Ryan Follese Discusses His Transition From Hot Chelle Rae to Country Music: 'My Heart Is in Nashville'

Ryan Follese
Joseph Llanes

Ryan Follese

The former pop-punk frontman will be opening for Sam Hunt on his summer tour, which kicks off Thursday (June 1).

Ryan Follese has only been on the country scene for almost a year's worth of singles and a 6-song EP, but his relationship with country music goes far beyond September 2016. The 30-year-old singer was born and raised in Nashville, with both parents (Keith and Adrienne Follese) serving as songwriters for the likes of Tim McGraw, Lady Antebellum and Randy Travis.

"From the time I was five years old, I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s Oldsmobile and distinctly saying I wanted to be a songwriter when I grew up," Follese recalls to Billboard. "Not just because he was, it’s because I liked what he was doing every day -- he was in the studio, he was making music and I loved it."

Follese began writing his own songs at about 7 or 8 years old -- "really stupid songs," he laughs -- working his way to becoming a solo artist around the age of 15. But when he hit his late teens, an opportunity arose to form a pop-rock band called Hot Chelle Rae, and he put his country roots on the back burner: "I feel like I did what most kids do when they start a band -- I rebelled against what my parents did."

But after a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 -- "Tonight, Tonight" reached No. 7 in 2011 -- and a successful touring career as frontman of HCR, Follese still felt something was missing. "There were definitely moments in my band where I wondered if I was in the right spot," he says. 

As a super family-oriented guy, Follese always had moments of feeling too far removed from his loved ones. Even so, when things died down with HCR, he continued writing for other artists in Los Angeles -- but once his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, he knew it was time to put his own career on hold. "I dropped everything I was doing and went back for [her]," he recalls.

Once his mom started going through chemotherapy, though, she was less concerned about her condition and more invested in getting her son’s post-HCR career off the ground. “She said, ‘Are we going to write your record or not?,’” he recalls. “When your mom is going through chemo and she’s badass enough to be like, ‘Are we going to do this?,’ it really kicks your ass into gear and puts things into perspective.”

And with that, the entire Follese family began writing, including Ryan’s younger brother, Jamie, who played drums for Hot Chelle Rae. Ryan had written with his parents since his teens, but writing with Jamie was a new experience -- and “a growing up moment” for the two, as he puts it.

“It was the coolest experience writing-wise in my life, and that’s what made it in my mind that this was absolutely where I needed to be. I needed to be at home in Nashville where my roots are -- it was kind of an easy decision.”

While Follese was feeling very comfortable with the music he was creating with his family, there was a lingering concern that the fans he’d garnered in his Hot Chelle Rae days may not get behind his new path. “I was concerned about disappointing people,” he says. “It was a little nerve-wracking thinking how they would react to it, but the more music I made, the more sure I was of my footing.”

Even if some Hot Chelle Rae fans weren’t going to be on board, Follese at least knew he had the support of his bandmates. In fact, the first person he sent his new music to was HCR guitarist Nash Overstreet. "He was like, 'Man, this stuff is awesome. Just keep doing what you’re doing.' Having that kind of internal support from even the guys that you grew up with is a pretty cool feeling."

No matter how anyone felt, though, Follese knew that was what felt right for the storytelling he wanted to do as an artist.

“For me, with what I’m going through at my age and stuff I’ve seen in my life, I wanted to tell more stories about what I was going through. I feel like in this time in my life, I’m just tellin’ the truth, that’s all it is,” he suggests. “If you’re hearing something that I’m singing, I have lived it -- it all comes from a very, very honest place. That's important because I feel like [fans'] bulls--t meter is a lot better than people give them credit for.”

In reality, Follese's music isn't a shocking departure from the music he made with Hot Chelle Rae -- especially since he was the voice of the group to begin with. His debut single, "Float Your Boat," has enough rock influence that it could serve as a crossover HCR track, and while the rest of the EP discusses a relationship in more romantic terms than his band's tracks, there's plenty of electric guitar and creative lyricism to balance out any sappiness. And with nearly five million Spotify streams on the EP, his new music is clearly resonating with fans.

The transition gets easier and easier for Follese as time goes on, as he insists his fellow country peers already feel like family (“I feel like a moth to a flame, it’s such a wonderfully intoxicating, inviting experience"). And starting June 1, he’s hitting the road with modern country superstar Sam Hunt -- one of the guys he’s closest to in the genre -- along with Maren Morris and Chris Janson, for a four-month trek.

Follese intends on releasing a full-length album in the relatively near future, and as he continues his country career, he hopes to earn himself a No. 1 solo hit and eventually become an arena act. Would he ever consider switching genres again to achieve those goals? He can confidently say no.

“I don’t see it changing in my future, to be honest," he says. "I wish I could describe how good it feels... I don’t know if I ever thought I was going to do [country], and I honestly can’t say I really chose to do it this time -- it kind of chose me. A lot of pretty important stuff happened in my family, and I had a handful of ideas that were all coming out country. I just didn’t fight what felt natural to me. Life is too short to be worried about what people are going to think. You’ve gotta do things where your heart is, and my heart is in Nashville.”