Nicolette Hayford is known for crafting raw, truth-spilling compositions, notably as a co-writer on songs such as Little Big Town’s “God Fearin’ Gypsies,” Koe Wetzel’s “Cabo” and a string of songs with Ashley McBryde — including “Stone,” “Sparrow” and ACM song of the year nominee “One Night Standards.”
That urge toward the fearless and open-hearted continues on Hayford’s first full-length album as an artist, under the moniker Pillbox Patti.
“I was coming off a big song [“One Night Standards”] and I had the money to go make an album the way I wanted to make it,” she tells Billboard. “I’m always going to be a songwriter for other people, but I felt inspired, and like it was time to tell my own stories. These were songs I needed to write, and truths I needed to tell.”
The eight-song project, titled Florida, comes out Friday (Oct. 14) via Monument Records, and pays homage to her childhood growing up in the Sunshine State, a time she calls “kind of chaotic.”
“I had a very different experience than a lot of country songs that I’ve heard,” she says. “The side of the small town I grew up in was not pretty — there was a lot of drugs, violence sometimes. There was no money. Nobody was frying chicken or anything on Sunday, right?”
She distills those experiences throughout the album, on lines like “Ain’t even a swing on the swingset/ Video store still got VHS,” from “Eat Pray Drugs,” or the line “16 and too fast to slow down/ Getting high and driving around in a 25 MPH town,” from the album’s closer, “25 MPH Town.”
Hayford recently wrapped a touring stint with Brantley Gilbert and Jelly Roll as part of the Son of the Dirty South tour. Below, she chats with Billboard about crafting both Pillbox Patti and Florida, her work as a songwriter and more.
Most songwriters would put out an album under their own name. Why was it important to you to craft the Pillbox Patti persona?
For me, it was really important to have separation between my writing career and my artist’s career. As a songwriter, people can kind of put you in a box based on the songs you’ve had cut. And I love that box, it’s an amazing box to be in — but I didn’t want to seem like I was coming out of left field with a new sound and a new way of speaking that was very different from what my cuts on other projects sound like.
How did you come up with the Pillbox Patti persona?
[As a songwriter,] I recorded some songs [2020’s Pillbox Patti EP], just songs that needed a home. I write a lot in the middle of the night, I have insomnia pretty bad. I sat down at the piano in the middle of the night and wrote a song called “Pillbox Patti.” It just came from a place of who I could still be if I was still in that town — but I knew right then that it came down from the universe. At that moment, I knew that moving forward as an artist, the reason I wrote that song and that name was to use for my artist project.
“Candy Cigarettes” was one of the first songs you wrote for the project.
I think the song kind of sparked from a conversation, about the stuff that we had around as kids. I was like, “Man, going to the store with my grandma to rent a movie, at the counter next to the bubble gum and the candy bars would be the candy cigarettes, and we always had those.” And you know, I’m ripping a cig right now as I’m talking to you — so it’s like, “Is that where the hell this started?” Or, you know, having a sip of beer, a lot of us could relate to that, we were around it. Grandma’s ripping cigs in the car with the window opened just a crack…
The album title is a nod to your home state and your troubled youth...
I didn’t have a normal sense of stability. My mom left when I was young, my dad was gone all the time with work. Sometimes grandma would stay with me, sometimes just my older sister or staying at friends’ houses. We moved around quite a bit. I started in Gainesville, then ended up in Port Charlotte and later lived in Jacksonville Beach before finally moving to Nashville.
So music was a solace?
I’ve always been a writer, even as a kid. My dad was a musician, played in bands. I came up with a piano in the home and I would sit down and write songs when no one was home. When I didn’t have access to an instrument, I still wrote in a journal or whatever. It was always there, but I definitely got distracted from that path multiple times. But it was something I always came back to.
My dad helped out with the Durango [Colo.] Songwriters Expo for years, and that’s something I got introduced to. I think I started going when I was about 18 or something, so that kind of introduced me to this as a job and a career.
Who were some of the people you met through that experience?
I met a lot of people I’m still friends with, and who have been a really big part in helping me navigate my career. [SESAC’s] Shannan Hatch for one, and [Punchbowl Entertainment’s] Juli Griffith. But also writers like Al Anderson and Chuck Cannon. I got to be around a lot of those people and ask questions and learn from them.
You write about a lot of tough subjects on this album, with no judgment.
It’s important to talk about that stuff, and not in a way that is sad or depressing. Some of it is, but also, you go through what you go through. It should be talked about and sung about. I’ve had some of the worst, scariest times in an environment like that, but I’ve also had some of the best times. So it was important for me to make it feel like a celebration.
What was that moment when you decided to leave Florida for Nashville?
I was living in Jacksonville Beach and was recording some and writing every week. I knew I needed to be in Nashville, but there was a lot of fear there. I had a job, I had a boyfriend I lived with, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing what I needed to be doing.
Where were you working?
I was a waitress and bar manager at a place called European Street Café, and I still have so many friends from there. But I made a pact with myself that I was going to leave on the 4th of July — since that’s like, the most fun day in Jacksonville Beach. I knew if I was serious, I would leave on the most fun day. I packed up the little Kia I had and drove out of town while the fireworks were going off in the background.
The song “Hooking Up” definitely sounds like the celebration you were talking about.
It was so fun. I think we got on that one at like 1:00 a.m. on one of those retreats. [Producer] Park [Chisolm] had some weird tracks he made on this SP 1200 [digital sampler] I borrowed from Kid Rock. I couldn’t find one anywhere and I really wanted the right gear. He had this weird saxophone sound that I loved and this song just kind of fell out. But this song was important, because I went through this whole phase and it’s important to laugh about that and have a sense of humor about it. If you’re out there still [hooking up]—and sometimes I am—it’s about having ownership of it.
The end is literally Park letting the mic roll. That’s Ashley McBryde, Connie Harrington, Benjy Davis, Aaron Raitiere, and Joe Clemmons. We’re just talking and laughing and saying real stuff that girls have said to guys they’ve hooked up with or stuff I’ve said. So we’re all just kind of real bulls–tting.
What kind of music were you listening to around that time as a kid?
I was driving around in my ‘94 Pontiac with two tens [subwoofers] bumping in the back. I listened to a lot of Master P, and UGK’s Super Tight album, Trick Daddy and Trina. So a lot of all those influences, I just went back and was making a playlist to everything I used to drive around that little town, and pulled a lot of influence from that music, for sure.
On the other end of the spectrum, “Valentine’s Day” is a tender, yet unflinching look at your personal experience with abortion. What was the writing session like for this song?
This song lived in my gut for a long time. I know I needed to do some healing, you know? In these writing retreats, it is absolute freedom, a lot of laughing and it’s a lot of drinking, kind of controlled chaos. But this session was a very still moment. I was in a room with six people that I trust with my life. Everyone was there to catch a stream of consciousness and held my hand through that write. That was a really special, really emotional, really heavy moment that I’ve never experienced, writing something that personal. But afterward, it felt like a weight lifted off of me.
With you being so close to each of them as writers, did they already know you had gone through that situation, or was that your first time telling them?
I think that they might have all known. It maybe had come up, but I certainly never talked about it in detail with anybody, for sure. So it kind of hit everyone the same way.
Pillbox Patti also appears on Ashley McBryde’s recent album Lindeville. What was it like being part of that project?
We went to an alternate universe for four days in a house. Me and Ashley were kind of writing in these characters by accident really for a long time, going back to even her first record. We got our favorite people together again, the most brilliant, weirdest, no-ego people, everybody’s just in there for the song. It was the most magical — one of the most creatively free things I’ve ever been a part of.
As you have seen Ashley’s career as an artist take off, is there anything you have learned from watching her journey?
Just knowing who you are and telling the truth for better or worse. Having the privilege of watching Ashley be herself and create her own brand and be involved in all these decisions — marketing, branding — and making sure it reflects her. That was definitely an advantage for me, to be able to take notes of the entire process.