There's a remarkable hit rate for songwriters in country music crossing over into being stars in their own right. Maren Morris, Chris Stapleton, Lee Brice and Ingrid Andress (to name but a few) have all made the switch over from one end of the song to the other.
Add to that list Nicolette Hayford, aka Pillbox Patti - a rare kind of country songwriter who’s been crafting unflinchingly honest songs in Nashville ever since she drove her Kia down from Jacksonville Beach on 4th July 12 years ago.
She’s the songwriter behind Little Big Town’s ‘God Fearing Gypsies’, Koe Wetzel’s ‘Cabo’ and Kylie Morgan’s wonderful ‘Gucci’ from earlier this year. But she’s probably best know for Ashley McBryde’s ‘One Night Standards’, ‘A Little Dive Bar In Dahlonega’ and a bunch of other songs off Girl Going Nowhere and Never Will, as well as appearing in the cast of colourful country misfits in McBryde’s latest Lindeville project. On top of all that she’s got co-writes on Lainey Wilson’s Bell Bottom Country coming up.
Despite coming out under an alter ego, Pillbox Patti is Hayford at her most unflinchingly honest. These songs don’t feel like songs that anyone else could sing. Her debut mini album Florida shines a light into every dark corner of daily life as she depicts her childhood growing up in a small town in the Sunshine State. It might not always be pretty, but it’s always colourful. It’s like a rainbow in a rainstorm lighting up the tiny throwaway details of everyday life and filling them with warmth and compassion. It’s funny, touching, sometimes completely heartbreaking and always simply glorious.
With its G-funk beats and colourfully empathetic portrayals of the gritty underside of suburban America, this isn’t just outlaw, it’s full on gangsta country. Smokin’ it, poppin’ it, drinkin’ it, droppin’ it. These are block party anthems about small town criminality, drugs and violence for a country audience that isn’t always used to hearing that side of America.
It’s country for sure, but not as you know it. With its tinny 808 drumbeats, 80s synths and distorted doomy basslines, Pillbox Patti’s post apocalyptic country pop has as much in common with Sleigh Bells or M.I.A. as it does Kris Kristofferson, John Prine or any other of the genre’s great character writers. Her voice sits somewhere at the intersection of singing and speaking as she layers up slang-heavy wise cracks and pop culture references. It’s an almost perfect blend of Lauryn Hill and Stevie Nicks; her two biggest influences.
It’s the kind of record that deftly avoids any pigeonholing and sounds completely fresh and unlike anything else right now. More than anything else, it’s just really really fucking cool.
“Jesus, Reese’s Pieces and a brown bag of none of your business / Flea market boiled peanuts / Styrofoam cup for the shells between us”, she sings in the opening lines to ‘Eat, Pray, Drugs’, a warts-and-all account of what really goes down in a small town after Sunday service that feels as bold and zeitgeisty as Prince’s ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times’ did when it came out.
It’s immediately followed by ‘Valentine’s Day’ - a tender, brutally truthful account of her own teenage experience with abortion. It’s probably one of the most perfectly written pop songs ever and hands down the best country song released this year.
Elsewhere there's the countrified pop punk of ‘Hookin Up’, complete with a hilariously rambling and possibly explicit outro featuring Ashley McBryde, Connie Harrington, Benjy Davis, Aaron Raitiere and Joe Clemmons. ‘Suwanee’ is an air punching country pop anthem, with lines like “high school mothers wearin’ coochie cutters / Spreadin’ it like butter on the bunny bread” that'll have you listening along with Urban Dictionary open.
“16, living too fast too slow down / getting high and driving around”, she sings as she nudges into Lana Del Ray territory on ’25 MPH Town’ and takes us on a nothing-to-see-here sightseeing tour of suburbia, while ‘Candy Cigarettes’ is the kind of song Billie Eilish might come out with if she’d spent her teenage years ripping cigarettes through a crack in the car window and riding around a town where nothing ever happens.
Basically, I’ll be fighting everyone in the Holler office to make Florida our record of the year. I’m fairly confident I can pin Ross and Baylen, but if something else ends up being number one then Ciara must have sucker-punched me.
We caught up with Pillbox Patti to find out a little bit more about the record.
Where are you from and how did that influence you?
I’m from Florida. I moved around a lot and had a pretty chaotic upbringing.. those experiences are 100% what Florida is all about.
What did you grow up listening to?
I grew up on a lot of Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Dr John. As I got older and could buy CDs or whatever I got really into hip hop and R&B and much later 90s country and punk rock.
How would you describe the sound of Pillbox Patti?
That's tough for me to answer for the sake of not sounding like an ass, haha. It sounds like the inside of my brain.
What songs would you put on a mixtape if you wanted someone to really get to know you?
‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ by Jay-Z
‘Juicy’ by Biggie
‘Gold Dust Woman’ by Fleetwood Mac
‘Ball and Chain’ by Social Distortion
Tell us a little bit about writing and recording Florida?
I picked people that I loved writing with and trusted, got us out of the music row grind and wrote this record in two separate writing retreats. Lot of drinking. Some drugs. It was basically a series of extremely productive, honest, cathartic, creative parties. We’d write like that for like 15 hours a day - five days straight.
What is your favourite film?
Anything Pixar - any Harry Potter movie or Goodfellas
What’s your favourite song of yours?
Fave song of mine is probably ‘Stan Stan The Shelfish Clam’ which is a really stupid little song that I started singing when I was drunk in a kayak at Connie Harrington’s lake house. I sing it when I am grumpy and it instantly cheers me up
And what’s your favourite songs of someone else’s?
Today it’s ‘Vidalia’ by Sammy Kershaw cuz like ‘Stan Stan The Shelfish Clam’ it’s an instant mood boost.
You’ve written so many songs for other people, if you could get any singers alive or dead to sing your songs who would it be and which songs?
I would get Tammy Fay Baker to sing ‘Eat, Pray, Drugs’ and Tina Turner to sing ‘25 MPH Town’.
If you could time travel back to any time when would you travel back to?
I would travel back to 1976 and go see The Band’s farewell show The Last Waltz at Winterland Ballroom. I would also do all the drugs. Really pissed I missed out on quaaludes
Which person from history would you most like to meet?
That’s really tough for me to answer because I am a super nerd, but I would probably start with an Egyptian pharaoh that could tell me who the fuck built the pyramids.
What would be your Spice Girls style nickname?
What advice would you give to the younger you?
Be nice to yourself
What’s next for you?
Hopefully a nap :)
Florida is out now on Monument Records