Bobby Knepper: Spotlighting Indie in Nashville

Bobby Knepper’s a special dude— an old soul with new tricks, a sharp guy with a soft heart. I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to wrap up this OMG! I’m A Songwriter musician series than this guitarist/producer who just came back from a 16-date European tour. Over margaritas at Taco Mamacita, I got to learn more about where he came from, and what he’s up to now.

You might recognize Bobby as the guitarist and producer behind Dreamer Boy. Although

Dreamer Boy is a relatively new act in the Nashville bubble, Bobby has lived in the city for most

of the past decade, originally moving here in 2012 to pursue a degree in Audio Engineering at

Belmont University. As many creatives afraid to burn out do, he quickly switched his major to English. Belmont’s a college where most English majors have Soundcloud pages full of weekend dorm room recordings though, so he wasn’t alone in his decision. In college, Bobby considered music a hobby he was just way too obsessed with, so while he wasn’t trying to pursue music professionally at the time, he still released a good bit of material, including two EPs and an album. Like most college musicians, his music back then only caught the attention of his roommates, his friends and family back home, and the occasional internet stranger.

He put off trying to pursue music as a career until after college— that is, until he became friends with Zach Taylor. The other half of Dreamer Boy was still a senior at Belmont at the time. Bobby had known Zach through the grapevine, but their friendship kick-started when they started shooting jokes at each other on Twitter, which led to hanging out, which led to making music together, which led to living together. Zach went quiet his senior year— his classmates were anxiously awaiting him to drop his next project. Six months after graduating, Bobby and Zach dropped Love, Nostalgia, a record about a young summer love affair and the ensuing heartbreak.

The release of Dreamer Boy’s first album was one of those serendipitous success stories that every artist dreams about. As Bobby describes it, “a lot of positive coincidences happened at the same time.”

For those who are unfamiliar with how Spotify playlisting works, there’s pretty much four ways to get your songs included on Spotify playlists: submitting your songs to Spotify curated playlists for free, contacting/paying independent playlists yourself, hiring a third party to pitch your songs to playlists for you, or having a team that uses their connections to land you spots on popular playlists. Whenever any artist uploads music to Spotify, they can opt to submit their song to be considered for placement on Spotify curated playlists. However, to land on a major playlist, you usually need an inside connection. Dreamer Boy has always been on a lucky streak though, so it’s no surprise to me that five days after their album’s release, their first single ended up on “Ultimate Indie,” a more than two million follower Spotify playlist that sits at the top of most users’ personalized homepages. Six months after their first release, they’d accrued three million streams without schmoozing any curators or spending a dime in playlisting. As Bobby says, what started off as a “crappy Ableton beat” they wrote on Edgehill turned into the song that launched their career. “When people write big hits, do they know during the final listen of that single in the studio that they’ve written a song everyone will still know the lyrics to in forty years?”

Bobby and Zach capitalized off of their momentum, releasing three singles, a music video, and an album all in the span of five weeks. However, serendipitous playlisting doesn’t build a fanbase, it just gathers a lot of passive listeners. Bobby’s challenge became converting streams into fans. Two weeks after dropping their debut album, they were connected with an agent at CAA who asked them to open for Lennon Stella at the last minute. As if it’s not enough pressure to have your first real live show double as the opening slot for Lennon Stella, they could see Kacey Musgraves in the audience. During the show, Zach did a funny bit between songs. A couple months later, they saw Musgraves do the exact same bit during a livestream of her set at Coachella.

After opening for Lennon Stella, the 2019 whirlwind really started: they opened on two of Still Woozy’s tours, played three dates with The Marias, joined Omar Apollo for three shows, played two festivals (SXSW and Hangout Fest), opened for Young the Giant at a college gig, and then topped the year off by touring Europe for three weeks opening for Clairo. Quite a year of travelling for someone who describes himself as a homebody.

While fighting flies away from our guacamole, I started peppering Bobby with questions on everything from songwriting to social media. Since we’re entering a new decade, I had to ask Bobby where he thinks the music industry’s going. “It’s funny, because in the past, music has been categorized by the decade, but the 2010s has been a big melting pot of all these random ideas. Ultimately I think stuff has gone a little bit too dynamic, too aggressive, too in-your-face, and too artificial both in content and in the sounds of it. I think 2020 is going to be like ‘okay, we’ve pushed that to its furthest limit, we’re not stoked about that anymore.” Bobby gave the example of how in 2015, almost every single song on pop radio had a drop, and

at first, everyone loved it, but eventually it faded out. Bobby thinks the same is going to happen

with overly electronic and formulaic music, which he believes will lean towards more organic production in the coming years.

As Bobby says, “art exists for a reason other than ‘this is cool, I should put it on my jogging playlist.’” He commends artists like Frank Ocean, J. Cole, and Saba who are releasing more cultural and personal lyrical content that’s less about showing off, flexing, and sounding catchy. “The barrier for people’s interest is ‘how is it genuine and how does it connect with me?’” He’s inspired by artists who push the envelope like Kacey Musgraves, who, for example, “wrote a song about missing her mother while she’s on an acid trip.”

Bobby’s notorious for downright impossible chord progressions and painstakingly perfect production. Complexity of the arrangement is a huge feature of Dreamer Boy’s sound, which emerges from Bobby’s disdain for pretty much anything cliché or trendy. He prefers chord progressions that are difficult to digest at the first listen, partially because he thinks that the best way to keep people from copying your ideas is by making them difficult to copy. Dreamer Boy’s songwriting process used to be that Bobby would lay down a cool guitar and drum part, text a recording to Zach, and then Zach would topline some scratch melodies over it, record a rough vocal take in his room, and send it to Bobby so Bobby could start building a track. Nowadays though, the reverse happens too: Zach sends Bobby a voice memo, and then Bobby builds the idea out musically. Bobby prefers this method, since he believes that the vocals and lyrics should always come first.

When I asked Bobby what he thought was the best thing that’s happened in music in the past ten years, and the worst thing, his answer for both was Instagram. Dreamer Boy has a lot of younger fans, so digitally and in real life, their young fans eat up everything they say, “which is super cool and super scary.” Because of this, Bobby personally took a break from social media for awhile, and when he came back, he returned with the goal to make his public pages a safe space for people. He doesn’t want to be flexing on fans or provoking them— “when someone interacts with my persona digitally, I want them to feel like they’re eating homemade mac n cheese and drinking OJ with their parents or something.” With most success, you usually only have a limited amount of time where people will actually be listening to what you’re saying, so Dreamer Boy wants to be careful about sounding negative and jaded. They’re trying to be responsible with their message, by projecting positivity and hope with their music and media as much as possible.

With Dreamer Boy’s next record, their goal is to try to bring people together by finding common ground between the previous generation’s genre-defining songwriting and the experimentally digital nature of brand new music. Bobby hopes that listeners in their 40s and beyond will like how the album’s reminiscent of classics from their past, but could also appreciate the digital touch of newer elements like programmed drums, precise automation and manipulated vocals. Conversely, they’re hoping to challenge their younger listeners with a conceptual LP that explores the relationships between many genres, old and new.

Bobby thinks the younger generation could learn a lot from previous generations in terms of musicianship and quality of songwriting— however, he also thinks the older generation could take cues from the younger generation on how to be more creatively abstract. A perfect example of how he bridges these two worlds is that he hires live instrumentalists for all of Dreamer Boy’s recordings, writing out sheet music for every single instrument, but then he mixes everything and applies modern production techniques in Ableton.

From chatting with Bobby, it was easy to tell how much his fans mean to him. Especially since Nashville isn’t known for indie music at all, he was floored by all of the support that came out of the woodworks for Dreamer Boy. Here’s a great story: about a year or so ago, Dreamer Boy put up a casting call for unpaid music video extras. The day of, thirty high schoolers showed up in one big group— Bobby found out they’d all skipped gym class and sneaked out of school to be part of their video shoot.

It’s important for Bobby to feel connected to his fans, which is why he often prefers playing smaller venues. While he can play to bigger audiences in bigger venues, a bigger venue usually entails a six-foot barricade, off-the-ground stage, and a super dark room, which makes it harder to feel connected with the audience. Regardless of the venue, Bobby and Zach try to give the audience the band’s truest form: just Bobby and Zach playing music together.

Right now, Bobby’s focusing about 80% of his energy on Dreamer Boy, but in the future he wants to release music as a solo project. Stay tuned for Dreamer Boy’s second album which will be dropping this year, and try to catch a show in the meantime. To stay up-to-date with Bobby, snack on mac n cheese and sip orange juice with him at @dreamerbob.