Pop-rockers American Authors burst onto the music scene back in 2014, with such explosive hit singles as “Best Day Of My Life” and “Believer,” off of their debut album, Oh, What a Life. Since then, the group has released several more albums and EPs: 2016’s What We Live For, 2019’s Seasons, and 2020’s Counting Down EP, which marked their final release with Island Records.
Now, the band is independent once again, and is writing and producing all their music going forward. This big turning point for the group is marked by the recent release of the single “Nice and Easy,” which features Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray.
Read on for our interview with American Authors frontman, Zac Barnett, where we take a deep dive into the band’s history, songwriting process, recent reconnection and the new doors independence is opening for the future of the American Authors sound.
Can you talk about that first jam at Berklee when you played with the other guys and knew this was the right group to start a band with?
Zac Barnett: I don’t know if it was an instant click. It was funny because, maybe this is so silly or shallow, but I went to Berklee in 2006 and at the time when I got there, I had this idea of what band members would look like. I was a huge fan of The Strokes and The Killers, and when I got to school it was like “oh, huh, college kids don’t really look like this in majorities.” And I’m not saying I did either. So when I met these guys I think it was like, “oh, okay, I like playing with these guys, I like writing with these guys.” And it’s funny how when you find like-minded artists, you guys all start to blend into one another. It doesn’t just go for our music, but then it also went with our fashion. There was really something there with the songwriting, the music. You could feel it coming from a really genuine place. It was really cool to see how we grew over the years. When we first started, we were just trying to be straight up pop-rock, then it got a little more into the emo realm, then we went super epic, kinda Coldplay route, we just kept doing linear shifts of the music we were into until we ended up writing “Believer” and “Best Day Of My Life,” which, those two songs, which were initially written as jokes, just messing around, that then created the American Authors sound.
When you were writing those songs, “Believer” and “Best Day of My Life,” did you have any idea at the time that maybe these were something special?
Barnett: Not before they were done. Once they were finished, which didn’t take crazy long, we were kinda like, “oh, this is actually kinda tight, we might have something really special here.” But it was kinda going into the studio and having some guidance from our producer and him just being like, “you guys are always writing these really serious Coldplay-type things, why don’t you guys write something happy.” And I was like “cool man, I got a happy song for you.” And I pick up the guitar and the first riff that comes out is [the riff to “Believer”]. And he’s like, “yo, that riff is kinda tight. You should just sing that riff.” And then it was adding in these layers that kind of birthed what our sound was. It wasn’t overnight, per se, ‘cuz it took us a really long time, writing and writing and writing and touring ourselves to get to that point—one of the biggest things I’ll always say to people is just keep writing, just keep writing and be open to new ideas. If you’re collaborating with people and someone’s bringing up these ideas that maybe are uncomfortable or not really what you’d normally do, just let go, ‘cuz you never know what you’re gonna come up with. I’m not gonna say no to any opportunities. I think back on it all the time. I’m like “dang. What if I wouldn’t have gone up to that writing session that day? What if I would have taken that day off? What if I would have said no to someone trying to push me in a different direction?” It could’ve been a very different life.
Can you go into your writing process—how do you take an idea, with your hopeful vibe, and create a finished product?
Barnett: I think we’ve always been down to really experiment sonically. And you can hear it through our albums. First album, sonically, has a lot of different elements from the second album, and the third album has a lot of different elements from the other two. We’ve always been huge fans of all different genres. But we do like to go into sessions pretty aware of what we would say and what our brand would say. For us, there’s so much craziness going on in the world, music is our escape. I was literally just thinking about this, man, I got so much crap going on in my daily life, for me I don’t want to take that into my work and into my music and into my stage life. I wanna do something fun and positive and hopeful and it’s real, too. And I think that’s why American Authors’ music sometimes resonates more than other artists who are doing a similar type of thing. It’s a fine line where it can get cheesy quick. But I think what we do a good job of is maintaining the realness of seeing that light at the end of the tunnel. It is the idea of staying hopeful. Nothing’s ever gonna be perfect, but if you keep that hope and you keep pushing and working to the next minute, things can, to quote our song, “Believer,” things can get better.
Has your recent shift into independence changed the way you make your music and the way you feel about your music?
Zac Barnett: It’s pretty wild, man. Honestly, it was a good way to leave Island Records. Shout out to Island Records, ‘cuz they were awesome. It was nothing bad, it was just like “hey, we’ve been doing a lot of work together, I think it’s time for our next chapter. Let’s just do one more EP together and then cut ways.” And we did that. Shortly after that, we did a pretty major shift within the band dynamics, where we decided to move forward as a three-piece. Dude, these were some of the biggest steps in our career that just needed to happen. It’s been amazing. Once we did those, we were very safe during quarantine time. The three of us, me, Matt and Dave got together a couple times. They’d fly out to my house, get rapid tested, and we would hunker down in the house and write and record. We wrote, essentially, a full-album’s worth of material. From that, we got this new song with Mark McGrath, we got a bunch of other really rad stuff. It was really cool. This is the first time when we were writing everything 100 percent ourselves and producing everything 100 percent ourselves. The three of us came together and it clicked. “This is where we’ve been, this is where we need to be, easy, let’s go.” I think they’re some of the best songs we’ve ever done. And I think it’s some of the best production we’ve ever had, too. Matt and Dave are crazy track dudes, they’re amazing producers. So I think the three of us together really knocked it out of the park, man.
Your latest single, “Nice and Easy,” was recently released—do you want to just talk about the track a bit, take us behind the scenes on what it was like working with Mark McGrath and how that concept for the music video came about?
Barnett: Working with Island, they always allowed us to kind of write and record however we wanted to. There was no creative control. Logistics of being part of a label, versus right now, it would be getting budgets approved and a video treatment; it wasn’t bad, it was just part of the process. Now, we don’t have to do any of that. It’s these other little things where it’s like, “oh, cool. I can do this myself.” Starting with Mark McGrath, we had the song and we were like, “this kinda sounds like Sugar Ray, how dope would it be to get Mark McGrath?” I got a buddy, shout out Sam Hollander, I hit up Sam, Sam email-introd us, Mark was like “I’d love to.” And at that point, it was me and Mark McGrath texting back and forth. I had him come to my small home studio, I cut his vocals, Matt put it together, boom, that’s done.
With the music video, I got my homie, Chris Greider, shout out, I love working with him, he’s a genius. Here’s our budget, I’m just gonna give it to him and I’m gonna trust whatever his idea was. He just called me one day and he was like “let’s make this video for ‘Nice and Easy’ where the song is talking about all these relaxing things, but everything goes wrong.” I trust the video guy, no one else has a say. Cool, I trust Mark McGrath, that’s that. Nothing was put together by some third party. It was all the most important people in my life there, helping, working on this. And now, when I watch the video back, it’s so fun. It’s got an energy and a vibe, and for me, I know it’s taking it back to those DIY days and just having fun with it, not taking it too seriously and having to appease anyone else.
Is there a purpose behind the way you sing on a song, to fit the vibe of that track?
Barnett: There’s a purpose, for sure. Always a purpose. I’m trying to always work on that, get better on it. I envy those people that can just walk into a room and it’s perfect the first time. It’s so emotionally right. I’m an okay singer, but for me, it can take a little bit longer to like “oh, okay, what’s the emotion, where am I going with this, how do I get myself in that headspace for this and how do I deliver that the appropriate tone?” I think that’s something that I’m still working towards. I think I have a pretty good understanding of it just now, today. It’s always something I like to work on. You gotta feel it.
The Counting Down EP opens with “Brick by Brick” and closes with “Sky’s The Limit”—to me, these songs are connected to one another and are parallel to the American Authors journey—does that notion of connection ring true?
Barnett: It’s super true, man. I think a lot of people say this, the day you make it, the day you get signed is when the real work starts happening. Your problems don’t go away, they just keep amplifying, and it’s tough. I think it’s important to know that the sky’s the limit. For real, I know that’s cheesy, but you just gotta keep running with it and don’t doubt yourself and keep pushing forward. I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow. Being fortunate enough to be a human being, we can really do anything. Anything’s possible. I’ll probably write a lot more bad songs, but hopefully in that batch of not so great ones, hopefully get a few more really, really good ones that shine through and create an amazing life for me and everyone around me. You gotta keep pushing with that stuff.
You keep going through it and you see bands fall off, you see bands break up, you see people give up, quit. We’ve had people tell us, countless times, before we even got signed people would be like “you guys aren’t gonna make it.” Tons of that, and we proved them wrong. And after “Best Day,” plenty of people were like “you guys are just one hit wonders.” And one, I’ll say, I’d rather be a one hit wonder than a no-hit wonder, and two, I’m not done yet. I love being inspired by certain artists who go for so long, and maybe they’re not Maroon 5 where everyday is a hit. That’s fine, I’ll go forever, there’s other things I can do that bring happiness and a feeling of accomplishment. They might not be as big as “Best Day Of My Life,” but you keep building and writing and working, and you’re gonna pass that at some point. You don’t need to cap yourself. You can branch out in so many different ways which will then surpass that, I think.
Coming into independence, was quarantine a good musical opportunity for you?
Barnett: We went into quarantine without these massive changes. We got off the tour and to be truthfully honest with you, I was kinda burnt out on Authors. I went into quarantine completely by myself, musically alone, and I just locked myself in my studio and started writing. I got to a point where I started working on a solo album for the first five months of quarantine. It was amazing. I was stoked on it. And then we made these changes. Moving forward from the label, moving forward as a three piece. That first meeting in quarantine with the three of us, everything switched, it was such a new energy. These minor changes made for a world of difference with American Authors. And then it was like, you know what, everything else can wait.
It’s been pretty amazing. We’re all helping each other with all our own projects. Dave has this record label that he started during quarantine; he’s killing it and we’re all here to support him any way we can. I got my solo stuff, I got another project, and then Matt filmed a movie with his solo original music. Before, we were all so divided, but now, we’re all so together where we’re not just coming together and working on Authors stuff, but we’re also helping each other with all our other projects, and that’s the way it needs to be.
Does the solo project you’ve been working on have a different sonic feel to it than the music you write for Authors?
Barnett: It’s a little more beach-vibey. I definitely kept the positive message. I guess I would say it has a little more hip-hop swag, a little more conversational, laid back beach vibe. It’s dope, man. I got that album done, I finished that. That was a cool experience, ‘cuz I kind of wrote everything alone. And then I worked with a buddy of mine and it was awesome; it was such a cliche modern day collaboration. I would write a bunch of stuff, I would text him voice notes, he would pick out his favorite two or whatever and then we would focus on those two. He would build a track in New York, I’d cut my vocals in L.A., we’d just go back and forth. It was really cool. And it’s a dope album. We’re gonna get all this Authors stuff out. We’ve got some crazy new Authors stuff. Even Mark McGrath on the track is sick—we’ve got some collaborations coming up that are even crazier. But the solo stuff will follow suit.
Now being independent, what does the future of American Authors’ music look or sound like, to you?
Barnett: I think “Nice and Easy” is such a great first release for the next chapter of Authors. That really sets the tone for just fun, up-tempo, real lyrics that still keep that message of hope, but I think they have a much cooler tone than stuff in the past. Because we, again, we’re producing it all ourselves. I think we honed in on what classic American Authors is, and we took that sound to the next level. I think “Nice and Easy,” that really is setting the stage for everything that is to come. And we got a lot of cool collabs, too, it’s really, really fun, man. We’re going outside of the box. It’s collaborations that you have either never heard before or you haven’t heard in a really long time. And I’ll let you know, too, all the collaborations right now are with artists that crushed it in the ‘90s. So it’s super nostalgic and fun and just having a good time, man.
Looking at how you got started, what’s it like now to have generated such a large audience and fanbase; to have really got your music out there in such a big way?
Barnett: It’s amazing. It’s really incredible. It’s so awesome to hear from people on social media, even better, to go out on tour and meet people, talk with people, it never gets old when people reach out and tell me how the music has affected them in a positive way. It’s awesome, man. That’s why we write music. Not only for ourselves, but to hopefully be able to share that message and music with other people so they can put themselves in your story and interpret it in their own way. For what you just said with “Brick by Brick” tying into “Sky’s The Limit,” I’d never heard that theory before, but I love it. I can’t even argue with it at all; it’s sick, I back it.
I like hearing these stories. It’s fun where I get to put a new perspective on the music that I’ve written. It’s a dream come true. I definitely say, hard work pays off. There’s always a little bit of luck, but I think this was all hard work. I’ll be the first to say all the stuff we’re doing right now, it’s all hard work. That video was not an easy video to make. That was hard work. Put in the work, it pays off. Brick by brick, man. One step at a time.
You can listen to American Authors’ latest single, “Nice and Easy,” here.