There’s nothing that lights a fire in me like being told that I can’t do something or being told ‘no,’” rising country singer Alexandra Kay tells Sounds Like Nashville.
Kay has always been a country girl and singer at heart. While she grew up playing competitive softball, the Waterloo, Illinois native ultimately forwent a full-ride scholarship to pursue her dream of becoming a singer-songwriter. “It was very scary wondering if I made the right decision for the first few years,” Kay admits.
After a little foray into hip-hop and R&B in 2012, Kay returned to her country roots and put the pedal to the metal on her singing career through social media. She started covering 90’s and 2000’s country hits with the sole accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, which spotlighted her velvety vocals and powerful range.
After runs as a contestant on American Idol and NBC’s The Voice as well as a starring role on Netflix’s 2018 original series Westside, Kay has been determined to establish herself as a mainstay in country music. Her 2020 single releases, the heartfelt “I Kinda Don’t” and emotionally stunning “All The Cowboys,” reached No. 1 on the iTunes country chart—a laudable feat for an independent artist. Additionally, today, she boasts an impressive following on social media: over 526,000 followers on Facebook, 126,000 followers on Instagram, and a whopping 1.9 Million TikTok followers.
More recently, the promising star drew sold-out crowds to her shows through the dedicated fanbase she and her tourmates, fellow up-and-comers Cooper Alan and Thomas Mac, had passionately built online. After a successful first leg of their In Real Life Tour in July, the singers are set to return next month with a second leg that kicks off in Austin, Texas on September 1.
Sounds Like Nashville got to chat with Kay recently about her journey to music, time on reality TV shows, writing her own songs, the power of social media, and what fans can expect next from the talented newcomer.
Introducing the next artist you have to “Get To Know”: Alexandra Kay
SLN: What was life like growing up in Illinois? How did you get into music?
AK: It was slow, wonderful and very not-fast-paced! (laughs) It was really strange how I found myself in music because nobody sings or plays an instrument in my family. I started writing poems and diary entries and won a young author’s contest when I was a kid through my school for creative writing. That’s when my parents started realizing that I had a great imagination, I guess! (laughs) But it wasn’t until I started to go through the normal ups and downs of being a pre-teen and teenager and figuring out where you fit in, [that I started getting into songwriting]. I had just transferred to a new school, was trying to make friends, had my first puppy love and first real love. I took to journaling to navigate all those feelings and those journals became poems, and I started putting melodies to those poems and they became songs. That’s when I fell in love with songwriting. Before I knew it, I knew my path and I was willing to do whatever I had to do to get there.
Who would you cite as your biggest musical inspiration?
Definitely as an artist and as a performer, Garth Brooks. I was supposed to see him in Nashville and it got rained on! Garth is a huge inspiration to me. But growing up, in my teenage years, Taylor Swift was so influential to me as a songwriter. The fact that she could make me feel like she’s talking directly to me and my situation but made it broad enough to make every young male or female going through that feel the same was incredible to me. That [is] something that I still hold till this day. I want to do that in every single song that I write.
I know you’ve been doing and chasing this singer-songwriter path for the last few years. Was there a moment that cemented this dream career and pursuit for you?
I remember having a moment in high school where I was watching one of the girls performing in a rock band sing a Paramore song. I remember just watching her and how she captivated the crowd and feeling like I really wanted to do that. But I will say, my mom forced me to go for the American Idol auditions in 2011. I didn’t want to go and remember trying to make every excuse to get out of it. I ended up going, making it through three rounds [and then getting cut]. There’s nothing that lights a fire in me like being told that I can’t do something or being told “no.” As soon as I got eliminated from that show, I was on this full throttle. That’s when I made the decision to not go to college and take myself off scholarships I had worked so hard for, and take a couple of years off to pursue music. It was very scary wondering if I made the right decision for the first few years but now, I definitely think I did.
Can you talk about what your time on reality TV shows like American Idol, The Voice and the Netflix original series Westside has taught you?
TV shows like The Voice and American Idol prepared me for Westside. I learned so many lessons within two years of shooting that TV show. I learned how to collaborate with artists that were not in my genre, which is something that I had not really done before. [I also learned the importance of] staying open-minded to genre-bending. As a country artist and as somebody who loves country music, it’s in my blood. It was hard for me to accept the genre-bending that’s happening in pop and country music these days. I think having worked with Taz (Zavala) who’s a Latino-pop artist and James Byous), who’s a rock and R&B artist, really opened up my mind. Also, it took me out of my comfort zone completely. There was a lot of judgment around that show. It gave me a lot of thick skin. I learned more in those years of shooting the show, it was like a lifetime’s worth in two years of lessons! I’m so grateful for it. But at the end of the day, the show didn’t get picked up for a second season, and I felt like I was back at the bottom. And there I was, breaking down walls and getting back to the top! I proved to myself that I can handle anything.
Would you talk about how starring on Netflix’s Westside came about? I know you have a really interesting backstory behind that, right?
Yes! In 2017, I had gotten a call from a friend when I just got eliminated from The Voice, who said, “You’ll never believe the Uber ride I just had! I just picked up the executive producer of a Netflix show and they’re looking for a country artist. It’s a last-minute casting. I was taking him to a showcase, told him about you, and he really liked you! They said they’re gonna call you.” And I was like, “Yeah, whatever. They’re not gonna call. But thank you so much for sharing that.” The next day, I got a call from the casting director! Basically, [my friend] just pulled up the video of my “Jolene” cover and said, “If you’re looking for a country artist, I have your girl. She doesn’t live in LA, so you’ll need to figure it out. But this is your girl and she needs to be on your show.” He just handed the phone to him in the back seat and Kevin Bartel, who’s the executive producer, was sold. So, I packed up and was the only person in the show who had to be moved and relocated from Illinois to Los Angeles. I lived there for two years and it was amazing. It was fate too, for sure.
Social media has really been key in catapulting your career. What’s your secret to approaching these platforms?
Consistency, for sure. I get a lot of backlash on the internet and it’s something people don’t really see because there are so many comments. The good ones outweigh the bad ones. There are people who absolutely love my “Coffee Covers,” which has [garnered] me a lot of new fans over the years and I think sold a lot of tickets on this past tour. But there are also people who hate the “Coffee Covers.” There are people who love my voice and there are people who hate my voice. I think a lot of people out there let those who don’t like what they’re doing stop them from getting to the people who do like what they’re doing. At the end of the day, if I could give any advice to anyone, it’s to “just do it.” You’re not going to make an amazing viral video every single day. You’re gonna have stuff that flop, you’re gonna get pitchy on some days. Some days, your voice is gonna be better than others, and some days you’re just not gonna be feeling it. But stay consistent, do it, putting something up is better than putting nothing up. Don’t worry about the negative comments. They just feed the algorithm. Your real fans will clap back at them, you don’t have to do it.
Your latest release is a beautiful song called “How Do We Go,” which you co-wrote with Matt Wynn and Lizzie Cates. Would you talk about the inspiration behind that track?
I was just sitting at home thinking about a song that comes full circle in a way. “How did we get here, and how do we get to where we wanna be?” That was the original concept I brought into the [writing session] that day. As soon as we sat down we were determined to not leave the room until this song was done, [even though it was pretty late]. We just really knew we had something special. I knew I wanted it to be massive, like a Carrie Underwood or a Kelly Clarkson power ballad, which I hadn’t done before. I usually play into my [softer], Dolly Parton-esque singing-talking story storyteller [delivery]. But I have the vocal ability to do a power ballad. I just never got into the studio to try it. That’s why this song was such a triumphant one for me in many ways. I really pushed my limits vocally in the studio and we really dove in emotionally. All of us gave a little something we felt from the past to make this incredible song that is touching so many people right now. I had someone come up to me on tour and say, “This song saved our marriage. I sent it to him, he listened to it, we listened and we realized we needed to start working harder to keep ourselves together.” It doesn’t get any better than that.
Prior to that, you also recorded and co-wrote the breezy “We Wouldn’t Be Us.” What’s the inspiration behind that?
I wrote “We Wouldn’t Be Us” when I was still living in Los Angeles, around 2018. I was sitting in the studio with John Levine and Priscilla Rene and we were getting ready to cut a song. We’re sitting there and John asked me about my relationship with [my now-fiance] Indiana and he asked, “Has he proposed yet?” And I said no and told him this story: I was just at home a couple of weeks prior to that right around Christmas time. I had just played my first show back from Westside and it sold out [instantly]. Everybody was calling us figuring out how they could get tickets to the show. Indi was in the shower and his phone was blowing up and I answered it. Indi then comes into the room, hops on next to me, grabs the phone and the guy’s like, “Oh Indi, this is so and so from whatever Jeweller, your ring’s ready.” That’s how I found out about my engagement ring. (laughs) I ran out of the room crying and I was like, “I’m so sorry! I ruined everything!” We ended up just laughing [about it]. I told John Levine this story and he said, “Well, that’s messed up.” And I go, “Yeah, but if something didn’t go wrong, it wouldn’t be us.” And he went, “That’s a song. You need to write that one tonight,” so I did. It’s all true stories about Indi and me. We get married this September, and “We Wouldn’t Be Us” is our love story!
Lastly, I want to spotlight your tender song, “All The Cowboys.” It’s such a stirring and emotional ballad. What inspired that?
One of my best friends was going through such a hard time finding love. She’s so great and I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. “Why isn’t anything working out for her?” She was really down in the dumps about it to the point where she was keeping me up. We had a pretty tough conversation about it that night. I went to sleep, woke up in the middle of the night, went out to my living room and started praying because it was so heavy in my heart. Out of nowhere, this song just popped in my head: “why do all the cowboys ride away? Why does everybody leave?” So I picked up my guitar at three o’clock in the morning and came up with the first line, “Hey Mama, I’m so glad you called / I just finished a load of wash and I’ve been feeling a little lost.” As soon as I wrote that line, that was the truest line I could write to anything. My mom always calls me when I’m doing laundry and I get into a really long conversation about life and where I’m headed. I dug a little bit into what I go through but based it a lot on what she was going through. At the end of the day, I wanted it to be a song to let the girls that are waiting for their right person know not to settle. But also, don’t feel alone. We all go through. This might also be my favorite song I’ve ever written, and it’s also my most successful song.
I know you also just wrapped up your “In Real Life” tour with Cooper Alan and Thomas Mac not long ago. How was all of that?
It was amazing! Cooper, Thomas, and I have been really good friends for a while. We had a Facetime call one night and were like, “You know, we should go out on tour together!” We’ve all been through the label process here and there and all of us have decided to stay independent at this point. We just feel like people didn’t have a lot of faith in us going out and selling tickets based on our social media following as independent artists. We wanted to debunk that, and we ended up selling out seven out of the nine shows as independent artists. [Cooper, Thomas, and I] are really good friends. Just hanging out, traveling together, having a good time, getting to play our songs, and having them sung back to us for the very first time was incredible. We really didn’t know what to expect, and the fans literally blew us away. We’re actually going to be going back out from September 1st to the 17th! We’ll hit Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and more. It’s gonna be really fun!
Before we close with some round-up questions, since we’re Sounds Like Nashville, we’d love to ask two fun Nashville-related questions! First, where’s your favorite restaurant to eat at in Nashville?
I guess if I’m going expensive, Kayne Prime. If I’m going cheaper, I hit Baja Taco!
Music City also has quite a coffee culture going on. Do you have a favorite coffee shop here?
I almost always hit Frothy Monkey. I get their Kale Caesar Salad and an iced vanilla latte. It’s a weekly thing! Sometimes more than that… (laughs)
All great choices. Now, what else can fans expect from you for the rest of the year?
I have some really great, fun stuff in the works right now. On top of all that, I’m going to continue doing exactly what I’m doing, showing everybody my life from the inside, continuing my “Coffee Cover” and TikToks, and I’m super excited to go back out on tour with Thomas Mac and Cooper Alan in September. I also get to open for Josh Turner on September 17, which I’m really excited about. And I play the Blue Ridge Mountain Festival in Virginia with a whole bunch of incredible people like Darius Rucker and Chris Young. Of course, I’m looking forward to getting married in September too! A new song [will be] coming out in the middle of that month as well.
Lastly, what’s one thing you want fans to know about Alexandra Kay both as a person and an artist?
It’s that I’m always going to stay true to who I am. I’m always going to look at my fans and know exactly how important they are, and that they put me in this position. Coupling my hard work and their support got me to where I am. At the end of the day, I could’ve worked my butt off but if they didn’t support me, I’m not going to be anywhere. I’m always going to keep it at the forefront of my mind and heart. I would be nowhere without the people who support me and listen to my music. Because of them, I’m going to keep working my butt off and do everything I can in order to keep living this dream for sure.