Haley Georgia is well aware that an artist's debut single is her first chance to establish an identifiable brand. It's her prerogative if she'd rather use that opportunity to stir up questions. Questions like, "Did she really just say that?" In the first few lines of "Ridiculous," a country-pop kiss-off to a fickle guy propelled by a mandolin melody over hip-hop drums, the 19-year-old, Texas-raised singer-songwriter plays a cheeky trick on the ear. She repeats, "You're ri-dic, you're ri-dic, you're ri-dic-culous," but the lyric bears an unmistakable phonetic similarity to a much crasser comeback. Georgia knows exactly what she's doing here: bringing youthful, eye-rolling inflections and chopped-up hip-hop cadences to country music with more wit and camp than most of her male counterparts. "If anything, my perspective on things is what's gonna set me apart," Georgia tells Billboard. "I've always sorta had a skewed vision on love and people."
Ask about influences, and she rattles off a diverse list of artists who "write it like it is," including Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, Iggy Azalea, Kesha, Patty Griffin, Merle Haggard, and Lana Del Ray. From the age of 12, Georgia studied Taylor Swift's career, cold-emailing Swift's co-writer Liz Rose, who suggested the aspiring singer visit Nashville. When she finally moved there -- after briefly appearing on season 12 of American Idol -- she crashed a recording session to ask Paul Worley to mentor her, and worked diligently at winning over publisher Arturo Buenahora, Jr., who eventually signed her to Little Louder Music. "People started taking notice when Arthur started taking notice," she says. "Arthur just really doesn't care what people think. If he thinks something's cool, then he's like, 'This is cool,' and that's the end of it."
With Buenahora's encouragement, Georgia wrote "Redic" with Matt Dragstrem and recorded it with Luke Dick. Last December, Georgia, Buenahora and booking agent Kevin Neal played the freshly mastered song for SiriusXM director of country programming John Marks. When the single premieres on The Highway channel in April during the Music Row Happy Hour, Georgia will be on the air, hearing listener responses in real-time. "If this is my only shot ever to put something out and all the doors get slammed in my face," she says, "at least I went down doing what I wanted to do and saying what I wanted to say."
Georgia sat down with Billboard, clad in a crop top, denim cut-offs and mini-fur coat -- her winter uniform, she jokes -- to do her very first interview.
What do you feel like you can bring to the table that you haven't already heard happening in the country landscape, in terms of vantage point, persona, delivery, whatever?
That's a short list.
It is. It is an extremely short list. Maybe just from things I've gone through, I don't really sugarcoat much. I just sort of write it as it is. I don't try to make it too complicated. Just simplify. And I think that there's something to be said about being 19 and going through those things and just writing them and putting them out there. If I'm feeling it, somebody else must be also.
Country's had its share of kiss-offs, but you wrote yours with an over-it tone, as opposed to an angry tone. Why did that feel like the way to go?
Well, I can tell you, when I wrote "Redic," I was -- and I pretty much always am any given day of the week -- in a very throwaway mood. I'm just kind of over guys in general on a day-to-day basis. When I got the idea for it, I went in to Arthur, who's my publisher, and I just said, "Are you gonna fire me if I write a song that says, 'You're ridic, you're ridic, you're ridic-culous'?" And he said, "Go write it." Most of my sonic footprint and artistic perspective has come from him kind of encouraging me to be the truest version of myself.
What role do genres from outside country, especially current pop and hip-hop, play in your attitude and delivery?
I mean, I definitely would say hip-hop and rap is huge. You know, growing up in Houston, and just growing up in the generation I have, genres have just sort of gone away. They're just really not there anymore. So I was exposed to so much of that. I mean, I am a country songwriter. I live and die for country music. But I think certain artists like Florida Georgia Line and Cole Swindell, you can kinda hear the same sort of thing, like the choppiness of the phrasing and things sonically, you know, the loops and things that are becoming more and more popular.
The country acts who've incorporated that stuff don't necessarily deliver it the way you do. It reminds me of Nicki Minaj or Iggy Azalea.
I love them. Genres aside, what I'm most inspired by, other than people, is artists like Nicki Minaj and like Iggy Azalea -- and even back to Patty Griffin. It's like those are the people that didn't sugarcoat. Those are the artists who really do inspire me the most.
That's a bit of a stretch to group Patty Griffin with Nicki Minaj.
But if you think about it, I mean, it's the same. It's the truth. You know, with Nicki Minaj it's a little more explicit, but they just say it. I think that's the hardest way to write a song, and the hardest songwriter to be is just someone who can write it like it is. So that's why I admire everyone from Lil Wayne to Patty Griffin and Merle Haggard.
There are some conversational moments in your first single.
I mean, I never shut up. So it's pretty much like when I'm writing it's just this ongoing conversation, like, "This is just how I feel." I wrote "Redic" with Matt Dragstrem at Big Loud Shirt. …We have a lot in common as far as what we pull from for inspiration and our backgrounds. We wrote "Redic" on 4/20, and I walked in and I just said, "I want to write a song about this asshole." And he always makes fun of me for it. I'm pretty sure he was high that day, and that's the only reason he was just like, "Yeah, let's write it. Whatever." It was our first time writing together. We didn't know anything about each other.
What have the few people who've heard it made of it so far?
I think it's different [with everyone]. As far as my dad goes, he's like, "Oh. My. God." But most of the label guys are, like, 40 to 55-year-old men, and they just think it's the funniest thing ever. They're like, "Oh, get it? You're a dick." So that's sort of how they hear it. But as long as they're listening, I don't even care how they hear it. I'm just happy that they're listening.
Did Luke Dick produce it?
Yes, Luke Dick produced it and Reid Shippen mixed it and Chris Athens mastered it, who does all the Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne stuff. So I was super excited about that. …I mean, pretty much everything that's been going on, as far as us cutting these records, have been, like, favors. Arthur is pretty much calling in every favor he has, and I'm just begging people, "Please mix this song." Hopefully something will catch on, and I'll get a deal and be able to pay them all back.
I've described your single as "country in the key of Kesha." How does that strike you?
I liked that because I think she's another person who just kinda lets it all hang out and is really irreverent and playful. And that's sort of how I hope people perceive me, the person I've morphed into since moving to Nashville. You kind of have to stop caring. I've never really cared, but you really have to stop caring once you get here and just do your thing. I haven't been here for a long time, but I've been here long enough to see that if you really wanna try to make any sort of an impact on the music community, you have to keep your head down, lock yourself in a room and work your ass off. So that's what I've tried to do.
You've said you were influenced by Taylor Swift's career path at age 12, which is very different from saying she influenced you creatively. How'd you pick up on that stuff at that young age?
Well, I've never been confused as far as what I wanted to do. I took an example that made the most sense to me, which was Taylor at that time. I just took as many pieces as I could and put them together in my own way and just kind of hoped and prayed that it would lead me eventually to doing this as a job.
You pretty much stalked people who worked or co-wrote with her.
Yes. I will openly say that. And Liz [Rose] will probably tell you that too. I pretty much hit her up out of nowhere, sent her some Reba McEntire songs I had sung into my computer. I was like, "Hey I'm Haley. I'm 12 and I really wanna write with you." She immediately responded and said, "I love your voice. Have you ever been to Nashville? Do you know about publishing?" My mom and I just did not know shit. So we went right to Barnes & Noble, got, like, ten books on Nashville and record deals and publishing. Both my parents are from upstate New York. I'm from a really normal family. They didn't know anything about country music. So once I discovered it, I pretty much just tried to make them obsessed with it as well, because I was so obsessed with it.
When I first Googled you, the only thing I found was a video interview you did on American Idol. Was that before or after you moved to Nashville?
It was right before I moved here. It was sort of just something I wanted to do to get out of my system. And I honestly think that any performer, singer or entertainer, if they tell you they don't wanna try American Idol, I think they're lying. I mean, I think everybody wants to just try it. I had to try it just to see. Because I think that was always an unanswered question for me: "Maybe I'll just do it really fast and see what happens. If nothing happens, I'll go to Nashville. It's fine." So the opportunity came to audition, and it was a free trip to California. I got to sing for Keith Urban, which is crazy because now I have a song on hold by him and I'm super close to getting a cut. Knock on wood. It was a great experience, you know? It really is a crash course in entertainment. It just is. They put a camera in your face the second you get there and don't leave your side until you get kicked off.
How far did you get?
I made it after the first round of Hollywood Week, and then I got kicked off. …I think there was, like, a split second of me on TV, long enough for my brother to take a picture and show his friends I was on American Idol for a second.
What did it take to get people on board with what you're doing?
I still wouldn't even say people are necessarily on board. It's kind of like in Nashville one person says yes, then everybody's like, "Oh yeah. I knew her back then." …I met with [Arturo Buenahora, Jr.] when I was, I think, 16 or 17. I had just been a huge fan of the projects he had been involved with and kind of the left-of-centerness of those artists, kind of how they become who they are, and their successes. Like signing Taylor when she was 14. He told me the last time he had been interviewed for Billboard was when Taylor was 14 and he was talking about how hard it is to get co-writes for a 14 year old. That just shows that he signs what he believes in. I could not be more thankful to have him in my corner, because as a businessman and as a music man he really is, in my opinion, the best there is.
I imagine you might sometimes face an uphill battle as a young, female, songwriting artist who isn't interested in being malleable and knows where she wants to take her career. Nicki Minaj has a lyric on her new album: "I'm just about my business." She felt the need to differentiate between being serious about her music and career and being viewed as a bitch.
You could not be more on point with that. It is something that I'll probably struggle with forever, and I think every female entertainer will who has something to say and has a really clear vision of themselves. It is very hard to find the line between being perceived as a bitch and knowing what you want. Sometimes you've just gotta do what you've gotta do.