Old Dominion's Matthew Ramsey Shares Songwriting Advice, Talks Falling In Love With Kings of Leon

Isaac Brekken/Getty Images for ACM
Whit Sellers, Geoff Sprung, Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rosen and Brad Tursi of Old Dominion pose for a portrait at the 4th ACM Party For A Cause Festival on April 3, 2016 in Las Vegas.

Old Dominion is on a roll: three singles, all of which hit Country Airplay’s top 10; two summers opening for Kenny Chesney; and now, two CMA nominations, including one for best new artist. Ahead of country’s biggest night, frontman Matthew Ramsey explains how the group’s current single, “Song For Another Time,” came together, as well as what’s next for the songwriters behind your favorite singers.

“Song For Another Time” has such a unique theme -- how did you come up with it?

It was last summer -- we were on tour with Kenny Chesney, and we thought that we were done with the album. I'd heard somebody say "That's a story for another time," and for whatever reason, I just thought it would be cool to say "a song for another time" -- I didn't really know what the song would be about, I just wrote that down. But when I brought it to the guys and was talking about what it could possibly mean, someone came up with the idea that it would be cool to tell this whole story through song titles. We wrote it in a day or so -- we were out on the road, with Matt Jenkins. We were trying to find iconic songs that people would know, that still fit the story.

After we played it at a soundcheck in one of the stadiums, it sounded so huge that we called the label and said, "We have to come home and record this one song, it has to be on the album." We had to book a special flight home to record it -- we knew we had something special. You never know, but this time, we guessed right.

It’s pretty different from what people expect from a country song, in a lot of ways.

I mean there's a lot of songs out there about the same kind of thing, and that's for a reason -- they work, and people like to listen to them. But we do like to try and write something at least a little different -- try to put a spin on things that maybe hasn't been done before. That's not always easy to do, though!

How did you decide on the production? It’s upbeat but also, thematically, pretty emotional.

If you really listen to it, it's a sad song -- which I do love about it. People can take what they want from it: it can be just a happy, fun sing-along song, but if you want to really dive into it, it's the story of a relationship that's ending. Recording the vocal was pretty...interesting. Shane actually came into the vocal booth, closed the curtain, and was like "I'm gonna give you a minute to think about this, and then I want you to sing it."

How have things changed for you over the course of this past year? [Meat and Candy, Old Dominion's debut, was released Nov. 2015]

Last year, when we signed on with Kenny for the first tour, we didn't even have a record deal. Now we're three singles in, recording our second album, doing a headlining tour -- we just did a show in New York City and 2,000 people showed up and sang every word, every song. Life is changing dramatically for us -- we're holding on, but we're having a good time.

How does that impact your writing process?

It definitely slows down, but we’re lucky that we’re already in a band with the people we were writing songs with -- so we can write anytime we want. Now, we have quite a crop of songs to choose from for the next album. With the first album, we had too many songs to choose from, and we wanted that same problem with the second album. It's a little different, but it still sounds like us. Some of those recordings, like "Nowhere Fast," are four or five years old at this point.

We've been on the road, playing 200 shows a year, for a couple years now -- that definitely changes you, and tightens you up. You're gonna hear a lot of similarities, but we're making sure we show our growth. As a band, we have to collectively figure out where we want this to head -- luckily we're usually on the same page.

Are there any albums or songs that you always come back to when you’re stuck creatively?

Usually I do the opposite, actually -- go out and find something that I haven't heard before that will spark me, instead of going back to the same things. There are albums that I listen to religiously just because I'm such a big fan: any Bruce Springsteen album, or old George Strait albums because the songwriting's so strong. But when I'm stuck, I try to listen to a type of music that I don't normally listen to -- something that can tweak your ear.

For example, I wasn't always a big Kings of Leon fan until some of their later records, and I just bought their new one and I can't stop listening to it. Their writing and their playing right now...I can't turn it off. So I'm sure there will be some things that come out of that.

And of course, what’s your best piece of songwriting advice?

This goes for our songwriting as well as our success as a band -- the minute we stopped chasing what we thought people wanted to hear and started writing things that moved us, that's when people started paying attention. You have to come in and learn the ropes a little bit, get the practice in writing -- there are certainly tricks that help you progress. But once you learn to let go of those things and write what excites you, chances are it's going to excite other people because it's going to be unique, instead of what you think people want to hear. "Break" the rules or really, don't even worry about the rules. Write what you care about.

A version of this article appeared in the Nov. 5 issue of Billboard.