Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriter Sebastian Kole
For Sebastian Kole, growing up in an easy-going part of Birmingham, Ala. allowed him to take time in perfecting his writing skill. Kole found a space to create at his own free will, telling VIBE in a phone interview that, “There’s no one there to guide what you should be doing, so it gives you a whole lot of ‘find yourself time’ and you don’t have any industry people saying you’re too young, or you’re too old, or you should sing it like this. There’s a lot of open space to think your own thoughts and find your own self.”
Not only was Kole’s southern upbringing an influence on his career, but the church also served as his sacred ground to explore different sounds. He played various instruments from the guitar to the piano, and would fuse certain songs he heard on the radio with Sunday’s selected hymns. Now, his new musical sanctuary is the studio. Kole has penned songs for legends like J.Lo to rising singer Alessia Cara, and served as co-producer alongside his songwriting credits for the Canadian artist’s widely-successful EP, Four Pink Walls and full length album Know-It-All. The pair instantly connected in the studio, and their partnership eventually led to the double platinum track, “Here.”
Below, the singer-songwriter discusses how Cara’s hit single was created, finding a surprising success with his cover of Adele’s powerful melody “Hello,” and his plans to share his personal music with listeners across the world.
VIBE: How’d you get your start in the industry?
Sebastian Kole: About four years ago I was just landing from Paris. I had gone to Paris to sing in this little small rinky-dink casino tour with some people from here. It was a horrible trip. The person who organized the trip and I just cursed each other to the high heavens when we got back home. I’m getting off the plane and my phone rings. It was my friend Mike. He and I had written some hooks that previous summer and one of them had gotten selected by an A&R at Interscope to go on a J.Lo record. They put that hook on a J.Lo record and she put that record on a movie [Step Up Revolution]. I got my first little check from writing songs, and it wasn’t much of a check, but it was nice to me. I paid off a few bills, bought myself a car and drove to California. I was just going to try it out like, ‘I don’t have anything to lose. I’m not stuck with nothing here.’
I drove to L.A. and when I first got there I shipped my clothes out because I had a cousin that lives two hours south of L.A., but when you’re from Alabama you think everything is close to L.A. I get to L.A. and I cannot contact him. I know why I couldn’t contact him now, but that’s a different story, but I couldn’t find him so I had no clothes. Just the clothes on my back and the clothes that I put in the car with me because it was a four-day trip from Alabama to L.A. and these were lounge wear clothes because I’m driving. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m here I have a couple of dollars left, I got a little time left.’
I had about three months worth of rent saved and I was going to try to make it in those three months. The guy who invited me to move out there I couldn’t find him, I couldn’t find my cousin so I did find this one girl who I met when I first came out to visit L.A. when we first got the song pinned. She was a songwriter [Heidi Rojas] who said, ‘When you come back here just call me. I’m going to take you to some sessions.’ I said, ‘Okay’ and I called her and she actually answered the phone and she said, ‘I’m so glad you called, come to this session with me.’ We went to this session and there was this unsigned artist and I started writing. The girl said, ‘You can really write, you should come back tomorrow and work with blasé blasé blah.’ I did that the next day. The guy I was working with that day said, ‘You can really write, you should come back tomorrow.’ I did that for three straight weeks, bouncing from session to session with people saying, ‘You can really write, you should meet this person.’ I moved to L.A. on October 9, and October 31 I did that same thing and this girl [Tish Hyman] said, ‘You can really write, do you have a publishing deal?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ She took me to meet this guy named Rob Eleazer, he’s the CEO of EP Entertainment and I played some stuff for him. The very next day he took me to Motown and they offered me a record deal and a publishing deal. I had been in L.A. for three weeks and that’s how I ended up getting signed.
Did you always know that you’d be a songwriter or artist or did you have a different plan for a career?
I knew I would be one of the two. By the time I moved to L.A. I was over being an artist. I thought ‘I’m too old for that. I’ll try to see if I can write some songs.’ I was just trying to write songs and it was really like a last heave like, ‘I’ll try this one time and if it doesn’t work I’ll just go home and work at a bank.’ But it happened to work.
How’d you connect with Alessia Cara?
EP Entertainment/Motown is the label that I’m signed to so Tony who is the “P” of EP Entertainment, Tony Perez, and his daughter Korinne Perez is like the A&R. [Korinne] found Alessia on YouTube and flew her to meet me at a show in Manhattan. After the show, we sat down and talked for a second and she sang for me, and Tony and Rob were like, ‘We should link you guys up and do some work together.’ I said ‘Okay, I think she has a nice voice, let’s try it out, let’s see what works out.’ I fly to Toronto maybe a week after that and it was basically the engineers, me, her, and her dad and sometimes her mom would come, and we’re in a room for hours.
I like to know people that I write for. I mean I can write for somebody like just sending them a song, but I don’t really like to do that because songs are like tattoos. You’re going to be stuck with that song for the rest of your life. It never goes away and if you hate that song, somebody is going to request that you sing that song 90 years from now. That’s horrible, so I like to get to know the person because if they’re going to get a tattoo I want it to be something they like. Everyday I would ask her, ‘What’s on your mind today?’ She would tell me whatever’s on her mind that day and I would start writing it no matter what it was. It could be something serious, it could be something not so serious, it doesn’t matter, just whatever it is that’s on your mind we’re going to write about it. We developed a friendship out of that and a good working musical relationship. We figured out the spaces that we would occupy in that balance. She’s like a little sister to me now.
What was that process like behind penning “Here?”
It was pretty early in the process. We were in Toronto and I asked her what’s on her mind. She said, ‘Well really nothing.’ I was like ‘Okay, nothing at all?’ She said no, so I asked, ‘What’d you do this weekend?’ She said, ‘I went to this party.’ I said, ‘How’d you like it?’ She said, ‘I hated it.’ I said, ‘Say no more! I know the feeling.’ That’s what sparked it. I’ve been to a ton of parties in my life and I’ve said, ‘Why am I here? What is this about?’ So that was the conversation that sparked that. When I write a song, whatever the concept is, I try to peel it in layers. If you listen to her whole album, you’ll see there are a lot of concepts but every concept is layered. I try to start and dig the layer until I feel like, ‘Oh, that’s what that feels like.’ That’s what I tried to do on that song, like ‘Okay the concept is I’m not interested in being here.’ So I started with the line, ‘I’m sorry if I seem uninterested,’ and just peel away the layers of why I’m so disinterested in this event.
It’s such a relatable song so it makes sense that the brainstorming session behind it was kind of smooth.
I think everyone has actually been there and no one has sung about it. I was really nervous about putting that song out because it was like everybody sings about how much they like to party, maybe this won’t work out, maybe people will say, ‘You should just go home if you don’t want to party.’ I was really nervous about it, but now I’m realizing that more people felt like that than I thought.
“Here” has also gone double platinum. What was your reaction or feeling when you learned that?
Literally unbelievable. This is my first major placement, I mean the J.Lo placement was major, but it was more like a soundtrack placement. This was a major radio single and I didn’t even know it had gone platinum one time so to hear that it was double platinum was like, ‘Oh, I guess I missed a couple million things.’ It was such an unbelievable feeling. I’m so proud of her and I’m proud of everybody that was involved. I’m not really much of a dreamer. I always say I don’t have dreams, I make plans. I didn’t even really imagine this. I didn’t think, ‘This is going to be big.’ I never thought that, I just thought we were writing a song for the day. To go from writing a song for the day to her being on a tour and being in the Top 10 on Billboard, selling two million copies, that’s crazy.
How long was the process in writing her EP?
Most of that stuff was written before we met Def Jam. It took a while to put out, but it did not take a long time to write. I write fairly quickly. Anybody who has been in the studio with me, I have this weird writing process, but it works and it works fast. I don’t take a lot of time to write a song, I wrote “Here” in probably 25 minutes, maybe. We probably spent about four weeks to write the whole album, just over separate little trips. We would do a week here and a couple of days here, and it took us a month to record the album and about two weeks to write it. It wasn’t a long process at all. It was just about putting together the amount of songs that we wanted to put out and figuring out how to get the songs out in the world. But the writing process wasn’t long at all. It was more like the recording process that took most of the time and finding producers because most of the songs were written originally over guitar or piano. We had to produce it up which is why I’m listed as a co-producer on most of these songs. Most of them I just wrote without music, like here’s a piano idea, we’ll write over this. That was the bulk of the process.
Are there any cool studio stories with Alessia?
All of our stories are cool, she’s Alessia, she’s amazing. I remember her dad, he’s a welder, a short, little Italian guy and the nicest guy you’ll ever want to meet. I remember we were in L.A. trying to finish the album and I would always tell Alessia in the studio, ‘You don’t even know what you’re doing right now. You have no idea what this is going to do. This is so good, I promise you, you don’t even know how good it is.’ We were in L.A. finishing up and her dad says, ‘Sebastian, do you think this is going to do anything?’ He had quit his job by this point. Her mom was still in Toronto, she’s a hairdresser so he’s just following her [Alessia] around. She’s been signed, but that advance money isn’t a lot and it doesn’t last long. He has a family to feed, so he said, ‘You think this is really going to do something?’ I said, ‘Vinny, I don’t know the future, but I got a really good feeling about this.’ And he said, ‘Okay Sebastian, I trust you.’ The very next time I saw him, I said, ‘I told you so!’ He was like, ‘You were right!’ (Laughs).
Have you ever hit writer’s block?
I hit writer’s block every single day. I hit more like writer’s burnout. I wrote about 200 songs this summer. I write songs all the time, everyday, all day, that’s all I do. It’s not that I cannot write a song, it’s that I’m tired of writing songs and I don’t really get block because everything is a song. My first car, I had a 1984 Toyota Corolla. I called it the Grey Ghost and it didn’t have a radio. I got the radio fixed, but the speakers were so bad, it just wasn’t worth trying to listen to the radio. I used to play this game from the time I got in my car to the time I got out my car I had to write a song. I would write a song about every single thing I saw and I would try to make it rhyme, create a hook in the middle of that, second verse and I did that for like three years before I got a car with a radio. What that taught me was there’s a song in everything. You can write about anything, you can always write a song and then when I started performing, I brought that with me. I had this thing where I would ask people to yell out words from the audience and I would make a song about whatever they yelled out to me. There’s a song in anything. There’s no such thing as necessarily writer’s block, but there’s not being inspired.
When writing a song, do you have to listen to the melody first or select a topic then go from there?
Here’s my weird writing process and I forget that it’s so strange and I offend people with it at first. Sometimes I’m working with a producer and sometimes I work alone or with artists, just however that works out. What I do is, they’ll play me the track, maybe like the first 10 seconds of the track. Once I understand ‘Okay the track drops here,’ then I walk out and I forget that not everybody knows that I’m going to do that. Normally the producer is like, ‘You didn’t like my music or something? Why’d he leave?’ But I can’t listen to the music and write the song. I have to hear the music and then walk away from it. I’m used to writing in the car in silence. I hear the music and I go outside and I just let the song happen. I come in and I sing the song and they’re like, ‘How’d you do that?’ I just have to step outside, listen to the music and when I come back in I’ll sing you the song. I can’t sit there with the music. I know some people just sit there and let the music play but I couldn’t do that. When I’m writing with people, I like to always ask them what’s the thing that’s on their mind because that’s really what I want to talk about. Most of the times it’s similar stuff but everybody has their own personal spin on that similar stuff unless you’re writing for somebody who doesn’t really know themselves. There are lots of artists who don’t know themselves, but as long as they have a good concept of self I think you can really take those concepts and build on them.
Do you find it harder to write for yourself than for other people?
It has become harder for me to write for myself than other people because now I’m known as a writer and when you’re known as a writer, they expect your own personal stuff to be mind-blowing. But when you’re writing for somebody else, it’s ‘Oh, you wrote a great song for someone else,’ but people want to really know the songwriter’s mind. When the songwriter sits down and writes a song, it better be really good. The pressure of it is hard, there’s more of a pressure of ‘This is my chance to say something,’ but with my own personal project I didn’t lyrically over do it, but I really tried to say something. When people hear it, I wanted them to hear that I really care about things. I don’t write songs for the fun of it, I write it because there are some things on my mind.
What are your plans for your personal music?
I should have an album coming out this year, working on a few things. That’s all label politicking and things, but I should have an album coming out this year called S.O.U.P., which stands for Southern Urban Pop. Just a big conglomerate of music that I like that I put together and I tried to make this one big long love story so hopefully it’ll be out this year. I think that people will like it. It’s like singer-songwriter meets urban meets the south. Just a bunch of random stuff I threw together. I think it worked out well.
I saw that you covered Adele’s “Hello.” It’s gotten over 2 million plays on SoundCloud too.
The weird thing about that is the day it came out, I happened to be in the same studio where Adele does her scratch records. It’s a little small studio on Santa Monica Boulevard. You wouldn’t know it was there unless you knew it was there. The address is like something, something and a half. That’s how small of a studio it is, it’s not even a whole address. It’s in the back of a store, but this is where Adele cuts her stuff. You walk in and there’s one plaque on the wall and it’s Adele. I happened to be in that studio that day writing with another person and my A&R called and said, ‘You should cover this new song, “Hello.’” I said, ‘Let me listen to it,’ and I liked it. I didn’t even know that’s where she recorded it at the time. I finished cutting it and the guy was like, ‘You know that’s the same piano she actually cut that on?’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s crazy!’ Everybody loves Adele so to get that kind of attention with my rendition of it was weird because I didn’t go to blogs with it. I just put it on SoundCloud and it literally went viral. I guess because people were already looking for the song, but for people to select my version of the song time and time again was very nice. I really appreciated that.
What makes a song stand the test of time?
You ever heard the song by Mumford & Sons “I Will Wait For You?” That song literally could have come out in 1765 and it still would’ve went hard. It literally is a timeless song, it just sounds like forever. But there are a couple ways to make that. When I think of timeless songs, I think of songs that captured the essence of the feeling, not necessarily the details of the feeling. The best songs in the world are the songs that leave you, the listener, the space to attach to what the artist feels. Sometimes you hear a song and it’s so very specific, and this happens a lot in hip-hop. They tell me exactly what they’re wearing, drinking, where they’re going, who they’re with, how much time they’re going to spend there, how much money they’re going to spend there. But that won’t last forever because that didn’t happen to me. I wasn’t there, I didn’t have that, I don’t know that girl. But if you leave me the space to just feel the feeling, like “It was all a dream, I used to read Word Up magazine,’ I did too Biggie! I was there. I had those posters on my wall too, Biggie. Those things last forever because I can attach myself to them. To me that’s what makes a song timeless. Hip-hop, of course, is very time sensitive because now a child wouldn’t even know what Word Up magazine was but because their parents were so attached to it, they’ll keep playing it. The more you leave space for people to have that feeling with you, the longer that song will last.