After landing songwriting credits for Jennifer Lopez‘s Step Up dance number “Goin’ In” featuring Flo Rida and Alessia Cara‘s introverted jam “Here,” Sebastian Kole is peeling back the layers for his new self-titled EP (via EP Entertainment/ Motown Recording).
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, the 27-year-old singer/songwriter brought his pen and Southern roots to Los Angeles in 2012. With $5,000 in his pocket, Kole finessed a publishing deal within a month of moving to the West Coast. Three songs off the five-track set — “Love Doctor,” “Love’s on the Way” and lead single “Carry On” — were featured on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy.
Kole spoke with Billboard about sneaking secular music as a church kid, his songwriting formula, why he can’t pen songs with music playing and his new release, The Sebastian Kole EP (available on iTunes here).
Billboard: How did you begin writing music?
Sebastian Kole: I began writing music as the son of two preachers and I grew up in a church, so all the music we listened to was pretty much written by all the people at our church. We actually did not listen to the radio at all. I started writing songs because that’s what everybody around me did. So I started picking up piano because my godmother was the organ player of the church and she taught piano lessons at her house on weekends.
Were the songs you made spiritual-based?
Yeah, very much. They’re all gospel. I didn’t write a non-gospel song till I was maybe 13, 15.
When was your first taste of secular music?
I’ll never forget it. The first piece I ever owned was [1995’s] Cell Therapy by Goodie Mob. First piece of secular music that ever belonged to me and I got it on tape. That tape got me a whoopin’ so bad.
How did you even hear about it?
Well, actually, I stole it from my uncle. There were a lot of things that got me in trouble as a kid. [Laughs] I stole it from my uncle and I would have it in the house. I had a Walkman but I would hide the tape under the couch cushion. On my way to school is when I would pop the tape in. Of course, one random day, my dad decides he has to clean the whole house and cleans under that couch cushion. It was early in the morning too, before I went to school, and he just happened to be in that room and went under the couch cushion and it turned into a fiasco.
What happened after that? Did you continue listening to secular music in secret?
Yeah, kinda. That Valentine’s Day, maybe like in the seventh grade, my girlfriend at the time bought me the Forrest Gump soundtrack. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite soundtracks of all time. It had all this old ’50s, ’60s and ’70s music on there and I was like, wow, this is great. It didn’t make my parents so mad so they kinda let that go. Over time, I just kind of grew into my own musical tastes but to this day, I still don’t really listen to a lot of explicit music not because I have anything against it, it’s just not the kind of music I grew up on.
Who were some of the artists you constantly listened to?
I’m a huge Simon & Garfunkel fan, The Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stevie [Wonder], Ray [Charles], all kind of people. I’m actually a big Nirvana fan. I kinda got my music like I was on a scavenger hunt. I never went to record stores. Somebody would give me a piece of music. Whatever they got me was what I was listening to so [my interests] were really all over the place.
How did you find time to learn piano, drums, trumpet and tuba?
It was all church stuff. I picked up tuba [while playing] in elementary school band. The other things were [talents I picked up at] church. My mom and dad ended were the pastors of the church and they needed a piano player, and so I was kind of like, “I’ll figure it out.” Same thing happened with drums.
Do you produce your own songs?
Yeah, when I write, I usually do it on one instrument.
Is there a difference in the way you approach songwriting now versus when you were younger?
Yes, I been writing songs for a very long time. My mother says I was 3 but the first song I can remember writing was when I was 5. I was writing songs about ideas, early in life. The more and more I wrote songs, I started to write songs about the essence of ideas, not just the idea itself, and try to peel back the layers of one particular idea. For example, “Down Low” by R. Kelly. He’s telling you this linear story. You can follow the story, it’s really amazing but I just started writing about this one guy in front of the room, all that he is going through, all the layers of how he got there. Why does he look like that? Why does he feel like that? Focusing on that one thing.
Describe your first big break working with Jennifer Lopez for “Goin’ In.”
I never met Jennifer Lopez in person, but that story is amazing though. I had a friend who was signed to Atlantic, he got dropped from his label, moved back home, and he was still working with a guy in L.A. who wanted to manage him as a writer. At home, I was one of the more well-known songwriters in Birmingham. When he came back home, we got together and we was just coming up with hooks and he was sending them to this guy out here [in L.A.] who wanted to manage him. He found that hook “Goin’ In” and the guy was an A&R so he kinda put together a song around this bit that made it to J.Lo. I had no idea how that processed work, I didn’t even know that was possible. We were just writing hooks.
How did you get signed as a songwriter?
From the J.Lo thing. Again, I knew nothing about being a professional songwriter. I just knew she was gonna take this song. So I get that first initial check, and I was like you know what? I’m gonna try my hand at being a songwriter. This is my favorite part of the story, matter fact. [I said] I’m gonna move to L.A. so I got all the things I thought I’d need, paid off a few bills and got like $5,000 left in my pocket. I bought myself a car and moved out here [to my cousin’s place]. I shipped my clothes earlier. I drive out here and I’m hoping to hook up with the A&R who put the song together. He’s like, “You should move out here. I really want to sign you.”
I get out here, finally found an apartment, didn’t know how expensive it was to live out here, and I realize I don’t have a lot of money. I ran into this girl that I met the spring before and she’s like, “Call me if you’re ever out in L.A., I’ll take you to some sessions.” I did that for two weeks and pretty much bouncing [in between sessions]. I moved out here on October 9 of that year and by October 31st, I had another session and [a songwriter named Tish Hyman] was like, “Yo, you can really write. You have a publishing deal?” I was like, no, I’m running out of money. I tell her the whole spiel and she’s like I’ll take you to meet somebody. She took me to meet a guy by the name of Robert Eleazar [the CEO of EP Entertainment] and he got me my publishing deal the very next day.
What inspired songs like “Carry On” and “Love Doctor”?
I wrote “Carry On” after I was signed. I was in L.A. at this point and was in my living room, going through my Twitter feed and just felt like everybody on the planet had it all together but me. Everybody’s so unbothered, everybody’s like, “I don’t need anybody.” That’s cool, that’s amazing but I just didn’t feel like it was my real life. “Carry On” is a juxtaposition to that. And “Love Doctor” I honestly didn’t even write that song for me. I wrote that song for someone else, but when I was writing it I was writing about an experience that I had gone through from years earlier where I almost got shot over this girl that I didn’t know was cheating on both me and this guy. And that’s why it’s kind of deep.
How did you get out of that situation?
I ran like hell. [Weak laughs] I ran and jumped into my car and never looked back.
It was the end of that relationship, I presume.
Now, we’re Facebook friends. How about that?
You’ve also placed three songs on Grey’s Anatomy.
As a personal musical accomplishment, [having my songs on Grey’s Anatomy] was the most amazing thing that’s happened to me. I could look in my mother’s face and knew she was proud.
How would you describe your songwriting formula?
I do have a formula. Unlike a lot of people who like to sit down and write concepts or hum melodies first, I normally let the words tell me what to sing. For example, I had no idea what that song “Love Doctor” was. I wasn’t even trying to write a song, per se, but I was walking to the gas station and I just heard the line “Tell me no lie/ Something’s wrong with my baby.” Once it got stuck in my head, I was like okay that means I need to write this song, but the first copy of “Love Doctor” that existed was just me beating on the table, making a bass drum sound and just singing this song that I was making up. Normally, I just let the story make itself and my brain doesn’t really kick in until the second verse. I always go into the layers of this person and their situation then for my bridges, it’s kind of like write a summation of all that I said.
How does that formula change when you go into the studio with an Alessia Cara or a Maroon 5?
It’s the exact same thing. For writing “Here,” it was a Sunday afternoon and everyday, I would have [Alessia] either email me or text me what’s on her mind ’cause I didn’t want to just write a bunch of songs [for her]. I wanted to really paint who Alessia is. On this particular day, I said “What’d you do this weekend?” And she said, “I went to a party and I hated it.” And I was like, “Why’d you hate it?” And she was like, “Well, I just didn’t feel like I fit in.” As soon as she said that, I heard, “I’m sorry if I seem uninterested” and I was like I got it.
I do not write songs in a room and this normally freaks producers out. Like they’ll play me music and then randomly, I just get up and walk out. I normally forget to tell them. It’s weird. I don’t want to hear the music when I’m writing because I don’t want the music to tell me what to say. I want to say what I want to say. I got up and walked out of the room and I started hearing these words and I sing and hum ’em and she’s like, “Yeah, that’s exactly how I felt.” I was just digging into those layers. I might ask someone else to get a good snapshot of what they feel and then like go in and pick out details. Normally, people only say the surface but there’s really more to what they’re telling me.
Did you walk out on Adam Levine too while working with Maroon 5?
Yeah, yeah, I don’t mean it in a disrespectful way. I just can’t be in the room. I feel like the answers are outside.
Are there lessons that you’ve learned from working with these artists?
Yeah, everyday. Man, I’ve been in with Demi Lovato, Brandy, tons of people, but I learn two things — that there’s always a story to be told and the better songwriters are those who can connect the story. The stories can be generic. Everybody’s always gonna be breaking up with somebody. We’re all talking about the same issue but there’s always a story to be told. I’m learning to listen better so I can really tell that person’s story for them.