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Interview: Kevin Cossom – Singer and Songwriter

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Over the past few years, Kevin Cossom has penned several hits for hip-hop and R&B's biggest acts, including Young Jeezy, R. Kelly, Rick Ross, Lloyd Banks, and Trey Songz. But after the rapid ascent of Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down” to the top of R&B's Billboard charts, it became hard for Kevin Cossom, who wrote the track, to escape being dubbed as "the next big thing." Even so, Cossom devoted the bulk of his energy to writing for others, although being a talented singer in his own right.

Kevin Cossom’s work behind the scenes did not stop MTV.com from proclaiming the artist as “the man, and you probably don't even know it yet,” or XXL Magazine from describing his musical style as “Usher meets Justin Timberlake.” And adding my two cents to the chorus, I believe that if Cossom's pre-album EP is a small sample of what his debut will hold, then expect him to set the music world ablaze in 2010, just as fellow singer-songwriters Ne-Yo and The-Dream have done in recent years.

While the world patiently awaits Kevin Cossom’s grand debut, the singer-songwriter managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on his recent signing with Nate “Danja” Hills, what it takes to be a “new age rock star,” and his underground hit, “Hang That Over My Head.”

 

Recently, you became the first artist to sign with N.A.R.S. (New Age Rock Stars), the new JIVE imprint of GRAMMY-award winning producer Danja. Going off the title, I’m curious to know what you think it takes to be considered a “new age rock star.”

Rock stars are rebels. They don’t have any boundaries as far as to what they’re going to do. They let it all hang out, and a lot of them do their own way musically.

I feel like I do the same thing. You can’t put me in a box and say, “R&B is supposed to sound like this. If you’re going to do R&B, you’re going to continue doing R&B. That’s how it is.” I just feel like music is so much bigger than that. Music is the opportunity to do something and create something new with no boundaries.

Kind of like a canvas when you’re painting: you should be able to do what you want to do with it. I definitely am R&B but I am not afraid to take music to other places, explore different types of sound, or even explore the people that inspire me. I feel like a lot of people ask “Who inspired you?” And most of the time, they would name different artists that you wouldn’t even hear in their music. Back in the day when Rick James was doing rock ‘n roll – you might consider it pop. Prince, Jimi Hendrix. It’s not just rock.

There were no boundaries. They would be able to sing an R&B song and do something with some heavy lead guitar without people saying, “Oh this is rock ‘n roll.” Danja and I like to have fun with the music. If you don’t know Danja, he is definitely one of the most versatile and in-demand producers out there right now, being able to showcase his talents from T.I. to Britney Spears. He’s so versatile and allows me to have fun, and like I said, have fun with no boundaries.

Even though you experiment with different sounds, do you believe that there are certain elements that make the perfect song?

I think the perfect song is just the perfect marriage of everything. Once you get everything working together, it will make the perfect song – from lyrics to melody to the production end of it and to be able to connect. I don’t know if there is a guideline. You just got to let your song be what it is, definitely try to shape it and mould it to be as best as it can be.

But each song is different. Sometimes you come out with something that’s extremely crazy and has that magic. It’s good, but not as magical as the one you just did. There definitely are elements, you know, the energy when you’re putting it together, the production, the lyrics and the melody, the mood, the concept, even the build of the song, how it starts and how it ends.

When I listened to your pre-album EP, I instantly fell in love with “Hang That Over My Head.” In my opinion, that is the “perfect song.” Do you find your personal relationships to be your greatest source of inspiration?

The greatest inspiration for me is people in my life. There are subjects that you can talk about that people are going through or you’ve been through or in the middle of it. I think love is one of those subjects. The other subject I found with hip hop is money. It’s a pretty powerful subject.

With love, I feel like I can’t really lose. We’ve all been through a situation where as a man or whoever messed up. It’s still your fault because if you had never done what you did, you wouldn’t have put yourself in that position. But then if she says she’s over it, she’s over it. Then she keeps bringing it back up and you start feeling like the victim even though you’re not the victim. It’s a crazy situation.

People are my main source of inspiration. I love conversation. I love talking about the way people are in relationships and different personalities. A lot of people do certain things, certain ways of doing things. I’m just a big conversation person. I find a lot of motivation and inspiration through different people. I felt like sometimes I’ve been through that situation before. I find it in people and what they’re going through.

You might tell me something you’re going through and I might hear it. I might not do it immediately but I might come up with a song and the right beat comes along. It’s crazy for me, still being a new artist and getting reactions for the music you’ve done. You know, I’ve been doing it for awhile and you work so hard trying to put something out. It’s a wonderful feeling every time to hear somebody say they enjoy the music that I’m doing. So… thank you.

Love is definitely a universal theme. Every music lover can attach themselves to it. In your own personal experience, what have you learned most about love?

Love is tough, man. I’m going to keep it real. I’ve had a lot, relationship-wise. This is what my mom used to say all the time: “You never know who you’re going to fall in love with. It has no face so be careful who you give your time to. You might end up falling in love with somebody you don’t want to”.

I don’t know, man. Love is complicated. It’s hard at times, especially when you’re doing what I’m doing because I hate to miss people. I hate to miss someone because it gets me a little distracted. Love is love, man. It’s everything. I’m thinking of another title of an album. I got this idea that I think is crazy. I don’t know if I’m supposed to release it yet but it’s a crazy idea. Basically, it’s about love.

Love is everything that we search for. It’s the basis for a lot of different things. Lack of love can put somebody in a crazy position like people looking for it in the wrong places. Love is definitely powerful. Just learning about love and what love is, I feel like I’m still doing that. I feel like a lot of times we have our own ideas as we grow what we think love is but going through different situations, we learn. Not to say I had the wrong idea the first time, but you kind of grow. You mature in a different way and you say, “This is what I need to do to make this love thing happen.” It’s just so much. It’s a big conversation. What would you say?

Communication. When you don’t speak at all, that’s when trouble sneaks in. You start imagining stuff that’s not even there. It’s kind of hard to go back and fight what you don’t even know what you’re fighting against.

Yeah. A lot of people have a lack of communication. Sometimes you don’t know how to express yourself. When people lose loved ones, they don’t express themselves. You know, open up and say different things and then lose them. I used to say the three Cs that will help relationships are communication, compliments and compromise. It’s definitely about the communication. Compliments – people love to hear, “I’m thinking about you,” or “You look good today,” or “You’re the best.” Compromise is compromising your own methods or whatever it is.

Speaking of compromise – on one hand you’re a singer, but you’re also a songwriter on the other side. How hard is it for you to balance the two, especially since you nabbed your first #1, [Keri Hilson’s “Knock You Down”], a couple days ago?

I definitely get a lot less sleep than before. It’s still new for me. I’m trying to balance it all. When “Knock You Down” climbed up the R&B and pop charts, my workload definitely picked up. The crazy thing about that is how fast everything changes. Soon, I will be releasing a single and all of that. It’s definitely going to become hectic. I can see that. But I’m going to take it in my stride. I love this. This is what I asked for. I can’t complain. When I find myself complaining, I got to tell myself it’s what I wanted. I still love it. With any job, I don’t love everything about it. I’m not a fan of the airport because you got to get naked every time you go. You strip and get your coat. That’s one of the downfalls, I think. If we could just snap our fingers and be somewhere, that would be amazing! [laughing]

As I was reading your bio, I thought it was really interesting that your mother is an educator and founder of a performing arts academy. How did her background and love for the performing arts shape your career?

You know, I was born in Philly and we moved away from there when I was a real little kid. I think her focus was just to keep me busy and active. My father wasn’t around but she still made sure I had positive male figures in my life. We were involved heavily in church with the music as a way of keeping me busy and at the same time, I can go somewhere where it was positive.

She always told me and taught me that I can do anything I want. She would make up songs about me, saying I can do anything whatever it is that I want to be. Her being a schoolteacher was a great thing because she’s amazing with kids. She can communicate and deal with all types of kids. She’s just amazing. She’s always been my number one supporter, never been against what I’m doing.

Even growing up and being in groups, stuff like that, I would notice the different parents not being as supportive as my mom. They would leave their kids out there hanging. Kids would need money and we have shows in certain places and the parents are not really supportive of what they’re doing. She was definitely my main inspiration for me starting out. She definitely shaped it.

Part of my style when I start thinking about the stuff that I’m writing, I thought about whether I would be able to play it for my mom. You know what I mean? Just things like that are still factors in my music. I want to do things that she would be able to listen to as well. You know, not everything she’s going to be able to listen to, but sometimes I think of that.

On a professional level, is there a piece of advice that she gave you as a child that you see yourself using over and over now?

Not really, because she was never into the business of music. She definitely made sure that I got my business together. She was definitely the one around sitting in the group when it’s time to sign contracts and stuff like that. She made sure we went about it the right way. It was a learning experience for her as well. So we were kind of learning and growing.

I was doing my music and she was putting a school together so some of the things she learned on the business end – just mainly recognize it’s the music business world, not just the music. We got to make sure that we’ve taken care of the business end. I started out so young. Everybody goes through the phase where they don’t know and somebody might come along and you go through the bad manager and he screws you and takes money. She definitely made sure that I was in a position where I could take care of my business, at least to make it a process for me at a young age.

What has kept you grounded over the years?

I’m blessed.

In the early stage of your career, you went on record to say that “[you] thought that other songwriters didn't take [you] seriously because [you were] just placing hip-hop hooks." Why did you feel this way?

The thing about it is I just had a chip on my shoulder and I felt like they didn’t. It was kind of like just writing hooks. It could be my own thing, a little like okay writing hooks could get me in. You know, the game is like if you do something that works once, that’s the only thing they want from you. Sometimes, they’re not looking for you to showcase other things because they just know you for, “We can go get a go-getter from him and we can get a full song from somebody else who wrote the hottest full song at the time.”

So that what I was saying – how they try to box you. They make you this until you prove them wrong because you can do other things. It was more me feeling like, “You just did the hook,” and I’m around all these R&B people who had written for some of the top artists in the game. I’m super-competitive, man, so I was thinking in my head like, “I’m going to do something big. I got to get a full song played. I got to get some R&B songs played.” I’m a competitor so that’s how I think, man.

When you think about your songs, is there a particular song that you’re anxious to put out there for the world?

I’m really excited about “Relax,” but I love them all.

What is “Relax” all about?

“Relax” is a club radio track. It’s basically boy-meets-girl, where this guy sees a girl in a club. They’re in this atmosphere and they’re partying and whatever but she kind of wants to relax, so you offer the invitation for her to come somewhere else where it’s a little quiet. I can’t wait for this track to hit the clubs. It’s crazy.

My album is going to be so much crazy. I’m telling you. Each song had different elements, like the melody and the lyrics and the production is amazing. They have those things, man. I feel like they definitely connect. I’m excited, man. If you did love the free album, you’d appreciate the album. I’m excited about all of them, just to see the reaction and see what people like. This being my first album, it’s still a learning process and still trying to figure out how people react on a large scale to what’s going on. I feel good. The people that I’ve tested have really liked what I’ve been doing. They really like it. I feel good about releasing it to the masses. I need the support, though.

Well, a lot of people, like myself, have been disappointed with the low supply of R&B singers. It’s nice to see someone bring something fresh and new. I also appreciate the fact that when I heard your song “Hang That Over My Head,” not only did it have a beautiful melody, but some clever lyrics as well. The lyrics have an interesting sense of duality, where the character acknowledges his past faults, but also feels that he’s the victim now. What else do you think that you are bringing to the table, as far as the R&B genre is concerned?

I think it’s definitely a different energy. I think it’s a different vibe. Just going over the songs that I have on my album, even the song titles I feel is more for people who have been in a relationship. There’s something there for you. I think my strong point is levity, the way I put a song together, my structure.

I’m still learning how to say what it is that I’m bringing. I know the things that I do that other people might not do, but maybe they do. I’m just figuring that. I think it’s about taste now. It what’s you like, what’s hot, what’s new, what’s not. You know if you’re a sports fan or whatever it is and you like a style of a basketball player. Some people like Kobe [Bryant], some people like LeBron [James]. They both got different styles. It’s about what your taste is, what you like.

So my thing is, I can’t really say that I’m better or I’m bringing this because other folks might do the same things but they just go about it in a different style than what I’m doing. It’s just up to the consumer. Some people have a commercial taste, a commercial sound or style that matches my taste more than other people. I feel like levity is important. Lyric is important. Production is important. On this album, I got two of the biggest producers and I feel so blessed, you know what I mean, to have them a part of the project those super-producers on the album.

I also got to write every song on the album. I think automatically it sounds different because a lot of times in the industry, you got a hot writer and people will go to the hot writer. They don’t develop their own sound. Sometimes you can if you get a good enough writer that can go in and be dedicated to the artist. Then you can go get it done. But I think with a lot of the new artists, it’s more about getting with the hot new writer and they never really become themselves.

That’s not just even with R&B. That’s with hip hop, too. You throw them a feature that’s hot and the person that’s being featured overpowers them. You never get a sense of their artistry. With me being able to write every song on the album, I think it gives you the opportunity to really get an understanding of who I am and just my style. I think before T. Pain came out – I’m not comparing myself to T. Pain – he was one of those artists that if you ask him to describe his sound, he could put it where you understood what he was talking about because it was definitely something new. You know what I mean? It was new and different.

When The-Dream came out, he can say “melodic and clever” but you wouldn’t know it till you heard it so you get a sense of who he was. Now you say, “That sounds like Dream,” because you cans start hearing the small things that he does in his tracks. I kind of feel the same way. I can say the same thing like melody and I’m bringing this and I’m bringing that but you have to hear it to see what I mean.

For more information on Kevin Cossom, visit his official website.

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About Clayton Perry