For Nicolle Galyon — a BMI songwriter of the year honoree and co-writer of nine No. 1 country songs, including Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic,” Blake Shelton’s “Minimum Wage” and Dan + Shay’s “Tequila” — there was nothing automatic about making the shift from hit tunesmith to (basically) first-time recording artist. But two decades into her Nashville career, the Kansas native has a debut album in the form of “Firstborn,” an album of almost entirely new and autobiographical material (with the exception of “Consequences,” a song she co-penned for Camila Cabello’s first album).
“This is a way for me to take back true creativity for me, and not be at the mercy of anyone else’s process,” she tells Variety. “My whole career, I’ve been of service, to serving others in their art. And I felt like I owed it to myself to serve myself” — along with, she says, owing it to her two children, who she realized might have to piece together her real personality from the bits and pieces of it that snuck into the hits she wrote for others.
Galyon had some of her famous songwriter friends — including Shane McAnally, Josh Osbourne, Hillary Lindsey, Kelsea Ballerini, co-producer Jimmy Robbins and more — out to her hometown of Sterling, Kansas (or occasionally on Zoom) last year to help with the writing, but unlike the writers’ room situations she was previously accustomed to, all these collaborations were in the service of helping her craft a musical memoir. It’s clear these songs were crafted for her and her alone from the opening lines, which reference everything from her not knowing her biological father to the age she lost her virginity. Released on her own Songs and Daughters label, which is otherwise dedicated to young female artists like Hailey Whitters, “Firstborn” is not aimed at giving her a tenth No. 1 but at putting her own lyrical voice in the top position for the first time in her career.
Galyon — a Variety Hitmaker of the Month a year ago at this time — spoke from her home in Nashville, right before getting on a plane back to her other home in Sterling, Kansas, where she summers with husband and fellow songwriter Rodney Clawson and their two kids.
People know your name and your track record, but not many people have really heard your voice. You had a featured appearance on a song you wrote for Walker Hayes a few years ago, but there’s not much more than that, at least in recent years, is there?
About 10 years ago, around the time of “The Voice” [Galyon was a contestant on that show, as she pondered a singing career], I had a handful of tunes that I released. It wasn’t really a project; it was more me in development, trying to figure out if I was a writer or an artist. I think I put four songs on Apple temporarily. But other than that, no, not really. It’s funny. Singing has always been the last piece of the puzzle for me. A lot of people move to Nashville because they want to perform, and so then they learn how to write so that they have something to go perform. And I’m more like, “Gosh, I don’t think I’m an artist, because I don’t really wanna go perform. I just wanna create.” And then I learned along the way that you can create just to create. You don’t have to necessarily want to go be an entertainer as well. And music can serve a purpose without you going on tour. [Laughs.]
It seemed like, as with a lot of the most successful Nashville songwriters, you had really set aside any desire to be a recording artist. When did it come to you that you needed to do something putting yourself out in front?
I always knew that I would make a record at some point. It was just a matter of: I needed a why. Because being a staff songwriter, you’re shooting in all different directions at all times, and what you’re writing for and how you’re writing can change day to day or hour to hour. And I really needed focus. So I think I realized — not as a songwriter so much, but more as a mother — that if anything were to ever happen to me, what are the things that I would want my kids? How would I want them to remember me? What would I want them to know about me, and why I was the way I was?
And that came from me observing over the last few years a lot of loss for a lot of people. It seemed like in that loss, what people would cling to are the stories about those people that they had lost, whether it was a grandparent or a parent or family member or friend, you even notice on Instagram. And I thought, gosh, if anything happened to me, what are the stories that my kids would tell? What do they even know so far about me? So that’s where the idea of “Firstborn” came from, which was: Before you were born, I had to be born. Before all these other things that I’ve made — the songs, the [Songs and Daughters] record label — I had to be born. And I’ve never gotten to write that story.
What was the specific impetus that really set it in motion?
Well, for some crazy reason, at some point in 2020, I realized that my birthday, 7/22/22, was a Friday [when albums are usually released]. And 22 is my lucky number. … And also, with me living in Kansas at that time, we all had a lot of time on our hands in 2020 that we weren’t anticipating. And so I remember I was like: “I’m putting out an album on my birthday. That’s when I’m gonna do it. It’s gonna be 20 years almost to the week that I moved to Nashville.” So that’s when the original idea came, in 2020, looking ahead on the calendar. I gave myself the whole year of 2021 to concept, write and record the album.
In January 2021, I was taking a car ride from the airport in Wichita, Kansas to my hometown, Sterling, Kansas, and in that hour and 15 minutes, I had this creative burst where I just started writing down words and phrases that meant something to me — words like “winner,” “sunflower,” “younger woman,” “self-care.” I made a hypothetical track list of titles, although I didn’t even have the concept. And then, with all that time that I had in my hometown, just really digging and brainstorming and going: What does that word mean to me?
Then once I had the concepts, I thought about, who in my life have I collected as a co-writer that might make sense to write that with? And I truly wrote out a track list and then names — writer credits —beside each song title. And then I started making phone calls to my friends and saying, “Hey, I’m making a record. I have an idea for you. Will you write it with me?” That’s really how I went about it, which is really backwards. I wrote out what I wanted the finished product to be, and then I went and made it.
One of the songs, “Sunflower,” is literally about being a tall woman, on one level, and you have the image of unworn high heels, which a subset of women will definitely relate to. But, of course, being tall is kind of a metaphor for sticking out in a lot of ways.
With “Sunflower,” I gravitate toward that because it’s the state flower of Kansas, but also because I’m tall. But then, why am I tall? Oh — because I have this biological father that is not the father that raised me. I don’t know a lot of the family history genetically on my biological dad’s side of the family. That comes into play as you start having your own kids and there are some question marks. And I think that goes back to the heart of why I did this album, because I don’t want my own kids to have question marks about me.
For me, “Sunflower” is really just about anyone that feels like they’re too much — too much of anything. Being tall was just one of the ways that I felt like too much in my childhood. And now I have a daughter that often feels like she’s too much in her own way: Maybe her feelings are too much, on top of the fact that she is the tallest girl in second grade now. And so Charlie, my daughter, was really an inspiration for that, because she reminded me of myself at that age. The sunflower, in all of its qualities, has kind of been a symbol of strength and pride for me, the way that it turns to the sun and basically keeps its head up and held high. The idea that you’ll become somebody that people look to, if you just hold your own, I think that’s what that song means for me.
You have a good amount of self-affirming or inspirational songs, like “Self-Care.”
Yeah, loving yourself is, especially I think for women, a lifelong journey. It’s a choice every day, and you have good moments and you have bad moments. But it seems that the older I get, the more I do genuinely like me. It’s hard for me to imagine ever wanting to go back to be a younger version of myself. So why would I try to make myself look younger, or try to pull off the illusion that I’m younger than I am? Because this version of me is probably my favorite so far. As I’ve gotten older, I wouldn’t trade anything.
It’s interesting how you sort of came into this in terms of wanting to leave your story behind. Many singer-songwriters write confessional songs, but not that many people are saying, “I created a memoir album.”
I think part of that is because most people aren’t putting out their first record at 38! You can’t put out a memoir at 18.
We’re all in the music business. How often do you hear an artist say, “This is my most personal record yet,” and then on the next record, “That wasn’t really me. This is my most personal record.” And the beauty of doing this for the first time now is that I feel like I got to work through all the rough drafts, maybe, of who I am in private, and now with the first public music that I really put out, I have a pretty good sense of who I am and what I want to say.
Are there certain songs you’ve done with or for other artists that you feel were particularly personal to you, even though they were intended to be recorded by someone else?
Oh, yeah. “Automatic” [a single for Miranda Lambert] was that. And “Love Triangle” [recorded by RaeLynn]. I’m not a child of divorce, but I married into a blended family, and that song is very, very personal to me. I don’t think I could have been a co-writer on that song had I not married into the family that I did.
“Half of My Hometown” [a Kelsea Ballerini/Kenny Chesney duet] is, most recently, probably the most personal outside cut. We wrote that song, and then I looked up a couple years later and I was truly living that song. I was spending half my time in Sterling, Kansas and half my time in Nashville, and kind of living two different lives at once. I felt like my heart had always been split in half between Nashville and Kansas, but the last few years I’ve physically been split in half between Nashville and Kansas. So that one is probably the most direct in my real life.
How did you decide to do a video companion piece for the whole album, shot in your hometown?
Well, that took on a life of its own that I never saw coming. The visual piece of putting out an album was the one piece where I had a bit of anxiety and a mental block. I could get behind being a storyteller and telling my story, but I couldn’t really imagine myself even in a picture on the cover of the record, because I think of myself more as an author than I do an artist. So I treated this record more like me writing a book, and authors don’t generally put themselves on the cover. I guess they do if it’s a memoir.
But the video components, I didn’t really know what to do. And so I set out with my creative team and we just kind of concept[ualized] this idea to go to my hometown and shoot these little abstract vignettes that wouldn’t really even show my face. We were just gonna call them visualizers, kind of in the vein of lyric videos for each song. We had three days and we took this small crew to Kansas and we had concepts for how to shoot each one. The first one that we shot was “Sunflower,” and the original idea was just to put me on this ladder out in the field, with tons of negative space in the sky, and do a lyric video in the sky. We had an extra 15 minutes at the end of shooting it, and so they were like, “Just do one take where you’re kind of mouthing the words,” and one thing led to another. By the end of the first day, I called home and said, “I think I’m shooting music videos by accident.”
I think being back in my hometown allowed me to feel really comfortable, and I didn’t feel like I was performing. I felt like I was the most me that I could have ever been. And so I really got outside my comfort zone and I had fun with it. Then when the videos were finished, I was thinking through how I would want to present these — like what would the Instagram caption for each song be? — and then I turned those into voiceovers. And then I was like, “Wait, I think we should just be able to hit play and watch this top to bottom. I think this is actually a different piece of content now.” So it continued to take on a life of its own.
My whole hometown, which is about 2000 people, all feels really connected to the project, because it felt like everyone in town, from the city manager to my next-door neighbor to ex-high school teachers, chipped in to make it all happen. I mean, it’s hard to source things out in rural America, you know? So we were calling favors in, like, can someone find us an old mattress? Can someone find a church pew? So they all feel a sense of ownership over the project, which is really cool. They’re also really proud that Sterling’s gonna get to be visible out into the world. I told them, this is like one giant commercial for our hometown.
You have a co-write on here with your husband, Rodney Clawson, who of course is also a hit songwriter, but it’s hard to remember anything the two of you have written together before.
That was the last song written for the project, and it was the one that I had probably the most pressure around, just because we have never written a song that was just the two of us, and we for sure haven’t written a song that was autobiographical about us. We’ve written together a handful of times with other artists or for other people, with someone else in the room, but this was a first.
I knew that there was no way I could write a record for my kids and not write a song with their dad, who is the most important person in my life, and an incredible songwriter. We kept putting it off because you would think when you live together, oh, you could just write a song any hour of the day, but it’s actually harder. [Laughs.] Because you can’t separate from your real life.
So what we did was actually rent a tour bus, because we were going to a concert in Lexington, Kentucky anyway, and so I was like, “OK. We’re both used to going out and writing with artists on a bus run. Why don’t we rent a bus just for us and task ourselves with writing this last song for the record?” So it was written in early December as the very last thing, because we turned everything in to be mixed Dec. 17. And I knew the title — “Five Year Plan” — and I just let it sit there for months and months. Then once everything else was done, I was like, “OK, now I gotta go get this Rodney song.” And it was so special, and so different. Because while I wrote everything on this record with handpicked writers that I felt so safe with and so close, with Rodney, in January it’ll be 20 years since I met him for the first time. I was 18 when I met him for the first time. So he’s been witness to my entire adult life. And when we started writing this song from a big picture of “Let’s look at the last 20 years of your life,” he’s the only person in my life I could have ever written that with.
I remember when we first started writing it and he said, “Maxima flyin’, I-70 Eastbound,” I got emotional, because I thought, “Oh my gosh, only you would remember that old Maxima I was driving when I was 18.”
A lot of people would think, “OK, two highly successful songwriters, married, the kids are in bed — maybe every once in a while they’ll sit down and go, ‘Let’s just knock one out,’ or ‘Let’s see what happens.’” But it doesn’t really work that way, it sounds like.
No, because that’s the last thing we want to do when we’ve been doing that all day long. ButI will say, I think through that process, I discovered that I really love writing just the two of us. That’s a really cool byproduct of “Firstborn” for me. There’s gonna be more where that came from.
Even though you haven’t really done that till now — writing with just the two of you — we could guess maybe there’s something about the relationship that works because you can relate to each other’s careers, even if you haven’t co-mingled them.
Yeah. For me, it’s all about the things that we don’t have to say. There’s an unspoken understanding of what each other’s day was like, without really having to describe it. We don’t have to say that much to get it, good or bad.
Now that you accomplished the mission to leave your story behind for your kids, did it give you the bug to want to do more records, even if they aren’t necessarily in this mode? Or was it a one-and-done deal?
I think I’m ruined forever in the best way, because this has been so fulfilling that I just want to continue to lean in to this kind of writing. Whether it’s for me or other people, I want to be this personal and this honest, always, in my writing.
So it spoiled you for going into a writers’ room with people you may never have met before, to do assignment writing?
Yeah. To not have to have the timeline of, “OK, we gotta write this kind of song for this artist who’s cutting next week.” To be able to just say it for the pure creativity of saying it, and really for the only metric to be honest. I felt I spoiled myself in that way.
And that’s a measure you feel like you can maintain for yourself, going forward?
I’m gonna try.