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31 Days of Women: Robyn Ottolini

Credit: Matt Stride

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

“If you wanted somebody to write a good song about you, treat them well,” Robyn Ottolini tells me over the phone from her home in Canada. Days away from releasing her major label debut “F-150” to radio, Ottolini reflects on the ex who inspired the song. “He has heard the song. I don’t know what he thinks about it.”

Ottolini initially wrote “F-150” alone after an ex of three years dumped her. He drove a Ford F-150 truck and whenever she spotted one in her small town her stomach would drop thinking it was his.

“I did not want to see him as you don’t want to see your exes,” she says. “It brings back all these memories.”

She finally had enough and pulled over to the side of the road and sang into her voice memo, “When I see an F-150.” She then drove home and finished writing the song in her bathroom. While she loved the song immediately, it took six months and some convincing to release it. As she explains, managers Mark Schroor and Erik Fintelman from Workshop Music Group said the song was too sad and she’s a happy person.

“They’re like, ‘We should rewrite the last chorus to be strong and independent, just like you,’” she recalls. “So that’s why we rewrote that chorus to give it that hope that I usually have in my music.”

The song was written and produced by Schroor and Fintelman and released February 2020 independently. It’s included on her independently released The I’m Not Always Hilarious EP.

Ottolini embraced TikTok when quarantine hit and shared the song there in August. In September, she posted it as a trend video, and “F-150” went from 100,000 streams to 1 million overnight. She met with several labels in October before signing with Warner Music Nashville. “F-150” has over 9 million streams on Spotify while its music video has amassed nearly 2 million views.

“I had almost no marketing budget back then,” she says of releasing the song independently. “It was all utilizing social media and trying to show people my following. This is something I never, ever imagined ever.”

For more of my interview with Robyn Ottolini, visit Country Insider.

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31 Days of Women: Ingrid Andress

Credit: Lauren Dunn

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Rising singer-songwriter Ingrid Andress has made a name for herself within the country genre over the past several years. Following the success of her No. 1 debut single “More Hearts Than Mine,” Andress is nominated for three Grammy Awards at this Sunday’s ceremony for Best New Artist, Best Country Song for “More Hearts Than Mine” and Best Country Album for her 2020 major label debut Lady Like.

Today, Andress released the music video for her latest single and title track of her 2020 album “Lady Like.” The empowering female anthem is set to a stunning backdrop as her powerful words come to life on screen. The video and an excerpt of my Chartbreaker feature from Billboards Dec. 14, 2019 issue is below.

Growing up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, Ingrid Andress treated music as a hobby instead of a potential career; she and her siblings would perform impromptu at-home musicals for their parents (to rave reviews, of course).

Then in 2007, when Andress was 16, her family was in Boston — her father, a major league baseball trainer, was coaching the Colorado Rockies, who were playing the Red Sox in the World Series. While on her way to Fenway Park one day, Andress passed Berklee College of Music. “I had never heard of it before,” she recalls. “We went in and I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s a college for music? I have to go here!’”

After graduating from Berklee in 2013, her songwriting professor, songwriter Kara DioGuardi (Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away,” Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It”), urged Andress to move to Nashville. “At the time, I wasn’t ready to be an artist,” Andress tells me. “When you’re in your early twenties, you’re still figuring things out.”

A year after the move, though, Andress signed her first publishing deal with DioGuardi’s Arthouse Entertainment/Sea Gayle Music/Universal Music Publishing, through which she formed her circle of songwriting friends, including Michael Pollack (Maroon 5’s “Memories”). “I was sticking with people [on my level], instead of feeling like I had to write with Max Martin to get a hit,” says Andress. Soon she was flying out to Los Angeles for sessions, and expanding her roster of collaborators. “Even though Nashville is primarily country, it’s still a songwriting town,” she says. “Learning how to write here helped me to be able to go into a room with Akon, or a boy band, or anyone.”

Being a songwriting chameleon has benefitted Andress in more ways than one — she says that working with such a wide range of talent taught her the do’s and don’ts of being an artist herself. “There was a huge difference in working with artists who knew who they were, versus the ones who are told what to do,” she says. “That really helped me keep a north star in what I’m doing. I’d never want to be in a situation where I’m just like, ‘I don’t know who I am.’ I feel like a lot of artists have a tendency to get caught up and just say yes to anything their label wants, but there’s so much value in keeping your own perspective and being able to write about it.”

For more of my interview with Ingrid Andress, visit Billboard.

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31 Days of Women: Caylee Hammack

Credit: Joseph Llanes

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

I’ve interviewed and seen Caylee Hammack perform live several times over the years. My introduction to the country newcomer was during her standout performance at Country Radio Seminar in 2019 during the Universal Music Group Nashville “Team UMG” luncheon at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. The way she commanded the stage for a jaw-dropping two-song set was unlike anything I’d seen from a new artist and it prompted me to pitch her for my feature on emerging country talent at Billboard at the time.

Below is an excerpt of our first chat. Hammack’s debut album, If It Wasn’t For You, was released last year. Her cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” dropped today.

Caylee Hammack has been singing in public since her early teens. At 13, a conversation with her father while the two were watching Elf sparked the idea to audition for a local talent show. She’d go on to perform around her home state of Georgia and Nashville’s Lower Broadway before signing a record deal with Universal Music Group Nashville in late 2018.

A dynamic singer and equally memorable songwriter, Hammack’s soulful vocals and descriptive lyrics shine on her debut single “Family Tree.”

“I’ve always had a pull for music,” she tells me over the phone during a recent radio tour. “Even when I tried to run from it because it’s a very big risk to follow a dream like this…every single time God seemed to pull me back to it.”

What was the first song you ever wrote? 

I had a medical scare at 16. They thought it was cancer and once they removed the tumor I was bed-bound for a few weeks. [My parents] gave me a computer and I sat with my little MacBook and started writing songs. I wrote a song called ‘Addictive’ about the pain pills I was on to get through the recovery and related it back to the little bit of love I knew at 16. Slowly but surely I kept writing. The tennis scholarships that were starting to line up for me my junior year were whisked away because of my inability to move from back surgery. The only thing I truly had left after that surgery was music.

What’s the story behind your debut single “Family Tree?”

The best way to introduce yourself is family. When I started making this record… I kept going to “Family Tree.” Out of the hundreds of songs I’ve written that was the one that felt the most uniquely me and personal. The inspiration behind it is my sister started smoking cigarettes. I went home and when I went to hug my sister Molly she smelled like cigarettes. In the next few days she’d sneak outside. One time I followed her, and she had a garden glove on her hand and she’s standing in front of the fan trying to blow the cigarette smoke away from her. We went to the gas station a few days after that and they didn’t have any Camel Crushes. I was like, “Dang Molly, you must’ve smoked them out in this county.” In my head that line, something about it felt good to say and it was honest.

I went into a [writing session] with Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges a few weeks after and I had that line written in a note and I said it to them. I was like, “Sister smoked all the Camels in the county last week/ She cleaned out the 7-Eleven sneaking in smelling like nicotine.” Gordie and Troy looked at me and they were like, “Wait, that’s kind of cool. Tell us about your family.” I started talking about all the things in my family that are their little quirks.

For more of my interview with Caylee Hammack, visit Billboard.

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31 Days of Women: Lily Rose

Credit: Anthony Stone

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Lily Rose moved to Nashville four years ago to pursue an artist’s career. The self-taught drummer and guitarist began writing songs at 15 from her home in Atlanta. In December, Rose posted a clip of her song “Villain” on TikTok that went viral. “Villain” reached No. 1 on iTunes’ all-genre chart, besting Taylor Swift. Now she hopes to replicate that success at radio.

Rose grew up on Top 40 radio, initially planning to try her hand at contemporary pop. Not until relocating to Music City did she realize she most often fell in love with writing songs that were country. She says co-writing in Nashville elevated her songcraft.

“I’m getting set up on so many incredible writes with these legendary songwriters,” Rose tells me. “It’s humbling to even be in the room with them.”

Rose penned “Villain” in November 2019 with Kyle Clark and Mackenzie Carpenter. She had put the title idea in her phone after going through a breakup which she thought ended cordially only to find out her ex didn’t feel the same. In “Villain,” Rose sings, “Whatever helps you sleep at night/ You can make me the bad guy.”

“I’ve learned that you don’t have to live in a small town to have a small town,” she says. “Social media has turned into that for all of us. I expressed to Kyle and Mackenzie what I was going through [and that] I had to actively choose the high road every day because this person was making me look like a villain.”

Rose posted a clip of “Villain” to TikTok on Dec. 1 and due to an overwhelming response teamed with Back Blocks Music’s Rakiyah Marshall to release the song independently on Dec. 15. “Villain” held steady at No. 1 on the iTunes all-genre chart leading into Christmas and remained on the iTunes Top 30 for five consecutive weeks. The song’s success resulted in Rose signing a joint-venture record deal in January with Big Loud Records, Republic Records and Back Blocks Music. “Villain” is officially at country radio today.

For more of my interview with Lily Rose, visit Country Insider.

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31 Days of Women: Nicolle Galyon

Credit: Julia Cox

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Nicolle Galyon is an in-demand songwriter who has penned countless radio hits and garnered two ACM Song of the Year wins with Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” and Dan + Shay’s “Tequila.” But long before she was a mainstay on country radio, Galyon moved to Nashville with the dream of either being an artist manager or working at a record label. This dream came to fruition last July when Galyon launched Songs & Daughters, a female-focused imprint of independent record label Big Loud Records, which represents Madison Kozak and Hailey Whitters.

“My desire to be behind-the-scenes in the business is what got me here,” Galyon tell me over the phone. “But I never fully understood how that was all going to come into play until Songs & Daughters. This last year has been a lot of reminding myself what it was that made me want to move to Nashville in the first place.”

Galyon celebrated the one-year anniversary of Songs & Daughters on July 22 and says she feels like she’s just getting started. “Creating the company was a full-circle moment, but then it started a new race for me to run,” she says of Songs & Daughters, which recently added a publishing arm in partnership with Big Loud Publishing and Warner Chappell Music with the signing of songwriter Tiera.

“Writers need artists and artists need writers. My vision for Songs & Daughters is for it to be more of a music house. It’s not just a record label or a publishing company: it feels more like a home for female creatives,” she says. “It completely makes sense that the next evolution of Songs & Daughters would be a publishing company. That’s how I came to be in the business — through the publishing and the songwriting world — and so that feels very natural for everyone.”

While Kozak is the label’s flagship artist, Whitters was signed to Songs & Daughters in June. Previously collaborators in the writing room, Galyon says the signing of Whitters happened organically. “We’ve been writing for a few years now and we built trust and a mutual respect and comradery as creatives with each other,” she says of her relationship with Whitters. “It felt like we had a beautiful foundation to build upon on the label front too.”

Galyon says serving as the label head of Songs & Daughters has made her a student again. She’s been learning from the young artists and writers she signs, and in return, she hopes she is teaching each artist to trust herself.

“To me, it’s important not only for them to feel like they have someone giving them permission to be the artist and writer that they want to be, but it’s also important that I feed myself in that way. That’s the beauty of our business: it’s not just a one way street. You have to keep reinventing yourself and have to keep learning from everyone,” she says. “I never want to keep having success and keep rising to a point to where I am not feeding off of the young, new energy in Nashville.”

For more of my interview with Nicolle Galyon last year, visit Sounds Like Nashville.

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31 Days of Women: Emma White

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Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Emma White isn’t shying away from sharing her age with the world. Her new song “Thirties” has the 32-year-old embracing a new decade with confidence. It’s this self-assurance she hopes to give listeners while breaking the stigma of hiding one’s age as a woman.

White says she brought the title up to other co-writers, but many passed on writing the song with her. When she got in the room with her producer, Kate Malone, and another songwriter she met on Instagram, Tori Tullier, they immediately connected with the title and melody. All in their 30s and at different stages in life, White and her co-writers felt it was important to make sure they didn’t exclude anyone from the song.

“We wanted everyone to feel like they saw a little piece of their own story in it,” she tells me. “I do feel like 20s can be kind of rough. There’s an excitement to your 30s for sure. … I’d rather own it and embrace it because I really do feel so much happier in this decade. 30 is the new 20.”

“Thirties” has seen a positive reaction on TikTok after White posted snippets in January. White, who has been writing and recording music since the age of 15, says it’s the first time she’s witnessed people respond in such a personal way to a song of hers.

“It is really honest,” she says of the song. “I feel like it helped me find my voice. … I just want to contribute somehow to women not feeling shame about their age.”

For more of my interview with Emma White and her co-writers Kate Malone and Tori Tullier visit Forbes.

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31 Days of Women: Emily Rose

Credit: James DeMain

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

New Jersey native Emily Rose released her new single “Love’s Gonna Find You” today. The uplifting country ballad highlights the early stages of love while the singer’s warm vocals and vivid storytelling captivate.

Soaring steel guitar accentuated by delicate acoustic and electric guitar parts and a steady beat further the track’s intrigue. Meanwhile, Rose mesmerizes on the song’s chorus. “‘Cause love’s still love/ No matter where you find it/ On a boulevard or in a two-lane blacktop town/ And little, bitty diamonds are still forever/ So tear up the map, don’t worry about the road/ Love’s gonna find you wherever you go,” Rose sings.

Rose penned “Love’s Gonna Find You” with Donnie Skaggs and co-produced it with the Shuffle Brothers. She released it on her own Growing Rose Recording Company imprint.

“I am a firm believer in love,” Rose says. “It comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, friendships, family, soulmates, and when you’re least expecting it. Love doesn’t have to show up in big grand gestures—it’s out there for everyone and it will find its way to you.”

“Love’s Gonna Find You” follows the release of Rose’s debut EP The Heart in October and previous singles “Go to the Moon,” “Dance in the Kitchen,” “Windshield,” and “Hey Child.” I spoke with Rose in 2019 about her triumphant song “Go To the Moon” and how it relates to her career.

“It’s been a long journey here in Nashville, dream chasing,” she told me. “As an artist, you’re always faced with the question: ‘What do you want out of your music career?’ In that moment, I thought of myself like an astronaut straight out of the 1960s. I want to go to the moon. I want to break new ground and go places I’ve never been…this isn’t some far-fetched fantasy; this is something attainable and real.”

Rose touches on her personal struggles as a musician specifically in the lyric “Sometimes I go fast/ Just like a rocket/ Sometimes it feels like it takes too long.” She says the line is “as human as it gets” and the song is an extension of herself and everything she believes in.

The singer will release her next EP this summer. For more on Emily Rose, visit her website

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31 Days of Women: Caitlyn Smith

Credit: Shervin Lainez

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

After 10 years in Nashville, Monument Records recording artist Caitlyn Smith releases her debut country single, “I Can’t.” A revered songwriter who has penned songs for Trisha Yearwood (“Every Girl in This Town”), Garth Brooks (“Tacoma”) and Lady A (“747”), Smith collaborates with longtime friends and frequent co-writers Old Dominion on the duet.

Smith, who moved to Nashville from Cannon Falls, MN, in 2010, has seen Music City transform over the past decade. It’s the town’s evolution that helped inform the song’s theme.

“Every time I end up going downtown, it looks like a different city,” she tells me. “Pre-pandemic, I was driving to a session in East Nashville, and I was driving by downtown and noticing the skyline and the skyscrapers, seeing my city changing right before my eyes.”

She says the drive inspired the song and its opening line: “This ain’t a 20-minute town no more/ It don’t look the same.”

“I started thinking about change in general. The city has changed, but also myself as a person,” she says. “Thank God, I’m not the same girl that moved here 10 years ago. It’s a beautiful thing that we all hopefully are going through. We’re constantly moving, constantly evolving humans, but sometimes change can just be so difficult and it can be so painful, and it can feel impossible.”

Smith initially released “I Can’t” on sophomore album Supernova last March. On Sept. 25, she unveiled Supernova (Deluxe) with the addition of Old Dominion on “I Can’t” and a cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You.” While Smith never intended the song to be a duet, when discussing the deluxe version of the album she knew she wanted a collaboration. Upon revisiting “I Can’t” she felt it was a song many people could sing together and the perfect song to pull some friends on.

“I Can’t” is the first collaboration for both Smith and Old Dominion. The song includes frontman Matthew Ramsey on vocals, with the band assisting on the accompanying music. Old Dominion guitarist Brad Tursi puts his own spin on the track and is one of the first writers Smith met after moving to town.

“I’m so grateful they said yes to do this,” she says. “I think they just got really excited because it’s a little bit different than what they are used to doing, but it still makes sense. It’s a beautiful full-circle moment that [Tursi] was really one of the first writers I met in town and now to have a collaboration out is really special.”

Listen to Caitlyn Smith’s new single “I Can’t” below. Read more of my interview with her at Country Insider and learn more about her songwriting journey at Sounds Like Nashville.

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31 Days of Women: Ashlie Amber

Credit: Sara Lee Saleh

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Ashlie Amber grew up in Colorado with the dream of being a country star. Introduced to country music early on by the kids in her neighborhood, she fell in love with the voices of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and LeAnn Rimes.

Being the only Black family in the neighborhood, Amber is no stranger to the lack of diversity. When she decided to pursue country music in Colorado no one took her aspirations seriously.

“Everybody always asks me, ‘How did you start getting involved in country? You rock a huge frohawk and you’re not the typical look,’” she tells me. “Everybody was like, ‘What are we going to do with you? You should do R&B. You should do hip-hop. You should do this; you should do that.’ So, I naturally went where things took me.”

Amber began writing songs while in Colorado and was often referred to as “the hook queen.” She wrote hooks for the local rappers and sang on their songs, sometimes appearing at their shows in the area. By the time she was 19 she signed with an independent label, but it wasn’t the direction of music she wanted to go into. Admittedly lost, she walked away from the label deal.

A friend who played piano invited her over for a jam session one night and she began singing. Realizing Amber’s talent, her friend asked why she was working at TGI Fridays and urged her to try musical theater. “It’s always been a dream to be a recording artist and to make my own music and to do this side of things, but it just doesn’t seem like this side of the industry wants to accept me,” she recalls telling her friend. “She’s like, ‘Well, have you thought of musical theater? I think you have a calling for it. And, Colorado has a really good musical theater scene. You could get paid to perform right now.’”

After a few auditions Amber began working in musical theater which eventually led her to performing on cruise ships. One evening while headlining a Whitney Houston celebration on the Celebrity Edge cruise ship she met musician Don Gatlin of country duo Darryl & Don Ellis and the band Savannah Jack. Blown away by her performance, Gatlin approached the singer, and they discussed her aspirations for country music.

“I was like, ‘I’ve always wanted to be the Beyonce of country,’” she recalls. “He’s like, ‘That’s an incredible idea!’” The pair traded information and kept in touch. Two years later Amber was finally at a point where she wanted to give country music another try, so she picked up the phone and called Gatlin in February 2019. By April she was flying to Nashville to meet producer Jamie Tate.

For more of my interview with Ashlie Amber, visit Forbes. Her first release of 2021, “Those Nights,” is below.

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31 Days of Women: Hailey Whitters

Credit: Harper Smith

Editor’s Note: In celebration of Women’s History Month, You Sing I Write is highlighting female country artists and songwriters throughout March.

Hailey Whitters moved to Nashville 13 years ago to follow her dream of becoming a country singer. Her latest album, Living The Dream Deluxe, was released in February and follows the singer’s long journey of navigating Music City, while also sharing elements of her small-town Iowa roots.

“My mom brought me to Nashville when I was 15-years-old and we went to the Grand Ole Opry,” Whitters tells me over coffee at Nashville’s Falcon Coffee Bar weeks after making her Opry debut in 2019. “That curtain went up and I saw those lights and that was the moment I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’”

Whitters has had several country artists record her songs including Little Big Town (“Happy People”), Alan Jackson (“The Older I Get”) and Martina McBride (“Low All Afternoon,” “The Real Thing”), and now the singer-songwriter is sharing her talent with the world. In 2020, she signed a record deal in partnership with her own label, Pigasus Records, and Big Loud Records/Songs & Daughters.

Below is an excerpt of my interview with Whitters from 2019 shortly after she released her EP, The Days, which she self-funded.

When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?

I come from a non-musical family. I always had this draw to country music, and I have a memory of sitting on the back of my dad’s lawnmower while he mowed the lawn, singing to myself. I think I always had a really strong pull to writing. I remember being in elementary school, and I had a guidance counselor who knew that I had this passion for it, and he asked who I like. I liked the Dixie Chicks and the Spice Girls. He was like, “Well, you know the Dixie Chicks write their own music.” So then I got a guitar and I started dabbling with that.

What was the first song you ever wrote? 

My friends and I, we would try to start a chick band on the playground in elementary school and Spiceworld  had just come out. So we were making up dances and pretending we are the Spice Girls. We wrote this one song. I’m trying to remember how it went … I remember the feeling of writing a song back then. It felt like you could do anything and that’s still a feeling I get today when I write a song that I just love. You walk out and you feel like you’re on top of the world.

What’s the most autobiographical song on your EP?

“Ten Year Town” is probably the most autobiographical song because it feels so up-close and personal. [It’s] very much like my broken heart ballad to Nashville. I wrote that song with Brandy [Clark] two years ago and I was only 10 years into [living in Nashville]. Jake [Gear] was like, “You should change it. You’re only here 10 years.” It’s been this weird universe thing that we’re finally releasing it and I am 12 years in. It was just a weird timing thing.

What’s the story behind “Heartland?”

I was feeling really homesick and just questioning like, “Well, what’s my place in Nashville?” I was writing with Nicolle [Galyon] and Forest [Glen Whitehead]. Nicolle is also from the Midwest, so we started talking about going home and Nashville. [Songwriter] Barry Dean told me once, “Nashville will try and change you and make you someone you’re not. It’ll make you forget who you are and it’s important to find that place or those people that you can go to that bring you back.” That’s always been the Midwest [for me]. The Heartland and everything it stands for: hard work and honesty and good people. That is what always draws me to the Midwest. I like to go back a lot. It keeps me grounded.

For more of my interview with Hailey Whitters, visit Billboard. Her latest project Living the Dream Deluxe, which includes “Fillin’ My Cup” featuring Little Big Town, is out now.