When you think country music, the last thing that (probably) comes to mind is Sweden. While the format is still find its place overseas, rocker Hicks is laying down the groundwork for what could soon become the nation's biggest format. On his new single "Hayride" (and his first official stateside release), he champions country's roots but dabble in a bit of high-octane rock that blasts through the speakers like a couple shots of Jack on a Friday night.
Sure, he played in countless rock bands as a teenager, but when he was just a toddler in diapers, he knew about he greats: namely Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Jim Reeves. "Maw told me that her dad (my grandpa) and her were big, big country music fans," he shares in an exclusive NashvilleGab interview. "I stood there in my diapers and I used my grandpa’s big shoe horn to play air guitar to Hank [Williams], Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves. They were like, ‘well, you’re gonna be an artist.’ And yeah, they were so right."
Then, in his teens, things began to shift a bit. "I started to play in bands, I wanted to play country. But none of my friends had listened to country," he recalls. "They just thought I was cheesy. They wanted to play rock, and I liked rock, too. Then, Garth Brooks happened. It was like BAM. That’s it. It was a no brainer for me. I was done being an artist when he came out."
It was some time later, though, that Hicks sojourned to Nashville to see country for himself. "When I went to Nashville, I met a guy called Ronnie Thomas. He’s a producer and manager for a lot of bands. He worked with Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Montgomery Gentry [also Lee Ann Womack and Gretchen Wilson]. I played my songs to him. I was meaning to pitch my songs to other country songs."
"He looked at me and said, ‘no, no, no. You shouldn’t pitch those songs. You should do them yourself.’ I was like, ‘no. I’m not an artist anymore. I’m a songwriter.’ ‘No, you’re not. I can hear the passion in your voice. You’re an artist.’ So, I thought about it for a minute and went back to Sweden and started. I decided to give it a shot and see what happened," he says.
Still unsure of how to launch a full-fledged country career, he says he issued his first single "Mama's Kitchen" (above) just to test the waters–"to see what kind of response I would get. Then, OH, it took off like crazy. Stations from all over the world started playing it. I wound up on charts I didn’t even know existed. That song went to #2 on the big European country chart. How did that happen? It took on a life of its own. I am in no control of it anymore. It just lives."
Fast forward a few years, and Hicks is setting trends, especially on his new hard rock-tinged single "Hayride," his first with MTS Management. "I was really aiming for a party song, beer-drinking, foot-tapping, sing along type of song," he says, then adding that his fans have gone absolutely nuts over it. "That’s the song everybody wants to hear. They’re like, ‘play it again, play it again!’ It’s so easy to sing along with, too."
On hearing fans sing his songs back to him in live performance, he finds it more than a little wierd. "There’s a lot of pride in that," he says. "I’m so proud that I landed a song everyone wants to sing and listen to. There are so many emotions attached to it. It is a weird feeling when you are playing and there are 5 or 10,000 people in the crowd and they’re all singing along."
Previously, he's also released such tunes as "Unreachable Dream" (below), a folk-draped mid-tempo piece, and "Bad Call After All," an even more emotional story. But those were independently released, without support from a label. Now, Hicks is enjoying unbridled MTS support. "Michael Stover is the best. I’m really glad to be working with him because he thinks outside of the box. He’s so educated, hard-working, just like me. I love that about him. We don’t take no for an answer. That’s why I wanted to work with him," he says.
Hicks has also found continued creative freedom, most certainly in his own organic songwriting. On his process: "It could be lyric or could be the melody or something else that sounds cool together. The latest song I wrote, I wrote with Sharon Vaughn. She’s written songs for Willie [Nelson], Waylon [Jennings], Oak Ridges Boys, just everybody. We wrote a song called ‘Don’t Monkey With What’s Working.’ It’s kind of an anthem for me. We sat there talking about what kind of song we’d write. I was like, ‘I know what I want. It has to sound a little rock or country.’ Then we had the title and wrote a song about that. It’s so nice when that happens."
He continues, "Usually when I write, I have them in my head first and then write them down. I don’t pick up an instrument until I have the structure and the lyric. I know it when I pick up a guitar or get at the piano and start too early, it narrows it down for me. I want it to live and be what it wants to be before I put anything music to it. Sometimes I take it to someone else and have them do the same thing, of what vibe they think it is."
Looking back, he recalls the very first song he ever wrote; it was about love, of course. "I was seven or eight years old. I was so in love with a girl in my class," he says. "It was a Swedish song and I wrote it on my mom’s organ. It was called (in translation) ‘You Are So Close, Yet So Far.’ She sat in the bench next to me. I was so in love with her, but I didn’t dare tell her. I didn’t play her the song, either, it wasn’t that good," he laughs.
From his new-found success, Hicks had the chance of representing Sweden at last year's CMA Music Festival, performing a set in downtown Nashville. "That was such a huge, huge honor. It was just like, ‘CMA knows who I am?’ I couldn’t believe it," he says. "They then invited me to represent Sweden. That was just mind-blowing. I got to Nashville a lot to write. I have many friends there. I’ve played many honky tonks before, but I was there as an official artist. That was really, really awesome. Then, I met fans in Nashville. They came up to me after the show, ‘we came all the way from Canada just to see you.’ I was just like, ‘how did that happen?’"
On the differences between Swedish and stateside audiences, he notes the attention to detailed lyrics. "In the states, the audience listens a lot more to what you are singing about. They are more attentive to the lyrics. Of course, it’s their language. Over here, we speak Swedish and German and French. Of course, they don’t understand as well. Country fans, in general, really listen, though. It’s not a music form that’s just consumed like pop or rock. You really listen to it."
"Other than that, they part just as hard over here as there," he laughs.
For fans itching for a full-length, Hicks reveals that an album is already in the works, potentially for release in early 2015. "We still have some songs to do. We are tweaking mixes of songs right now," he says. "Then again, I’m working on a big thing in Sweden. If that locks in, we’ll have to wait to release the album until March or April of next year. It looks like that’s gonna happen."
"There’s a huge, huge show coming up that’s gonna put country music on the map here. Country music isn’t big here. I’m doing what I can. There are some other artists here, too. Now, we have the TV show ‘Nashville’ and that helps a lot. People are going, ‘wow. Country isn’t that bad.’ People are starting to get it. There’s been an underground country movement. Brad Paisley, Dolly [Parton] come here for shows and every one is sold out. It’s just the media that’s not really opened to it yet. They think it’s something cheesy or corny."
If you ask him one piece of advice for newcomers wanting to forge a country career, he is pretty honest. "Don’t copy anybody else. Know the roots. Know why it sounds the way it does. Study it. Love it, learn it," he says.
Grab a copy of "Hayride" on iTunes now!
Photos courtesy of MTS Management
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