We are around my desk monitor, and I’m pulling up a video of an old music friend and compatriot still in her twenties. The two of us are marvelling at the big talent on the screen, and there’s a three-way connection. Stacey Kay and Leah Daniels have been best friends since age eleven when the two competed in talent contests.
The look in Daniels' eyes is that of a young woman that’s inspired and in awe of her good friend. In many ways, their careers mirror one another. Both are fiercely independent, have a clear vision where they want to go with their careers, and are determined to get it right. Both work outside the walls of a major record label and connect directly with their audiences.
Kay rocked it on America’s Got Talent and Daniels took home the Canadian Radio Music Award as the FACTOR 2016 Breakthrough Artist of the Year, earned four CCMA nominations, and has a new recording set to arrive in May 2018. There’s also something else that binds the two. I keep in mind what Warner Canada Music Steve Kane CEO said to me a few years back after I posed this question about evaluating talent.
BK: Is there a checklist?
SK: Yes, there’s a mental checklist. I’ve got to tell you at the top of this checklist – “Does this artist know who they are?” Do they have a sense of self? Do they have a sense of where they want their career to go?
The answer? A resounding yes! Here’s that conversation.
Coming out of Sheridan College’s arts program how focused on country music were you back then?
Country was not on my mind at that time.
I guess in high school it was more about musicals and pop and rock music and after Sheridan I wanted to create my own music. I wanted to write. After Sheridan I went to Humber College for music because I wanted to do my own thing and they had a new program that was a degree program that focused on songwriting specifically. I was like, that sounds perfect. I completed first year but was anxious. I wanted to create music instead of being in school for another four years.
I got a bunch of books on the music industry and spoked to anyone I could about music and started a band with people that I met at Humber and started writing. At that point I was still kind of into pop music. I loved Maroon 5 and Alicia Keys and that sort of thing. Once I started writing more and performing, it was through songwriting I got into country music. I grew up with country music. I'm from Uxbridge, Ontario, a small town.
There’s country music all around your area. Festivals, etc.
My grandpa is a musician. He's traditional and into Wilf Carter and Hank Snow. He plays guitar, accordion and harmonica and he yodels. I feel like when I was a kid, country music was kind of like, not cool. My grandfather was doing it, and it was so old-fashioned or something.
I suspect you were following the music you heard on the radio. Country music is a specific listening experience.
It's funny how I’ve come full circle. It was because I started writing and a friend of mine said that I wrote a song that sounded like it could be a country song and I was like, really, you think so? I seriously thought about it and realized this is where my heart is. That’s totally where I fit in. The storytelling thing is kind of back to my roots.
Did you take classes in songwriting?
Not really. I just started doing it. I’ve composed ever since I was little. I met up with some people in Toronto. Karen Kosowski was one of the first people I wrote with and my friend Sam Ellis. They're both now in Nashville and prominent writers and producers. I started writing with these people and learning from that, and suddenly I was thrown in these situations with more prominent songwriters, like when I met Dan Hill for the first time. I was like, oh, my goodness. This guy is a legend, but you just do it.
Did he help you put the songs together or did he just coach you through it?
It was kind of a collaborative thing you do together; you come up with some great ideas. That's the thing with songwriting. I get so nervous at songwriting sessions. You're so vulnerable, and you can't censor yourself because if you have an idea, you’ve got to say it because otherwise, the song can't grow. You must be able to put yourself out there even if the concept is awful. You’ve just gotta’ say it so you can move forward. It’s tricky getting out of your head and allowing yourself the freedom to say what’s needed to be said. Life and relationships. A lot of that can be opposite of the song.
What’s most comfortable for you to write about?
Relationships. A lot about that.
Can you allow yourself to be open up enough to say things that sometimes go unspoken?
Yes. I think that's one of the things that’s complicated. When you're writing with someone for the first time, it's hard to open up your diary to them. That's the challenge. I feel like I've gotten better with that over time. It’s just sharing that.
As a songwriter you want the songs to be personal, and for me as an artist singing, I want to have a piece of me in the songs and want the stories that we're telling to be something that I've experienced as much as I can. I mean, there's sometimes when you write a song it may be the other songwriter's experience, and I'm not in the room that day, but I try to put a piece of me in it too. That can be a challenge sometimes. I've just met this person, and I'm going to tell them about my life story? Here we go.
When you first went out as a country artist, how did that feel?
I had a band, so I guess I started writing and recording my first album at that point. I started doing shows all the time and entering competitions and all that stuff. But it's funny. When I was younger though, the first competition I ever did was a country competition. I was nine or something, and the CNE had a Canadian open country singing competition, and I remember doing that.
I was a fan of Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes when I was growing up. When I was a kid, I didn't picture myself doing country music. I was thinking about being a pop star.
Country crossed over to pop long ago.
It has crossed way over. The lines are so blurred, yet it's an exciting time for country music. I think it's bigger now than it ever has been.
If you go back twenty-five or thirty years ago certain instruments were forbidden in country.
It's just opened right up, and now it seems like you can take any song, and if you add a little bit banjo, it's a country song, suddenly.
In your teens, were you open to the Dixie Chicks?
I think about how strong and powerful they were in live performance and such excellent instrumentalists.
They've got some great songs, and yeah, the harmonies are amazing.
Have you toured across the country?
I've been out west but not down east yet.
Will that come with the new recording?
The single is called, ‘First’ and then the album title is to be determined and then the tour.
What label is this on?
I'm independent, and it’s an EP with seven songs.
Were you able to get funding to do this?
Yes, I've built this up and feel like I've got a great team around me. I've got management now and a great booking agent and publicist and everything. It’s kind of what I had to do. I mean, when I was younger I wanted to be with a label so bad. But now, I have built it up on my own, and I feel like, I'm almost so attached to everything and so much a part of the process and it would be hard to give it up.
You know you are following in the footsteps of Canadian icons Loreena McKennitt and Emilie-Claire Barlow – one’s Celtic/folk the other jazz. They both manage their own affairs. It's kind of the world we live in now.
I feel like that's the way it's going. It just makes sense, and I get excited about it now. I get excited at the fact that I get to choose who I get to work with and surround myself with people who inspire me and that are like minded and that's exciting. I would love to build that up and one day have my record label help other artists.
In 2016 you captured a CRMA award.
I was female artist of the year. I had a good year. And radio was good.
I had my single ‘Go Back’, and it was my first song ever to go top 20 at Canadian country radio which was huge and exciting. Because of that, I got a couple of different awards. I got the Canadian Radio Music Award for the 2016 FACTOR Breakthrough Artist of the Year as well, which was huge because that wasn't just for country artists, it was for all genres across Canada. That was pretty cool.
It's the Radio Awards, so yeah, everybody was there, it was pretty cool. That's probably the award I'm most proud of up to this point. Radio is tough.
A song must turn a certain way before it’s accepted for radio play. I would imagine country radio is much more receptive than pop radio. Once you’re in the good graces of country audiences, you're there to stay.
Yes, I agree. I agree they're faithful, but it's still a challenge. I've released quite a few songs to radio even before ‘Go Back’ and it's tough. You're going to these stations and trying to prove yourself and show them you are here to stay. This isn't just the flavour of the month, and I’m actually doing this as a career.
You need to duet with a Brett Kissel or Johnny Reid.
Johnny would be amazing, and he's someone I really look up to, especially the way he's built his career. He’s amazing.
He puts together the tour, the recordings and does the work. He also knows what he's up against. It’s tough out there especially if you believe the American market is the place to crack. He’s a solid Canadian touring artist.
He can sell out shows here, which I think is amazing.
Where did you record the new EP?
The single ‘First” was done in LA, and that was my first writing trip there. It was a unique situation. I was there for a week writing with Brian Howes and JVP (Jason Van Poederooyen), who is his writing partner /co-producer. I had a week with them, so we weren't rushed.
In Nashville, it seems like everything is, you have three hours, write a song, and that's it. Bye, I’ll see you, and you might not see them ever again. Which I'm not a huge fan of. It's just too stressful. I feel like we need time to get into it and to come back to it and have that ability to come together the next day and be like, OK, what do we think, what do we need to change to make this better? That's what was really cool about writing this song. We came up with a melody and chords, and they said, you figure out the lyrics. Go home tonight and spend some time and I was like, oh, OK. It was like I better come up with something good by tomorrow.
I was able to dive into it on my own and not feel the pressure of the session and then come in the next day. We looked at these lyrics I came up with and then worked on that and then did it all again.
Recording in Hollywood is relaxing.
I loved it. Where we were, it's like the windows were all open. I could see the palm trees, So laid back.
How did you fall into this situation? Was this through management?
Jordyn Elliot (HJ MGMT) is my management, and she's a local girl from the Toronto area. She connected me with Brian, and I'm glad she did. It was a really neat experience.
What’s coming up for you?
We’ve got the album coming out, and right now we're kind of in planning mode for everything and getting ready for that. Final tweaks and I'm excited to do shows. That’s my favourite part. The album will be out the end of May.
You’ve played Boots and Hearts festival?
Boots and Hearts was awesome also because it's close to my hometown. It’s this big festival within an hour from Uxbridge. It was really cool because I saw all these familiar faces.
Is your hometown behind you?
I love my town. I would not be doing what I'm doing without them and all the opportunities that I had growing up there. Uxbridge is really rich in the arts. There are musicals all the time, and there are choirs you can join and open mics everywhere. So many wonderful volunteers that make it all happen. I'm very fortunate.