While Nashville may be known as the birthplace of country music, there’s more to this Southern city than Tim McGraw and Dolly Parton. The so-called Athens of the South has launched the careers of artists across many diverse genres, including “Cut My Teeth” singer James Droll. Originating from the Midwest but happening upon the music city by chance, Droll has taken Nashville by storm and captivated listeners worldwide with his brutally honest lyrics. We caught up with the rising star at our NY headquarters to understand how he developed his sound as a solo artist and what fans can expect to take away from his upcoming music.
Tell us about going from rural Ohio to Nashville.
First, I moved to Cincinnati, where I went to school for two years, but I had a really hard time with the collegiate system. I made a lot of friends that were a part of the music industry in Cincinnati and I ended up joining a band. Yes, a tale as old as time: College dropout joins a band and then starts going on tour. The band toured heavily for six years and then our drummer stole all of our money, eloped with his girlfriend and got married. And if your band is going to go down in flames, that’s a pretty good way to go. So the band kicked the bucket and I started my career as a bartender. At that time, I thought, “Music sucks, it’s the worst.” Then the bar I was working at in Cincinnati opened up in Nashville and they just offered to move me down there. That was literally the only reason why I moved, I’d never imagined myself to be in Nashville and didn’t even move there for music. But as soon as I got there, bad habits came back, if you will. I started to get back into music and meet people who were there for that reason. I became very inspired by the budding and already-rooted arts and music community in Nashville.
How would you describe Nashville’s music scene and the kind of artists it attracts?
Honestly, hungry and innocent. There’s something about Nashville that people can relate to, it’s more wholesome in the creation of music—it’s more of a songs town than a music town. People are worried about the integrity of the song over the flashiness, or whatever they attribute to LA and New York. I go between all three quite frequently and don’t necessarily believe that to be the case, but there is the assumption that Nashville is a little more about the art, the content of the song and the quality of the songwriting, rather than the flash and bang. I think that a pretty big motivator for young artists, even for myself at the time, is rent is so much cheaper. It is so affordable to live in Nashville right now, albeit it’s growing massively and people are moving from New York and LA in droves.
How have you developed as a solo artist and how has your sound evolved over the past few years?
I’ve left the expectations of other people behind quite readily. I was hesitant at first, but now I realize that I’m not a box of other people’s opinions. One of my favorite quotes is, “What other people think of you is none of your business,” and I operate that way as an artist when someone says, “Well, that doesn’t sound like you.” I’m like, “I’m the person who gets to decide that,” you know? Just the thought that people will say, “This feels so different for you.” I’m like, “No, the perception you have of me, that’s not who I am and how I express myself.”
What kind of emotions are you portraying or stories are you telling with your new music?
I kind of laughed about this today when I was talking to some friends about my EP that just came out. I’m 28 and it feels like my coming-of-age album, where I’m saying, “This is who I am right now, it’s who I’ve been and where I’m going.” I love the idea of creating regularly, I’m always writing about present-tense stuff. But as far as the record is concerned, it has a blend of breakups, letdowns, victories and everything in between. I think for me, it covers my major bullet points in a timeline of the last two years of my life, which I think is so funny. I didn’t even think about it until I listened through the whole thing after arranging the track list.
What do you think people will take away from this album in learning about who you are as a person as well as an artist?
I hope that they, the collective unknown, take a lighter approach to the disparity in their lives. I’ve scared people with how blunt and forthright I am about my own struggles with mental illness, making sure that I am ok and in a place where I don’t wanna throw myself into traffic every day. (Laughing) I was talking to someone the other day, like, “Do you ever want to crash your car, but just a little bit, just so you don’t have to go to work that day?” I want [my album] to be something where people address all of the moments and emotions that we are told not to feel because it may look a certain way or make someone else uncomfortable. I want people to bounce themselves off of it and see what they can learn.
Would you say the tattoos you’ve collected reflect that mindset?
Oh, for sure. When people say, “Do you have any tattoos you regret?” I kind of shut the door on that. I don’t allow myself the thought of regret. I have unfinished tattoos from tattoo artists I didn’t love—I didn’t love their energy and I didn’t want them spending more time leaving a permanent mark on my body. I have really good friends of mine that I let do whatever they want. If they have a new design that they’re really excited about, I’m like, “Slap it on me. You’re the artist. I’m the canvas, let’s go, let’s do it.” But for me, they are just markers on a timeline. For better or for worse, it’s exactly what I wanted at the time I wanted it. And so it’s really hard to look back through any of those hard times with any level of regret. It’s a point of catharsis for me. Even in [song]writing, I write to get over things and I think that in a huge way I’ve used tattoos to get over things too. Feeling like I have control over my physical form is a really reassuring mental boost for me.