Finding your way creatively when you're feeling stuck is one of the most difficult things about being a musician. Singer-songwriter Sebastian Kole was struggling with exactly that in 2011 while living in his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. Trapped a in routine that wasn't yielding results, Kole felt that he needed to make himself “uncomfortable.” So after a short bout of near homelessness, allowing himself to write songs for people all across Birmingham, Kole packed up his things and moved to L.A. in 2012.
“That was the best-slash-dumbest decision I ever made!” Kole said, laughing, as he shared his story with Complex. Now the 27-year-old is writing for artists like Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Rowland, and more, the result of his big break working on on Alessia Cara’s debut album Know-It-All.
Kole said that working with Cara felt natural. “It didn't even feel like work most of the time," he said. "Cause she's like a little sister to me.”
So to hear more about Kole’s songwriting expertise, along with his own music—Kole released his soulful, R&B, pop album Soup in October—check out our interview below.
What sort of childhood did you have in Birmingham?
I was the son of two preachers, and I grew up in church playing piano. Just kind of took to music. I always say, we didn't listen to a lot of outside music growing up in our church. So everybody in my church was a songwriter—all of the songs we sang people in our church wrote. It was really normal to make up songs, they didn't even know that was a job—just thought it was just what you did. So that's how I got my footing in music—started writing songs really early.
You know couple years ago I'm at home and a friend of mine [Michael Warren] who was signed to Atlantic got dropped from Atlantic. He moved back home and we just decided to write some hooks together and one of them made it to J. Lo and came out on the Step Up 4 soundtrack. And so randomly one day I get this call from this lawyer and he's like, "Is this Sebastian Kole?" I was like, "Am I going to jail?" And he's like, "Nah! You know we're putting this song together." And I had never published anything like that before so I didn't know what was going on. I took the little money and decided I was going to move up to L.A., just loaded up the truck and moved out. I went to a bunch of unsigned artists sessions, just meeting people. And every time I'd go, they'd go, "You sure can really write, you should meet blah, blah, blah." And so I just kept doing that. Three weeks later, I met Tish Hyman who introduced me to Robert Eleazer, and then the next day I had a record deal. And so I had been in L.A. of all of three weeks and that's how this all got started.
That's amazing—all of that after just three weeks in L.A.?
I was just saying yesterday, it was four years ago on the 9th of Oct. that I moved to L.A. And I got out there, and had made this little money, bought a little car, packed up all the little stuff I had, and moved to L.A. And when I met Ethiopia [Habtemariam] in Motown, I really looked homeless, like really looked homeless, because I really was homeless—sleeping in my car, had like a backpack with a few things in it. And they take me into this office, and everybody is looking in...like, "who let the homeless guy up?" [Laughs.] And everybody really just thought I was just some crazy homeless guy who had snuck into the building, and just sat and played the piano. And then once I started singing and playing, they were like, "Oh! OK we get it!" [Laughs.]
How were you almost homeless?
It's not so bad—it sounds bad when I say I was homeless. I lived in Birmingham. It's really cheap to live in Birmingham, it's really easy to...sleep in Birmingham, and not just go to sleep but to sleep your life away. I felt like as long as I stayed there comfortable, I would never move, I would never leave. So, I left all my stuff for a car. I wanted to make myself uncomfortable—it's not like I don’t have a family that loves me, and they’re all in Birmingham and I could live with them at any time—but I knew that I could live there for the rest of my life. So I was like, "OK let me make myself uncomfortable," and I did that for about a year. But it was in that discomfort that I lost a lot of inhibition, I lost a lot of fear. Cause it's like nothing's scarier than.... One day I woke up one morning to this homeless guy who had busted my window out cause he didn't see me in the car. And you hear the window break, you know, you wake up and you think, "If I can live through that, I can live through anything." Like I mean, I got robbed one time, but once you make it through that you're just like, "Oh OK." Two things—it makes you want to get up and do something. Secondly, your fear of failing is like, what? When I first moved to L.A. I had like a month's worth of rent in my pocket, I didn't know how expensive rent was, but I wasn't even afraid, I was just like, "I can do this! I'm gonna make this work!" And it worked, and that's how I ended up like this.
How do you juggle working for other artists with doing your own work?
Let's just say you don't sleep a lot. [Laughs.] But it's really...it's really fun. Writing for other people is like playing dress up. You know, you really get to get into their head—the point is to understand their story well enough to tell it for them. So it's like being an actor, or a screenwriter. You have to really dive into their character. And then writing for myself is more of an exercise because it's like, OK, how do I get that story out of my head, I don't want to tell their story, but now their story is kind of a part of my story.
You've worked with Alessia Cara, and then there's Demi Lovato—
—working with Kelly Clarkson right now, doing some stuff with Kelly Rowland right now. I could go on and not even to name drop but since this Alessia thing, doors have just been.... I mean Chloe x Halle we're doing tomorrow. Next week is Alicia Keys. You name them, I'd have the opportunity to meet them and either work for them or with them, which has been outstanding...mind-blowing even!
So it was after working on Alessia Cara's album...
After that, things really opened up. It didn't even feel like work most of the time. Cause she's like a little sister to me. We just kind of sit around and talk like big brother, little sisters do. And every day I'd come in and ask her, "What's on your mind today?" And she would tell me and write a song about it, which is like a trademark of mine.
About Soup—what was the main inspiration behind that album?
OK. [Sighs.] So originally the album was gonna be called Will Sing for Food. And I was in New York again, and all those songs I thought about them as like.... This is such a long and drawn out concept but I'll try to make it simple. You ever look back at your senior year in high school and find a person who's like Best Looking, or Best Dressed, or Most Likely to Succeed, and then they just didn't turn out to be shit? Excuse my language. [Laughs.] That's what I thought love was—kind of like, you gave me this great story about what love was supposed to be and then 10 years later you think...ehh it's not really what I thought it was. So it was, to me, this album was like love's yearbook. Every picture, every song in it, was like a thing about love. Some of it was good, some of it not so good, so it was just like little snapshots of love. Not all romantic love, not all change the world love. It was just kind of, sometimes love looks like this, and sometimes it looks like this.
So it was supposed to be like this great thing—this Most Likely to Succeed person who ended up homeless. Which was kind of what I was, I was most popular in high school—I was like that guy, me and my friends. I was the music kid, but anyway, I was in the in-crowd, and then I look at myself years later and I'm like, "I live in a car!" So I'm in New York and I'm thinking about the name of the album Will Sing for Food, and I'm re-recording some of the stuff and the guys Click N Press who produced a lot of my stuff were like, "Yo, this is like Southern, and urban, and pop, and..." And I was like, "Soup!"