Kellie Coffey

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Kellie Coffey

Kellie Coffey had her big break in the country business. Her debut album on a major label earned her a Gold record, a top five single, even a Best New Artist award. Years later she was dropped from her label and lost her manager a mere month after saying she and her husband were trying to have a baby. Yet in an industry which celebrates youth over longetivity, Coffey has rebounded with her new independent album Walk On, which seems destined to put her back in the country spotlight. She took the time to sit down with Stereo Subversion’s Jonathan Sanders to discuss her rise and fall within the country establishment, her thoughts on the way women are treated in country music, and what means being an artist when selling half a million records might net an artist only a few thousand dollars.

SSV: You write or co-write most of your songs. How do you think that sets you apart as an artist?

Kellie Coffey: I think I wouldn’t really do it any other way. You’re putting your own thoughts and feelings down, it’s coming from a different place. When you buy an album you want to know that person. That’s what I’m able to provide through my songs.

In Nashville, most country singers have earned a reputation in the industry by having songs written for them. They live and die by song selection. Do you think writing your own songs gives you an advantage? More credibility? That way it is an advantage is you don’t have to choose from the same pool of songs as the most popular artists. You have a little more control over what you record and why you record it. Maybe, for some people, that makes me more credible. I can’t say for sure.

SSV: As a songwriter in Nashville, do you think writers get the credit they deserve?

My experience was difficult. It's harder on women. You're expected to look a certain way and be a certain age. It's sad, because we're missing out on a lot of women who have something to say. In country music, your audience is 35 year old mothers, so it's really odd that we don't value that.

My experience was difficult. It's harder on women. You're expected to look a certain way and be a certain age. It's sad, because we're missing out on a lot of women who have something to say. In country music, your audience is 35 year old mothers, so it's really odd that we don't value that.

Coffey: As a songwriter myself, I think the songwriters in Nashville are the real superstars. We, songwriters and musicians, treat them like the talent they are. Outside Nashville maybe it’s not always the case. But songwriters are my favorite people in the world! They’re great to be around.

SSV: Who would you say are your “songwriting heroes?” Which artists have influenced your signature sound?

Coffey: As for songwriters, there’s so many … Carole King, Leon Russell, James Taylor, there are too many to list. When I first came to Nashville I was in awe of my heroes, like Billy Kersh – we worked together to write one of my favorites, “Outside Working In,” which made it onto my first album. As for who influenced my sound, that’s also a long list. I know Linda Ronstadt made a mark, as did Reba – she’s just amazing. Then there’s the Judds, Wynona and their sound, which was particularly different from everything else I was hearing when I first listened to them. I also enjoy Michael McDonald and soul music in general. There’s even been Whitney Houston influence in my music.

SSV: If you could work with any artist recording today, who would you choose?

Coffey: Oh my goodness … I’m a big fan of Trisha Yearwood and Vince Gill, how they tell stories, the kind of stories that make you feel you have to listen. And Michael McDonald, I’d love to work with him.

SSV: Peter Cage told American Songwriter last month that “music lets you feel things that you can’t feel; music is a way of being alive.” Would you agree with that?

Coffey:: Absolutely I would, that’s beautiful!

SSV: What about being a musician most appeals to you?

Coffey: When i was little I would lock myself in a room, turn up music and work out my feelings. That’s what I hope to do with my music, allow someone else to be able to take that chance. I don’t think I would do anything else. This is what I’m good at, what I knew I’d do since I was little. I love the feeling of writing a great song, the feeling of connecting with an audience.

SSV: What made you decide, once and for all, that you wanted to be a country singer?

Coffey: I started writing songs after this guy broke my heart, and they were country songs. I put a showcase out, and Judy Stakee, who discovered Jewel and Sheryl Crow, heard me, signed me to a development deal, and when I moved to Los Angeles, I wanted to see if I could make a living. I turned my focus on, that’s really the most powerful feeling.

SSV: How do you go about co-writing a song? Do you have a distinct process?

Coffey: The process is different every time. But I like to write from a title. I like to have a melody sketch, a chorus, and then the verses come. But you have to be open and ready for anything. You bring your talents and they bring theirs and together you create something wonderful.

SSV: Songwriter Michael Kosser once said that revisiting older songs you’ve written reminds you that your songs are important to you, not because they’ve made you money, but because you’ve committed much of your life to writing them. Have you ever revisted an old song and turned it into something new?

Coffey: I have! “Give Me This day To Cry,” one of my first songs, I brought it in and rewrote it with a co-writer. I don’t know if the new version was better. I listen to old stuff and try to make it better. Each song represents a distinct time in my life. That can be hard to go back to successfully.

SSV: If you could rework any song off either of your albums, which would you choose?

Coffey: I don’t think I would change any of them. I like them all in at least some way.

SSV: Having done things on your own with Walk On, have you had a harder time breaking through to radio?

Coffey: Well, I don’t want to say anything that makes them angry, but yeah I think it’s going to be an interesting journey. I don’t have the big machine behind me. We’re trying to get the music out to as many as possible, and if radio play comes out of that somehow, that’s great.

SSV: You’ve had a big-selling debut album, a top five single, even a Best New Artist award. Is it difficult to start over after all that?

Coffey: Yes, in fact the whole record is about that! It’s difficult to start over in a sense, but this record wouldn’t exist had I not had to start over. There’s a reason I made this music. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

SSV: If someone asked you: “Kellie Coffey, where are you now?” How would you respond?

Coffey: Well, I’m a mother. I’m making music on my own terms, and I’m happy in what I’m doing. All I’ve done has led to where I am, shaped me, made me better. I’m in a good place.

SSV: Do you think you’d be able to stop making music if someone said you had to?

Coffey: No. No. This is what I do! Since I had my little boy Jackson, it’s important for me to show him I use the gifts God gave me. I’m his mom and then I’m these other things too.

SSV: If you weren’t making music, what would you be doing?

Coffey: I honestly don’t know. I think I would just be … I don’t know, this is all I know how to do!

SSV: Douglas Waterman, in a recent American Songwriter, interviewed LeAnn Rimes, who related this story: “It’s sort of funny, because when artists start writing songs, a lot of people are skeptical … you know, like, ‘Do they just sit in the room or do they really write?’ I’ve been writing songs forever. But what I didn’t really realize when I started writing in this town is that people would come in with a half-written song … and say, ‘This is the idea.’ And I said, ‘Whoa, I don’t wanna write like that. Let’s start from the beginning.’ Once I started working my way through, I began to see that people had these low expectations for artists writing songs.” Have you ever experienced that lack of expectations yourself as a songwriter?

Coffey: I have. I won’t name names, because that’s a bad thing to do, but I think what’s so great is LeAnn refused to work that way and created a different vibe. And she’s LeAnn Rimes! Who’d have thought she’d still be on the receiving end of that kind of attitude?

SSV: How would you counter that argument?

Coffey: I would prove myself in the writing session. Go out and prove yourself again, again and again! Even LeAnn Rimes has to show up prepared to prove she can write. If you don’t show up with your best stuff you might as well not even show up at all.

SSV: You once cited a scary statistic, that a Gold record nets the average country artist a mere $4,000. You argued that, because of this, it is important to discourage file sharing, so artists can get the money they deserve. What, other than stopping illegal file sharing, needs to be done so artists can make a living from their music?

Coffey: I don’t have the answer for that. It’s a really scary, but great, time for artists. The scary thing is if you’re a truly independent artist, you live solely off of music. It hurts the songwriters the most. What would happen to Nashville? What is our future going to be like?

SSV: I’ve read that, though a CD only costs perhaps 25 cents to record and produce physically, an artist only gets 8 to 10 cents per disc sold, while the rest of an $18 price goes to the label, the manager, etc. Do you think going online, self-distributing as you’ve done with Walk On, would allow the musician to begin earning a fairer share?

Coffey: Yeah, I think we charge $15 for ours, but it’s different depending on where it sells. If it sells on Napster or on ITunes, we make more of a profit. If it sells on Amazon, not so much. It’s exciting though, a great concept to be able to really make money on your albums. It feels good. You’re doing what’s supposed to be done!

SSV: The country industry has earned a reputation for being quite cruel. Steve Earle once was asked if he found Nashville to be a nurturing place. He responded: “No. Me and everybody like me … we have to take what we’re given. Songwriters, especially the kind of songwriter I came to be, have to live in the margin.” Would you agree with that sentiment?

Coffey: Maybe it’s that he makes a different kind of country, more of a Rage Against The Machine country. That might see him coming at this from a different perspective. But I didn’t have that kind of experience. I felt welcomed there, made some of my best friends in Nashville. These are people I adore.

SSV: In the country industry, new artists pay the way for established artists to tour, hoping to earn a fan base in return. Yet new artists are embraced while veterans are often left at the roadside. What about the industry needs to change for musicians and songwriters to get a fair shake?

Coffey: It’s really more of a statement for how women are treated in a way, but Reba’s an example of being able to succeed long term.

SSV: Even then, Reba hadn’t had a hit single in years on the country charts, until she did this recent duet with Kelly Clarkson.

Coffey: Yeah, that’s true, and I don’t see that ever really changing, I hate to say. Radio and the people playing music and making the decisions would have to change it. You age and write deeper songs with life perspective, which is what really embodies a true artist. It’s a shame that country music has never done a good job of nurturing that.

SSV: Women in country seem to be treated the worst. You even said once that, a month after you confessed you were trying to have a child, you were dropped by your manager and label. Is it harder for a woman to become an established country presence than for a man to be? Do you think your experience was typical?

Coffey: My experience was difficult. It’s harder on women. You’re expected to look a certain way and be a certain age. It’s sad, because we’re missing out on a lot of women who have something to say. In country music, your audience is 35 year old mothers, so it’s really odd that we don’t value that. To say a mother can’t be successful as a country singer is both crazy and insulting to artists and the audience we play for.

SSV: It’s been said that there’s really nothing new under the sun. But your song “I Would Die For That” has struck a chord with so many people. Did you think, when you recorded that song, that so many would take your words as their words?

Coffey: No … I was really overwhelmed by how many people this, infertility, has affected, is affecting. It’s so isolating, it makes people uncomfortable to talk about. After I wrote it I thought I’d never be able to play it live. I couldn’t even read the lyrics to my husband without crying. Now that I have Jackson, I need to be able to give other women a voice, saying: “You’re not alone!” When I made the demo, the engineer was crying … a man! He told me he and his wife were going through the same thing. I knew then that we were on to something that needed to be expressed.

SSV: Is that song still difficult to perform live?

Coffey: Yes, it is. I think in some ways it’s more in empathy for women. I can remember what I felt when I wrote it, when I sing it. But I also feel blessed when i sing it because now I have my little boy.

SSV: Early in the song, you sing: And she made a decision / Some find hard to accept / Too young to know that one day / She might live to regret …” With that line, you respectfully express a point of view on the abortion issue. But the song being as personal as it is, did you struggle not to make the message sound political?

Coffey: You know what? I think it is interesting because people tend to read their views into the song. Pro-choice people and pro-life people both read it as coming from a non-judgmental place. That’s where I and the other songwriters were coming from. It’s an observation of how sometimes life isn’t fair for anyone involved.

SSV: Has anyone interviewing you taken that song the wrong way, or out of context?

Coffey: Not yet. Not yet. I hadn’t even heard that question asked before!

SSV: Would you ever want that line, taken out of the context of the whole song, to be used in the public battle for or against abortion? Would doing that be taking something away from the song?

Coffey: I probably would have to decline on that, if someone wanted to use the song in a political way. I’m not trying to judge anyone or making a statement. Wait, well I was making a statement, but it was a statement of where I was, not where someone else should be.

SSV: What question do you wish no one would ever ask you again?

Coffey: I don’t like that statement-question: “So … tell me about yourself!” It’s so broad, so lazy! Where would I begin to answer that?

SSV: What question do you wish someone would ask but they never do?

Coffey: Maybe … I don’t know! What happens, when you’re giving interviews, it feels like it’s all about me. Kellie, Kellie, Kellie! It feels odd, not like a real conversation. You know what? I’d almost rather interview you!

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