In the past five years, Sebastian Kole has gone from aspiring songwriter to one of the hottest new hitmakers.
After writing the hook on Jennifer Lopez’ 2012 single “Goin’ In,” Kole entered the competitive, high-turnover business of songwriting. But his early success was no fluke, and he solidified his position as one of pop’s most promising new writers when he penned Alessia Cara‘s smash “Here.”
And last month, Kole, 27, released his own debut album, Soup. PEOPLE caught up with the singer about the soul-urban-pop sound that inspired his album, how he bet his career on a college football game, the divas with whom he’s gone in the studio — and if we can expect a Beyoncé collab!
“You know when kids are young, they go, ‘What do you wanna be when you grow up?’ And everybody’s like, ‘I wanna be a doctor, I wanna be a lawyer, I wanna be a fireman’?” says Kole. “I was like, ‘I just wanna get a record deal. ‘It’s the only job I’ve ever wanted to have.”
Here are five things to know about the star on the rise, who’s realized his dream.
1. He grew up with two preacher parents and began singing in church.
Raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Kole (bornColeridge Gardner Tillman) spent a lot of time in the Apostolic church because his parents were both pastors.
“We were in church from like 8 in the morning to 8 at night, sometimes 10 at night on Sundays,” says Kole, who would sing in services every week, started playing piano after spending at his organist godmother’s house and would write songs for church. “I grew up around a lot of songwriters in my church; we basically sang all songs that we wrote. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal.”
For the first part of his life, Kole grew up with sacred tunes because church leaders “didn’t like us to listen to anything outside of gospel.” But over the years, he began listening to secular music and really began to practice his passion for writing.
“When I first got my hands on Goodie Mob’s Cell Therapy, that was my first taste of music that was outside of gospel,” he recalls. “Then I got my hands on the Forrest Gump soundtrack — which is probably one of the best soundtracks of all times — and I started listening to a lot of old stuff, and I really wanted to pursue writing.”
Despite his parents’ straitlaced convictions, Kole — who released his new single “Remember Home” featuring Alessia Cara in September — says they’ve come around to his career path today.
“My mom has always been like, ‘Just go out and do what you’re gonna do; she’s a hippie, really a flower child. My dad is like a military man, very, ‘You’ve got to be a productive member of society,’ so he always wanted me to either go into the military or go into medicine. And he probably always thought to himself, ‘I don’t know if I raised that boy right,'” Kole says with a laugh. “But they’re both very proud. My dad calls me all the time just because of how proud of me he is.”
2. Superstition and a love for college football inspired him to follow his dreams.
“I kind of read signs or take things as signs, and I’m from Alabama, a place where college football is king — it’s everything,” says Kole, a die-hard Auburn University devotee “because Auburn was like the underdog. They’re not supposed to win, so when they win, it means something.”
So in 2011, before Auburn won its first-ever National Championship Game, Kole made a vow.
“I was like: ‘If Auburn wins, I’m gonna win,'” he says. “And lo and behold, I was like, ‘I’ve got to figure out a way to get to L.A.!’ I didn’t have any plans, and the next thing I knew I was there.”
3. He thought he was in legal trouble when Jennifer Lopez’ lawyer called him (but it was just the phone call that was about to change his life!).
Around the time he decided to move to L.A., “I was hanging with a friend of mine, and we were writing some hooks,” Kole recalls. His friend, a professional songwriter, had some label connections, and the next thing Kole knew, the hook — which was eventually used in Jennifer Lopez‘ 2012 hit “Goin’ In” — got passed along to Lopez’ camp.
“When it finally made it to J. Lo and they were gonna use the song, I get this call from this lawyer, like, ‘This is someone from such and such lawfirm: Is this Sebastian Kole?'” he remembers of the fateful day, laughing. “‘Yeah, am I going to jail?'” He’s like, ‘No, you wrote this song!’ I had no idea how the industry worked at the time. It was crazy.”
4. He hates parties — and wrote one of the year’s biggest songs about just that with Alessia Cara…
About four years ago, Kole and Cara were signed to the same label and met at a piano bar in New York, where they decided to write together in her native Toronto.
“I would ask her, ‘What’s on your mind today?’ and she would tell me what’s on her mind, and we’d try and hurry up and write a song about it,” remembers Kole. “Well, this particular day, it was a Sunday, she was like, ‘I went to a party.’ ‘How’d it go?’ ‘I hated it.’ I was like, ‘Well, I have been there. I totally understand. Let’s write about it.’ The original name of that song was actually going to be ‘I Hate Parties,’ but we didn’t think that would go over well, so we changed it.”
Cara released “Here” in 2015, and it became one of the biggest songs of the year, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and positioning the 20-year-old for a likely Best New Artist Grammy Award nod.
“It’s opened up so many doors,” says Kole. “It’s been really life-changing.”
…which has led to collaborations with Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson and more.
“She’s taking a little break right now, but I’m hoping when she gets back to work we’ll get back in. That just happened. People hear a song, and they like the way a certain writer expresses that and think, ‘I want to see if they do that for me,'” Kole says of working with the “Confident” singer. “I just started doing some a cappella stuff, and she really liked ’em, so she was like, ‘We need to work together again.’ … Kelly Clarkson was the same way.”
The American Idol alum is working on her eighth record, which she’s told PEOPLE will be a soul album, and Kole is hopeful they’ll have a collab on it.
“She is such a sweetheart!” says Kole of Clarkson. “If she goes with some of the stuff that we’ve been working on, it is going to be phenomenal. And if she doesn’t go with it, it’s gonna be even more phenomenal because that means she picked a better song than me. One way or another, it’s gonna be great.”
Another artist Kole hopes he’ll one day work with? Queen Bey…”If God smiles on me!” he says.
“There’s nothing official yet — I haven’t gotten into that camp yet — but I pray that that will happen,” says Kole. “I am a big Beyoncé fan: She’s just an amazing artist, and I would love to work with her. I want to tell her stories, too. I bet they’re amazing. I want to tell some of those, too.”
5. He looks at making his own music as a “vacation.”
Now that he’s released Soup, his debut LP, Kole hopes to move forward as a solo artist and a songwriter.
“You get to get on stage and sing and see people who really know these words and sing them back at out, and that’s crazy. That’s like a vacation,” says Kole. “A very difficult vacation, but songwriting is like work; that’s what I do for a living.”
Inspired by legends like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Simon and Garfunkel, the baritone-voiced one to watch is setting himself up for as successful a career as the mainstream peers he admires.
“John Mayer, Dave Matthews, John Legend, Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift…there are so many good songwriters,” says of contemporary chart-toppers. “They all are inspirations to me because they all offer something unique in the way they tell stories. We’re just storytellers. The way they tell stories is just mind-blowing.”
Kole’s first album, Soup, is out now.