Nashville is known as “Music City” for a reason. You can’t walk 10 steps there without bumping into an aspiring artist or songwriter. Over the past decade, the town’s population has swelled even more, with a human influx inspired by the six-season run of the Nashville TV series. A whole host of Canadians are making their own Nashville noise, which is reason to celebrate. Among them are newly emerging SOCAN members Kathleen “Kat” Higgins, Robyn Dell’Unto, Jesse Labelle, and Sarah Troy Clark. These are their stories.
Currently signed to BMG Nashville through Patrick Joseph Music, Kat Higgins’ biggest songwriting credit to date is as a collaborator on the Carrie Underwood track “Mexico,” with Derrick Adam Southerland and Jamie Moore, released on Underwood’s 2015 album Storyteller.
But that isn’t Higgins’ first taste of success. For the majority of her life so far, she was part of Canadian country family trio The Higgins, who released two albums on Open Road Records. But her destiny was permanently altered when she first stepped on Nashville soil.
“The Higgins came to Nashville to visit, and as soon as I walked off the plane and out of the airport, I was heartbroken – because I knew I wasn’t going to want to be at home anymore in Canada,” says Higgins, who began writing songs when she was 13 years old. “My heart hasn’t left Nashville since.”
After The Higgins went on hiatus due to sister Eileen’s pregnancy, fellow Canuck and professional songwriter Deric Ruttan and his wife Margaret took Kat under their wing, offering sanctuary while she sorted herself out.
The Delta, BC, native says her tenure with The Higgins “got me in [writing] rooms that I would have never gotten in, because we had a record deal in Canada, and writers wanted to contribute to [our] singles.” Having written the bhangra-inspired “Mexico,” Higgins says at press time that she’s awaiting news on a track she hopes to have landed with an American male country artist. She’s placed her songs “Old Soul” on The Voice, and “Johnny Cash Heart” on American Idol.
Higgins hasn’t abandoned her performing career; she’s setting up a Canadian tour for 2019 and will release a few new songs on Spotify.
Originally from Mississauga, Robyn Dell’Unto had been pursuing a career as both recording artist and writer, until she spent some time in the Slaight Music Residency at the Canadian Film Centre, which prompted a change of direction.
“That really shook my brain up,” says Dell’Unto, who’s released three albums and enjoyed regular CBC rotation with such well-crafted songs as “Call Me,” “Sidecar” and “Face to Face” – as well as enjoying a 35-week run in the Top 10 with “Just A Bird” on South Africa’s Algoa FM.
“I remembered how much I loved working with tension and colour, and taking a back seat to producers and directors,” she says. “I realized I didn’t want to do this in film – but with artists, who were just like I once was: young and confused. I’d like to be a safe place for them, armed with the technical knowledge to manifest their vision.”
Describing her artist days as “a pair of too-tight pants,” Dell’Unto re-located to Nashville about a year ago, and has consistently written pop and country songs while helping others. With her latest Canadian hit as a co-writer being LU’s “Don’t Count My Own,” Dell’Unto is re-focusing.
“Now it’s artist development – figuring out who this artist is,” she explains. “If you’re going to write a country song with me, it’s going to be more melodic, and have pop instincts, but hopefully I’ll bring a story out of you that you didn’t want to tell, or haven’t been able to. That’s my goal.”
She’s been working with several artists in the States, ranging from Virago to GUS. “I didn’t how big the pop scene was here [in Nashville],” says Dell’Unto, whose songs have been heard in 45 TV series, raging from Wynonna Earp to Degrassi: The Next Generation. “I just lucked out that there was so much pop going on. Artists work super-hard here, and they get no government funding, so it’s interesting to see how they survive.”
Dell’Unto has also been holding songwriting and production workshops for women. “We don’t have mentors,” she says. “As women, we really have to be there for each other to create that safe community.”
After a detour into pop music from 2009 to 2012, yielding hits that included “Easier,” Toronto’s Jesse Labelle has settled back into his comfort zone: country. “I was discovering myself as an artist,” says Labelle, who recorded at the time for Wax Records. “But even if you’ve listened to my earlier songs, they’re all stories, and the lyrics are rooted in country.” Even in those pop years, Labelle made most of his music in Nashville, which he’s called home since 2013.
The effort has borne fruit, with Labelle pushing himself both as a performer and songwriter – he’s opened for Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Eric Church , Florida Georgia Line, and Thomas Rhett. He’s also made impressive inroads as a songwriter, penning songs with David Huff, Richard Marx, Jeffrey Steele, Victoria Shaw, Hunter Hayes, Desmond Child, Chris Wallin, and Deric Ruttan, to name a few.
Labelle’s latest claim to fame is as a co-writer on the new single from Austin Burke, “Slower,” which has already garnered 1.5 million Spotify plays, and at press time was tentatively scheduled to roll out to U.S. radio in early 2019.
Labelle plans to release an EP in February, and will be touring the U.S. substantially.
SARAH TROY CLARK
A graduate of Boston’s Berklee Music, Sarah Troy Clark calls herself an “amoeba” who’s still finding herself as she toils away at her craft. The native of Bragg Creek, AB, has recently placed three co-writes on Obeds’ ambient pop album Projections – and sang on two of them: “The Valley” and “Arms’ Length.”
“That’s the highest-profile project I’ve been involved with,” says Clark, who adds that the pop scene in Nashville is currently experiencing some growth. Noting that her move to Nashville was precipitated more by economics than desire (“moving to any other city would have required crazy rent”), Clark is nonetheless enjoying her time working with her creatives, and has a number of songs on hold.
“I’m having a hard time holding back on my hope,” she admits, knowing that having a hold in Nashville offers no guarantees. While she’s released six albums independently on her own – some financed by Indiegogo – Clark is trying to focus on writing songs for other people.
“I just want to show up and be happy to do this, because it’s crazy I get to do this,” she says. “It’s even crazier that I might pull it off.”