Brian Kelley Finally Shares His Voice — Literally — on His Debut Solo Album, ‘Sunshine State of Mind’
He might be one half of the duo behind one of the most recognizable sounds in country music, but Brian Kelley knows that fans might not immediately know that it's his voice if they hear him singing solo on the radio. That's because Kelley's role in Florida Georgia Line has typically been as a harmony vocalist, with his bandmate Tyler Hubbard taking lead.
"If I do have to reintroduce myself [as a solo artist], I'm fine with that. And that's understandable, too, because Tyler's been the lead voice of our group, that's awesome," Kelley explains to Taste of Country and other outlets during a recent virtual press event. "It's all love, and it's all positive. I like putting in the work. I think it's a great time to reintroduce myself."
Fans got their first taste of what a Kelley solo project might sound like when he dropped his solo EP, BK's Wave Pack, back in April. Across its four songs, the artist who puts the "Florida" in Florida Georgia Line offered up the mission statement of his "beach cowboy" sound: "Party-all-day pop and love-all-night country, with a splash of spiritual sincerity," he said to describe his musical style at the time.
Kelley doubles down on that tropical aesthetic with Sunshine State of Mind, a full-length project that includes all four of his Wave Back songs and expands the track list to 17 in total. With titles like "Boat Names," Sunburnt," "Highway on the Water," "Party on the Beach," "Boat Ride" and "By Boat," it's clear that there is a theme, and a common setting, for the songs. But Sunshine State of Mind is more than just a carefree day at the beach: It's also a look into the Florida native's backstory, his memories of growing up on Ormond Beach and the ways in which the setting feeds his soul.
"They're all personal. They're all real. They're all a part of my life," Kelley explains. "A deep dive would be 'Don't Take Much,' which is one of my favorite songs [on the album.] It's a love song. Me and [my wife] Brittney lived in our carriage house on our property in Florida from last May 'til middle of November. Just a small tiny apartment, with four big ol' dogs. We're crammed in, and we had an absolute blast."
This was in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns, after artists' lives and touring schedules came to an abrupt and indefinite halt.
"Everything that we loved and knew was stripped away, and at the end of the day, we had a roof over our heads, and our dogs, and each other," he continues. "I'd always known that and I'd always believed that, but until it happened and the rug was kinda swept out from under us ... I feel like me and Brittney got closer. Our happiness level went through the roof just from being in more of a simplified life than we're used to."
That song describes a recent moment in time from Kelley's life; others, like "Florida Boy Forever," are broader story-songs that share a bird's-eye view on his life to date.
"I talk about where I grew up in Ormond Beach, catching crayfish out in the creek, in the first verse," he explains. "Second verse is kinda modern-day: Married, me and Brittney, family. [I've] been on some travels, seen some things, but I'll always be a Florida boy ... No matter where I go, I'm gonna have some sand in my suitcase, you know?"
Despite his extensive travels as one half of Florida Georgia Line and the life he's built in Nashville, Kelley says it's being home in Florida that feeds his artistic identity the most. That's abundantly clear in the songs on Sunshine State of Mind, many of which were written "at the beach, [or] on the dock," instead of during more typical, structured songwriting sessions.
"Well, there's something to be said about being where you wanna be," Kelley reflects when asked to elaborate on his creative affinity for being in his home state. "And I love Nashville ... but ever since I left Ormond Beach to chase a dream and do these things, I always knew, whenever we could afford it and God worked it out, I wanted to be hubbed out of Florida. And whenever we have kids, I wanna raise them in that lifestyle, in that place."
Kelley has always been inspired by Florida — the state is right there in his band name! — but he says that a few of his colleagues in the music industry, like producer and songwriter Jesse Frasure, were a little surprised when they first heard Sunshine State of Mind.
"He goes, 'Dude, I don't mean this in anything but a great way, but I did not expect this,'" Kelley recounts of the first time he played his solo project for Frasure. "'Nobody knew what you were making. I think everybody thought you were making a hip-hop album, or something.' Which would've been cool, too! But he's like, 'Dude, this is so you.'"
That kind of response — the comment from his peers and fans that his solo project is an expression of his authentic self — is the best compliment for Kelley.
"I think people are surprised, in a great way," he says. "I hope it's connecting. I just feel like, for me, this is my most authentic self and voice and music."