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Hitmaker of the Month: Nicolle Galyon on the Art and Science of Writing Smashes for Dierks Bentley, Blake Shelton, Dan + Shay

·18-min read

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that “Gone” would become a country chart-topper in July of 2021. It was an anomaly that superstar Dierks Bentley would even pick a song that he hadn’t co-written himself to record, much less release as a single. But having Nicolle Galyon’s name attached to the song as a writer might have seemed like a good omen. Galyon, BMI’s songwriter of the year for 2019, has had other No. 1 hits ranging from Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” to Dan + Shay’s crossover smash “Tequila,” and Blake Shelton recently prefaced his first new album in years with a hit of hers, “Minimum Wage.” In the end, “Gone” came and went, to No. 1.

Another victory, also within the last six weeks: Galyon topped Billboard’s weekly country songwriters chart for the first time. She celebrated these accomplishments from her hometown of Sterling, Kansas, where she and her husband Rodney Clawson (also a hit songwriter) moved with their kids at the beginning at the pandemic. They’re preparing to move back to Nashville full-time this summer, where Galyon hopes to no longer be quite so Zoom-reliant to participate in a writers’ room.

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Our July Hitmaker of the Month got on the phone with Variety to discuss how “Gone” got saved from the scrap heap by an attentive exec at her longtime publishing company, Warner Chappell; how she’s started her own publishing company and record label, Songs & Daughters, with Big Loud to support female singer-songwriters; why a youthful stint in journalism is expert preparation for the art and science of country songwriting; and how in the world someone who doesn’t even consider herself a performer ended up competing on “The Voice” 10 years ago.

VARIETY: Talk about the writing of “Gone.” Does anything from that songwriting session stand out as memorable?

GALYON: I wrote with Niko Moon and Ben Johnson, And that was one of those days where the three of us had never written before. I don’t even know how we got set up. We weren’t even really aiming for anything. Niko’s an incredible artist, but we never even discussed: “Are we writing for Niko? Are we writing for an outside pitch?” We just wrote a song because that’s what our job is, you know? I don’t even think that it was something that Niko ever even had on hold for his solo project. It was a song that just went into the vault of our catalogs. And there was a relatively new song plugger at Warner Chappell Publishing, Christina Wiltshire, and it just so happened that she was digging into familiarizing herself with catalogs at Warner Chappell, and she pulled up “Gone” and was like, “We need to pitch this for Dierks.” [Once it was discovered, things moved fast: Warner Chappell confirms that Wiltshire found and pitched it in August 2020, Bentley cut it in September, and it went to radio in October — all in a three-month span.]

It seems like anymore, everyone just keeps saying, “You have to write with the artist.” And you can’t argue the value in that and the joy in that. But this was one of those actual old-school examples of three songwriters writing a song, and the publisher pulling it out of a back catalog and pitching it for a project. I don’t think I’ve ever had a hit that way before. So I think what’s notable about it is that like you do just have to show up every day, and be okay with not knowing how the song is going to find its home, but just trusting that someday it might.

But you don’t place too much faith in believing that it will ever see the light of day on a record.

It really normally does not happen that way. A lot of times, we turn our songs into our publishers, and they immediately send it out and sling it across town to all the A&R or artists, and so do we as writers. But after a couple of weeks, if no one’s really excited about it, or no one immediately puts it on hold, I’m sad to say this but oftentimes those songs just kind of get buried in a catalog, on a computer somewhere. And this was a friendly reminder to just keep showing up every day, because I do think you can’t count out like the outside pitch. And that’s something that this year has been such a pleasant surprise for me with “Gone” and “Minimum Wage,” because I didn’t write either of those with the artists. Those were days just to show up for the sake and the art of writing a song. Those songs surprised me in how they got cut and the fact that they were singles. Especially in the midst of the world shutting down, these songs… I think it really saved my spirit this year.

Why do you think “Gone” resonated with the audience?

What’s crazy is, we wrote a song that was just a simple breakup song, but then the concept took on such a different meaning. Once everyone was in lockdown last year, it’s like “I’ve been gone, but yet I haven’t gone anywhere.” [Laughs.] The lines in that song eerily parallels what we were all going through, and that’s the fun of music to me.

I don’t remember exactly what came first, like the lyric or the melody or the track. I would give Niko most of the credit for just the hookiness and the melodies. It just screams Niko, his style, in there. But I think, just topically, “Gone” felt a little self-deprecating and tongue-in-cheek. For a breakup song, it strangely felt fun to listen to. And I think somehow that met a lot of people where they were emotionally this last year. It’s like, you have to laugh so you don’t cry at some of this stuff. And how many of us joked about like how we hadn’t gotten out of our sweats for six weeks? And then here’s the song, written about how “I’ve traveled around the world in my head without getting off my couch.” It’s strangely just fit the year, and we had no idea that it would do that.

Were you surprised that “Gone” ended up with Dierks in particular? He’s almost always involved in being part of the writing process.

I have to this day never written with Dierks, even though he’s on my wish list, so maybe that’s more likely to happen now. I know that he’s so heavy-handed in writing his own projects that I never would have thought to pitch him with this song myself, because I just assumed that he’s writing his whole project. But this felt like a cool sister song to “Drunk on a Plane.” So when I heard Dierks’ name with this song, I thought, oh my gosh, that’s perfect.

Nicolle Galyon arrives at 67th Annual BMI Country Awards ceremony at BMI Music Row offices on Tuesday, November 12, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. - Credit: Al Wagner/Invision/AP
Nicolle Galyon arrives at 67th Annual BMI Country Awards ceremony at BMI Music Row offices on Tuesday, November 12, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. - Credit: Al Wagner/Invision/AP

Al Wagner/Invision/AP

Scott Hendricks [Blake Shelton’s producer] told us that he and Blake had had “Minimum Wage” waiting to go for quite a long time. is there a story behind that?

I do know that I felt like that song got recorded and then we hadn’t heard anything about it in a really long time, so assumed that it had gone away or maybe it wasn’t going to make a project. I think maybe we grieved that that song wasn’t ever going to see the light of day. And then some time out of nowhere last year, we get word that the song is coming out, and not only coming out but it’s coming out to radio. One thing that was so fun about “Gone” and “Minimum Wage” is that when you write the songs with the artists, you already have a pretty good idea from a demo what the songs are going to sound like. I think Scott Hendricks may have sent us a link just a couple of days before the record actually came out on DSPs, and it was like Christmas morning getting to hear it.

Is there any other song that you’ve had recently that you did write with the artist that you feel especially proud of?

I have two Kelsea (Ballerini) songs right now that I’m really, really proud of. One of them is “Half of My Hometown” (a duet between Ballerini and Kenny Chesney). That song has been a gift to me this year because I’m truly living that life right now, living in my hometown and working in Nashville and going back and forth. I’ve been putting my kids back in my hometown grade school this year, having the same grade school teachers I had, and walking the same streets and all that stuff. I didn’t realize what that song would mean to me a couple of years after we wrote it. And so the fact that it’s a single… I feel like every time I get in my car here in Kansas — which is not very often, because we walk and bike everywhere — but every time I get in my car to drive to the airport to go work in Nashville, I hear that song on the radio. So “Half of My Hometown” is probably the most on-brand for where I am in my personal life right now.

But another song that just came out that I’m really attached to is this song called “I Quit Drinking” that Kelsea just put out with Paul Klein of the band LANY. I’m the biggest super-fan of LANY, and I go way back with Paul, before he even was in LANY. And I’ve been so lucky to be a part of Kelsea’s career for years now. In January, Kelsea and I both did a dry January where we took a month off drinking, after the craziest year, 2020. And we got together in January with Paul at my house on my porch swings and ended up writing a song about quitting drinking. I think that song is going to take on a life of its own, in a non-conventional way. It’s so fun to be a bridge between genres or between two different friend groups.

Speaking of songs about alcohol, pro or con: “Tequila” was a career-making song for Dan + Shay. Does that feel like the biggest song you’ve had?

For sure “Tequila” is the biggest for me. We use this metric as writers: What’s the song that you’re going to end a writer’s round with, that really is the zinger? And “Tequila” is that for me. It used to be (the Miranda Lambert track) “Automatic.” At that point in my career, I thought, “I will be ending every round for the rest of my life with ‘Automatic,’” because I couldn’t imagine having something that maybe had more meaning or depth to it for me. That was my show-closer at the Bluebird. But then when “Tequila” happened, it got bumped. The cool thing about “Tequila” is like, if I’m in an airport or no matter where I am, even if people don’t listen to country music, they know about that song. That’s pretty fun, to know that if you had the radio on at some point in the last couple of years, you may have heard that song.

Writers’ rooms have different dynamics. Is there anything that you feel like you’re best at in terms of what you bring to a group writing situation?

I don’t know if this is what I’m the best at, but probably my favorite part of the writing process is what we’d probably call the architecture phase, where you’ve got an idea about a title or a concept, and you’re talking through how to build the song. It’s funny. My friends make fun of me because I’m like the ultimate planner. And I feel like if you can lock into the right plan for the song, like the song is more likely to write itself — the actual lyrics. There are cornerstone lines in songs — like first (line) of chorus, last of chorus, last line before chorus — even the first line of a song, or the last line of a bridge. Those are just to me like you’re framing the song.

I’m kind of Type A for a songwriter. Most people wouldn’t assume that songwriting is a very organized art, but you have to organize the song. Because if you don’t, you’re going to write yourself off the end of a cliff. You’re going to get to the second verse and go, “Oh, wait, we’ve already told the whole story already. We didn’t plan this out right.” I know that sounds nerdy, but that’s my favorite part. I’m always thinking ahead as we’re starting a verse: What’s the last line of this verse? Because we need to write backwards from there and get to that line. So I think that’s what I offer to the room — kind of coming at it from that perspective.

My other thing is — and this is probably true for everybody — I love to land the plane. I love landing a hook. There’s nothing better than when you figure out a twist on how to creatively use words to say something in the hook. I mean, that’s the pinnacle of writing, to me, is when you get to a point — and maybe it’s after 10,000 hours, 20,000, I don’t know — where you’re able to twist some words around in a unique way to make something somebody feels something right at the end of the chorus. There’s nothing better than when I can come up with something like that, which doesn’t happen every day.

Looking at your background: You’ve said that you used to write for your hometown newspaper and that you loved words. But you also studied classical piano pretty seriously. Probably not a lot of people have both those — the facility with words early in their lives, but then being serious, trained musicians too. Do you feel like either one of those more informs more why you’re a successful songwriter?

I would give them both equal credit for preparing me to be a songwriter. When you write copy for a newspaper, you have a limited amount of space. I remember in high school, being like, “I’ve got to write the copy for the city commission meeting last night, the notes for it, and it has to fit in this spot. And I have to get it all in a third of a column, because the photo needs to be this big to make the layout make sense.” Well, that’s similar to songwriting, in that you are working with a limited amount of time — like you go, “I have a minute to get to the end of the chorus.” If this is a song about a kid from zero to 18 and we’ve got to get him to college by the first chorus, you’ve gotta be creative in telling a story in a limited amount of time. And I think that the more journalistic writing probably helped me to be more concise and say more with less words.

And then obviously classical piano — I mean, it really all goes back to piano for me. Because had I not played piano, I wouldn’t have gotten hired to give piano lessons, which ended up with me getting my first gig as a personal assistant to a booking agent, which then, through that job, is where I ended up being around a lot of writers and fell in love with songwriting. So piano was imperative for me to begin writing, even though now I rarely sit down at a piano and write.

Where did you being on “The Voice” come in the chronology of things?

I had signed a publishing deal with Warner Chappell in 2007, and going on “The Voice,” I think we maybe recorded my portion at the end of 2011, but it didn’t air until 2012. So when I got “The Voice,” I had had a publishing deal for five years and hadn’t gotten any cuts. I mean, nothing was happening for me. So I was thinking, “Well, maybe I’m not being honest with myself. Maybe deep down I am an artist and I’m just being shy about it.” So I started playing some shows around Nashville, and it was in that period that I got approached to try out for “The Voice.” So I can never really say that I fully was an artist; I was more flirting with the idea of it. But had I not been, I wouldn’t have ended up on “The Voice.” And then for some reason, everything ended up working out for me as a songwriter on the other side of my short stint on the show. …

I’ve had vocal lessons. I forced myself to be brave enough for years and years to get in front of people at writer’s rounds and get better and figure out how to make it work for me. And I think what I learned somewhere along the way is that I’m not a performer. I’m just more of a communicator, a storyteller. And when I started approaching writers’ rounds from that perspective, it all just kind of clicked and I felt more at home, and I think that my songs translated better. I figured out a way to be onstage and to make it work for me. But I still to this day would never identify myself as a performer.

You recently became only the fourth woman to top the Billboard Country Songwriters chart in the few years it’s been in existence. But you can get songs cut by men and women, so whatever might be happening with sexism in the artists’ realm, it would seem like there might be a more even playing field among writers.

It definitely feels more of an even playing field in the writing community. I think a community is simply the people that it’s comprised of, and I think that we have a really healthy brotherhood and sisterhood between the guys and gals that are all writing country music. I would say, from my vantage point, if there’s anything to be looked at, it’s really more stuff like domesticity. Because especially this last year when everything kind of stopped, and our kids were home and were being homeschooled and we didn’t have child care, it appeared like more of that fell on me and some of my working-mom songwriter peers. That’s probably been the inequity in the last year that I’ve noticed, but that’s not really music business — that was more pandemic-driven.

Really the only disadvantages that sometimes I feel (exist) is that maybe people are getting work done out on the golf course, and it’s all a bunch of guys. Or they’re all drinking on the back of a bus at 3 a.m. and they end up writing a song, and maybe that’s not a place where female writers would be as likely to be. I wouldn’t call that as much of a disadvantage as something to note. Because we as women can create those same environments, or the counterparts to those environments, on our own, too.

How do you do that — create those female-friendly environments?

I think that’s part of my heart behind starting my own publishing and record label: I do believe that the more females that you have in leadership, the more likely you are to have a culture that is conducive for women to win.

Since you mention your label and publishing company, are you actively looking for women to sign?

I’m always getting emailed or texted, “check this girl out,” and it’s a really fun part of getting to be in this role, because it’s the people that are just in town that are just now falling in love with Nashville that rejuvenate me and give me motivation to keep working harder myself. In starting the label and publishing, it’s been branded as I’m in a mentor position, but to be honest, I feel like I’m learning just as much if not more from getting to work with a lot of younger, newer artists and writers.

Am I actively looking? Yes, my eyes and ears are always open. But I really have a lot of faith that those things happen organically. For instance, Hailey Whitters was somebody that I never sought out to go find. We just ended up writing and organically building a relationship in the writing room. And it just so happened that when it was time for her to do a deal, I found myself organically in the middle of the perfect storm with the right partner in Big Loud and the right team with Hailey’s team. That’s my favorite way to do business is when nothing is forced and there’s already been a foundation of trust laid that you didn’t even realize was being laid years in advance.

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