It’s safe to say that 2022 was something of a bumper year for Ashley Cooke.
After bursting onto the country scene through TikTok, in the last 12 months the Florida native has toured with the likes of Cole Swindell, Jordan Davis and Brett Young – who she also duetted with on her first US country radio number one, ‘Never Til Now’. Now she’s about to make her UK debut at C2C and is currently working on her first full length album.
Earlier this week I caught up with Ashley to talk about what to expect from her C2C sets, her latest single ‘it’s been a year’, her plans for 2023 and more…
For those who maybe haven’t heard your songs before, how would you describe your music and your influences?
Man, well, it’s definitely pop country. It’s a really good mix between the two. I grew up listening to a lot of pop music, and I love the storytelling aspects of country. So it’s kind of the perfect fusion of that. I grew up loving Ed Sheeran, and then also loving Rascal Flatts and Luke Bryan, and you know, kind of across the board, so it’s definitely pop country is the best way to describe it.
You’re coming over to see us next week for C2C – how are you feeling about that?
Gosh, I’m so excited. I’ve always wanted to go over there, I’ve never been – it’s my first time. And that’s gonna be fun. I’ve always heard of C2C and dreamed of being on the lineup, and I’m really just honoured that they asked me to be on it this year. It’s gonna be fun, I’m pumped. It’s a lot of amazing people on the lineup, a lot of Nashville friends that are heading over there. And it’s going to be like, three days of not much sleep, but a lot of fun times and memories made [laughs].
What can people coming to see your sets expect from them?
Honestly, again I’ve never played over there. So I’m just going to try to play as much of the released music that I have, and just meet everybody for the first time and kind of introduce myself via my music. So a lot of the stuff that’s on my first project, and then the stuff that’s come out recently, that’s going to be on the second project. I’m working on an album right now. So I might play like brand new, unreleased songs. But mainly a lot of the stuff that I’ve written the stuff that people have really connected with. So I’m excited. If you’ve browsed on my Spotify or Apple Music, or whatever it is, you’ll you’ll find a lot of the songs that I will be playing, so it’ll be fun.
Are there any songs that you’re particularly excited to play live when you’re over here?
That’s a great question. So I’ve always heard over on y’all’s side of the pond, people love more songwriter, acoustic sounding stuff. It’s funny, because in the States, people do love that too. But I feel like I’m always trying to bring energy and trying to build a show. So I’m excited to get to go play somewhere that I know people respect that kind of music. So I’m pumped. One of my songs, there’s a brand new one that’s going to be on the next project called ‘The State I’m In’ – I think I’m gonna try to play that one and test [it] out. It’s a very songwriter heavy, storyteller acoustic song. And then one of my songs called ‘getting into’, we fully produced it with a full band, but I love playing it acoustic because you really get to hear the story and the lyrics behind it. So it’s gonna be fun. I’m excited to see kind of what people gravitate towards there.
I also wanted to ask you about ‘it’s been a year’ which you put out at the end of 2022 – can you tell us more about that?
Absolutely. That song totally took me and my team by surprise. I wrote that song – it’s kind of crazy how it happened. So you know, in Nashville, we have writing sessions, when we go into a room every day at 11am and we write a song. And so I was hopping in my Jeep, heading to a writing session, and my mom called me and she said, “your grandma has cancer again”. I was like, “man, that just sucks”. You know, worst worst time ever. I hate that. And I kind of tried to table that in my brain and walk into this write and just not think about it.
So I walk in the room. And I realised that it had been exactly a year since I had seen my grandma, from the day that we were writing that song, about exactly a year. And I was like, “man, that’s so crazy”. And so I walk in the room and one of my co-writers, Brett Tyler, he was like, “I had this idea for a song. I don’t know really what it would be. It just kind of came to me. It’s called ‘it’s been a year'”. I was like, “Dude, I’m gonna tell you the story. My grandma just got diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s been a year since I’ve seen herm like, that’s too too weird. We have to write that song”. Wrote the song more about just kind of life and you know, the craziness of my life and my career over the last year.
The craziest part of the story is that the day that that song came out, my grandma was declared in remission from breast cancer. So crazy how you know full circle it was but it’s really cool to see. I mean, so many people have used that song to kind of recap their year through videos and pictures and it was like number seven most used sound on Instagram or something. It was nuts. And so it’s just crazy to me to see how many people connect with that when it’s cool that you don’t plan what song they’re gonna connect with. They just do. I’m excited about that one.
The other song I wanted to ask you about was ‘Never ‘Til Now’ which you’ve just released the wedding version of. Did you always know that was a special song or has it surprised you how it’s taken off?
I feel like it’s been a constant in my career thus far of no expectations and all of a sudden, something just happens. I’m just like really blessed by that happening. But ‘Never Til Now’ – I mean, honestly, I released that song when I was still an unsigned independent artist and put it on TikTok and kind of teased it and the song went viral. And people seem to love that song – like 40-something thousand people made videos to that song online. It was just crazy to see the reaction. And so we added Brett Young to the song as a duet and then all these people started posting videos at their wedding and their first dance and they’re walking down the aisle and I was like, ‘man, so many people will walk up to me at shows and say, “this song is my song. It’s our song together as a couple”‘. And I figured that I would give them the wedding version, something that they really can use during the ceremony and that sounds very wedding-like with the strings and all of that. So it’s really special. You know, again, that song took me by surprise as well. And it’s just been cool to see how many people organically relate to songs, not by a label agenda pushing it or anything like that. It’s just like very organic, you know?
You mentioned Brett Young being on that song with you. How was it working with him?
He’s just the best. I mean, seriously, so great. I don’t even know when we recorded that song together but I feel like we’ve just built this beautiful friendship. And he’s like a mentor. And it’s really fun. I was on the road with him last year and now I get to open up for him again this year on tour which starts in a couple of weeks. Yeah I mean, he’s been so great. And just like a big brother mentor on this journey, and has given the best advice. And just honestly, it’s been really an honour to work with him. I grew up listening to his voice on the radio, and so it’s really cool to hear that with my own voice and get to perform with him and get to have him come out for ‘Never Til Now’ during my set. And he’s really such a humble, amazing human. I’m honoured to get to work with him.
You’ve mentioned the tour with Brett and I know you went out on the road with Cole Swindell and Jordan Davis last year too. What did you learn from that?
So much. It’s hard to narrow down specifics, I feel like you just learn how to balance rest. And you learn how to connect with people when you’re exhausted. I think people don’t realise touring musicians, you’re just going. In my phase, especially, you’re sleeping on a van bench most of the nights and you’re, you know, driving upwards of 10 hours a day to go play a show. And it kind of feels like this bubble when you’re in it. And I think learning from people like Cole Swindell and Jordan Davis and Brett Young and Luke Bryan, all the people that I’ve toured with. One thing I love came to mind – with Luke Bryan, he’s one of the only artists I know that never really has a setlist. He has an idea of what he wants to play, but it’s so spontaneous. And that was something that I loved to talk about on his bus. We were just chatting about it, and he was like, “I think it’s tough for some artists to just let loose and have fun. But like the crowd has so much more fun when you’re not rigid in what you’re doing and they feel like they’re involved with the process and having a good time”. So there’s something to learn from every single one of the people that I’ve toured with and I hope that I keep learning from the people that I tour with this year.
Let’s talk a bit more about your approach to your songwriting. Do you have a typical way that you write? Or does it depend on what the song needs at the time?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been writing songs since I was 11. And I would write down kind of journal entries, if you will, and like almost like poetry, just like rhyme and sentences that rhyme and I never would put melodies to it, I’ll just write it down. So that’s kind of evolved as I’ve grown up and in my adult years now where I love to start with a lyric. So to me, I’ll see a quote that inspires me, or I’ll think of a unique hook that’d be cool to like, title a song and like, how would we spin that and make it cool. And I love to start with a concept, or start with a poem almost, and then kind of roll with that. It’s tough for me to start with, ‘we have this melody, let’s put words to it’. It’s harder for me to do that. So I’m definitely more lyric heavy, but some days I fluctuate. I guess it’s the songwriter in me, I just kind of do whatever the room needs that day.
Do you ever get writer’s block? And if so, what’s your way of dealing with that?
100%. I think if you don’t, you’re not human [laughs]. But I feel like everybody gets it in some ways. It’s tough. I think, weirdly enough, not sleeping makes me more creative. So like if I had writer’s block, and then I go on the road and I’m exhausted, I feel like I’m more creative at 2am in a random hotel room in somewhere like Toronto, Canada. Like I’m just more creative in a space outside of my usual setup. I think that if I start working out and eating healthy, I feel like I start to get more creative – just like naturally habitual, you kind of get in like a routine. Drinking a lot of water. I know that sounds so crazy, but like these things really make your mind more awake and less brain fog.
I’m going to have to steal those tips! The other thing I wanted to ask about was TikTok – especially during the pandemic. How do you think that’s helped you as an artist?
I mean, TikTok… it’s crazy. Because, again, I’ve been pursuing music and writing songs since I was like, 11. I mean, I was playing shows when I was a kid, and travelling around doing all of that. But TikTok really, seemingly overnight, changed the game. Which was obviously kind of weird at first for me, because all of a sudden, hundreds of thousands of people and label people in Nashville started to care about what I was doing and I was like, ‘I’ve been around for so long, I’ve been trying to do this and trying to play shows and trying to yell like, “hey, I want to do this” for so long’. But Tik Tok has been, honestly, I think, one of the most amazing platforms for any young entrepreneur – not even artists, but just entrepreneur because you post one video and it could reach millions of people.
And also I think what’s cool about TikTok is that you can continuously reinvent and redo the same things. Because you don’t have to reinvent just redo the same things. Like I could post one of my songs today, and then I could post it again in two months, and it could all of a sudden blow up and you just have no idea. And it’s kind of almost like gambling, where if you just stay consistent, you put the quarter in machine, it might work and it might not. And so it’s beautiful. And for me, it’s been a world of a difference in getting to reach people, right? Because you post a video and I’m reaching new people every time I post a video, even if it’s the same video. So it’s exciting. It’s fun.
And I think it’s a really cool way for young artists to get to reach fans that maybe they wouldn’t have, with traditional means of gatekeepers and having to have a certain label to do certain things. So it’s exciting. And for me, it’s changed everything. And I’m fortunate that people seem to give a s*** about what I did online. So I’m happy to be here.
You recently posted a cover of ‘5 Foot 9’ on there that I know Tyler Hubbard picked up on. What was your reaction when you found out that he’d seen it?
It was so cool. I had no idea that he even saw it. People were tagging me in my own video saying like, “yo Taylor saw it” and I was like, “oh my gosh”. You know, I started posting on TikTok in late 2020. And around that timeframe, I started to do girl point of views of popular male songs. So I used to do them all the time in the pandemic when I had more time on my hands to kind of sit around in quarantine. Yeah, so I was like, “oh, man, I haven’t done one in a long time”. And I was looking through different songs, and I was like, “this song would be super cool, it was a huge TikTok trend and it might get some views”. And people seem to love it. So I was honoured that Tyler cared and showed the love on that. And I love that people love the twist on it.
Are there any others of those songs you’ve covered that have stood out to you?
I did one of ‘Tequila’ by Dan + Shay. I think last festival season we actually put that in the set and, in the middle of the actual original cover I would say, “I do the same on TikTok sometimes, here’s the girl version”. People loved it. So I feel like it’s just cool – people see their favourite songs reinvented and kind of a fresh take on it. I think that was really cool. I also did one with a Parker McCollum song. And we played a show, we’ve become friends now. We played a show together and he was on stage. He was like, “Ashley did this entire song” and I was like, “This is so cool”. You know, it’s like fun how full circle things are.
You also made your Grand Ole Opry debut back in October – huge congratulations on that! What was that experience like for you?
Honestly, I feel like I blacked out [laughs] I mean, it’s so funny, because looking back, everybody was telling me like, “Hey, be in the moment, feel it, be present, remember this moment”. And I remember it. I think it was just so hard to really, feel a whole lot. Because I mean, on one hand, I think it’s so much you’re feeling, because of this legendary circle where you know that everybody in country that’s paved the way for you – especially women in country, but like just people that paved the way for you to have a voice in this genre and in this world have stood there. And so it’s heavy, and it’s light at the same time. It’s one of those things where you walk out and you think it’s like, “oh, just another stage” and then you stand there and you’re like, “Whoa”. You just feel this amazing, like, “I’m part of a family”. And I was honoured and I’m going back to the Opry now on I think March 24th.
Is there anything left on your bucket list in terms of people you’d want to work with, places you’d want to play, things you’d like to achieve etc?
Oh, there’s so many things. I mean, in terms of people I’d love to work with, I’ve always dreamed of collaborating with Ed Sheeran. He’s one of my favourite people. He’s such an incredible songwriter. I saw him live for the first time – my friend from college was like, “Yo, I have this ticket to the Ed Sheeran concert, you want to come?” and I was like, “Oh, whatever. Sure. He seems cool. Why not?” I went to the show at Bridgestone [Arena in Nashville] in 2015. And I was thoroughly mind blown at his talent and just what he does and his presence and his songwriting. I just respect him so much. And I’d love to work with him at some point, whether it’s right together, do a song together, whatever it may be. And then also, big bucket list thing of mine, which I’m doing this week – so where I’m from in South Florida. There’s this amphitheatre. I don’t know what’s called now, the West Palm Amphitheatre in Florida. I grew up going to that area, that concert venue, tailgating, on the lawn and I fell in love with country music on that lawn. And so I’d love to play that venue. I’m playing in the parking lot this weekend. So I guess technically it’s kind of there. But I’d love to like headline the show there at some point.
What’s the one song you wish you could have written?
Ooh. [pause as Ashley thinks] I think the one I usually always go with is ‘The House That Built Me’ – Miranda [Lambert]. But ‘Don’t Think Jesus’ – Morgan [Wallen] is like, that’s one for sure I wish I would have written.
We’ve touched on the new record a little bit already – is that your main focus for 2023? And the tours as well?
Just about. Yeah, this is my first full project. And there’s a lot of songs and I’m not gonna say how many but I mean, it’s insane how many songs are on this record. So I’m excited. It’s my first project I’m putting out in the world, top to bottom. Everything’s very consistent, very me throughout the whole thing. And so it’s definitely a focus. We’re hoping for that around the summertime. I think, maybe? I don’t know. But then, yeah, touring. I’m opening for Luke Bryan this year, which is huge. And a lot of festivals this summer and CMA Fest, and so many things that we’re getting to do. Super fun. I feel like the main focus is the album and then a lot of supplementary stuff with that.
Is the album going to be pretty similar to the tracks you’ve been putting out recently or is it going to be a bit of a mix?
Yeah, I think it’s a bit of a mix. I think I always want to stay consistent to my songwriting roots and get some of those rip your heart out kind of songs. But I also wanted to have some fun live songs. So there’s some stuff that I think maybe people wouldn’t fully expect to hear from me. But it’s fun if there’s some kind of old Miranda-y sounding stuff on there. And there’s a good mix of a lot of different sounds. I mean, there’s a lot of songs, so it’s kind of something for everybody.
And lastly – have you got plans to come back to the UK after C2C?
I hope. I really hope. I just hit Canada. So we’re trying to kind of branch out from the US and do different places. Yeah, I’d love to go meet people. Every time I post a video or go on live stream, everybody’s like ‘come to the UK’ because I know there’s people over there that want to hear my music, which is really exciting. So I don’t know. We’ll see, hopefully soon, we’ll keep you posted.
Ashley Cooke’s latest single, ‘it’s been a year’, is out now on Big Loud Records/Back Blocks Music.
See Ashley at C2C: Country To Country this weekend:
Friday 10th March – 2.20 PM, BBC Radio 2 Stage, The O2, London (arena ticket required)
Friday 10th March – 9.00 PM, Spotlight Stage, The O2, London (arena ticket required)
Friday 10th March – 11.30 PM, Indigo at The O2, The O2 London (with Nate Smith) (afterparty ticket required)
Saturday 11th March – Spotlight Stage, The Ovo Hydro, Glasgow (arena ticket required)