Artists come to pursue music in all sorts of ways, but a rare few hear the calling from a young age. That was the case for Oklahoma-born singer/songwriter Zoe Cummins, who says she "always knew" she wanted to play music.
But like the ephemerality of trying to describe a great love, she can't quite capture the when and why of it all. The feeling is too deeply ingrained. "I’ve found things that I can be good at but I’ve never found anything that I love like music", Cummins said.
Whatever percolated below the surface fueled her move to Nashville in 2013. Cummins was born in Elgin, but she high tailed it to Music City as soon as she could. Since then, she's focused on refining the poetic observations she learned to write thanks to her aunt.
Cummins crafts songs with sharply tuned lyricism, letting her wisened alto capture an emotional crackle in each one. Now, she's premiering her self-titled EP, out via Torrez Music Group, with Holler. It's a mix of thoughtful country-pop and alt-country tracks tinged with roots and R&B touches. The central element holding them all together is Cummins' expansive voice. Listen below.
"These are some of my favorite songs done with my favorite collaborators from the past several years", Cummins said. "I think the EP is a great representation of the styles and influences I pull from as an artist. It’s got just the right amount of punch mixed with the type of groove that I love. I am so proud of this collection".
Cummins spoke with Holler about the "explosive" music she heard growing up, her dream collaborations - with John Mayer, Chris Stapleton or Brothers Osborne - and why so many storied songwriters come from Oklahoma.
Where are you from and has that influenced the type of artist you are?
I’m from southwest Oklahoma - a little town called Elgin. When people find out, they almost always ask, “What’s in the water and why are so many artists and songwriters are from Oklahoma?" From my experience, it’s because there’s not much else to do, haha.
The people are the most kind and supportive people in the world, but it feels like about 95% of the state is very rural. It was a struggle to see a lot of the big tours and big artists that you hear on the radio or see on TV. We would usually drive down to Dallas for that.
Most of my music experience prior to moving out to Nashville was just me sitting alone in my room with my guitar for hours and hours each day. While I’ve found my group in the songwriting community, I’m grateful that I can go home at the end of the day and put my own personal thoughts on paper. That is a very liberating feeling and I think it is why I have been able to push for a solo artist career for all these years.
Speaking of influences, what were you listening to growing up?
There was a lot of rock and red dirt country surrounding me when I was growing up. I think both of those genres are pretty visible in my music. Growing up, I related to John Mayer’s story a lot because he also spent a lot of time alone in his room learning music. I’m not a crazy guitar player or anything, but his songwriting always stood out to me and I studied that a lot.
Miranda Lambert has always been one of my favorites and I have always and will always go back to her music. Technically, Britney Spears was my first concert, but I was really young. The first concert that I remember was the Chicks, and they absolutely blew me away. That concert made me want to be a performer. I think I was about 8 years old.
My mom loved pop music like Prince, my dad was really big on rock, like Eric Clapton. I think overall the theme of what I was listening to was “big” or “explosive” music - songs and moments with a lot of energy and color. And, of course, the most important thing - that I still live by - is the importance of the quality of the songwriting.
Did you ever want to do something other than music?
Not really. But, we all know how you can’t really explain “love”. Just like that, I can’t really explain the feeling of always knowing that I wanted to play music for a career. It always seemed like such a far fetched dream - and still it is.
You just have to be crazy about it and I totally am. I’ve found things that I can be good at but I’ve never found anything that I love like music. Some kids only want to play video games, some only want to play sports, some only want to be on a beach, and I only ever wanted to be playing music.
Are you more creative when you’re happy or sad?
I don’t think creativity strikes me through moods. My aunt, who helped teach me how to write songs, said it the best - songwriters are just poetic observers. We see everything around us and translate it in simple ways that people can relate to. I mostly feel inspired when I can read a situation and/or make up a story from something visual happening around me.
What drives you the most?
I think that ideas for music flood my mind constantly. It’s hard to push them away. And just really truly wanting to play all of the time. Lately, Torrez Music Group (TMG) has been driving me a lot.
There’s so much incredible talent and Alex [Torrez] has done such a good job of musically keeping us together and pushing us forward like a family. He is always creating opportunities for us to put out more music, get in front of more crowds, and collaborate with each other. It’s an incredible energy. I’m grateful to have that to work for and towards. A lot of times in Nashville it’s just the need for a paycheck though. When music is your career, you got to keep playing to make rent!
In general, what comes first for you, the title or the song?
I think it depends on the song. I get hit with really good ideas sometimes, and those are the types of things I usually take into co-writes with me. To me, starting with the title feels like writing backwards.
That’s pretty standard for a co-write though. Historically those turn out well when you’ve got a good idea. When I’m alone, I just write whatever makes sense and then the title reveals itself along the way. On this particular EP though, 'Groovy' was a vibe I was chasing. But the line “move me, move me, get groovy” sang well, so the title sort of came first with that one - in a roundabout way.
Who would be your dream collaboration?
Sadly, I think Tom Petty would be my ultimate dream collaboration. I feel like we would have really rocked together, haha. I’d love to do something with John Mayer, but he’s so independently talented that I’m not sure what I’d be contributing. I’d almost prefer if he collaborated with me on one of my songs.
Chris Stapleton is definitely a dream collaboration for me. I also think it’d be so fun to do something with the Brothers Osborne. They’re awesome and I feel like we have a lot in common, writing and performance-wise.
What’s next is… hopefully another EP and/or full record. I sent Alex a new batch of songs a few weeks ago, and I’ve already got a few others on deck. I’m so ready to have a full record under my belt. I’ve been writing a lot of different styles lately, so we will just have to see what works together and go from there!
Zoe Cummins arrives on all streaming platforms on Friday, July 16.