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Brett Conlin's New EP Explores Our Turbulent Year

Brett Conlin's new EP it titled "The Great Divide"
Nic Gundy Photography
Brett Conlin's new EP is titled "The Great Divide."

Bloomington singer/songwriter Brett Conlin said a three-month isolation at home with his family last spring became the fodder for his just released acoustic EP "The Great Divide."

He said the songs on the five-song album spoke to a nation at a loss for words during the events of 2020.

“Definitely the songs ‘All American Reality Show’ and ‘The Great Divide.’ Those were the two big ones I wrote last spring just sitting around. I was like, ‘I feel like I need to say something, I want to put it in a real good, intelligent song form instead of just another status … or another rant,’” said Conlin, explaining “All-American” is partly a fascination with the reality show president just voted out of office.

Burned our Bibles for belief in commander in chief Spewing speech that’s designed to divide Using bigotry and hate to make this country great They’ll package it all up as pride Franchise church in our town wants to help when you’re down A free sticker for your car that won’t go If you’ve got some cash to give they’ll tell you how to live Streamed live from their tax haven home Oh, oh it’s the same old All-American reality show “All-American Realty Show” by Brett Conlin

Though the former President is an obvious target, the blistering five-verse album opener also tackles diversity, the economy, environment, and never-ending war.

“And they all boiled over in 2020, said Conlin. "For the past four years, we've had this train wreck that we couldn't look away from as a country, whether you were pro-Trump or anti-Trump. I think everybody was still paying attention the whole time.”

And with idle time from closing his downtown Bloomington barbershop for COVID precautions, it was difficult to avoid the attention-seeking president. He said he quickly learned to devote quality time to his girlfriend and kids and turned his frustration into what became "The Great Divide" EP.  

“I just kept looking for that light at the end of the tunnel. I kept saying, ‘Alright, it won't get any worse than this.’

Yet the surprises kept coming.

“I'll give him that,” chuckled Conlin of Trump. “I'll give him that.”

Plunging into overtly political material is something nearly all musicians have considered the past four years. The self-described "middle ground" Conlin admits he had reservations.

“I want everybody to appreciate each other and to come together when we can,” he explained. “So, I tried really hard to dive into that without name calling and without insulting anyone personally. Because I didn't think that was necessary. But I think I still got to the point and I think people still realize, 'OK, this is what he's thinking.' I was like, ‘If I can just be bold enough to say what I think but not be overly, vicious about it.”

The EP’s title track follows “All-American.”

When do we get back to normal? That’s all anybody says anymore At least we got to get drunk in a beer garden Before we start the next civil war It’s all unreserved and informal Using headlines to make headway Who said regurgitating social slang Would make all our problems go away “The Great Divide” by Brett Conlin

"Yeah, those first couple lines in the song were just born out of frustration,” said Conlin, adding small talk is not his communication default.

“So, having that conversation over and over and over again, with people, I was like, ‘Yeah, I get it. Everybody wants to go back to normal.’ But a good amount of people that don't want to contribute to what is going to take to get back to ‘normal,’” said Conlin.

He said he tried to do his part by shutting down his barbershop from mid-March until June. Once open, Conlin found talking to customers helped him get a broader perspective on how the community feels about the closing of businesses and schools.

“But for me, personally, it was making a choice,” said Conlin. “OK, do I want to be a business that is on the forefront of being safe? And do that as long as I need to? Or do I want to be one of the businesses that's trying to rebel against the guidelines we had to get through?”

“The Wish, The Well” is another song on “The Great Divide” that delves into political material. But this time he tried to get inside the mind of a woman for a song about political and religious leaders trying to control women's bodies. But when he dove in, he found the female perspective daunting.

“So, I had to do many, many revisions. I wrote the whole song and I sent it to my friend Jared Grabb. He said, ‘if you're trying to write from a female perspective, I don't think you're hitting the mark yet.’ What I had written with the first couple songs were sarcastic, kind of a little bit witty and things like that. But he's like, ‘if you're trying to tap into this female character and perspective, you've got to go softer, you've got to be more emotional and you've got to be more direct still.’"

Then he wisely consulted his girlfriend and female songwriter friends who signaled their approval.

“The one thing I didn't want to do was mansplain a song about women's rights to women, you know,” he chuckled.

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Jon Norton is the audio director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.