INTERVIEW: Stephen Cochran

Stephen Cochran’s bio begins with “If great country music is still built on a foundation of real-life stories and soul-deep family tradition, Stephen Cochran was born to the breed. With a Music Row pedigree, a soldier's sense of purpose and a lifetime's worth of stories, this singer/songwriter exploded onto the country music scene in 2007 with a critically acclaimed, self-titled debut album that captured the hearts of fans, critics and a lot of everyday heroes.”
I visited with Stephen recently about the music and his life, the changes and all that makes up life as a musician.
Bev: Stephen, it is good to see you again. I know you are about to embark on some new and exciting things. Please tell me what you’ve got going on.
SC: We’ve got a lot going on! We’re making a transition from an independent label to a major label this year. This past year has given me some time to write a whole new EP. A lot of labels are going to EP’s now. We’ve got about nine songs that I’ve got loaded up and honestly, this has probably been the greatest thing I have been a part of when putting a CD together. I was a part of a lot of fun things that I’ve never gotten to do. My band and I wrote a song together which was very cool. My band is like my family and I incorporate them in as much as I can. Ryan (Byrne) has a fan club now. Scotty (“Sparkles”) Schultz has fans that are starting to show up with posters that say “Scotty Sparkles.” That’s what I always wanted. I wanted my band to be my brotherhood. Anybody who stands on a stage and accepts an award and says “I…I…I…” is full of it. It’s a team, and we’ve re-geared this whole team as far as our side goes. We have a new management company, a new publicist, a new label with the same band and same me.
Another thing that happened this year is the United States Veteran Affairs Research and Development Department came and asked me to be their spokesperson. This meant I had to think about getting myself right as far as being an artist. It’s one thing to be the only country music artist that has served in a conflict that is going on right now; it’s a whole other thing to be the voice of every veteran from World War II to now. I had to deal with some things I hadn’t dealt with from being in the military. I’m a second recon special operations; I’m not fooling anybody when I say I have been part of over 400 special operations over in Iraq and Afghanistan. My message is “Thank goodness we have PTSD. If you didn’t, you would have bigger problems. It’s a good thing you have that, because you are not built to do those things in combat and not have problems.” I challenge people to go back and check my records, as far as the combat missions I went on, the injuries I sustained in combat and still came back and walked, and the things I’m doing now as far as country music. I definitely have problems from killing people and watching others shooting them. You’ve got to think that by the time these people come back from serving in the military and standard missions are three trips over there now, by the time they do these heavy mass combats, some of these people have killed more people than some of our serial killers that are locked up in prison now. Those people are insane. You have got to think of yourself as a normal every day person and you’re making yourself have to do these things. Of course, you’re going to have problems and that’s what PTSD is. What I want to do with the VA is make sure is, first off, that we educate people on what exactly it is. I want to help more people build an understanding to it and help some of these combat veterans come out and say, “Hey, if he can stand up and say he’s got an issue, then I’ve got an issue too.” We have learned with any kind of illness you have to put a face to the illness before people can take it seriously. If I’ve got to be the poster boy, I don’t look at it as a bad thing. I thank God I have it because if I didn’t, I would have some deeper issues I would have to work with.
Bev: What is different about your new songs and EP than your previous CD?
SC: On the first album, I really didn’t write about what kind of things happened overseas or my injury or anything like that. They only let me cut six of the songs I wrote on the last album, out of thirteen. Once I started kind of going into therapy, I began writing, and before I knew it, I had written the whole EP. People were like, “What are you going to call it?” The first album we had come out was titled Stephen Cochran but I wish this one would be called Stephen Cochran because this has actually been my whole journey from the military on. Even while I was in the military and serving my country, I always said this is the only country where you can take a dream and turn it into a career. My dad had a family business, and that’s the reason I joined the Marine Corps. I look at things from a normal perspective, that’s the way I write. Even the songs I wrote that referenced some things that happened to me in the military, they are, I think, vague enough where people can listen to them and find their own stories. Like the song “Pieces,” which we hope is going to be the next single on the country market. I wrote that because first off, the first thing I remember hearing was they told my mother the reason he can’t feel his legs is because his back is broken into six separate pieces. So, I thought, “Wow, ‘Pieces’ would be a cool title for a song!” I always kept that in my head and then I started thinking about this last whole year, the transition and how hard things have been with the music in general, walking again, and everything, and I thought, “It’s been about six years that I’ve put into this business, coming from the Marines, the journey I had from the hospital to walking again to then finally getting a deal. It’s like we’re making a life movie. When I look back on it, it seemed like every time my keyboard player and I were in a hotel room somewhere out on the road, Walk the Line would be on. That got me thinking. Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash and them, they didn’t know they were making history. They were just living. When I look back at our story up to now, that’s what it really was to me; it’s just living. That’s what the new EP is; it’s just life. I have a feeling that people can put the album in, listen to it and go, “Yep, that about covers it! I think he got it pretty close for this past year.” Like I said, there’s nothing really down-hearted. There are things that will make people think and “Pieces” is one of them. I think “Pieces” will speak to anybody who has had to start their life over from nothing – which is pretty much everybody, from those who graduated high school or college or got a divorce. That’s what that’s about. It’s about my journey from starting to walk again and get back into music, but I think it’s going to touch everybody as far as, “Oh I’ve been there before” – because we all have.
Bev: Can you tell us about some of the other songs you’ve written?
SC: My band and I wanted to write a drinking song – that’s the kind of band we are – but we are going to stay away from the shots and songs like “Thinking I’m Drinking” – that song about killed me! When it went out on the radio, every program director thought it meant we needed to do all the shots at the bar when we come on tour. So, I was sitting in a bar with Trevor Rosen one night when we had written another song on the album, called “The Stage.” We were down there just having a beer and there was this drunk guy sitting at the bar. We walked in, sat at the bar, and we were talking about business, music and everything and this drunk guy goes, “What are you guys drinking for?” and we said we guessed we were celebrating because we wrote a good song. He’s like “I’ll drink to that!” He just drank his beer and this other guy walked up, orders a beer and (the drunk guy) goes, “What are you two drinking for?” and the guy said, “Buddy, I just spent three hours in the rain changing a tire, I just need a drink right now.” And he goes “Well, I’ll drink to that!” I figured if that’s how his attitude is and if everybody had his attitude this past year, whether it’s good or bad, hey I’ll drink to that! So, that’s what we wrote, “I’ll Drink to That”! We think it’s a fun song – it’s “Thinking I’m Drinking” without the shots!
Then me and the band, like I said, wrote a song together. We opened for Eric Church this past year at one show. We were backstage watching Eric’s part of the show and one of the radio promo guys came up to us and said, “Man this is a good concert! You two need to take this on the road; everybody needs to see you two together.” I told him my dream concert for me would be to open for Eric and for Eric to open for Jason Aldean. I said, “Who doesn’t want to see that?” The radio guy said, “Yeah at least for only one night because the second night, everybody would be too hung over and messed up to come out and see you guys again!” I said, “I guess we are a one night only band.” My drummer was standing next me and he’s like, “Dude, we need to write that!” So, we wrote a song called one night only. My guitar player was on the bus and he just started playing a little groove. I picked up a guitar and then my drummer got in and it just happened. I wrote some words down and bam! We went and recorded it. We are going to go and bring back the old kind of Garth way as far as we are recording the standard version of “One Night Only.” But, if you come to the live shows, we have a third verse that we play. My fiancé hates the third verse. Well, it’s one night only, so you can use your imagination on that but you’ve got to come to a live show to find out what that mysterious third verse is.
Then we’ve got a song called “Dog Tags” that really is about the military; I wear a dog tag for every day almost. Everybody always thinks it’s a fashion statement or something like that. Really, the reason I started wearing them was because I got so used to always having them on that I just kept wearing them. Then, it became like, “Oh, he’s a Marine.” I have a tattoo on my left arm for a friend who’s a marine who I lost in combat over in Afghanistan. People give me dog tags, I’ve got some of my buddy’s dog tags and I wear those. To me, it’s a tribute to one of our heroes. I wanted to write a song about what my dog tags really mean to me. It was like a lifeline, I left my dog tags hanging on my rear view mirror of this Camero that I had. My girlfriend at the time slept with those dog tags on and when I came back, she gave them back to me. She said, “I never want to have those dog tags again.” I was injured but at least I was alive. We wrote that whole story pretty much of what it was probably from her point of view, and I think I wanted spouses to understand that there are people out there that have been in the military and understand what the spouse is going through. There’s a line in the song that I think that really kind of drives it home. It says, “Their last goodbye was on her mind, it was on her mind, it was her last good bye.” The way it plays in there, up until the last verse, you really don’t know if he’s dead or alive and that’s how it was for my family. It’s my story and I’ve always been a singer/songwriter that has to write what he lives. So I kept true to that fashion on this album. I did a lot of living this past year so there is a lot of material to write about. Willie Nelson says, “Even when you lose, you’re still a winner because at least you have the makings of a song.”
Bev: Did you sing and write before you were in the Marines?
SC: Yeah, I actually had a developmental deal that we had signed like three weeks right before 9/11 happened. 9/11 is why I joined the Marine Corps. I was in college. It was my last year of college. I was the lacrosse captain at Western Kentucky University. 9/11 happened and we had just finalized a deal. One night, I went drinking with my fraternity brothers. I woke up the next day and everybody was like “We are going to join the military and we’re going to go fight!” and I was like “Yep, me too!” The next morning, I was the only one that went. The following week I was enlisted in the Marine Corps. and left that February for boot camp.
Bev: Did you do any part of your developmental deal then?
SC: No. They held the contract. “Froze it” is what they said and when I got injured, the phone calls slowly stopped. It came to the point when the doctor just actually said, “We don’t think he’ll walk again.” (The label) was like, “We’re really sorry, but this is a business.” That was my first ‘this is a business, wake up kid! This is the real deal, there are no dress rehearsals!’ That’s always been the type of person that I am anyway. That just motivated me. Not to say that I wasn’t going to walk again or anything like that; I just never did believe that I wasn’t going to walk again. I have always believed we would end up with a major label. I knew that the ultimate goal was to get that label. If you want to be a headlining artist, you have to make that transition at some point. That’s what we are doing this year. There’s a lot that goes into that. It is a big deal. It’s like stepping up in the minor leagues to the majors and you have got to have yourself right for it. That’s what this year has been.
Bev: I know you do a lot of stuff with Operation Troop Aid and USO.
SC: Yeah, I actually went overseas last New Year’s Eve and spent it with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. We played right before some guys went into battle in Afghanistan and the next day in Iraq also.
Bev: What kind of emotions go through your head when you’re back over there again?
SC: It’s kind of like set back. I was only in for four years, and I was real paranoid the whole time we were there. It got to the point where I had exits for every room we were in. When I was with the troops, I felt fine; that’s what I was there for. Because there were times where we didn’t stay on bases; we stayed in hotels out in town. There are bombings and things going on and we didn’t have weapons.
Bev: I wondered if it really made you flash back.
SC: Yeah, it did.
Bev: How long were you there for?
SC: We stayed over there a month. I was only supposed to be over there for two weeks but we got stuck by Bahrain. We were planning to hit all the bases and go to Germany. We were going to go back to the United States then Africa then I think it was like Rockie Lynne or somebody and his band was coming out, and they were eaten up with mosquito bites and bed bug bites. They were like, “Man I’m glad we got those shots!” And, I was like, “What shots?!” We hadn’t gotten any pills or shots! (Rockie and his band) had been taking pills for two weeks before they went in there. At that point, I’ve got my bands safety in my hands and I’ve got this whole CMT crew. The CMT crew was like, “Man, are you going? Because we are supposed to follow you and we really don’t want malaria.” We had a whole meeting about it and everything, so we decided not to go to Africa. Then we all got sick anyway. The whole crew got this, I don’t know what it was, some funk. But luckily in Bahrain, you can go down to the local drugstore and buy anything, I mean anything! It became a joke with my security guy every time we would go in there because we would have to buy z-packs for the whole crew. We would buy like ten z-packs at a time. As soon as we would go in there, somebody would get cured and somebody else would get sick. We would go in there to buy them and my security guy would go in there and ask them like, “Could you get hydrocodon?” “Yes, sir.” “No, I don’t want it; I’m just asking if you have it.” They have EVERYTHING! It hit me like oh my gosh, I was definitely in a foreign country.
Bev: What has been a highlight so far for you in your career?
SC: Man, there’s been so many! Like Times Square, New York on New Year’s Eve is hard to beat. But, I mean like playing overseas for the troops. You know the one thing I told the band when we walked on stage is that these guys are about to go into battle. This could be the last music from home these guys will ever hear. My band knows how much that means to us. That’s hard to beat too, and that’s two different New Year’s Eves right there. The VA spokesperson job is an awesome job! There are so many things. We got the cover of R&R Magazine; R&R called us the “next Garth Brooks.” How do you plan for that?! I always like to think that the highlights are still to come. This is just a platform. With anything that you do, if you build a good base, then everything else will be sturdy. That’s Garth Brooks 101. If you’re going to talk about having a sturdy foundation, I would say we have one of the strongest ones. Anything from here on out is going to be pretty exciting.
Bev: What can we expect from Stephen Cochran in the coming months?
SC: They don’t tell me half of anything until it’s here, because I have a big mouth. They’ll say, “Stephen, don’t talk about this to anybody!” Then, a story will be published, in say, Country Weekly: “Stephen Cochran tells…” But, I know the coming months are huge for us. We are unveiling so many different things. We are playing all the fairs and festivals and getting back out there. Not only us, but we have a lot of good friends that are having a good year. My business manager also manages Chris Young. Chris is having a hell of a year! He’s looking at getting his second Top 30 and his second #1. And, I have written a lot of my songs with Trailer Choir, who are having a great year. They’re looking at releasing their next single and having their first #1. They’ve had their first Top 20. “Roaming Through the Sunshine” I think is their first #1. Who knows? Me and Vinny always said our goal is to be on tour together. If things go right we may even see a Chris Young, Trailer Choir, and Stephen Cochran tour. It’s going to be an exciting year; I think everybody is excited about it!
Bev: Is your ultimate goal to be the headline act?
SC: I have a tendency to make really big goals that people say are unachievable. But to date, there is one goal I have not completed yet. My goal is to be bigger than Garth Brooks. I think he is amazing. People say that’s pretty cocky of me to say that I want to be better than him. To be bigger than him, I must think I’m better than him. By no means am I saying that. I’m saying that we work every day to make the shows that we do possible and I have a lot of confidence in my band. I think the fans that come out to our shows get exactly what they pay for. They usually go home pretty entertained. I think that if you do that enough, you build a fan base and that’s how you get to be bigger than Garth Brooks. We have great fans, and that’s how during the CMA Music Fest in 2007 we were the second most sold CD. That’s all fans right there. So, that’s what we are doing. We are just getting the fans, grassroots.
Bev: Have you met Garth?
SC: No. I have had a couple opportunities. You know, it’s funny. I did an interview this morning, and they asked me the same question. I have had the chance to, but I have missed a couple times because of scheduling. I met somebody else that I was a big fan of and they were a big (jerk). At this point, I don’t even play their music at my shows anymore. I’ve been scared; I know Garth is like the nicest guy in the world but knowing my luck I would meet him on a bad day. But I want to. My goal is to be big enough to be respected to ask him if he would please join me on “CMT Crossroads” or something like that. That would be my ultimate goal, to stand on stage with him. I got to be in the third row at the ACM’s when he got his diamond award. I was thirteen when I watched Garth play the Detroit Hoedown. I played the Hoedown last year and will be playing it again in May.
Bev: Have you done any duets with anybody?
SC: Lindsay Cardinale, from American Idol. Right when she got off of American Idol, we did a duet. Last year, I recorded a duet with my fiancé. It’s one of those spousal military songs called “Alone on Christmas” and we had geared up to release it this last Christmas but we wanted to make sure the promotion was right on. It’s weird, my mom had called me and said, “You and Annie are going to write a duet and it’s going to have ‘heart’ in it.” I was like, “Mom you know ‘heart’ is a cliché word. I would never put that in a song.” I was thinking some horrible heart reference that I hear in songs. I put it in the back of my head. Like a month later, me and one my buddies were sitting there writing about being alone on Christmas. We didn’t have a clue we were writing a duet, got it done, and I started playing it for Annabelle. I had told her about what my mom said. I get done singing and she’s like, “Oh my God, you wrote a duet! And you put ‘heart’ in it!” I said, “There’s no ‘heart’ in this song!” She said, “The second verse it says, ‘At the heart of a simple man…’ and I was like, “Oh my gosh!” I called my mom and I’m like, “What are the lottery numbers I should pick!?” The thing is, my fiancé, Annabelle, I believe she has one of the beautiful voices in Nashville.
Bev: Is she an artist?
SC: No, she’s a model. But she came to Nashville to be a singer. Then she got raked over and taken advantage of like so many people have. She said she remembered the day she quit singing she called her grandpa and said, “It’s not like Hee Haw here. She’s from Kansas, and when you get to Nashville, you are literally not in Kansas anymore. She’s just been so scared of the business. She met me and tried to stay away from anything to do with music and it took me a month to convince her I wasn’t some playboy. She’ll sing around the house and stuff. She’s gone out on the road with me a couple times where I had lost my voice and asked her to open shows so that I could cut my show in half. When I wrote “Alone on Christmas,” Vinny was calling me with Jessica Andrews and Sarah Buxton. I was like, “You know what? I’m going to get Annabelle to sing that. Everybody was like, “She is a model from Kansas, what has she ever done?” And, I just kept saying, “You know what? You are going to be surprised! We took it slow, got her in the studio, and let her do what she does, and I think it’s amazing! She knocked it out. She made me sound bad on there.
Bev: Do you have any others you aspire to work with?
SC: Yeah, I want to work with Sarah Buxton. I think she has one of the coolest voices ever. I did that duet with Lindsey on the first album and it was actually supposed to be Sarah singing on it. That song was written by Isaac Rich. Isaac wrote that song for one person. I took it and said I wanted to do this as a duet. At the time, Sarah didn’t have a record deal. She had just done a song with Cowboy Troy called “If You Don’t Want to Love Me;” she sang the harmonies in between his raps. I heard her voice in the studio, because Troy is a friend of mine, and I’m like “Dude, who is this?” I told Isaac I want to record his song as a duet with Sarah Buxton. He introduced me to Sarah and we all sat around the bar and wrote out this whole plan of how we are going to do this album. We got back to Nashville and Sarah signed her record deal like as soon as we got back. They threw her in the studio to record her EP and we could not get our studio times in order. About that time Lindsey had gotten kicked off of American Idol. We were on the air together one time and this was the first time I met her. We were in the studio and she was like, “Can you write out the words on a piece of paper?” I was like, “Uh… yeah.” So, I wrote them out and the funny thing is she is learned this song on the air as we’re playing it. We went in the studio and, Bam! She kills it! Her voice is amazing. I would love to sing with Lindsey again. But, Sarah Buxton is definitely someone else I’d really like to work with.
Bev: Any idols, anybody else?
SC: Not country, I don’t guess. Loretta Lynn is from my hometown. I don’t know if she’s doing well enough to get her to sing on my album. I’ve got a weird voice and it’s hard to sing with.
Bev: Do you enjoy the writing aspect or the performing aspect more?
SC: I enjoy it all. It’s a two-sided process and neither one of them are anything like the other one. I am, in both aspects, someone different. In writing, I tap into my personal life and with entertaining I am doing just what that is, entertaining. It’s acting too, a little bit. You need to think about this business when you get into it. If you’re having a bad day, then stay home because you are working all the time. You have a fan base to keep up, these people are the reason you pay your bills so you need to give them respect. If they want an autograph or a picture, that’s your job; you’re at work. That’s hard to explain to other people, especially when you are trying to explain to them what public relations is. They don’t understand. I run myself like it’s a business. That’s why I don’t like negative things. If you’re out with a group of people and they are out getting smash hammered drunk and stuff like that, it turns into “the group Stephen Cochran was with is starting fights.” There are so many stories, we sometimes sit on the bus and laugh at some of these rumors that I was involved in. You would’ve thought I was the biggest alcoholic in Nashville. I’ve probably been drunk in Nashville a handful of times. Those were like bachelor parties or but there’s all kinds of stories.
Bev: What else is going on promotion wise? Anything else you can let out of the bag yet?
SC: Nothing yet. I’ve already talked about some of my new songs. As of right now, we haven’t signed a deal. We have two of the largest that we are talking with. It’ll be like going from one of the smallest record label deals to one of the biggest. Either way we go its going to be a good year!
Bev: I know you’re on Facebook because we are Facebook friends, but the whole Twitter and MySpace thing, what are your thoughts?
SC: I’m great on Facebook and I’ve got a handle on MySpace, thank the Lord. But Twitter, I have had some problems with. I thought I had it going good with an application on my phone until I was having a bonfire out at my house. I was having a good time until somebody sent me a tweet that said “What’s your address, man?” I thought I was just replying back to him. But instead, it made my reply my heading: “Bonfire is at…” We had invited like 15-20 people, and we had like 75, then 100 people, show up. My fiancé’s in the kitchen cooking and she’s like, “Who are all these people?!” People were walking through our house like it was a museum. Then, I started realizing some of these people are fans that I had seen at shows. I had to get up and be like, “Listen, please enjoy yourselves, but please don’t take anything because these are things I can’t ever get back.” It was supposed to be a relaxing night but there was probably like 100 fans there. The whole band was there and we ended up getting the guitars out and sitting around a real Friday night fireside!
Bev: On the flip side that’s every fans dream.
SC: It was no problem. I just wish we had a heads up. We would have cooked a day ahead of time. We ran out of food and I think Annabelle felt bad because not everybody got a cheeseburger or hot dog but they got a free show!
Bev: Stephen, I always enjoy visiting with you and look forward to joining you again soon to hear more about what you are doing.
SC: Bev, Thank you and same to you, let’s get together soon.
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