Interview: Ashley Cooke on ‘shot in the dark’, touring and UK crowds

Originally from Parkland, Florida, Ashley Cooke first burst onto the country scene via TikTok, before her songs ‘Already Drank That Beer’ and ‘Never Til Now’ (a collaboration with Brett Young) made her one of the hottest new artists in Nashville.

She’s also performed on ‘The Bachelorette’, toured alongside Cole Swindell and Luke Bryan, racked up over 200 million global streams and made her Grand Ole Opry debut – as well as paying us a visit here in the UK for C2C back in March. Now she’s about to release her debut album ‘shot in the dark’, with 24 tracks due to land this Friday 21st July.

Ahead of the album’s release, I spoke to Ashley about the process of making the record, her preparations for her first ever headline tour in the US next month, how she found her first C2C experience, her love for UK audiences and more.

Last time we spoke was just before you came over for C2C – how did you find that?

That was so so cool. I think the audiences over there are just different. Like they just are so attentive. They’re so kind, they’re so respectful, and they’re so zoned in on what you’re doing. And they really care about artists of all spectrums. I was mind blown. And I cannot wait to get back there, hopefully soon.

Was there anything that surprised you about the fans here? Any songs they responded to in ways you weren’t expecting or things like that?

I think all of them. That was the shocking thing to me. And I think I played an unreleased song when I was over there, too, that I never even teased on social media. And even though people didn’t know the words, I’ve never been in a packed room like that of people where everybody’s pin drop quiet. And people are so ready to just hear music and absorb it. And that was so special to get to play to and people were walking up after the show saying, “We love that new song, the lyric and that one part” and that makes me like, “You guys listen?!” Not that people over here don’t listen. But I just think that it’s so cool, when you’re playing in a packed bar or packed area, and people really care. It’s just different. And it’s really awesome to get to be on the receiving end of that.

Your new album ‘shot in the dark’ is coming out on Friday…

Yeah, I’m trying to think about the timing of it all. Yeah, on July 21st. And holy crap, it’s happening so fast! [laughs] It’s so exciting. But I’m like, “Oh my god!”

Tell us a bit more about it…

Yeah, I called it ‘shot in the dark’. It’s 24 songs, which I’m really excited about. It’s basically a double album for my debut album, which I’m really honoured that I have a team let me do that, because that’s not very standard for a new artist to drop their first album being 24 songs. So I’m really excited about it. I honestly just started writing and started, you know, just kind of putting all of the experiences that I’ve had the last couple years. I just turned 26 and being in this phase of my life and you’re in love and family and just kind of figuring out who I am, what I want to say, you know, all of it – it’s a lot to manage. And so I started just writing, which has kind of always been my my release.

I picked the title ‘shot in the dark’, which is a song on the album, but it’s also just the title of the project. Because I feel so much of my career up to this point has been such a shot in the dark. Like, you know, I first was deciding to pursue music in 2019 full time. And then the pandemic happened. And so I had to go on social media, and it was like a totally different plan for my life than I had originally anticipated. So it’s really fun. And it’s been such an awesome journey. And I feel like that just really encompasses a lot of what I’ve experienced and that it’s okay to take risks and to take shots and to see what happens and sometimes things stick, sometimes they don’t, but we’re just kind of all on this journey in life to figure out what works, and that’s just kind of felt like the epitome of what my career has been so far.

You’ve mentioned that it’s 24 songs, so how did you find the process of structuring the album? Did you have a clear idea what songs you wanted and the order in mind early on?

It was definitely tough, I won’t lie. Obviously 24 songs is a lot of songs to figure out which order goes together. But I played a lot of live shows the last couple of years and I fell in love with setlist building and all of that. And so to me, I tried to structure it as a live show as the best I could. If somebody’s in their car playing this or on their Air Pods listening to it, what would they want to have the structure feel like and how would we take them on a journey together. And so I thought of it as like two separate albums, like the first 12 and second 12, and kind of structured it that way. And the track number 12 is called ‘next to you’. And that’s the only song on the record that I wrote completely by myself. And so I kind of felt like it’s my lucky number, it’s in the middle of the tracks. It just kind of felt right. But it was definitely tough. And I chose the first song which is ‘tastes like’ and the last song which is ‘state i’m in’, I chose them for a reason. I felt like ‘tastes like’ felt like a party fun song and then ‘state i’m in’ felt like the perfect cap to a debut album. So yeah, I definitely put a lot of thought into it. We all kind of sat down and had to hash it out and figure it out. There was a lot of different rough drafts of what it could be. But I think the tracklisting flows very well. So I’m excited for it.

You’ve talked a bit about the range of sounds and styles on the record. Was that variety something that was important to you with this album?

Yeah, absolutely. You know, my very first song that really kind of took off was a song called ‘never til now’ with Brett Young – really, really fun song. And it showed the loving, sweet side of a ballad, and I love to write those kinds of songs. And I love to perform those kinds of songs. But I also love to sprint around a stage and I love to have whole stage and running around and energy and all of that. And so I wanted to show people that the same artist can do all of those things, and can feel all of those things and be all of those different people in one artist. And so I really wanted to have a versatility of fun songs, party songs, breakup songs, love songs, life songs – all of these things that people can find something they relate to and that they can love on the project of all the 24 songs. So I’m really excited. I feel like there is kind of something for everybody on the project.

You’ve got a few special guests on there as well – we’ve already mentioned Brett but you’ve also worked with Nate Smith, Colbie Caillat and Jackson Dean. How was it working with them on this project?

Absolutely unreal. I think all three of those artists, Nate Smith, Jackson Dean and Colbie Caillat are just… I have been such a massive fan of what they do as artists, as friends, just in general. And I’ve gotten to know them all through different radio tour circuits, and I’ve looked up to Colbie my whole life. So I feel like I knew her before I even met her and I’ve just always loved what they do. Jackson Dean’s voice is just so insanely iconic. I’m such a massive fan of him. And I think that when I had written all the songs and had the idea for what I wanted for the album, I was like, “I really want to have some collaborators on here that feel like my friends and feel like people that I’m a fan of personally, that I would just love to work with and get to merge our art together.”

And Nate Smith, I sent him multiple songs on the album. And I was like, “hey, I’d love to have you on something, I want you to be part of this.” I am a part of this.” And he chose the song ‘see you around’. I love that song. Jackson Dean, we were talking about my album and just hanging out and bonding over an experience that we got to do together covering a song in an award show. And he was asking about the album. And I told him that one of the songs, his producer, Luke Dick had written with Lainey Wilson. And I was like, “Man, I love this song”. And he’s like, Wait, is it this song? ‘what are you on fire about’?” And I was like, “Yeah”, and he’s like, “I love that song”, and I’m like, “you want to be featured?” And he’s like, “yeah” so it just kind of worked out great.

And then Colbie, we wrote that song together. And she was kind enough to want to be part of the song and I’m honoured. I feel like our voices really mesh well together. And she feels like my big sister in so many ways. So it’s a lot of fun.

Were there any songs you found particularly easy or particularly challenging in terms of the writing for the album?

I think ‘next to you’, that song was so easy to write. I love writing. And so writing alone is always something that… I wouldn’t say it comes harder to me, but I typically will start a song and then I’ll bring it to co-writers because I want to have more input on it. But that song, it was the morning after my Grand Ole Opry debut. And I woke up, came out to my kitchen table. And I was sitting down and I was looking at all the flowers on my kitchen table and all the champagne bottles and the notes from people and I was in my shirt from middle school and just kind of like camping out at my kitchen table. And I was like, “Man, I just feel like this just needs to happen.” And I wrote that song in maybe 15, 20 minutes max, and it just kind of fell out. And I never expected it to make the record, let alone have people call it their favourite song. So that one was definitely one of the easiest songs to write. Yeah, I’m trying to think about any other songs. But that one was definitely a very easy one to write for me.

What do you think you’ve learned from making this record that you’ll take forward into future projects?

I would say don’t try to chase any sounds. I think there was a point in the writing process where I was like, “Well, I think I need to have this kind of thing, and maybe this is cool, because this person did it and this thing”. And every time without fail when I walked into a writing room or in a situation where I tried to chase something, I would walk out with something that didn’t feel like me. It didn’t feel like the reasons that I love what I create, and the reasons why a lot of people seem to love what I create, too. And so I’d be turning the songs into my publishers and my managers and they’d be like, “I mean, they’re all right”. And I was like, “Ah!”

And then without a fail, the songs like ‘next to you’, I just kind of stumbled around it and ended up being a song everybody loved and felt like me. So I think what I’ve learned in all of this is just continuously do what feels like you because every single song on this 24 song album, whether I wrote them or didn’t, feels like me, a version of me. And something that I can stand behind and tell a 20 minute story about each song, about why I love them and why it feels like me. And that’s really important for artists to have, I think, to be able to stand behind their art and defend it and say this is why this is me. It’s not because it sounded like a radio single, because it sounded like me.

You’re starting your first headline tour in the US next month – how’s the preparation for that going?

I’m so excited and so nervous [laughs]. I’ve never headlined a tour before. I’ve only played like three headline shows in my life, and they were all sold out. And they were all so much fun. And this tour is selling like crazy. It’s nuts. Every day, they’re telling me that more tickets are selling and more places are selling out. And it’s really, really exciting. I think the most fun part for me is getting to structure an entire set around just what I do. And I love opening up for people. I think it’s an honour and I love learning from the headliners that I get to open up for, but most of those crowds they’re their crowds, they’re there to see them and I’m there to entertain and to warm them up to the crowd. It’s gonna be a lot of fun to get to walk on stage and get to just be like, “These are my people”. They know my music, they know the stories, they’re here to be a part of the experience. It’ll feel like a home team, which I’m really excited about.

What does the rest of the year look like for you? Obviously you’ve got the album and the tour and I know you’ve got some dates with Luke Bryan as well – so is that going to be the main focus?

Yeah, between now and the end of the year, I feel like my entire year is just constantly booked up with these dates. Album comes out and it’s a lot of like travelling for promo on that and getting to go see a bunch of people and do all of the things for debut album. And then Luke Bryan tour and that goes for a hot minute. And then my headline tour starts. And that’s it’s the holidays. So we’ll see what happens next year. I’m really excited. We’re already talking about different tours, where to go, maybe the UK, we’ll see. So I’m really excited. It’s going to be a grind of a couple of months, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.

I was going to finish by asking if you’ve got plans to come back to the UK again soon, but I think you’ve already answered that…

I hope. I really hope. I’ve been telling my agent I want to get back there just because the crowds there are just undeniably so cool. So hopefully soon, hopefully maybe a headline tour, maybe opening up for somebody over there. We’ll see what happens. I’ve never really done a full blown tour over there, just C2C. So I’m really excited to hopefully get back and get to see everybody again and have that feeling in that room again.

Ashley Cooke’s debut album, ‘shot in the dark’, is out on 21st July on Big Loud Records/Back Blocks Music.

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