All Eyes on Briana Calhoun

Can you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your musical journey and background?

My name is Briana Calhoun and I’m not just a singer/songwriter or an artist, I’m a mother, a teacher, and president of a nonprofit called Hope on the Inside. These different hats may seem unrelated, but they actually all fit together perfectly. I’m a former inmate of Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. I was institutionalized for the better part of three years in my early 20s. But, with a little grace, and a lot of grit, I managed to find my way. When I was released in 2012, I had 2 changes of clothes, no money, and no vehicle. But I had a lot of determination and faith in myself. I knocked on every door I could and wouldn’t take no for an answer – five years later I earned my masters degree in education, and was able to get a special pardon from the state that allowed me to teach. A few years after that I began to pursue my first love of songwriting. It didn’t take long for folks in Nashville to catch wind of my sound and story, including country music legend and my fellow Louisiana native, Kix Brooks, of Brooks and Dunn. Fast forward a few more years and I now run a nonprofit geared towards giving skills, resources, and hope towards men and women in correctional facilities all over the Southeast. I go inside prisons and not only share my music, but my story. At first it was just me, but I started to bring some of my fellow songwriting friends with me and it’s kind of taken on a life of its own now. I’m super excited about the possibilities because I’ve realized how lucky I am to have made it out of my situation not only alive, but with a fair amount of success. I truly believe our reason for being here is to love others. And if you don’t find a way to do that – to lift others up and you’re only seeking what’s going to glorify you – satisfy you… I think that’s a good way to end up empty inside.

Who are some of your biggest musical influences, and how have they shaped your sound and style?

    I grew up singing Gospel music in the Deep South. My family was the church band. My Uncle was the preacher. And we were Assembly of God, which is like Pentecostal but you can wear makeup and cut your hair. So I have a lot of Southern Gospel and country roots. But as I got older I started diving into different genres. My standard has always been good songwriters. I love written melodies. To me, nothing is stronger than the power of the pen. So if you’re a great writer, I’m into it – no matter the genre. But I would have to say the writers I’ve spent the most time on and have influenced me the most are probably Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, and, later, John Prine.

    Can you share a specific artist or album that has had a significant impact on your music?

    My mom is my lifelong inspiration. Yes, we were the church band, but she was also a Christian Country singer/songwriter and even had a couple of top ten hits on Christian Country radio in Texas. This was the 90s when radio was a thing and Christian Country had its own genre. Haha, how times have changed.

    What’s your creative process like when you’re composing or writing a new song?

    The older I get, the less I try to force things to happen. I do the best job I can. I work as hard as I can, and things happen for me. As a songwriter, I like to be as versatile as I can so I don’t really have a set way of doing things. Sometimes I start with an idea and share it with a cowriter, sometimes a story, sometimes a hook, sometimes just a melody that’s been in my head. A lot of songwriters have a system to their creative process, but I find that to be limiting. On a different note, I’m lucky I guess because I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever experienced true writer’s block. There have been periods where I feel uninspired, and don’t write as much as other times. But give me a topic, a line, or a melody and I always have something to say.

    Among all the songs you’ve created, do you have a personal favorite? If so, what makes it special to you?

      I would have to say my favorite song is from my second Nashville EP, Learn Girl. I recorded it at the acclaimed Sound Kitchen Studios and it really resonates with me for a lot of reasons.

      Can you share the story or inspiration behind that particular song?

      As much as I go around teaching about self-love and self-discipline, sometimes it’s easy to talk down to yourself. When you’re at the bottom, and I mean the actual bottom, no one can lift you up but yourself. That’s the truth. And it takes mental toughness to say “Hey, I forgive me. I love me.” Well, about six years ago I was laying in bed chastising myself for some stupid decision I had made (I can’t even remember what it was now), and I was saying, “When are you gonna learn, Briana?” in my head. And just doing a bunch of negative self-talk in general. But I said to myself, you know, why don’t you write a song about how good you are?– a song that has all the things someone who really loves you would say to you. And so the hook “When you gonna learn girl… when ya gonna, when you gonna learn…” is kind of tongue-in-cheek because that phrase normally has a negative connotation, but all the other lines are about having love and faith in yourself and others.

      Let’s talk about your latest song. What’s the title, and what’s the story or message behind it?

      “If These Boots Could Talk” aka “Boots” is an autobiographical song based on the story of how I got to prison, and the mentality I forced myself to have once I got released. The story is centered around a real pair of boots that were my grandmother’s. I particularly enjoyed making the music video because the Sheriff’s Department in Winn Parish – a rural parish in the middle of Louisiana – took their old courthouse jail that was built in the ‘20s and cleared it out for me. It had been being used for storage for decades. Needless to say, it’s pretty raw.

      Share a memorable or unique experience from one of your live performances.

        I’ve done a lot of cool things. But I was playing a festival in Carolina last fall – the Greenville Country Music Fest – and they have a “Patriot Day” where everyone dresses in red, white, and blue regalia. Before the main act goes on stage they honor veterans with PTSD by giving them service dogs. They have active military up there – it’s a whole thing. Well, they asked me to sing the National Anthem right before Travis Tritt and Brooks and Dunn went on to close the show. I was already so moved by the veteran’s ceremony that when I went out on that stage, I was emotional. I told the crowd we needed to come together as a country and I asked if they would sing along with me. I had 30,000 people all singing the National Anthem with me in unison. It was a powerful moment. I absolutely loved it.

        Beyond music, do you have any hobbies or interests that you’re passionate about? How do they influence your music?

          Well as I stated before I’m a teacher and a mother so they’re my other motivation, of course. I know my kids watch everything I do. I want to be a role model for them. I want to be a role model period. I don’t think we have enough women in the music industry who care about that. But coming from prison, building a career as a teacher and then being a mom? It makes you think. It forces you to look at yourself and your decisions. I want to be proud of myself. I want to make good decisions for myself and those who know me. And I want young people to know that they can do the same.

          Is there a dream collaboration you’d like to pursue in the future?

            I’d really love to work with Shane McAnally. Out of all the top-tier songwriters in Nashville, he is the most diverse, which, in my own humble opinion, makes him the most talented.

            What advice would you give to aspiring musicians who are just starting their journey in the music industry?

              Well, I’ve actually put a lot of thought into this and I’ve come up with the “Top Five Things” I wish someone would have told me before I started out in Nashville so here goes:

              1 . Nashville is very humbling. You can be the best singer, songwriter, bassist, guitarist – whatever – from your hometown. But, when you come to Nashville you realize REALLY quick that 99% of the other people there are also the best from wherever their town is and a lot of them – maybe even most — are better than you. It can be very competitive. So you can do one of two things: let that pressure to perform better and be better drive you to success or drive you to failure. I’ve seen both happen to many people many times over.
              2 . Don’t expect to get paid if you move to Nashville. If you play in little towns and festivals and make a few hundred bucks doing those gigs – great. But if you think you’re going to make any money starting out in Nashville, think again. Because there’s another person – Heck, 10 other people – on every corner just as good as you who are willing to do it for FREE.
              3 . People in the music industry are flaky. I feel like this can be true for any industry but it’s especially true for musicians. They don’t show up on time, they don’t follow through, they cancel plans. It’s very hard to find reliable people. Especially if you don’t know anyone. But hang in there long enough and you’ll find that the real pros. They keep their head down and stick it out.

              4 . The cream of the crop rises to the top. That’s something a friend of mine who is one of the best producers in town said once and it stuck because it’s TRUE. The best musicians, and industry people, end up finding each other. There’s a lot of people who are talented, but just can’t seem to get their crap together. Keep showing up. Stay dependable and trustworthy, and eventually the good folks – the ones worth spending time with – will find you.

              5 . Don’t try to force cowrites. If you’re publisher sets you up on a write that’s different. But don’t think you need to ask every songwriter you meet if they’d like to write and don’t get your feelings hurt if they don’t want to write with you. Just like friendships – the best cowrites happen naturally overtime, when there is trust, comradery, and admiration already established.

              Can you give us a sneak peek into any upcoming projects or new music you have in the works? What can your fans and listeners look forward to from you in the near future?

                Sure. So I have some really great shows coming up this summer. I’ll be playing at Carolina Country Music Fest in Myrtle Beach, SC. Then it’s on to Barefoot Country Music Fest in Wildwood, NJ. And then, I’ll be stopping in Nashville for the better part of a month. I haven’t gotten all my shows lined out yet for that, but I’m particularly excited because June 25, 2024 I will have my first headlining show at the world-famous Bluebird Cafe. Any songwriter knows that’s a major milestone, so I’m proud to know that some of my hard work is paying off. And of course, all of my shows can be found on my Facebook and Instagram, for anyone out there wondering (
                But, as much as I enjoy playing at shows and festivals, the prison outreach really keeps me going. When I share my story with inmates and we play for them – men and women – it’s a different level of connection with your audience. Everyone is sober, everyone is supportive. They are all so grateful and humble. You’re not just entertaining a bunch of people there for the party. You’re making a real difference and you can FEEL the joy that comes with that. So, My ultimate goal is for Hope on the Inside to become nationwide. And what’s more, I’d love to play a national tour of prisons all over the country.

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