Ross Copperman grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, with music in his genes. His late grandmother was a classical pianist, and Copperman started playing piano himself from the age of four. His parents meanwhile were blasting out their Rolling Stones and Beatles records, adding a wide breadth of taste to his musical DNA. He got his technical chops as a classical piano major in college at James Madison University, before moving to London as an artist - even making a pop record with Robbie Williams’ collaborator, Guy Chambers.
Returning home in 2008, he relocated to Nashville – but quickly realised it wasn’t happening for him as an artist. He took a deep breath and changed course, focusing on producing records and writing hit songs – and once his first single, ‘Glass’, was released by Thompson Square, he was up and running. His compositions have topped the charts multiple times and he’s snagged numerous awards – including winning the prestigious BMI Songwriter of the Year for writing in 2020. This year alone he’s co-written six of the year’s top played country songs, including ‘Catch’ by Brett Young and ‘What She Wants Tonight’ by Luke Bryan, both No.1 hits.
Smart, genial, and very much a student of the business of country music, here he speaks exclusively about his esteemed career as a performer and songwriter.
Why did you choose country not pop?
Even when I was making pop records, I thought my songwriting was in a Nashville style – that’s how I’ve always liked to write. I was writing country songs, but not realising it. Nashville was the right place to go to tell stories.
Can you remember the first country album you loved?
I know it sounds crazy, but when I heard Keith Urban’s Golden Road album for the first time it really inspired me to think - “wow”.
And what was the song that changed everything for you?
‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’ (Keith Urban, 2016). That was when I realised you can write a song that has a bigger meaning and say some important things – and it doesn’t have to be just about trucks, beer and the weekend. We [Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne and Copperman] were writing down the things we loved about American culture, when somebody said, “everything I learned was from John Cougar”. I think Shane said “John Deere”, then I was like “what about John 3:16?” We just put those three together to make the longest song title ever! Did I immediately think it would be hit? No, that did not fall into the realm of the most obvious ones to me.
So is it best to know the person – like Keith Urban – that you’re writing for?
I try to be strategic. Say Luke Bryan is making an album - I’ll try and get the people who I know can speak that language well. Like Dallas Davidson or Rhett Akins, they’ve lived that Georgia life. There’s a song called ‘I Lived It’, that Blake Shelton recorded, and its language is super country - you had to grow up in the Deep South to understand.
And what if you have a blank canvas – can you just write a song?
I like to have a focus – or the idea to be so amazing that it fires me up. Great ideas turn me on and figuring out how to write them in the best way lights my fire.
Is songwriting something you do instinctively, or can it be learnt?
I think you can learn the art of writing hit songs. It’s definitely a thing, you learn a formula, you learn what works, how to communicate emotions and things that people associate with.
I start with the vibe or the essence of the song, I’ll have a melody and be mumbling out words – Chris Martin (of Coldplay) does that too. I bring that raw emotion and when I get with Shane and Josh they might have an idea and say this fits with what you’re trying to emote there. We can put the right words to that emotion – and that’s when a song connects.
So do you have a sweet spot – when ideas strike?
My favourite place for ideas is when you’re having a conversation and talking about life and somebody will say something, and you’ll think that’s a song or that’s a great title. For me it’s generally the music and the emotion; sometimes I’ll have an idea and try and put music to that, but usually it’s the raw emotion at the start. That’s how I feel music.
How exactly does a collaborative “write” work?
I have a little cottage-style house in Nashville, and I set up my studio in the living room with a little kitchen off of it. It’s pretty nice, with a front yard so you can go for a walk. I show up an hour before everyone, about 10am, and get my vibes together. Then I pick out my favourite three for whoever is coming in that day. Say Keith Urban is coming, I’ll hone in on what I think is a cool vibe for Keith, then present them when he gets there. He might hear one and be like "ooh, I really like that chorus".
And can you tell immediately if something’s a hit?
I usually feel like I know. There’s a handful of songwriters that do know a hit song, but the majority of great songwriters just write and then throw it out into the universe. I’m very big into analysis and metrics, I run a lot of charts and analyse structure and form.
Ha, you’re like a mad scientist!
Yes, I’m really into that. Not necessarily the words as much, but if you can set up a template for success you’re halfway there. I like thinking that way.
What about writing with female artists?
Carrie Underwood is a favourite. And I write with Kelsea Ballerini all the time. We have a good thing together; it’s funny, you connect with certain artists and writers who see the world the same way. Ed Sheeran came over to Nashville, and me and Ed co-wrote four songs with Kelsea.
Can you explain what a good song can do that nothing else can?
A song can take you to a time and place; it can save your life. John Knight and I had written this song called ‘Glass’ a long time ago, and a friend of his was on the verge of committing suicide and he heard that song, stopped and didn’t do it.
When I hear ‘Setting The World On Fire’, that transports me to a time in my life that only that song could do, it makes you feel all those emotions. A movie can sometimes do that in a different way, and a book is somebody else’s story, but with a song you put your story into it.
There must be some songs that get away?
It doesn’t happen very often; a track usually sits on an album, kind of damaged goods. That bothers me, because a lot of great songs sitting on an album kind of makes me want to take all of those songs of mine and repossess them. They are just sat on an album and nobody knows them. Hardcore fans – and those in the UK – listen to album tracks, but for the most part people don’t anymore. Music is more important to people in the UK, that’s what makes me love it.
Writing with new artists, like Lauren Jenkins, it’s key that they have a voice and know what they want to say. That’s when I know a new artist has the potential to become a star – when they come in and they say this is who I am and this is what I want to write about. That’s what I’m looking for.
That was my first number one, and it was my wife’s idea! It’s such a fresh way to say it, to point to your significant other and say: that’s the best part of me. I love that hook, it fires me up.
That’s one of the realest songs I’ve been a part of. We’ve all been in that place where you look in the mirror and you see the person staring back and you’re not sure you like the reflection you see. I’m so proud of Florida Georgia Line taking a chance on such an honest song, and putting it out.
Brett and I got into an early rhythm and flow in writing, and we wrote a string of those songs together like ‘Beat of The Music’, and ‘Wanna Be That Song’. This was just the most no-brainer smash song, one of those I knew the minute we wrote it that it was a huge song. I was like, I’m moving back to Virginia if this doesn’t happen!
Josh Kear came in with that idea; he played a little melody for me and Dierks. We said it was the best thing we’d ever heard, let’s get to work, so we wrote it with him very quickly. The demo we made pretty much became the record we did at Telluride, Colorado. I produced that – and the wives loved it!
Photography credit: Sony / ATV