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Interview: Runaway June’s Naomi Cooke on C2C, chart success and 2020 plans

We caught up with the trio’s Naomi Cooke ahead of their return to C2C: Country to Country next month.

Runaway June
Credit: BBR Music Group

2019 turned out to be a huge year for Runaway June.

The trio – made up of Naomi Cooke, Hannah Mulholland and Jennifer Wayne – made chart history when their single, Buy My Own Drinks, reached the top 10 on the country airplay charts, making them the first act to do so since the Dixie Chicks. They also released their debut album Blue Roses, went out on tour with Carrie Underwood and made their UK debut at C2C: Country to Country. Now they’re back at the festival and gracing the main stage for the first time.

Ahead of their return to this side of the pond, I caught up with Naomi from the band to talk about their 2019 highlights, performing for UK audiences, the reaction to the album, what to expect from their C2C set and plans for the rest of the year – which might include some new music…

2019 was a breakthrough year for Runaway June – what were some of your highlights?

Oh my goodness! Let’s see… [laughs] Probably having a top five song at country radio. That was a big one for us. We’d been working really hard to have that chart success [so] getting that felt really good. It felt really good to be embraced by the radio community and by country radio. That felt really good, that felt like a big win.

Obviously being on tour with Carrie Underwood, that was a huge highlight to our lives and our career. We put out our first debut album that we’d been working on for four years. Yeah, I think those are just a few, but I mean, so many – more blessings than I can count, to be honest.

Let’s start with Buy My Own Drinks. Has the success of that song been a surprise to you? Or did you know when you were writing it that it was something special?

You know, it’s funny. When we wrote that song we’d been in a lot of writing sessions and we’d been writing a long time, even as individuals. But when that one got written in particular it felt different than anything we’d ever written before. It was immediately something that we wanted to put in our set and we felt like it would be a single, for sure, like right away. But even when we did it in rehearsal, the way our band guys responded to it – they wanted to play it right away. They were like, ‘let’s put it in the set, we’ll play it at Stagecoach!’, which is like the Coachella for country music in California. And we were like, ‘OK!’

Literally the first time we played it, the crowd reaction was like nothing we’d ever experienced before. Everyone was singing it back by the second chorus. And we were on stage kind of looking at each other like, ‘are you seeing this?!’ Everybody was kind of looking around like ‘are we being pranked right now?’ [laughs] So I’m always surprised when we have… I mean because we work really hard to get these songs out, so I am surprised and I’m not. I feel like that song always had potential to do big things but I was surprised that this is happening [laughs]. It felt very, very surreal.

You’ve mentioned the album [Blue Roses] as well. How have you found the response to that?

Oh my gosh, it’s been incredible. It felt really, really agonising spending that much time on the record and there were a few things that happened in our career and at our label that kind of put a halt on recording – our label got bought by a new company and so that kind of pumped the brakes on everyone that’s doing anything, you know. They’re trying to figure out where their money’s going. And then we switched producers and we switched management, so it kind of took time. It felt really, really long. But when I look back now it’s absolutely supposed to take that long. The reaction to these songs has been incredible. It really shows that the time that we spent on the record and we switched out so many other songs for these ones and it’s been perfect. People have been great. We’re playing shows now, everyone knows every word to the songs. The reaction’s been great.

I feel like it’s one of those albums that really resonates with people. When I first heard it I played it non-stop for a week…

Oh thank you! That’s amazing.

It really spoke to me and I think it’s done that a lot, particularly for young women. Have you found that’s been quite a common response to it?

Thank you! Yeah, I think one of the surprising things to us is how many men it’s resonated with and how many guys come to our show. Because we’re so feminine. You know, there’s three women and we’re just singing about what we know as women [laughs]. But I think that in the end we’re singing real country music and that just resonates with people in real life, no matter your gender or your colour, your age. We’ve seen all different ages and different races and different genders at our shows, and I think that’s been probably the most rewarding thing – knowing that our music is really speaking to people.

It also feels like a very modern record and that there’s some perspectives we haven’t heard so much on there. Was that something that was important to you when you were making the album?

Yeah, when we were making the record and writing the songs, we’re just very sure to keep them personal and something that we would say, something we’ve been through, something we relate to on a personal level. And so I think just being women living in the time we’re living in, we are reflecting the modern woman. I don’t think it’s been a ‘oh well we can’t say that cause it’s not modern’ or ‘we should do this cause it is’. The songs that come out of us as a band sound very organic, sound very traditional sonically, and then the lyrics are just real life in 2015 to 2020, over the last five years. We just kind of live in this world. So yeah, I don’t think it’s been a goal but it’s definitely been beneficial [laughs]. We just write what we know and people resonate with that, I think.

Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

Buy My Own Drinks! Buy My Own Drinks was very easy. Such an easy song. It was almost right on the tip of our tongue and just rolled right out. But I think that probably had a lot to do with our co-writers Hillary Lindsey and Josh Kerr, who have written numerous huge songs in our genre. They just made the write so easy. They’re such incredibly professional writers. They really knew what we were trying to say right away, they had a great feel in the write. So that one just kind of rolled out.

I think Blue Roses was probably the most emotionally tough song to write. I wrote that song about my brother who was killed in a car accident, and that one took about… I think to complete the whole thing took almost two days. But we wrote it and then recorded it right away, so it was emotionally taxing but it was also really cathartic. It felt really good. It still feels really good to sing it.

You spent four years working on the record. Do you feel your approach to songwriting changed over that time?

Well the process is kind of the same when it comes to making songs. It’s been different this time – we’re writing for album number two so we wanna take a year to write and make sure that we’re getting the same quality material. When you have four years to write a record and then one year to write another one it can be pretty drastically different, so we wanna be careful and conscious of that. We wanna be sure we’re putting out the same type of real life material.

But yes, us three girls, we write a lot of music together. We’re also individual songwriters in our own right, so we do split up. It’s kind of how we work together is we divide and conquer – we split up and we cover more ground [laughs]. So Jen and Hannah will be in rooms with other writers and I’ll be in a room with other writers and we’ll just get more music with more professional writers. We’ve been doing that more on this record. I’ll be interested to see how that goes but it’s been going very well.

We also really enjoy writing together, and we all have kind of the same way that we like to say things and we like to hear the same type of music. So yeah, this one’s gonna be a little bit different I think. But kind of the same in the way that we’ll take the songs to our producer and then kind of flesh them out and ‘this one kind of matches, this one needs a little more work’. We’re all three in that process together the whole way.

We’ve already touched a little bit on C2C – how did you find the festival last year?

Well we have so many friends that had been doing C2C for years, and it’s a really exciting thing when someone gets to go over there. We’d been wanting to come to the UK and do C2C for a long time before we got invited. It can be expensive and you have to be invited to do it, so when we got the invite we were so excited to go over there. And then I think the most rewarding and the most positive and surprising was we got over there and we had a lot of fans that we didn’t know about [laughs]. And so going back over this year and getting the main stage slot at the O2 really feels incredible. I mean it feels very surreal.

What can we expect from your slot on the main stage this year?

Well the show that we put on is very high energy. We really are so excited to be playing every day. We really, really love our job and we love being on stage together. It just really shows, I think, in our music and in our energy on stage. So it’s very high energy and a lot of fun. I really love to include the crowd in the show, they’re part of it too. And so we’re just really looking forward to being up there. It’s just such an incredible audience. The UK really show up for you. They know all your music, they are standing front and centre, they’re giving you all their attention and love, and it’s just an incredible feeling. I can’t wait to be up there and be able to share that with everyone.

You recently released a version of Cowboy Take Me Away with Levi Hummon – how did that come about and what was it like working with him?

Oh my gosh, yes! So his dad Marcus Hummon, he wrote Cowboy Take Me Away and he wrote Ready To Run and Born To Fly with Sara Evans. He was a collaborator with the Dixie Chicks in the heyday. And so he wrote that song, and he also was our co-writer for Blue Roses and a huge mentor for all three of us girls. He’s an incredibly gifted songwriter and artist.

So the anniversary came up and Marcus asked to be a part of that – they wanted to do a little tribute and he was being inducted into the Country Music Songwriter Hall of Fame. And Levi’s just a buddy of ours. We’ve seen Levi grow and we’ve grown together in a lot of ways, and it was a no-brainer. We just said yes immediately. So recording that was so fun. It felt so crazy to be doing a tribute for the Dixie Chicks. They’re such big idols of ours. It was a really fun collaboration.

You got to perform at the CMA Awards with Little Big Town and Ashley McBryde and Lindsay Ell and Kelsea Ballerini as well. How was that?

Wow! Oh my gosh, I forgot to put that in my highlights! [laughs] That was incredible. You know, I’ve watched that show ever since I was a little girl – all three of us have – and you always dream about being on that stage and being a part of that show. It’s the biggest night for country music. When we got asked to do that segment we were kind of blown away. But it was really fun. We went, we did the rehearsal and there’s Dolly Parton just standing backstage [laughs]. It’s like seeing a Disney princess in real life – you don’t believe she exists until she’s right [there] and then it’s like ‘oh my God that’s Dolly Parton!’

And then there’s Reba McEntire and we had just got off tour with Carrie Underwood, and Carrie was there and she’s so sweet and supportive. There was so much hustle and bustle and excitement around the show. And when we went to do the real thing and the lights came on you could just hold your breath in a way and go into character because otherwise you just freeze. I was looking down and there’s Reese Witherspoon and Gwen Stefani and Keith Urban just staring directly at you – I mean they’re less than ten feet away from you. And Little Big Town are so supportive of women and lifting us up. It felt crazy but incredible. Wild [laughs].

What do you have planned for the next few months? You’ve mentioned working on new music and I know you’re going out on tour with Luke Bryan soon as well…

Well the next few months we’re working our new single Head Over Heels, which is really fun and doing really well at radio. And then we come over to Europe, so after C2C we go to Zurich and Berlin, Amsterdam, and we do a show in Italy for the US troops. And then we go to Australia. So we’re kind of doing an overseas little tour, which is so exciting. I can’t believe we get to do that.

And then we come back and do the ACM Awards in Vegas. We’re doing the iHeart Awards – we got nominated for an iHeart Music Award. So it’s gonna be a busy summer. And then on top of that we’re doing our fair and festival circuit which is really great. We get to go back out and do some of the more remote corners of the US and see our fans and play some music for them. And then we head out on the road with Luke.

Is there going to be any new music out this year maybe…?

I don’t know! You know, it’s funny, music kind of does its own thing. If a song is born and it’s like ‘oh we gotta get this out right now’. We don’t have anything planned for the summer, but shortly after I know we’re gonna try to work on some Christmas music too. We’re always writing and I think it’s important to keep music in the marketplace for our fans to listen to. So maybe. It’s not out of the question.

And do you have any plans to come back to the UK after C2C?

Absolutely. We will absolutely come back as soon as we can [laughs]. But it depends on how it goes. If it’s going well and we’ve got people that really wanna see us, we’ll come back. It’s important to us to take care of the fanbase in the UK and in Europe and help country music really grow in those places, so it just feels really great to be a part of that. If people want us to come back, we will be back.

See Runaway June live in the UK next month as part of C2C: Country to Country 2020:

Friday 13th March – 3Arena, Dublin
Saturday 14th March – The O2 Arena, London
Sunday 15th March – The SSE Hydro, Glasgow

Tickets are on sale now via the C2C: Country to Country website.

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