Big Machine’s Callista Clark and Tiera Kennedy have been making waves within country music over the last year or so. Two powerhouse female vocalists, each with their own take on this great genre have captivated fans in the US and now, they look to conquer England too! Both will come to the UK for the very first time in March as they perform at Europe’s biggest country music festival, Country 2 Country.
Callista Clark is only 18 years old but has been steadily building a fanbase since she began uploading videos to youtube around age 15. “I first started posting videos, and it was for fun, I didn’t think about it being such a big platform and a way to reach that many people. I just posted things that I loved that day or something that was stuck in my head. I started getting more followers and getting more views and that’s how my manager and record label found me.”
Though you wouldn’t think it, what with her powerful, mature vocals and millions of hits on her youtube videos, Clark is actually a shy, small-town girl who dared to dream big. “My hometown is very supportive, it’s a very small town in Georgia. Everyone knows everyone, all my friends’ parents graduated with my parents from the same high school. So it’s like, there’s no hiding. They’ve known that I love to sing since I could talk.” Her grandfather was the pastor at the local church and that was where Clark first began singing, “I grew up singing in church, that was the first place I ever sang, so Christian music was definitely a big influence. I still lead worship every Sunday at my grandad’s church that he’s the pastor of.”
Though many rave, and rightly so, about Clark’s incredible vocals, she’s a very talented multi-instrumentalist too. Many have lost count of how many instruments she can now play, “I think they say eight but that’s if you count the key guitar, which is basically a keyboard and the six string banjo which is basically me cheating,” she laughs. “My favourite instrument is the bass, it always has been because I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and just amazing artists like that where the song drives off the bass.”
Clark was singing around town around the time she reached double figures, playing covers, drawing influence from the country music that had come before her time and classic rock. Even at the tender age of 11 she could pull off even those big numbers from idols such as Aretha Franklin and Eva Cassidy. “The first gigs that I ever had, me and my siblings would go around to really small venues in my hometown, The Music Barn and the Hollonville Opry House. We would play 80s and 90s country, and Motown and classic rock. I’ve always loved performing and it’s always been a part of my life.”
The young Georgia native had the opportunity early on to perform with one of her idols, Jennifer Nettles. She describes the moment and those feelings of nervousness and how she overcame them. “Nerves, that’s something that’s always there but I feel like it just means that you care,” she concedes. “Jennifer Nettles and I, we were both in the same performing arts group in Georgia, so she met me through that. She asked me to play with her for the national gala which is a huge deal. I had just started playing guitar, I think six months before that. So I got up on stage with one of my idols playing a song about dreams coming true. It was just very nerve wracking, but she was so sweet.”
Clark recalls her first foray into writing music, a process nurtured and encouraged by her biggest fan – her mum. “The first song I ever wrote was called ‘Wildfire’ and it was for a school poetry contest,” she reflects fondly. “My mum had written songs before for church and things like that. I had been playing shows and doing gigs since I was 11 but I guess, because I was so young, I did not want to even think about writing songs, because I felt like, what do I have to say, at 11 years old, that people are going to want to listen to and relate to. I just felt like I didn’t have anything important to say. So I wrote this poem, and my mum read it, and she’s the one that said that I should put it to some music and make it a song. So that’s what I did.”
Meanwhile, 22 year old Tiera Kennedy grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and also began writing and performing whilst she was at school. “I have always sang for fun, I’ve always loved music but I think I got serious about it in middle school, when I started writing my own songs, and playing them around my school.” Her classmates were pleasantly surprised by what they heard, “Not a lot of people knew that I could really sing. So once people started noticing that and they were like, oh, you should write more music and put it out, I think that’s when I kind of decided to consider it professionally. I started taking trips back and forth from Nashville and just fell in love even more.”
Kennedy landed a role on the TV show ‘Real Country’ and earned the support of country music icon, Shania Twain. Her crossover style is something Kennedy admires as she herself looks to blend her country influences with her love of R&B. “My parents played all different kinds of music around the house. They play a lot of R&B music and my mum likes some country too. I think those two genres was mostly what I would hear and that’s influenced my music – it’s like R&B country.”
Both girls draw lyrical influence primarily from their own life experiences and the recently married Tiera Kennedy spends much of her time writing about her now husband. “I’m very much, so in love, I got married two months ago!” She squeals with excitement, a smile beaming across her face. “A lot of my music draws from that. It’s fun and also scary getting into the writers room, and you just kind of sit down and start talking about your life and what you’re going through. It can be like a therapy session, I’ve definitely cried a bunch of times in the writers room with my friends. It’s very healing,” she says of the writing process. “Sometimes some of the music I’ll write, is not necessarily about my life, maybe it’s about my co-writers life. I think we’re all going through something at the end of the day, and we can all relate to that in different ways.”
Both Clark and Kennedy released their first EP’s this past year, exploding onto the country scene with great songwriting and solid production. Clark’s record, ‘Real To Me’ was produced by Nathan Chapman and saw Clark write with an array of Nashville talent from Laura Veltz who is the brains behind such songs as Maren Morris’ ‘The Bones’ and Dan + Shay’s ‘Speechless’ to Liz Rose who co-wrote the 2014 hit ‘Girl Crush’ and Taylor Swift’s ‘You Belong With Me’. “All the songs started from this, kind of, weird ranting thing,” she begins with a laugh, “I went in with my co-writers and I was strongly feeling a certain emotion, whether it was the sassiness of ‘It’s Cause I Am’ and ‘Change My Mind’ or the heartbroken, sadness of ‘Heartbreak Song’ and ‘Don’t Need It Anymore’, or just feeling misunderstood with ‘Real To Me’. It all just started from this rant and I came in with an emotion more so than a hook. Usually I’ll come in with the hook and I have this idea, but on this collection, it all just came from something I was feeling. I just kept ranting and it just turned into these amazing songs.”
Clark dives deeper into the process as she tells me all about stand out track, ‘Change My Mind’ which she co-wrote with hit-makers Jonathan Singleton and Dan Isbell. “If you don’t know what they look like, they are just manly looking men, beards, the full thing. I made jokes with my family saying that they look like somebody that would be my dad’s friend or something,” she laughs, as she sets the scene. “They were asking me how I was feeling that day and what I was going through. I was just ranting; you know when there’s this guy that you shouldn’t fall for, but you do anyway, it’s this battle between your head and your heart. When I got done ranting I said, ‘You know?’ They just looked at me and said, ‘No, we are that guy! But it’s fine, we’ll write it anyway’. It’s just a super fun, sassy song that really goes with the inspiration of the 80s and 90s country that I was talking about loving.”
Clark has found a great group of writers and producers to assist as she hones her craft and so has Kennedy. “One of my producers, Cameron Bedell is like, my all time favourite person to write with, we wrote ‘Found It In You’ together, which is kind of the song that I feel started at all for me. All of my favourite co-writers are just like, my best friends. Some of them haven’t had number one hits yet, but it’s fun to be on that ride together and know that we’re, trying to make those accomplishments together.”
Love is a common theme for both girls but as Callista still figures out what her heart wants Tiera has recently found it, and that’s what her single ‘Found It In You’ talks about. “I wrote that song about my now husband, he was my boyfriend at the time,” she beams. “We wrote it a couple years ago, and I just kind of sat down with Cameron, my co-writer and he was just asking me all these questions about him, and what I loved about him. I think that song is just about finding your person and finding true love, that person that truly understands you. That’s definitely what my husband is for me.”
Her husband and the love they share is often what Kennedy draws influence from and with that song, she made a breakthrough and really began building her audience, but how did the man of her dreams react to that? She grins, “He loved it,” a carefree laugh escaping, “I actually, I write a lot of songs about him. So I won’t say he’s immune to it, but he kind of expects that I’m gonna write about him because I just love him so much. A lot of my co-writers haven’t met him yet but they feel like they know him because I’ve written so many songs about him.”
It wasn’t just love she found in ‘Found It In You’ but her own unique sound too. “I think that song is also really special too, because it was the first time that I feel like I made a song that was completely me. I’ve been searching for my sound for a really long time. I was going after that pop country thing and it wasn’t completely me. My co-writer on that, he grew up listening to R&B and country as well. You can really tell that influence in the production of the song. So I feel like that was the first time where I was like, wow, I feel like I’ve really found the kind of music that I’d love to make.”
Both women have not only released EP’s this past year but have celebrated other achievements and milestones, Kennedy with her Apple Music show (which Callista has been a guest on) and Clark with her Opry debut. Both ooze excitement, their eyes lighting up as they gush over their experiences. Thinking back to the summer, that first time on the Opry stage Clark says, “I could not believe it, I thought I was going to just be an emotional wreck the whole time. So I made it through most of it without crying, I should say. It went super well. I had my debut in July, and I’ve played there five times now. So they know, I will be back anytime they let me!” She exclaims.
Meanwhile, as Kennedy climbs the country music career ladder, with each step she takes, she turns around to help the next one in line via her Apple music show which has allowed her and the next generation of artists to reach a new audience. “I started my apple show, during COVID actually,” she reflects on the timing. “It’s a really special time to get to start that because we weren’t able to play shows and we weren’t able to connect with fans. Being a new artist, I feel like that was my way to be able to reach a wider audience and kind of introduce myself to people, it’s really interesting being on the other end of the mic too, and interviewing other artists. My show is centred around new, up and coming artists and some of those don’t have deals yet, they may not have a team and it was really important for me to focus on those artists because I know what that feels like. There are some really great artists that I really want the world to hear. So it’s been fun to put them on a pedestal and share their music.”
2022 looks bright for Callista Clark and Tiera Kennedy as the world begins to open up again, they can both resume touring and will step outside of the US for the very first time, together. The pair will each play a set as part of Country 2 Country festival. “I’ve never been out of the country at all,” Kennedy enthuses, “I’m very excited. I’ve had a lot of people message me these past few years asking if I’m going to come over to the UK. So I’m excited to finally get to meet those people and play my music for them.”
Meanwhile, Clark is looking forward to taking in the sights as well! “I’m going to make time to go shopping and I’ve heard that there’s so many different kinds of foods that I need to try. Since February, I’ve been travelling a lot but I’ve been in every city for like, less than 24 hours. So I haven’t had a whole lot of free time to go see and do things, but I promise when I’m there, I’m gonna make some time.” For the girls who were just shy, small-town, big-city dreamers not too long ago, it feels like an awfully big adventure and the opportunity to blow the UK crowd away with their raw talent is beyond their wildest dreams. “I cannot believe I’m getting the opportunity to do this,” Clark concludes, “The lineup is amazing, and I can’t wait to meet all of you in person.”
To read more exclusive features and latest news please see our February issue here.