Songwriter Interviews

Kenneth Nixon of Framing Hanley

by Greg Prato

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When Framing Hanley covered the Lil Wayne hit "Lollipop" on a whim in 2008, they had a surprise hit on their hands - one that sent them on the road, delaying their second album until 2010.

You might think that they would want to quickly follow up with album #3, but the band felt the material wasn't up to snuff. They went back to the drawing board several times, until their expectations were entirely met - resulting in the 2014 release of The Sum of Who We Are.

Formed in 2005, the band - which is comprised of frontman Kenneth Nixon, guitarists Ryan Belcher and Brandon Wootten, bass player Jonathan Stoye and drummer Chris Vest - released their first two full-lengths, 2007's The Moment and 2010's A Promise to Burn, on the Silent Majority label. When the band split with Silent Majority, instead of signing on immediately with another label, they opted to go the crowdfunding route, which resulted in the creation of the material that now comprises Sum, which like their earlier albums, merges pop and rock in a mucho melodic manner. In the end, Framing Hanley found a new label to call their home: Imagen Records, which issued the album on April 29, 2014, shortly after this interview took place.

In this discussion with Nixon, we discussed songwriting, the stories behind several hits, and just how the band came to do their unlikely Lil Wayne cover.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's start with the new album, The Sum of Who We Are.

Kenneth Nixon: We started work on this album on - well, technically we started writing for this album on tour in support of A Promise to Burn in 2010. We left our former label and we were kind of faced with the reality of, "All right, what's next?" We have families and things we've got to take care of.

So we wrestled with the idea of doing a crowdfunding for the album. At the time crowdfunding wasn't as big of a phenomenon as it is now, necessarily, and we did not "feel" the idea of asking a fan base to fund the album. We ended up going through with it though, and our fans came through in resounding volume. It was nearly double what we set our goal out to do for an album and the video, and with that I think there became a sudden weight with this album. Not wait, as in W-A-I-T, which there definitely was, but a weight as in it felt like this album had to live up to these expectations we set for ourselves. The fact that the fans of our band paid for the album, we knew we wanted to give them the best album that we could possibly give them at this point in our career and where we are as songwriters.

We took a good chunk out of it two months later. We had 12 songs, and probably ended up keeping three of those on the final album. We felt like we were talking ourselves into liking the album more than we actually did, and some songs just felt like they weren't where we wanted them to be, so we went back to the drawing board and over the course of the next year, year-and-a-half, we would play sporadic shows here and there to make some more money to go and work with various producers on various tracks. It was a lot of trial and error. We just wanted it so there could be no question. When we put out this album we wanted to know that this was the album that we wanted to release and in some ways make it worth the wait - if that's possible - for the fans.

So it feels good to be in the homestretch now after the releases that have been pushed back. Maybe things happen for a reason; we didn't have a label and we were going to release this independently. We ended up having discussions with Imagen Records in the past six months or so, dating back to the fall of last year. And now we have a team that's supporting this album that believe in the album and believe in Framing Hanley as an artist. So our hope is that it was all worth the wait, because I feel like it definitely was from our perspective.

Songfacts: As far as Imagen Records, why did the band choose to go with them and what do they bring to the table?

Kenneth: I'm good friends of Morgan Rose, Sevendust's drummer, and he's A&R there and we just had discussions. We went back and forth from the idea of us releasing this independently or perhaps doing something with a label. And Bob Winegard, who was the president of the label, he was a fan of Framing Hanley. It wasn't just about trying to get a band on the label to add to his roster or anything like that - he approved us in a discussion we had about things, he knew a lot about our band, he knew a lot about our music, our songs. That meant a lot to us as a band, to have somebody like that on our team. Just to see that excitement from someone who would have an instrumental, pivotal role for the band. It felt good to see that from someone and we felt like we were making the best decision for this album and for the future of our band by signing with Imagen Records. So I'm really excited about that.

Songfacts: And how would you say that songwriting works in Framing Hanley?

Kenneth: Different songs are different. A lot of the songs start off with Ryan and I. I have an idea - like the skeleton of a song - and we'll take it, sculpt it all out and take it to the rest of the band. Sometimes it's something as simple as a lyric that I have or even in some cases an idea, a rough structure of a chord structure with a lyric. And then everyone throws in their input and it turns into whatever ends up being the finished product.

There's no set routine that we stick with, because every song of ours has a different story about how it came to be and who brought what element to it. I think it keeps us on our toes as songwriters to write like that.

Songfacts: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Kenneth: You may not be able to tell this from the sound of our band, but I'm a huge Rob Thomas fan. I think he's a great songwriter. Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic, great songwriter. Always been a fan of STP's stuff - the DeLeo brothers and Weiland. Jared Leto's another one. Big fan of just watching his Artifact DVD that 30 Seconds to Mars put out and seeing him in the studio for the making of This is War and what they were going through and listening to that album. It's pretty cool to see where they were in their lives because you know what that's like as songwriters yourself. You know what it's like when you're writing about things that you're going through in your life. To see that for another artist that you're a fan of was really cool.

And, yeah, Damien Rice, another one that I think is one of my favorite songwriters. He's an Irish folk singer that criminally has not for some reason put out any new material in a long time. But he's definitely a favorite of mine as well.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "Criminal" off the new album.

Kenneth: That's a funny one. Because as a songwriter, sometimes a lyric in a song could be about something that you were going through at one point that doesn't really - I don't want to say pertain, but it's not what the rest of the song is geared towards. And that's definitely the case of "Criminal."

The lyric of that chorus... I have a four-year-old son that is a huge Taylor Swift fan. As a rock guy, you want your son listening to Foo Fighters, stuff like that, so I always get onto him about, "Hey, dude, check this out." I'd put on "My Hero" or "Everlong," but he just wasn't into it. He wanted to listen to Taylor. And I was, like, "Oh, come on, man."

Then, when I'm not around my son and I'm driving, headed somewhere alone in the car, I find myself listening on my iPhone to Taylor Swift's newest album. So it was like I was breaking the law that I set forth in some ways!

That's a fun part about songwriting, because obviously the rest of that song isn't really about that, but it did fit together in the process of writing the song. That's something fun that I probably tend to do more often than not.

Songfacts: So what is the song about lyrically?

Kenneth: The chorus of that song, the lyric, "Damn, girl, you made me a criminal," that literally was about that process and that experience with my son and Taylor Swift. But the rest of the song deals with how a lot of times a guy or a girl in a relationship feels like they do all the wrong things all because of how much they care about their significant other or sometimes their mistress or what have you. That's really an overall theme with that song: handling that from that perspective. When writing the rest of the song, the subject matter of "Criminal" was about doing things that you know very well better than doing, and doing it all because this girl's got you wrapped around her fingers.

Songfacts: Going back a bit, what about "You Stupid Girl."

Kenneth: That was about a past relationship gone awry, and kind of the same theme in some ways. But a different scenario for that one. It's about really putting yourself in a situation that's conducive to your health and overall well-being all for the point of making another person happy instead of yourself.

Songfacts: And also "Hear Me Now."

Kenneth: That song was at a point in my life when I lost a friend very close to me and the rest of the band. I just had a lot of questions. Growing up, my mom was raised in a Baptist church, so I was taught to believe these certain things, this certain mindset about things. I reached an age where I was like, "Well, it probably is better sometimes to question some things" - and not just always about religion. That song thematically was about that.

After losing someone, I think a lot of people go through that. Even the most religious of people, when someone in their life passes away, it's like, "How can you take that person if you're such a loving god?" And that's what that song is about: just being frustrated and angry with some divine power, if you will. And just wondering why that happened. You have questions: "If you're really there, answer me." That kind of thing.

As Mr. Nixon explains below, Framing Hanley's unlikely cover of "Lollipop" was not pre-planned, and it was just by chance that stations began picking up the tune. Whereas the original is a laid-back hip-hop groove, the cover is much more rock - especially in the chorus, which sounds as if the vocals and guitars are battling each other for top placement. But one thing that both songs have in common is their respective videos, which both feature a bevy of vixens.
Songfacts: How did the band come to cover Lil Wayne's "Lollipop"?

Kenneth: A bunch of alcohol on a boring day at rehearsal! It was Ryan's first show with our band as an official member in our hometown of Nashville, and we wanted to do something different. That song was all over the radio and in the clubs at the time, and I just thought it was a little unexpected, tongue-in-cheek funny thing to do at a show.

We played it at the show, and the label sees a YouTube video of it live. We're in the studio in 2008 recording songs for what would be the follow-up album, but then the label needed us to record a new version of "Lollipop" for the video. They were like, "Hey, while you guys are doing that, we want you to record it," so we did.

The next day we move on. We were working on the track, actually, at the same time as a little song that ended up becoming "The Promise," later on. It was in 2008, and the song "Lollipop" all-of-the-sudden goes to the Skratch 'N Sniff syndicated radio show while we're still in the studio recording, and suddenly there's a demand at radio for this song and we're back out on the road.

So it's funny, because we talk about this a lot, like, how long in between records it seems like it's always been for us. Because with the first album, "Hear Me Now" went to radio, it did its thing. And then we were in the limbo of what's going to happen now? So we go back to the studio and start working on the second album. And as luck would have it, a cover that we were joking with at a hometown show, we record a version of that for the label and it immediately creates a demand for us on tour, and we toured for two years. Instead of ever putting out a second album in 2008, 2009, we ended up touring for another two years in support of the moment because of "Lollipop."

It was a double-edged sword: People know about your band, but they know you for a cover. But I think now as we're a little older we come to realize, "Hey, that opened the door for a lot of people to find out about Framing Hanley and a good number of those people are sticking around." So it was a blessing.

Songfacts: Do you know if Lil Wayne ever heard the cover and if so what he thought about it?

Kenneth: Absolutely. I never heard straight from his mouth, but supposedly he is a fan. We have friends in his live band, and we went out to see them in Virginia Beach a few years back. Basically, their live version was very much like our version. Instead of the synth playing the tapping part, it was on guitar like we did it, and the drums even were along the lines of what Chris did live. He even had a chick sing the harmony in the chorus that was very similar to what my melody was. So that was probably the most rewarding thing out of covering that: to see the original creator of that song apparently dig our version enough to mold his own version a little bit after that. Kind of covering a cover.

July 3, 2014
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