Steven Lee Olsen is clearly a glass-half-full type. Rather than wallowing in disappointment over the coronavirus cancellations of Canadian summer festival dates that would have helped promote his new material (four songs released in March, on his own SLO Circus imprint), he’s donned his other hat, that of a much in-demand songwriter for major country acts.
On the phone from Nashville, Olsen says self-isolation has been a real boost for his songwriting. “All my co-writing of late has been over Zoom, and I’ve been working towards more writing by myself,” he says. “With most of the cuts I’ve been getting recently, I’ve gone further than before, writing full choruses, and basically building the track in my studio. So instead of just presenting a title, or an idea, I can present the whole chorus, or a skeleton of it – ‘Here’s a demonstration of what it could be.’ Artists appreciate that.”
Olsen moved to Music City from Newmarket, Ontario, in 2004, but 2017 was the year he finally broke into the top echelon of Nashville songwriters. He co-wrote Kip Moore’s No. 1 hit “More Girls Like You,” but the tune that most accelerated Olsen’s career trajectory was Keith Urban’s double-platinum hit “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” In 2017, it was named the NSAI Song of the Year, crowned Single of the Year at the CMAs, and earned two Grammy nominations. Not to mention 274 million YouTube views for Urban’s video of the song.
“The title of ‘Blue’ came to me in the middle of the night,” Olsen recalls. “I woke up for about 30 seconds, it popped into my head, and I wrote it down. When creativity calls you have to answer it. I feel I have a 20-minute window with an idea, a concept, a drum-beat, a guitar riff, or a lyric idea to really grab it. If you don’t ride the wave, you’re gonna miss it.”
That life-changing song was scheduled to be on Olsen’s major label album debut. Columbia Nashville signed him in 2014, but label changes nixed the album he worked on for a year. “‘Blue’ was probably going to be my next single,” says Olsen. “That was a heartbreaking time, but it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me, as I ended up pitching that song to Keith. Everyone knew it was so strong, but it was a hard decision to let it go.”
“If you don’t ride the wave, you’re gonna miss it”
The resulting NSAI award means a great deal to Olsen. “As a songwriter, to get that one from your peers is as good as it gets,” he says.
As well as those two U.S. chart-toppers, Olsen has co-written Dallas Smith’s platinum hit “Drop,” and cuts for Garth Brooks, Billy Currington, Rascal Flatts, The Judds, Emerson Drive, Craig Morgan, Melissa Lawson, and more.
Olsen’s naturally optimistic outlook encouraged him to move to Nashville to pursue his musical dreams at just 19. “All my friends were off to college but I had my heart set on this,” he remembers. “I was so young, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it, and it seemed like an exciting adventure. I never had a plan B.”
He secured a publishing deal right away, a co-venture with then-manager Ron Kitchener (of RGK Entertainment Group), and ole, but he wasn’t living on easy street. “I wasn’t even making enough money to pay my car insurance, and I’d sneak into ole after hours to grab toilet paper and snacks,” Olsen admits. “I didn’t have any success for years and years but I genuinely loved doing it. I wrote 1,000 crappy songs before writing a good one,” he laughs.
“Before any royalty cheques were coming in,” he continues, “SOCAN was crucial with its advance program to keep me afloat here. It’s a wonderful lifeline for artists and writers, and I’m proud for SOCAN to be my performing rights organization.” (See sidebar)
As a solo artist, Olsen debuted with his 2009 EP Introducing Steven Lee Olsen. Two singles, “Now” and “Make Hay While the Sun Shines,” charted in Canada, with the latter earning a 2011 SOCAN Award. Further success eluded him until his 2014 single, “Raised by a Good Time,” went gold in Canada. In 2018, he inked a new publishing deal, with Rhythm House. “That company is a co-venture of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation and Warner/Chappell Music,” he explains. “That appealed to me because of the diversity of my writing. I love writing Top 40, pop, and rap.”
After one close miss, Olsen has yet to meet Jay-Z, but he laughingly says, “I figure if you make anybody enough money, that’ll happen!”
Olsen can’t go on the record with names yet, but some major country stars have already cut or put holds on many more of his co-writes. Expect the money-making to continue, with a Jay-Z meeting in Olsen’s future.