Written by Je’Don Holloway-Talley
It’s not every day that you turn on the radio and hear the thoughts of a Birmingham native serenading you. It is also an anomaly for said tunes to cross industry genre lines. But with 28 weeks (at the time of writing) on The Billboard Hot 100 Chart, peaking at No. 5, Birmingham’s very own Sebastian Kole (Coleridge Tillman) has done just that. Kole wrote the lyrics for singer Alessia Cara’s mega hit “Here,” which reached double platinum status. That’s right—a Birminghamian composed a song that has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide!
Like any other journey to a dream fulfilled, this one did not come without its challenges. After years on the Birmingham live music scene, Kole and fellow Birminghamian Michael Warren created the pop song “Goin’ In” by Jennifer Lopez and Flo Rida; the song went to No. 1 on the dance charts and was Kole’s first taste of mainstream success. This success encouraged Kole’s decision to make the ultimate musical pilgrimage: the move to Los Angeles.
Nov. 1, 2015, marked the third anniversary of Kole’s signing deal with EP Entertainment/Motown Records. He’d arrived in LA with a couple thousand dollars to his name and a few contacts. Those contacts led to a series of studio writing sessions with various producers and ultimately to his meeting with EP/Motown. In a little less than a month’s time, Kole was on his way to a future in the mainstream music industry.
I was granted the pleasure of an interview with Kole to get to know the man behind the music and how his roots in the Magic City shaped him into the songwriter he is today.
B-Metro: How did you get your start in music?
Kole: Church. My mother and father were both pastors, and my godmother was the pianist at our first church. She’d always have piano lessons with different people, and her family was full of musicians, so when she’d practice with them, I’d sit around and try it myself. That developed into a passion and, as I got older, I started writing songs to exercise my craft. I couldn’t play what I was hearing on the radio yet, so I had to play to the beat of my own abilities. I play several instruments, but my three favorite are the piano, drums, and the guitar.
BM: What did your Birmingham education look like, and how did it shape you musically?
Kole: The first school I went to was Spaulding Elementary, and I was so bored in kindergarten that I’d take things apart. Fortunately, somebody recognized that and suggested they test my IQ. They did and I passed placement tests all the way up to the fifth grade. At 5 or 6 years old, they wanted to skip me that many grade levels, but my mother said no. She was skipped two grades in her time, and did not like being too young to drive and do the things her peers were doing. So instead I tested into a school called “EPIC” (Educational Program for the Individual Child), a program that tailored each child’s curriculum to his or her individual needs and gifts.
I went to W. J. Christian Middle School and Ramsey High. I was a band and choir kid. I was president of the choir at Ramsey for a few years and a drum major. My choir director, Ms. Ross, was definitely influential in my musical development. She kept me focused. I got my first college scholarship from Dr. Carney to Alabama A&M, because she made sure he heard me sing. Music kept me around and grounded—I’d skip any class except for music. I went to Alabama A&M and the University of Alabama. My degree in music technology comes from the latter.
BM: What did your time in the Birmingham live music circuit look like?
Kole: I’m still technically touring the Birmingham circuit now, but [it was] roughly from 2004–2010. I jammed at all the local spots: Martini’s, Ahmani Raha’s, Plum Bar, and Legends. I had a weekly residency at Club Martini’s and Plum Bar, but I got out of that because I didn’t like covering other people’s music. I was getting to perform some of my own stuff, and people were getting to know my sound, which was encouraging, but I always had to mix in covers. It made me realize I had done about as much as I could do in Birmingham, and it was time to start spreading my wings. From there, I started opening up for some pretty big acts, and things started moving in the direction I wanted to go in.
BM: How does the Hollywood vibe feel in comparison to home?
Kole: It’s definitely a different vibe. The magic of Hollywood is the expectation on your day. Here in L.A., everybody is one script away or one handshake away, and that’s magical. There’s a lot of hope here, but there are just as many broken dreams. That’s the scary part. B’ham is a working class place; generally, we are working class people. A daily expectation for people in the ’Ham is not coming up on their big break—It’s to get to work on time and fulfill your responsibilities to your family. People are more family-oriented in Birmingham, and that’s the true magic to our city.
BM: How did you end up writing on Cara’s debut album?
Kole: Tony Perez (the “P” in EP Entertainment) brought her to my show in New York, and I heard her sing and liked her sound. He decided that he wanted me to get her in the studio and feel out her potential and sound. A couple weeks later, I was off to Toronto, Canada, to brainstorm and develop album concepts and a few songs. We made good progress there, so Tony sent us both to New Jersey to start our 30-day superstar boot camp (just kidding!)
BM: What did the process of creating her sound and album look like?
Kole: The sound kind of creates itself. I asked her every day of that 30-day boot camp what she was feeling and what was on her mind. I’d ask her what message she wanted to impart in her music, and I’d play off all of that. The first time I work with a new artist, I walk in the studio and ask them a few questions about their current thoughts. Then I walk right back out and write a song for them real quick—I’m talking 20 minutes quick—and go back in. I do that so they know I can write a song, and trust me to convey their sentiments correctly. That’s how the bond is built.
BM: Describe the moment you found out “Here” went double platinum.
Kole: I didn’t know we’d hit the first platinum mark, so it totally blew my mind. I was in New Jersey working in the studio and took a break to go get something to eat. So I’m walking, and out of nowhere, I start hearing someone screaming my name. From three blocks away, I see the company VP jogging towards me, and he gets to me and says, “You have to see this!” I couldn’t believe my eyes—It was incredible. Digesting that moment was out of this world.
BM: How has your life changed since the breakout success of “Here” and what’s the plan for the next phase of your career?
Kole: Let me start by saying that I’m not rich yet! Life for me is not really very different. I wake up every morning, and I do the same things. But the people around me are changing. I’m traveling a lot more, and I’m working even more. I worked a lot last year, but this year is crazy. It’s only the second month and I’ve already spent a month in London. Bigger artists are reaching out and wanting my sound, and now my personal project is complete. Prayerfully, this spring, there will be some Sebastian Kole music in the world.