Having spent about 40 minutes in the Zoom company of Ross Cooper, if I had to sum him up I’d call him the ‘thinking man’s songwriter’. For him, it’s all about the storytelling so it’s no surprise to learn that when he was younger, he wrote prose rather than songs, and says in an alternative life he might have been a screenwriter.
His musicianship has been honed from a young age and while the rodeo stole him away for a while – yes, he was a real-life rodeo rider – the music brought him back to earth with something of a gentler bump. As he says, ‘if you’re going to be a glutton for punishment, let it be emotional and not physical any more’. This Friday (February 26) sees the launch of his third studio album, Chasing Old Highs, and with the release delayed from last summer, he’s keen to make up for lost time. His last album was championed by Ricky Ross on BBC Radio Scotland and (excuse the pun) he is just champing at the bit to come over the pond and play for UK music fans as soon as he can. Having heard a preview copy, I think it’s safe to say, he’ll soon be gaining a whole new fan base – Alison Dewar
Ross, thank you for taking time out for Six Shooter. Your third album is about to be released, what do you hope it will deliver for you?
More than anything, it’s using this as an opportunity to get in front of people and if it means we’re not back out until summer or fall, then when we have the green light to go, we will go as hard as we can.
Musically my only hope is that it’s a growth from whatever the last thing we put out was. In the simplest terms, it’s about being better tomorrow than I am today. As a songwriter, I think everybody’s approach is a little different. I have great friends who only write songs with their fans in mind or whatever, for me it’s always been rooted in a place of storytelling and honesty. My favourite records are always reflections of where someone was in their life, so that’s my hope, that it’s perceived well and that have the opportunity to go out and play and share it with people. That’s always the easiest way for me, as a growing artist, be able to see songs work out in the wild.
You mean getting that first-hand feedback from audiences?
Yeah, social media is obviously great, and people are using it more than ever now, but still there’s only so much you can do with it. It’s the human element of the response to the song, man, you don’t realise how important that is until you go a year without it.
Listening to the album, there are only a couple on there that are more upbeat, Hello Sunshine – love that one – and Cowboy Picture Show. A lot of the other tracks, Long Way From A Long Way Home, Forever To Get There, and of course the title track Chasing Old Highs, I felt they are very much painting a picture, there’s a feeling of longing, of searching, of wanting to be somewhere…was that a deliberate thing with the pandemic, people going back to their roots, going home…
You know, the record was done before the pandemic, it was supposed to come out in June 2020, but yeah, when I play it, that’s how I introduce the song Forever to Get There. I’m 31, about to turn 32, but it doesn’t matter if you’re 21, 31, 51, 61, or 91, not having everything figured out all the time is ok, and I think we should be searching for something. Long Way From A Long Way Home is about a guy who’s at the end of his rope and is over the hill.
You know if a story can evoke some sadness or longing, it’s inherently more interesting. As a songwriter a sad song is a little bit easier to write, you know when you’re out on the road you miss home and when you’re home you miss the road, you know it’s this whole thing, ‘cos you never have the best of everything all at once.
It’s easy to be way out in middle America a thousand miles away from home, driving to a gig that doesn’t pay very much and think ‘what am I doing out here’. Forever to Get There is that feeling but a little more hopeful, like I haven’t found what I’m looking for – but I will.
That’s a good hook to pick up on – what are you hopeful for? It’s nine years since you moved to Nashville what are your hopes and ambitions, big arena audiences or smaller, more intimate gigs?
The question is would you rather play the Bridgestone Arena or the Ryman, if you could sell out the Bridgestone one night or the Ryman four nights in a row. For me, every time it would be sell out the Ryman.
I’ve seen my favourite shows that I’ve ever seen there, it’s amazing. The Ryman is always very reverent, people really pay attention to songs, you can laugh, you can sing, you can cry. And if you can sell the Ryman four nights in a row – that’s what Jason Isbell did, they just kept adding extra nights – that says a lot about the audience he’s built.
Obviously if we’re having a conversation two years from now where I’m selling out the Bridgestone, then I’m thankful for it (laughs) but I remember driving by the Bridgestone a couple of years ago and seeing the digital billboard that was advertising the next show. It was a pop show, but I’d never heard of these people and I’m pretty tuned in to the music. I was like oh my gosh I’ve never heard of these people and they’ve sold out the Bridgestone – but sometimes doing something so big can be a flash in the pan.
I’m pretty self-aware as an artist and a writer, and no matter what my strengths and weaknesses are, I’ve always tried to write songs that have a lasting effect, and I want that long-term career.
You came up the hard way, gigging at age 14, playing in dive bars…do you think the school of hard knocks stood you in good stead?
Yeah, I was lucky in that I had super enthusiastic, really supportive parents. Growing up (Cooper hails from Lubbock in Texas, famously the birthplace of Buddy Holly, and Natalie Maines of The Chicks) I was never in a position in any kind of dangerous spot, but you know some of those bars in West Texas are not great for a 21-year-old, much less a 14-year-old.
There’s a couple of those dive bars that were just straight up honky-tonk country and I knew the bands that had residences there. One of my best friends growing up, he was phenomenal drummer and he started playing with his dad’s band at like 11 or 12 so I started jumping into some of those.
I’m really thankful for that opportunity and experience, you learn what you are supposed and not supposed to do. Being thrown into a band atmosphere at an early age, listening and finding out how a band works, what people dance to or don’t dance too. There’s all these things that you kind of learn because of osmosis, you don’t really realise you’re taking in and all of a sudden, you’re 18 and you’re not brand new to it. I think it was a good way to start – absolutely.
Did you ever get any surprises, like a song that you thought was going to be a wow one and it fell on deaf ears?
In the early years, you get really excited every time you write a song – and you should – because not everyone can write music, but you don’t know if it’s a good song or not until you play it and it falls on deaf ears or is met with praise.
And you know, that still happens, because music is so subjective. I can write a song I’m the most proud of and if I played it out in a listening room and it fell flat, that can still happen. But the longer you do it and the more work you put into it…I feel I’m more at a spot now than I was 10 years ago of being like ‘maybe this one shouldn’t leave the house’. That’s not saying every song I put out is good, but being more aware of ‘ok, maybe this could be a song people will like’. There are songs that I would never show anyone from 10 years ago (laughs), the more you learn about the craft the better, especially if you only want to get better.
Your songs have been cut by artists including Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers, William Clark Green – is there one you’re most proud of?
It’s too difficult to choose. They are all like stories or books, I have a couple of favourite books, but I couldn’t choose between them.
I think it’s special if you can tap into a couple of things; one is if you can accomplish what you set out to do within the story or the prose or whatever, the second is if you can tap into the mood or evoke a mood. I think really great songs hit both of those bullet points – and I don’t know how many of those of I have. To me, there’s so much work goes into the craft.
I’m the first to tell you I’ll beat myself up about songs all day long, I do have a handful that are some of my favourites for whatever reason and it would be impossible to choose between them. It would almost be like choosing between a happy song or a sad song, it would depend on the day.
Ross Cooper co-wrote “Goner” for William Clark Green’s album “Hebert Island”
You either wrote or co-wrote everything on the new album. Since then and through the pandemic, have you been co-writing through zoom?
Yeah, I’ve had a couple of Zoom co-writes but I’ve also taken time to write more by myself.
There’s something happens in the arc of a lot of peoples’ songwriting careers when they move to Nashville. I moved to town and I was only really writing by myself and then I started learning how to be a good co-writer, when to speak, when not to, etc.
Then what happens is you start relying on co-writes to get songs, instead of using co-writes to sharpen your pencil and then taking what you have learnt and writing for yourself. Only in the last couple of years have I started to realise how important that is, and how necessary it is.
It’s good to have co-writes for different reasons and I love co-writing, it opens up your perspective, your chance of getting outside cuts and honestly, it gives you an opportunity to write songs you would never write by yourself and an opportunity to learn from other writers. But it can be a crutch too and I’ve allowed myself to use it as a crutch before, like I feel I can’t write a song unless it’s with someone else, so the pandemic has been a great opportunity to write by myself and I’ve co-writing by zoom too.
Is co-writing difficult to break into?
There’s a couple of ways if you’re new to town. If you know someone, then you write with them and they say…I think you’d write well with so and so, and they put you in touch. Or you go to writers’ nights and if you like their song or their skill set then you ask them for a co-write.
But the interesting thing that takes some getting used to, is you’re thrown into a room with someone you probably don’t know and let’s say you have a couple of hours to write a song. All of a sudden you are bearing your soul to this person and telling them your darkest secrets because it’s all for the sake of the song.
Now, that comes with the territory, but it is really interesting – especially as I keep everything close to the cuff, I don’t really air out any laundry, so to be thrown into ‘right, we’re going to write a heartbreak song’ – and for me if it’s going to be honest, it’s got to start honestly, pulling from when I felt the worst, when I’ve ruined relationships, or whatever the thing is. It’s easy now, I don’t think about it but …
It sounds like a therapy session.
Yeah, big time.
Do you have a favourite place to write?
I need a room with no window and zero distraction. I can be so easily distracted, I like writing at my house because I’m comfortable here. I’ve been in writes at other peoples’ that were distracting because of little things like the dog coming in and out of the room, or whatever.
I have one (a dog), and he’s a great dog, but I become hyper aware that it could annoy someone else if my dog keeps coming back and forth. Probably most people don’t write that way, it sounds miserable, being stuck in a room without any windows, but I feel like if the idea is good and I can sink my teeth into it, it’s my work mode.
I feel I write my best in the morning as at the end of the day I’m tired. First thing in the morning, a couple of cups of coffee and I’m off.
Do you write longhand?
I usually have a couple of different journals; one is for just ideas and one is for songs. I write everything by hand and in cursive. When I was in college, I wrote a lot of prose and that probably helped my songwriting.
You famously had to choose between rodeo riding and music. Do you still go to rodeos or are those worlds very separate now?
They’re pretty separate, but that’s with the geography, it’s not as easy. In Texas you can go to a rodeo every week. Honestly, it’s probably better, because if I was closer I might still be rodeoing too and at some point it’s like, buddy if you’re going to be a glutton for punishment let it be emotional and not physical any more (laughs)
You touch on geography – Nashville to Texas is one thing, Nashville to this side of the pond is another, your team says they’re working on plans to get you over here when it’s allowed. Have you played overseas before?
I haven’t, but the last record I put out this interesting thing happened. One of the BBC DJs in Scotland, Ricky Ross, he picked up it up and was playing it a lot, so all of a sudden, I was getting these emails from promoters etc overseas. What we didn’t know is that he rarely played independent music so if he was playing you, it was a big compliment.
This was 2-3 years ago, and we were trying to figure out then how we could get overseas and build the story, but at that time I didn’t have the team. Now we have an amazing team and as soon as everything is lifted and we have the opportunity that’s one of my top priorities.
I would love to do that, hell yes…when I’ve had friends who go over and play, the reports are about how appreciative you guys are of the arts in general. Everyone comes back with these amazing experiences – like 3 weeks of awesome craziness. For a guy like me who writes Americana, and folk rock and country type of songs it sounds like a dream…it’s a big priority.
Is there a wish list … enjoying a fry-up English breakfast or a pint of Guinness?
Yeah, the proper English breakfast would be really cool. Years ago, when I was still living in Lubbock, these two guys from Leeds had been backpacking across the US and they ended up in Lubbock for two months. They crashed on some of my best friends’ couches for two months, they were meant to be there for two days …but they loved the people and they stayed. I would love to go to a soccer– football game – I like that there’s basically a pub on every corner. First of all, I want to go everywhere, I love the feeling when I travel of not having a lot of plans and getting thrown into the middle of the culture.
I think maybe the minute I say I would like to see London, someone will say ‘it’s too touristy, you need to go here…’ I’m kind of a sucker for fog and mist; when I think of Hawaii I want to go in the sunshine; when I think of London, I want to wake up and see a misty morning coming over the hill.
Away from the music, what else do you enjoy doing?
I love movies, I spend way too much time and money on movies. Anything that has good – or even horrible writing – I love film, maybe in another lifetime I would have been a screenwriter.
You’d have to break down by decade or genre or both.
Last 12 months?
Let’s spread it to the last 18 months. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood has been one of my favourite films in a long time. I like the Tarantino’s historical reimagining type of stuff, like this and Inglorious Basterds.
My wife makes fun of me all the time, she thinks I like awful movies. She’s not wrong, depending on the movie, but I like it all, if I’m watching a bad movie, I know it, but I still want to watch it. She definitely keeps her standard of what is a good movie.
As an artist, do you think you’ll ever get to the point where you’ll think ‘I’ve done that’, or are you always striving for the next big thing?
I’ve tried to work on myself a little more to where I take a step back and celebrate every victory. Anybody that’s in a town like Nashville, you’re here for a reason, so you have to be pretty goal driven and it’s really easy to have the blinders on and keep working and working, to not stop and smell the roses.
So honestly, a little bit of both. I always wanna keep moving forward, I think that’s how I’m wired, all or nothing.
I know there’s been times something really cool has happened that I never thought would happen when I was 12-years-old, like getting a song cut by another artist is really cool. It doesn’t matter if it’s a number one on Billboard or if it’s never heard; when another artist cuts your song it’s a huge compliment. That’s one of the goals as a songwriter, it’s an incredible feeling and celebrating that, no matter who the artist is.
Obviously having Wade Bowen, William Clark Green, Randy Rogers cut those songs yeah, that’s the cherry on top because it’s artists I truly respect. So, on one hand yeah celebrate it, but not for too long. Celebrate it but keep going…and again, I’m sure my wife would go ‘you need to lighten up sometimes and open good bottle of Bourbon’, but I operate better when there’s always a strive to be a better writer.
I can look at songs around the time that I finished the record and I’m like ‘oh my gosh this line should have been different’. It doesn’t matter if I’m 32 now or 22, trying to be better, it’s always been my drive of wanting to be a good writer.
I think that answer probably changes a lot for other people depending on the goal. There’s nothing wrong with saying when I was 10-years-old, I want to be a rock star and I’m playing in front of thousands of people and I got to be a rock star; that is so cool, how does it get any better…but that hasn’t been my path.
My path is I was shown really cool records from my brother and I started realising there were some really heavy-hitting songwriters, there was this whole world of music, when I realised that, it was game over.
You mum was a musician?
Yeah, she plays piano and my brother has a great taste in music, he’s five years older than me. One of our Christmas presents when I was young was we got a guitar to share…my parents were playing the odds. We probably both weren’t going to stick with it, I was probably 10-11 my brother was 16-17 and had a million things going on. So, it didn’t really stick for him, but he has always had a great taste and knows what good music is.
Does he come to your gigs?
Yes, when he can, he lives 10 hours away, any time I’m somewhat close we try and figure it out.
It’s pretty amazing how supportive my whole family is and how excited they get. My family is really good about pointing out things that are cool. Any little bit of good news is always good news, it doesn’t matter how big or small. It’s good to call my family and say ‘we broke into the Americana chart or whatever’ and that is pretty cool. As cheesy as it sounds, they are my biggest fans too.
At 32, how many buddies do I have whose family never understood it or really got it, there’s probably more than my situation and that’s pretty cool.
You’ll have to bring them with you to the UK
That would be awesome, my Dad is like the biggest posterchild for West Texas so it would be the biggest culture shock of all time. It would be cool (lots of laughter)
Well, we seriously hope it won’t be too long before you can get here. We’ll be waiting and I’m sure you’ll get lots of new fans.
Thank you so much for your time and I would love to get over there.
Ross Cooper’s new album Chasing Old Highs is out on February 26. You can pre-save the album here -> https://ingroov.es/chasing-old-highs
(Photo credit – Jody Domingue)