Hot country newcomer Cole Swindell had wanted to make it as a performer, but his path to stardom took a rather circuitous route. While in college, the Bronwood, GA native played in bars and penned a few songs, but he realized his tunesmith skills weren’t good enough. He moved to Nashville to improve his writing, and ended up landing a job selling merchandise on the road for a then little known artist named Luke Bryan. Then, Swindell scored a publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music, where he began to churn out hits for other performers. He had a hand in writing Craig Campbell’s “Outta My Head,” Thomas Rhett’s “Get Me Some of That” (a Top 5 hit), Scott McCreery’s “Water Tower Town” and “Carolina Eyes” as well as several Bryan tunes (“Just a Sip”, “Beer in the Headlights”, “Roller Coaster”, “Out Like That”, “I’m Hungover”, “I’m in Love with the Girl”, “Love in a College Town”, “Shore Thing”, “Shake the Sand” and “The Sand I Brought to the Beach”).
Finally, after seven years paying his dues in Nashville, Swindell is enjoying the proverbial overnight success as an artist too. Landing a record deal with Warner Bros. Nashville, Swindell’s debut single, “Chillin’ It,” topped the charts in 2013. Now, he’s back on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart with the Top 10 hit, “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” and as a songwriter with the smash “This is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line (featuring Luke Bryan).
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Cole Swindell. He talks about the lessons he learned from watching Luke Bryan up close, what helped him become a successful songwriter, and the hit that got away.
BC: You spent some time on the road with Luke Bryan and got to do some co-writing. What did you learn from him and what songs, if any, came out as a result of your experience?
Swindell: When I was out there, it was nothing like it is now. He’s one of the top artists in our format, if not the top. Back then, he was a new artist so I was getting to see what a new artist did. At the time I was just focusing on being a better songwriter. Being out there and getting to finally write with somebody you look up to was a big deal to me. It fired me up! Right off the top of my head, I don’t know what exact title or song came out of that, but there were plenty of ideas I got off the road from just watching the fans and watching the crowd. I think that helped me with my songwriting because I was taking a lot of pride in my live show. I want to sing songs that people can react to and have fun with. All the songs can’t be like that. For the live show, I did learn something from watching all of Luke’s shows—what made the fans do this and that. That definitely helped me. Getting to witness what a new artist has to go through and I had to do it; it was like I had been there but not really.
BC: Do you prefer writing with Luke and other writers, or writing solo?
Swindell: I’m not much of a solo writer. I do come up with ideas and start songs. I just love the process of co-writing whether it’s with an artist or with another buddy songwriter of mine. It’s just fun. Coming up with those lines, that’s what gets you. Then, that gets you high-fiving when you come up with a great line or you think you have. That’s the part that keeps you coming back.
BC: What is the writing process like for you? Do you set up an appointment with somebody and bat around ideas?
Swindell: It depends on the day and mood you’re in. Sometimes you walk in and you already have an idea but you don’t have a title. Sometimes you walk in with a title, but you don’t know what it means or you don’t know how to write it. Sometimes you walk in with just a melody. Then, sometimes you walk in with nothing. I wish there was a set formula on how to write the perfect hit song. I think that’s just repetition, doing it over and over, and that’s the worst thing you want to hear is knowing it’s going to take you years of practice to get where you want to be. The more you work and time passes and there you are; you’ve made progress. That’s kind of what happened to me.
BC: How did you see yourself grow as a songwriter?
Swindell: I don’t remember who it was, but somebody told me listen to the radio. Imagine this was your song on there. Would you turn it or would you leave it on there?’ Wow! That’s a pretty tough judgment on a song there. That’s true. You kind of have to listen to enough music to have a grasp on what a good song is. I would never say that I will ever master that. I think by practicing you get better and better. You don’t settle for lines. That’s the only thing you can really judge by is how easy you’ll settle for a line or how hard you’ll dig for a better one. Was it the right line or are you putting that there to get to the next line? I think that just comes from practice and practice and practice. You’re learning from other co-writers in the room. That’s why I love co-writing. I always want to learn something whether it’s somebody younger than me or been doing it twenty years longer than me. I think you can always learn something from somebody.
BC: When you write now, are you writing just for yourself or are you pitching to other artists?
Here’s the video of the hit “This Is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia
Line (featuring Luke Bryan) which was co-written by Cole Swindell.
Swindell: It’s been kind of a weird time period now I would think. I don’t think I could be in the head space, unless I was writing with another artist, writing something I didn’t like. I spent three or four years writing, trying to get other artists to record my songs. I didn’t have a record deal. It would be dumb for me not to let these guys that were somebody’s record these songs. There may be a couple that would have been great on my first album. But, hey, that got my name out there. It helped me in a huge way get to where I am as an artist. I think, with everything that has happened now, I think I would just write for myself. I don’t want a song to sit on a shelf. You work hard in those rooms to come up with them, and a lot of them don’t ever get heard. I want to record other artists’ songs if they write them, and they don’t like them for them, and I like them. I want it to be about the song and not who wrote it and not let that stuff matter. I would be all for letting anybody record my songs that didn’t fit me.
BC: What are a couple of the songs that you let go early on as a writer that you wish you now had as an artist?
Swindell: I guess I could say all of them because they all are good enough for somebody else to record. The one that really is a cool story is the song Luke recorded on his last album called “Beer in the Headlights.” I always felt like before I wrote “Chillin’ It” that “Beer” would be my first single if I was an artist. I love that song. When he recorded it, I was so happy that he recorded it. I would have never sold as many albums he’s sold with that song on there. It was better off that he recorded it. I did say to myself, that’s how I need to feel about a song in order to keep it. If I’m going to do this artist thing, I’ve got to have the right song. It’s all about the song. After he recorded that, a couple of months later I wrote “Chillin’ It” and I said this is it. I’m not giving this to anybody. We had to go to my publishing company and say, “Look. I know I don’t have a record deal, but please believe in me that I can do this.” It was a big deal for them to let me keep it and not send it to another artist. I appreciate everybody believing that I could pull that song off myself.
BC: I’m sure they’re glad now that they listened to you. What was the story behind that song?
Swindell: I just had that title, and I was writing with my buddy Shane Minor that day. I had just come off the road from somewhere and told him I had the title, “Chillin’ It.” I don’t think there’s any other way to write it—just you and your girl having a laid-back kind of day thing. We just tried to throw some catchy cool lines in there with a little melody. That’s what I wanted. We didn’t plan on writing that as my first single, but that’s what I wanted my first single to be—something that people could just catch on to and know me by my first single. Now, we get to follow that up and keep moving.
BC: With the song “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight”—how did that one come about?
Swindell: I wrote that one with my buddies, Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley and Tyler Hubbard and my producer, Michael Carter. Brian had that title. We wrote it in a couple of hours. That’s one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s funny how things happen when you get the right idea and the right people in the room—it just comes out. We wrote that in a couple of hours, and sometimes it takes days and months to keep getting together and trying to finish something.
BC: You mentioned your buddies with Florida Georgia Line. How did you co-write their big hit, “This Is How We Roll”?
Swindell: When they were out on tour with Luke (Bryan), I was writing with them. We kind of started it up and thought it’d be cool if Luke came in on it. He dug it and helped us finish writing it.
BC: It’s almost like you’re competing with yourself on the charts. You have one as a songwriter and one as a singer/songwriter.
Swindell: I know, man. I’ve run into that a couple of times this year. But that’s not a bad problem to have.
BC: When you’re writing, does the melody or lyrics come easier for you, or does it all roll together for you?
Swindell: It all seems to roll together. Lyrics is what I love. That’s kind of why I fell in love with country music in the ’90s and still love it. Lyrics are very important to me, but the melody is also. I’m smart enough to know that that’s a very important part of a song. Times have changed. Sometimes a melody is all you need. It ain’t all about the lyrics to some people, and that’s okay. That’s no different than me saying I’m all about the lyrics. I like to say it all comes in together for me, but I think the lyrics are number one for me.
BC: What advice do you have for songwriters who used to be in your shoes, when you’re trying to grow and get noticed? How can they garner attention for songs they’ve written?
Swindell: Listen to the music you like and see why you think that’s a good song. What makes that a good song? Honestly, the best way is you’ve got to do it every day even if it’s not a full song. That’s the best way to make it happen quicker is to practice more. There’s not much more you can do than that. That was my biggest thing, was somebody telling me to get after it and seriously go to work. It’s not going to come knocking on your door. You’ve got to work at it. Surround yourself with other talented writers, if you can get around them, or people that at least enjoy music the way you do that want to write. Get around it and see if you enjoy the process. Some people can write by themselves and enjoy that. You’ve just got to find your thing and what makes it work for you. Be patient and work hard.
Bill Conger is a freelance writer for various publications including Bluegrass Unlimited, GACTV.com, Bluegrass Music Profiles and ParentLife. He can be reached at [email protected].He is also on Google+