I’m at. It has to be something I want to say,” he notes. “When I listen to other people’s stuff, I compare it to the stuff that I write and just try to decide whether they beat me on what I was trying to say.”

It was one of those outside songs, “Tough Goodbye” (written by Josh Thompson and Tony Martin), that Gary initially thought would be the album’s first single. At least he did until he played it for his new label boss.

“He listened to it—that was the very first song on the record, and it was nerve-racking anyway because I don’t know the guy and I’m playing him my album seeing if I have a job,” he recollects. “[He] turned around and goes, ‘I like that, [but] I don’t know how that’s going to research.’ I was like, ‘Ow.’ The second one, he was like, ‘That’s a hit.’ It was ‘Every Storm.’”

Set You Free also got a jolt of creative energy from its diversified production team, who got to divide up the songs among themselves for recording. Shepherding the project through the studio were Gary’s longtime collaborator Mark Wright, Eric Church producer Jay Joyce and Gary himself with his touring band and engineer Greg Droman. 

The decision to use his own band on select tracks instead of Nashville’s formidable session players was a bold one, but seems to have paid off. According to Gary, a couple of Set You Free’s biggest standouts—the aggressive rocker “Bones” and the beach-wasted “Sand in My Soul”—came out of these sessions.

“When you step out and you go, ‘OK, it’s just us,’ you get something much more unique and something they won’t be able to re-create as quickly,” suggests Gary.

On the other end of the spectrum, but no less distinct, there’s the jazzy, spooky “Drop,” which Gary recorded with the quirky Jay Joyce. “That’s when I was really starting to freak out about Jay. He had microphones laying on the floor so when the kick-drum hit they all bounced,” says Gary, slapping his legs to mimic the rattling mics. “It reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino movie track.”

Concertgoing fans have already been getting a taste of the new songs in Gary’s live shows. In addition to “Every Storm,” he’s updated his set lists to include “Bones,” “It Ain’t the Whiskey” and “Tough Goodbye.” Once the album hits stores, Gary’s schedule will fill up and he’ll have more shows lined up to support it. But until he hits the road, the proud father says he’s planning to spend some of his downtime with his girls.

“Always,” he says, grining when the subject of his family comes up. “I usually always spend it at home, yeah.”

Back on the album, Gary notes how remarkable it is that Set You Free might have remained locked away had it not been for the enthusiasm of his new label head.

“I gave him the record but I didn’t give him any details. He came out going, ‘I think this should be the single,’” Gary says of “Every Storm,” which he produced and co-wrote. “In another world, I don’t think I could’ve gone in with my band and I don’t think they would have given me the first single—all the things that egos screw up, you know what I mean?”

Much like the gradual shift to contentment that takes place on Set You Free, the environment surrounding its creation was full of change for Gary. Being able to handle the adverse conditions and push himself creatively ultimately made all the difference, and has blessed him with a bright outlook on the future. 

“It was fun to watch it all come together,” he says. “I think what that’s going to do is give me a ton of freedom.”

Or, in other words, set him free.

Jay Joyce: Music City’s “IT” Producer

The recording of Set You Free found Gary working for the first time with mercurial country and rock producer Jay Joyce at Jay’s home studio. Known for his unconventional studio methods and unique-sounding records, Jay’s skills quickly won Gary over and helped push the album into new sonic territory. With recent work on albums by Eric Church and Little Big Town, it’s easy to see why Jay is becoming a go-to guy.

“My manager called me the first day and I was kind of panicked. I feel like I’m in some college kid’s basement with no money,” says Gary with a hearty laugh, recalling the getting-to-know-you phase with Jay. “By the third day, I was a fan. He was a mad scientist in there.

“He pulled more out of me than anybody ever has,” he continues. “I usually don’t play [guitar] on my records, and that’s kind of funny. I’ve made 10 records and don’t play on them. He made me play guitar. ‘It Ain’t the Whiskey,’ that’s me on acoustic, solos, everything. He does it so abruptly, too. He just cranked it all the way up and put my Les Paul on me and went, ‘Go, man!’”

Here are some other albums, both country and otherwise, that Jay has produced:

  • Little Big Town, Tornado (2012)
  • The Wallflowers, Glad All Over (2012)
  • Eric Church, Chief (2011)
  • Sleeper Agent, Celebrasion (2011)
  • Emmylou Harris, Hard Bargain (2011)
  • Cage the Elephant, Thank You Happy Birthday (2011)
  • Jack Ingram, Big Dreams & High Hopes (2009)
  • Eric Church, Carolina (2009)
  • Audio Adrenaline, Until My Heart Caves In/Worldwide (2008)
  • Eric Church, Sinners Like Me (2006)

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