The other day I was fortunate enough to sit down with up-and-coming artist Kole. She has been featured on the NBC show Songland and has recently collaborated with DJ’s Autograf and SNBRN. She now has a monthly average of more than 270k listeners on Spotify.
I think most of us know someone who is an aspiring musician, yet struggle to gain traction and popularity. As someone who once had a dream to DJ for EDC sized crowds, I was fascinated to learn what set Kole apart from others in the industry that seemingly struggle to reach the popularity that Kole has achieved at such a young age. So if you’re one of the many who have wondered ‘why am I not seeing the results I desire?’ perhaps this article can help. Either way, Kole has a fantastic story where I learned some of the dos and do-nots while building a career in the music industry.
So how did you get started as a musician?
I started writing songs when I was 11. I was in a band in middle school, and decided to write a song for us to play. I showed it to my bandmates and they turned it down (it was called “Life is a Mystery,” a little melodramatic for a band of 11-13 year olds), but I kept writing. From 11 to 14 I would write songs just by myself in my room without showing them to anyone. But when I was 14 or 15, I played some of my songs for my vocal coach at the time, in front of the class. end My vocal teacher told me to play for the parents when they came to pick up their kids. The parents loved it, and my vocal coach told me ‘ok, write a song a week, and bring it in to the class and play for the parents and the kids.’ I haven’t stopped since – although now, it’s more like a song or two a day. I have literally hundreds of songs I’ve written on my laptop!
Do you play an instrument?
Yeah, I play the piano and guitar. I played classical piano from 4-14, and taught myself guitar when I was 15. I studied Ethnomusicology (world music) at UCLA, which is a very hands on program – so I’ve played instruments like sitar, tabla, irish flute, and more.
You went to UCLA… could you describe your experience at UCLA and how that influenced/helped your career?
One of my professors taught a class called “Songwriters on Songwriting”, where different songwriters would come to the class and share their stories of how they got started, where they’re from, etc. Writers like Randy Newman, David Crosby, Mike Posner, and so many more. I learned a lot. Specifically, I learned that everyone’s path is different. I saw dozens of people speak and realized how different everyone’s journey had been. Some people became successful in their mid-30’s, while some people had their first hit when they were 18. There’s no path in music that’s right or wrong.
Did you find that UCLA helped your career?
I started at UCLA when I was 16, and that year, a songwriter/producer named Rick Knowles came into class (he’s done a lot of the Lana Del Rey catalogue). He’s a great writer and composer, and he was like ‘I can’t sing this song I wrote, because it’s outta my range’, and he asks the class if anyone would volunteer to sing it. There’s 100 people in the class, and I volunteer. Afterwards, the professor came up to me and asked me to send him some songs. He introduced me to a manager, who became my first manager, and that manager introduced me to a publishing company. While I was in college, I started working with producers and learning about the industry – including how to write with people and collaborate.
So songwriting, how does that process work?
It depends on the song. Sometimes a producer will have a beat already made and you’ll write on top of that. But a lot of times you’ll be playing chords, and you’ll sing melodies and the lyrics will pop up in your head. Other times you have a title or a concept you want to write about. It depends on the day.
Are there advantages to working with tracks that are already done?
If I’m going to write over a track, I prefer it to be really minimal and open so that its similar to writing with organic chords. It can be a really great way to work with people overseas though. Because DJs can produce a beat and send it. In person, there’s just something really special about starting from scratch.
Do you always write your own lyrics?
Everything I put out is lyrically, written 100% by me. Same with Move All Night, the song with SNBRN and Autograf – SNBRN made a beat and I sang over it. I spent 20 minutes writing, and in total was maybe a 40 minute session. Then he sent it to Autograf, and they built out the song.
How often are you in the studio, working on songs, etc?
I have sessions 6-7 days a week – I realized that I’ve had about 4 days off for the past 3-4 months! Writing sessions are usually 5-10 hours, it depends on who you’re working with and your goals for the day. Typically, my daily goal is a finished (fully written) song, vocals/vocal arrangement, and a demo track.
What advice would you give someone trying to break into this industry?
It’s hard to say, because it depends on what they want to do. There are so many different paths. But whether you’re trying to be a songwriter or singer or both, collaborating with people is the biggest piece of advice I can give. Ask for help if you need help finishing something, rather than sitting on 100 unfinished songs.
So you were on Songland the NBC show, could you tell us a little about that?
Yes! I was on Meghan Trainor’s episode of Songland, and she ended up choosing my song, “Hurt Me,” which was absolutely incredible. She’s a sweetheart, and I had the best time working with her. The show is an incredible experience – even though I had the worst cold while we were filming. Indirectly, it was how I was able to go to Korea for a writing camp with SM Entertainment in June. It’s also how I met my lawyers – one of my mentors from the show introduced me to them. I also made some great friends and collaborators.
How did you land yourself on the show?
A good friend of mine named Zach Sorgen did the pilot – he was on Charlie Puth’s episode. Zach was talking about it, and asked if I had any interest in being on the show. I had a Skype interview, a phone call, and three weeks later I was filming. It was crazy. From the start, it took maybe a total of 6 months.
Could you tell us about the process and journey that you undertook while being on Songland?
I performed “Hurt Me” for four of the most accomplished and respected writer/producers in the world – Meghan Trainor, Ryan Tedder, Shane McAnally, and Ester Dean – and then got to work with one of my favorite writers of all time (Ryan) on my song. Ryan re-produced the track, and after the show Meghan, Ryan, and a wonderful producer/artist/writer named Mike Sabath finished up the song. It was such a rewarding experience, and I received so much support from my family and friends when the show aired.
Things to Look out for During the Process
Why do you believe some people one hit wonders while others strike fame at 35?
Nowadays, it’s difficult to define a “hit.” With the emergence of so many genres and subgenres of music, what might be a hit in one genre is unheard of in others. It’s safe to say that these days, one hit won’t sustain you. What most people are doing now is putting out lots of music consistently, and if they get a certain amount of ears on it, they can grow their niche audience. The big test is how to continue growth and find your audience.
What happens when your co producers don’t get along? To be specific, if a song that is edited by one DJ then sent to another DJ and they don’t agree on the edits, what happens? Do you have to involve yourself?
I’ll typically send notes back and forth – or they’ll send stems, I’ll try out some production ideas, and send it back. If you really butt heads during the collaboration process you might not be meant to work together – it’s all about the chemistry. Everyone critiques everyone, and it’s important to take constructive criticism without getting offended. But if there is a difference of opinion that can’t be resolved (about where the drop should go, or what the title should be) maybe management or friends can break the tie.
Do you ever have to step in and say, this doesn’t sound the way I want it to? If so, what happens?
It depends on what I’m doing. If it’s a DJ and I’m writing for their project, it’s their project, and I don’t need to change it to make it sound like “me.” But if something sounds like shit I’ll tell them, like ‘yo the bass in this sounds gnarly.” I’m there to elevate and serve their project. I’ll give notes. But most of the people I work with, now that I can be more selective, have similar taste to me. Not gonna lie, I’ve worked with some people where I have to say “this can’t come out like this.” There’s a standard that I hold myself to, and I want to be proud of anything I release that has my name attached to it.
What happens if a DJ puts out music you don’t approve of?
At the end of the day, a DJ needs your permission to put it out your song. But there are situations I’ve heard of where DJ’s have put out songs without writer’s/artist’s permission. A friend of mine toplined (wrote lyrics and melody over a track) a DJ 2 years ago, and this DJ put it out 2 months ago, on a label, without asking permission or giving her a contract. It’s important to know that once in a blue moon, songwriters can get screwed over by DJ’s. Luckily, those aren’t the kind of people I work with – I love the people I work with! I have heard horror stories. Be sure to choose good people to work with.