Home Arts & Culture A Conversation with New Jersey Musician Brett Altman

A Conversation with New Jersey Musician Brett Altman

by Amaris Pollinger
Brett Altman

You know those conversations. They are awkward, meaningless, and consist of something about the lawn, work, and (ugh) the weather. These types of conversations are so unpopular, that in some cultures, bringing up something as mundane as “a long day at the office” is considered impolite. Most people dread such conversations, and Brett Altman is no exception. It’s this very mind-numbing kind of chatter that inspired Altman’s single “Small Talk,” off his upcoming album “Not Quite Love,” set to drop sometime this year. 

With “Small Talk,” rather than reflecting on the pains of such conversations, Altman takes a much more positive tone on the subject. On a chilly, December afternoon, Altman speaks with me about Penn State, his father’s flawless small talk skills, and how it can blossom into some of our most meaningful relationships. 

Tell us a bit about your background; where you’re from, and how music played a role in your life.

I grew up in Livingston in Essex County, NJ. I didn’t really “do music” growing up, it was always just a passion. My dad was a great singer, so I always heard [music] around the house. I started singing right before college but it was very much in a crooner fashion. My dad loves Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé, Harry Connick Jr.; so that’s where my influences came from.

When I was graduating college, my roommates heard me singing and they were like ‘you’re pretty good, you should try out for Penn State Idol.’ It’s the largest student-run philanthropy [and] I was very involved with the fundraising portion; then it turned into a music opportunity. [My first performance] I got to perform in front of 17,000 people! 

After that, I took a couple years off post-college and moved to Hoboken. I got involved in open-mic nights before I started playing with a few bands. I didn’t perform much in 2019, but I wrote a lot of songs. That was the first time that I did anything like that. Those songs turned into my debut, “Not Quite Love.” Initially, I was ready for 2020, [I] booked all kinds of shows, and then…well…I had to put some of those plans on hold. Now, I’m starting to pick that back up.

Brett Altman

Photo by Hayley Altman, courtesy of Brett Altman.

What was the exact moment that you knew music was for you?

I’d say that moment was definitely during my performance at Penn State. I had to record a one-minute cover song for my audition. I chose “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer. There was just so much interest in that audition video and I was able to advance through the competition. A lot of my friends and family were like ‘I didn’t know you could sing!’–neither did I!

I still remember being so nervous to sing a 60-second snippet! That moment, when I saw everyone’s reaction, when I performed on stage…I felt like ‘this is something I want to do.’ My college roommate said that I should learn guitar, and that’s when I decided to take it to the next level. 

Anyone in particular who inspired you? Musically or otherwise?

Early on, it was definitely Michael Bublé and hearing his early albums. Later on, when I started to perform, it was definitely John Mayer–he’s a big influence. Before that Penn State show, I watched videos of Adam Levine performing live, and Kasey Musgraves. Her concert at the Beacon Theatre, right before covid, was one of the best concerts of my life. 

In life, I wouldn’t be where I am without my sister. I’ll sometimes run lyrics by her, she’ll do photography–she’s the person I call first on most creative decisions. She’s a very integral part of my music career.

Your single, “Small Talk,” has a very nostalgic, cozy vibe to it. What’s the inspiration behind the song?

A friend and I started writing “Small Talk” in early 2019. At the time, I was starting to lose touch with someone, and I didn’t want the small talk that comes out of that, with this person who I’ve been so close to for so many years. That’s kind of where the song started and we decided to take it in a different direction; like the positives of small talk and how all our best relationships start as small talk. [In the song] I turned it into a romantic relationship that blossoms before your eyes.

My dad is the best small talker I’ve ever seen in my life! He’ll just strike up a conversation with anyone, and they always have the biggest smile on their face, every time!  Part of that inspired the single. With “Small Talk” I hope to shed light on the positive side of something that’s often perceived as negative or awkward.

Which of your tracks has a special place in your heart?

I’ve always been drawn to “Alone on Saturday Night.” That was a song where I was burnt out from trying to do so much between 2018 and 2019. When I released it in 2020, it connected to a lot of people. [It] was just the right time and it brought a positive spin to being alone on the weekend. So, it always stuck out to me, and I love performing it. 

If you hadn’t chosen music, what do you think you’d be doing now?

That’s a great question! In general, I like working with people. I like to help them problem-solve, so maybe a guidance counselor? 

What can we expect from you in 2022?

There will be a show a month for the first few months of the year. We’ll be performing at “Fox and Crow” in March in Jersey City. And hopefully releasing my debut album in the spring–but definitely more shows!

Be sure to catch Brett Altman & the Locals at the Fox and Crow in March. And be on the lookout for his debut album, “Not Quite Love.”

*Cover photo by Ryan Canney, courtesy of Brett Altman.

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