Sebastian Kole On SOUP, Songwriting & His Debut EP: Interview
Sebastian Kole got his big break co-writing a Jennifer Lopez club-banger. That got him a ticket to Los Angeles and, three weeks later, a deal with Motown Records. Since then, he has continued to craft hits for other artists (most notably, Alessia Cara’s “Here”) and chip away at his self-titled debut EP. It arrived in a blaze of critical acclaim on Friday (May 13), effortlessly showcasing his flare for singer/songwriter pop with a soulful twist.
I recently caught up with the Alabama native to discuss the eclectic EP and his self-coined SOUP (Southern Urban Pop) sound. Sebastian explained his journey from songwriter-for-hire to break-out star, shed a little light on recent recording sessions with Demi Lovato, Brandy and Kelly Rowland, and shared his views on Beyonce’s groundbreaking Lemonade album. Get to know the newcomer a little better in our Q&A below.
You describe your music as SOUP or Southern Urban Pop. Please explain. I don’t even know where to start. I’m from Alabama, right? There’s not a lot of industry there, there’s just a lot of musicians. So, we don’t really get into genres because we just kind of make music. When I first got signed these, I had this meeting at Motown in New York. This guy walks in and he tells me everything he can do. for me. I was like, “Oh, this is amazing. Have you heard my music?” He goes, “No.”
So I put the music on and he goes, “That’s not R&B. That’s pop,” and I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “But you’re black.” I said, “I prefer navy brown, but if that’s how you call it.” People always say, “But your voice is so soulful.” I just blended all those things together and created SOUP. It’s really singer/songwriter pop. It just happens to come from me, which is soulful and urban.
You strike me as a throwback to a time when artists could actually sing. Oddly enough, you just used the word throwback. It’s weird that that’s a throwback. There are tons of amazing singers out there, don’t me twisted, but now music is not necessarily about the singing, it’s more or less about the vibe. I wanted to sing. I wanted to actually use melodies that weren’t three notes, and not that I have anything against those. I just wanted to do something different. I feel like life needs a soundtrack, and my whole soundtrack can’t be when I’m in the club. Life has ebbs and flows.
Were you ever tempted to find a slick beat and go with the majority? What’s odd is when I first met Rob, who is the CEO of my production company, I played a new song. I was really trying to get a writer’s deal. I’m trying to get a publishing deal, and I happened to play this song where I was playing a piano. He’s like, “Who’s that playing?” I was like, “That’s me.” He was like, “Who’s singing?” I was like, “That’s me.” He was like “Oh, okay.” He never wanted me to even look that direction. He didn’t want me to do anything that would come off as too urban. Which was good for me, because I like that kind of music but it just doesn’t represent me very well.
Given the popularity of minimal-vocal-effort pop/R&B, do you ever worry about finding a niche? No. I get why you say that, but I think most of that stuff gets buried. I think when you do something different, you just have to figure out someone who will take the chance to put you in that format. If you make that format it’s going to stick out, because there’s nobody else that’s really doing that kind of thing. When you think about the biggest selling albums as of late — Adele of course, Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith — all of those people are not doing that.
When there are a hundred choices to get the same kind of song then you divide the market a hundred different ways. When you got one person to go to for that song you kind of have to deal with that person. If I can get played I feel like I’ll be okay.
I heard “Home” on Grey’s Anatomy recently. Is it a very autobiographical song? Yes. Most of my songs, I won’t call them autobiographical. I will call them inspired by true events. That particular thing never happened to me, but something like it happened to me, and I thought, “Oh, this would make for a good song.” One of the things that gets to me about R&B music is that it’s so very me, me, me. It’s “I was at a club. I bought bottles. I drive this, I drive that.” If I don’t do that then it’s hard for me to relate, so I try to tell my own personal story.
My favorite song on the EP is “Love Doctor.” What inspired that? Thank you. “Love Doctor”… the original version of that song is really just me beating on a table, singing the song. No instruments, it’s just me. I just missed home. You will get that theme throughout this whole project. I really miss home. I’m glad to not be at home, but I miss home. “Love Doctor” is what Alabama feels like most days, especially on Sundays. I wanted to put that in a song. It reminds of growing up in church.
It has a subtle gospel vibe. Yeah, that’s the kind of stuff we sang in church, so I kind of wanted to put that in to a song.
Another favorite of mine is “Love’s On The Way,” which has a very powerful message. I didn’t want to write that song at all. I did not want to write that song. I kept saying, “I do not want to write a ‘We Are The World.’ I don’t want to do that.” At this point, people are very protective of their point of view. They don’t want you to disagree with them, so I don’t want to get out there and preach my own personal morals to anyone, but I don’t think that love is about my own personal morals. I think that love is about love, and everybody wants to be loved. Love figures out a way to make things better.
Is the eclectic sound of the EP reflective of the album? The album is really, for lack of a better word, a cluster fuck of things. There are lots of different sounds and one common thread. It’s kind of like if love had a baby scrapbook, so a bunch of snapshots of what love does in this situation, or in that situation. I tried to be all over the place. Like if love had an Instagram, think about that one. Hopefully you don’t get the exact same picture a billion times. Although there are some people with Instagrams like that.
Do you have a timeframe for release? I’m going to put the EP out now and see how it goes. Hopefully no later than the top of next year, though. We’ll see how this EP goes, how we have to work it. Hopefully, no later than the top of next year. I’m really excited about this. There are some songs on this album that I really want people to hear.
The path from songwriter to singer is quite common these days. Was that always the goal? Early on, it was my goal. I stopped and thought, “What about just writing some songs?” and then it kind of happened. When I got out to Los Angeles, I really was just looking for a publishing deal, and I met Rob. Twenty hours later, I had a record deal. I wasn’t really thinking, “Oh, I’m going to go be a big singer.” I just wanted to write some songs and I had a bit of success with a Jennifer Lopez record, so I was like, “I’m going to go try it.”
How did you get that first placement? Because “Goin’ In” doesn’t sound like a Sebastian Kole song. A friend of mine who used to be signed to Atlantic was back home and he had just lost his deal, so he came home. He had met this guy who wanted to manage him, so we sat down and we were just writing some stuff together. We were just sending these hooks and it just happened. I had never met anybody in that camp.
When they did the split sheets, I didn’t know what a split sheet was at the time, they called my friend and was like, “So, what writers?” and he said my name and they were like, “Who the hell is that?” Everybody was like, “Okay, well let’s meet him.” It was really just a twist of fate, hand of God, however you look at that, and that’s what moved me out to LA, and then three weeks later I had a record deal.
I’m really thankful that it happened that way. For you to say you wouldn’t think that was my song, I really try my best to write everything. I don’t think there’s a song on the planet I cannot write. That sounds arrogant, but I just mean I listen to a lot of stuff and I try to really get into it and understand everything about it. I really try to be able to write anything.
It’s time for the token Alessia Cara question. Did you think “Here” was going to be a massive career-making song for her? You know what’s funny? I would stop her mid-singing and say, “You don’t know how big this is going to be.” I told her that all the time. “You have no idea how big this is going to be.” I knew it. I knew it. I didn’t think that that record was going to be as big as it was, but I really felt like she had something. I used to stop her all the time, like, “Man, you have no idea what you’re doing right now. This is going to be huge.” I’m glad that it worked out.
I hear you’re also working with some other big names. I did some work with Demi Lovato, Brandy, Maroon 5, Kelly Rowland, lots of people, man. Right now the doors have really been opened to try a lot of different things. I hope I get a chance to work on La’Porsha Renae’s project. Doors are really opening for me, so I’m really thankful for that.
Is there one of those projects that you’re more closely involved in than the rest? Brandy or Kelly, I’ve been working really tight with them. Demi, we had a couple of sessions that went really well, so we’ll see where that goes, but Brandy and Kelly I’ve been pretty hands-on, because I’m really, really excited about them both. Prayerfully I will have records on both of those. I’m always excited about anybody’s project.
Stanaj, do you know him? He’s a new kid. He’s going to be amazing. He’s signed to Lava Records. We got some stuff that we’ve done together. I’m excited about his project, too. I get excited about everybody’s project, because I just feel like you need lots of music, man. You just need a lot of it.
Someone needs to give Demi a big song. She can really sing. This project, you will definitely hear that. She’s made it her mission. These are going to be big vocal tunes.
Do you ever want to hold on to a song you’ve written for someone else? You know what, man? I think the best part about being a songwriter is playing dress up. I never write a song for you that’s for me. I’m not good pitch writer. Some people can just go write a song and send it to somebody else, and they’re like, “Oh, I love this song.” It never works for me.
I’m more like, “Let me meet you. We’ll sit down and we’ll talk, and then I’ll write a song.” That way I know, “Oh, I wrote that song for this person. It doesn’t even fit me. It’s their song.” Even “Here.” I have been there, I was there last night, but that song wasn’t for me. That song was definitely for her, and that whole album… I could relate to it, but that’s her song.
It’s kind of a gift to me to be able to come in and create that, and then just let you have it. If you listen to my album I could not imagine any of these songs on my album being sung by anybody else, I don’t think. I don’t think I was like, “Oh, I really should have gave that to…” Nah.
Lucky last question. Views or Lemonade? Did you ask me my views on Lemonade, or Views vs. Lemonade?
The latter. Lemonade. Lemonade. I like Views, but to me it wasn’t as big of a deal. I mean, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s a decent Drake album. I’ve heard Drake do better. It’s not bad, but I’ve heard Drake do better. Lemonade I thought, dear God, this is genius. This is really… it’s smart and it’s spiritual and it’s personal and it’s lyrical. I would have never called myself a member of the Hive until that. Now I feel like I should get a Beyonce tattoo. That was amazing, man. Yeah, I feel like every other album at this point has to be compared to that, and it’s not really an album, I don’t think. It’s more like a musical.
Right now if you asked me what’s your favorite song on Lemonade, I couldn’t tell you my favorite song. I don’t even really want to listen to it. I want to watch it. I want to watch it. I want to see the story, you know. It was amazing. It was kind of like To Pimp A Butterfly 2.0, or something. It was really amazing. Views was a decent album. It’s good, but it’s like, “Okay, Drake did some new songs.” We’re proud of you, Drake.