Haley Dreis was getting ready for an exercise class when, upon a man entering the room, the trainer said, “Oh, there’s Jake.” Dreis didn’t know who Jake was. To her, he was just another guy working out.
It just so happened that it was Jake Owen, the floppy-haired heartthrob country singer.
“He’s really cute,” Dreis said, not sounding the least bit starstruck. “He has a nice wife, too.”
Dreis, a USC School of Music graduate who moved to Music City USA in September 2011, returns to Columbia tonight for a concert at Tapp’s Arts Center to support her new CD, “Lady With a Rocket.” Dreis is one of numerous South Carolina musicians who have migrated to country music’s capital, and the songs on her album reflect how Nashville has altered and molded her songwriting approach.
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Dreis, who plays violin, piano and guitar, isn’t necessarily chasing fame in Nashville, but she just keeps having brushes with famous people.
In January, Dreis was recruited to perform with Kirk Franklin on the Grand Ole Opry stage as part of the Stellar Awards, the gospel music equivalent of the Grammy Awards. Dreis and other musicians had to dance during the performance as fog blew across the stage.
“We actually redid it at the actual show,” she said. “We came on, and they’re like, ‘Sorry, the fog’s not working.’ And we came back off.”
The show was taped in front of a live audience, so viewers at home don’t know they were watching a do-over. Dreis didn’t know much about Franklin, the performer who led gospel’s surge onto traditional R&B radio, before the awards show.
“He’s super nice,” she said. “He gave us Starbucks gift cards after the event.”
“Lady With a Rocket” is Dreis’ third release, following 2009’s “Beautiful to Me” and last year’s “Taking Time.” Though it was recorded with Trey Roth at Black Cat Studios in Griffin, Ga., “Lady” has a Nashville sheen.
“It’s my first project after writing songs in Nashville and getting plugged in,” Dreis, 23, said. “And I did a lot of co-writes on this record, so it’s a little bit different. Being in a room with a published writer makes the biggest difference because they do it every single day. They write from 9 to 5.
“But I just love the collaboration process. Once you get into the room, you have two heads in the room, two sets of ideas going, and I just think that makes you stronger. You bring your strengths to the table.”
Some performers who have moved from Columbia to Nashville have resisted writing with others, but that’s the foundation of Nashville’s machine.
“I think that’s the best way to get plugged in,” Dreis began, “because not only are you meeting someone, but you’re kind of sharing a personal experience with them, so they’re more likely to stay connected with you. Some people don’t like to co-write at all. It’s weird for them.”
Nashville’s style of bending and blending of genres is heard immediately on the track “Gonna Be All Alright,” as Dreis’ decidedly pop vibe morphs in something folksier and bluesier. She wrote it with a country writer Nathan Belt.
“I feel like, genre-wise, I’m a little bit influenced in the Nashville scene,” said Dreis, who noted the imprint of the mandolin and string arrangements on the record. “The writing is more sophisticated. We really dug deep in the commercial aspect of songwriting, really sticking with one idea and flushing it out.”
“Lady With a Rocket” is all over the place, Dreis said during an interview last month at Jackson’s, a hip restaurant and bar in Hillsboro Village, a former streetcar suburb near Vanderbilt University. She swings from sarcastic to serious, sometimes in the same song. It’s a very Swiftian thing to do, and, fortunately for Dreis, she does it well.
She’s somber in “In the Rain”; fed up and antagonistic on “More Than Maybe”; and breathing fire on the cheating-lover ballad “What Am I Waiting For?” While in Columbia, Dreis was known as an often bubbly and cute singer, and the sweet “Snuggly” will please longtime fans. (And Dreis has a loyal fan base. “Lady” was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised $12,800.) The oh-ohs and do-dos are still there, but the choral accents aren’t as prevalent.
“I think I have a wider dynamic range,” said Dreis, who added that most of the album’s songs were written during a two-week period so she’d have the freshest material to record.
“Mr. Know it All” was written on her iPhone on the way to studio. It’s a song about writing songs to present to other people. There’s a right and wrong way to write and shop songs in Nashville. It’s just that nobody has decoded the formula. What Dreis does know: country publishers like really big images and there’s a strict adherence to the chorus.
“There is a structure, but you also have to be creative and have a new idea, but it has to be something anyone can sing, not just one person,” she said.
The introduction to Nashville writing and publishing has made Dreis reestablish her career goals. “After being here, I realize I want to do my own thing with my music stuff, but I really want to pursue the publishing world and write full time,” she said. “I want to be a songwriter, professionally, with a company and then do my own thing performing.”
Dreis is relieved to be working in Nashville, a city where everyone seems to be moving in the same direction.
“Everyone can understand what you’re going through,” she said. “It’s not a competitive thing. I felt when I went to L.A., it was very, ‘Oh, this is my song. I don’t want to share this experience with you.’ And here, I think the experience is welcomed to be shared.”
When she’s not performing or writing, Dreis is an instructor at Nashville Violins. She teaches violin, viola, guitar, ukulele and, as soon as the shop gets piano students, she’ll teach piano, too. She also works the front desk at a massage clinic a couple of days a week. Thursday through Sunday is reserved for touring.
Dreis is still connected to the USC School of Music. In November, she will travel to San Diego with Tayloe Harding, the school of music’s dean, for the National Association of Schools of Music conference. She’ll speak on a panel titled “Strengthening the Undergraduate Curriculum: Developing Student Capabilities for Synthesis.”
“Basically, synthesis is how we, as students, combine the musical and non-musical knowledge we’ve learned in school and apply it to the real world and our careers,” Dreis said.
After dining at Jackson’s, Dreis and this reporter decided to meet up with Patrick Davis, the Camden native who has written for country stars Lady Antebellum and Darius Rucker. Dreis had never met Davis before that evening of bar-hopping through Music Row, an area where much of country music’s business is conducted.
Two days later, Davis brought Dreis on stage with him at The Rutledge so she could jam on her violin with his band, which included Slim Gambill, Lady A’s touring guitarist. Things can happen fast in Nashville, especially brushes with fame.
“Now is the time,” Dreis said, “and I love it.”