In just the past two years, Zach Kale has emerged as a successful Nashville songwriter & producer. He first landed a cut with Florida Geogia Line, which gave him the confidence to move from Alabama to Nashville to pursue his music career full-time. Then he signed a music publishing deal with Sony/ATV Music and hit songwriter Jon Nite.
Notwithstanding his initial success, this year has been a breakthrough for Kale. He co-wrote the big hit “I Hope” for rising star Gabby Barrett, which has been number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for the past seven weeks. Impressively, “I Hope” has also become a major pop hit, reaching Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Kale has developed a special collaboration with Barrett. In addition to “I Hope,” he wrote seven more songs with Barrett for her debut album, Goldmine. He also produced these cuts.
Besides his work with Barrett, Kale has co-written songs for Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Jimmie Allen, Chase Rice, Hootie & the Blowfish, Chris Bandi and other artists.
Interestingly, Kale got a late start as songwriter & producer. After attending the University of Alabama, he moved to Atlanta, got married, and worked full-time in the ministry for over a decade. His got his first break in the music business when a song he wrote early on with his friend Canaan Smith (who became a hit artist), was placed with Florida Georgia Line. Kale and his wife then decided to leave Atlanta and move to Nashvile, and he’s now established a solid career there.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with Zach Kale. He tells how he got started in the music business and how he co-wrote the hit, “I Hope.” He also discusses his other projects and his work as a producer.
DK: I read that you’re from Athens, Alabama. How did you get started as a musician and songwriter?
Zach Kale: Athens is pretty close to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, which is where all the old soul music was made back in the day. My dad played in some of those crews at Fame Studios there. He was a great guitar player and singer, and he was a band director. So I was born into a musical family, and it kind of came natural. I love music in all styles.
Here’s the video of Gabby Barrett’s #1 hit “I Hope,” which was
co-written by Zach Kale.
I remember when I was 16, I would be driving down the road listening to Brad Paisley and then I’d be listening to Les Miserables. I love orchestral stuff, and I was a trumpet player. In college, I was a Jazz Studies major.
When I was 18, I started learning to play guitar, because my girlfriend’s brother was like the coolest guy in the world…he played guitar so I wanted to be like him. So I picked it up, and the first thing I did was learn chords and I started to make up songs. It was just something creative that I enjoyed doing and it blossomed from there.
DK: For college. you were a Jazz Studies major and you played trumpet. So how did you go from studying jazz, to becoming a country songwriter?
Kale: Growing up in Alabama, it didn’t matter if you listened to jazz or Broadway, you always had country music blaring out of the window. I remember I was driving my dad’s pickup truck near Athens…my windows were down and I heard Brad Paisley’s song. And I was like…Oh my gosh, that’s a country hook, and I liked the cleverness of it and it blew my mind. I thought…I’d love to do that one day. I just loved country music. I love the melodies in pop and I love the honesty and the lyrics of country music so much. And luckily, nowadays those are blending together in a beautiful way.
DK: When did you move to Nashville?
Kale: After college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, I moved to Atlanta for several years. I met my wife and we had a long, 8-year stint of doing different places—Atlanta, Charlotte, and back to Atlanta. But before I met her, I had written a song called “Grow Old” with a buddy named Canaan Smith (who later became a hit country artist). And it turns out, I was doing full-time music ministry at a church in Atlanta, for 12-15 years.
One day when I was leaving the gym, I got an email saying, “Florida Georgia Line needs your licensing info for a song called ‘Grow Old’.” I was shocked, thinking…What are you talking about? I didn’t think we even had a demo or a work tape of that song when we finished it. And long story short, it just made us pick up our heads, and it felt like there was an open door to move to Nashville, and so we did. We said, “We’ll give it six months and see if this is what we’re gonna do.” And it was a hard decision because we have a daughter (who is now 20), and it was difficult to pull her out of her junior year of high school and a school that she loved, to move to Nashville. But we felt like it was an open door and looking back, it’s completely been the right decision.
Here’s the audio for Florida Georgia Line’s song “Grow Old,”
which was co-written by Zach Kale.
DK: When did you connect with (hit songwriter) Jon Nite and sign with Sony/ATV?
Kale: I met with Jon around June 2018. A buddy of mine named Dane Schmidt, who’s my point guy at Sony/ATV, he used to work at Tree Vibes which is Florida Georgia Line’s publishing company. He said, “I want to sign some writers and I know you’ve been working hard at it, and Jon Nite wants to sign a producer/writer,” and I’d just started producing. So I wrote a song with Jon, who’s a fantastic songwriter, and I loved hanging out with him. It felt like we were friends right from the jump. So it felt like the obvious thing to partner together with him and Sony/ATV. He took me under his wing and developed me as a writer.
DK: You currently have a big hit, “I Hope,” with Gabby Barrett. How did you hook up with Gabby, and write that song with her and Jon Nite?
Kale: Gabby had just come off of American Idol, where she came in third. Dane Schmidt at Sony/ATV suggested that I write with Gabby. Then when Gabby walked in (for the writing session), she’s my daughter’s age, and so I felt very protective of her. I thought…I don’t want anyone to mess with this girl in town…she’s a diamond for sure. I think she’s showing that to the world right now…she’s amazing. And I just wanted to help.
On the day that Jon and I wrote “I Hope” with Gabby, it was the second or third write with her. Gabby and I had already written a song called “Rose Needs a Jack.” And so the day we wrote “I Hope,” we started the song, and [we recalled that Gabby said that she aspired to be like Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston]. So Jon and I were talking about Dolly, and the beautiful thing about Dolly writing “I Will Always Love You,” that it came from a genuine place. It came from, “I’m wishing this person well.” We weren’t thinking of someone who cheated. But we were thinking if things don’t work out in a relationship, you may not want the worse for someone…you really do want the best for someone. So we wrote the verse and we got all the way to the end of the chorus. But we couldn’t land what we wanted to say, and we felt like it didn’t really feel genuine.
One thing that Jon is so good at, is putting real emotion in songs. And we got there (in the chorus), and I spun around in a chair and just said, “And I hope she cheats,” to get it to rhyme. And Jon said, “Well, we’re definitely writing that song now.” I remember when we finished it, he said, “I think we just wrote a career song for her, and I think we may have just written us a career song.“ I love that song so much.
DK: I read Gabby’s album credits, and saw that you wrote eight songs with her. How did you and Gabby become such a good writing team?
Here’s the audio of Jimmie Allen & Nelly’s song “Good Times
Roll,” which was co-written by Zach Kale.
Kale: Early on, I thought about Gabby…and I try to do this with everyone I write with…I want more for [the artist] than I want for myself. I think when you do that with anyone, I think there’s a genuine emotion of, “This person is for me…they’re not trying to get something from me.” And I think Gabby saw that early on in town. Gabby surrounds herself with people who believe in her. Her whole team genuinely believes in Gabby Barrett. Luckily, she saw that I was one of those people that believes in her, and we have similar backgrounds from a faith perspective. So she knew that no matter what song we were writing that day and who we were writing with, she felt like she didn’t need to add a filter when she was meeting people for the first time, that I was going to be a natural filter for her. And we’ve had a lot of fun writing together.
DK: You mentioned that your first cut was with Florida Georgia Line, and you recently had a cut with Keith Urban. Can you talk about your work with other aritsts?
Kale: With my cut with Keith Urban, that was another song written with Jon Nite, and with Bobby Simpson. It was right before everyone shut down for quarantine, but we were already dealing with the effects of COVID on a worldwide landscape. So we were writing a song that was like…I want a life that I can live, not a life I can just live with. And that was a song that we wrote outside of quarantine. I finished the song and produced it out over quarantine, and when Keith heard it, I remember I got a phone call. It was Keith calling me, which was a big surprise. He said, “Hey Zach, it’s Keith. Man, I love this song…would you mind sending me your version?” We messed with some tempo and messed with some keys. Then we produced it out together over the next couple of months. I was so stoked…to have a Keith Urban cut, that is a bucket list thing for me.
DK: Besides your songs with Gabby, Keith and Florida Georgia Line, do you have other cuts that you’ve been working on?
Kale: Yeah, I have two songs on Jimmie Allen’s album, one that’s with him and Nelly. I have a lot of stuff on the Chris Bandi album; I’m a believer in Chris Bandi and I think he’s a star. I also have some songs on the Chase Rice album, and some Hootie and the Blowfish stuff.
DK: You’re also a producer. Did you produce some of these artists that you mentioned?
Kale: Yeah, with Keith and Chase, and with Gabby. It was great working with Ross Copperman on the Gabby songs. With a lot of these songs, when I’m doing the demo after we’ve written the song together, I try to give it a vibe. I don’t try to do anything that anyone else has done; I do what I would naturally do. I think there’s a theme that I’m learning that I put on songs, that makes me unique as a producer. And so sometimes with artists like Chase or Keith or Gabby, they hear it and they ask me to produce the song with them.