Kalisa Ewing is someone you need to know.
She's spent 10 years paying her dues, and this year, all her hard work is paying off. With Kellie Pickler and Kelly Clarkson choosing to cut two of her songs, Kalisa is the next big thing, as far as elite songwriters go. She's also honed her skills as a live performer. She recently performed a slew of shows during CMA week, including at the ASCAP Bubble Stage down on Broadway.
Nashville Gab recently spoke with the singer-songwriter about her Grand Ole Opry debut, having Kellie and Kelly cut her songs and how a tragic car accident inspired her to pursue her career.
EX: Was the Grand Ole Opry a huge part of your childhood?
KE: Absolutely. I’m a huge Loretta Lynn fan, Patty Loveless and Willie Nelson. Those people played the Opry all the time. I never got to go see those people play. The Opry was very much [part of my life] and me wanting to be a part of that and be in Country music. That’s the limit, you know. That’s a pretty high goal. We went every once in awhile when I was a kid. I remember going and being like ‘wow.’
Nashville Gab: You recently made your debut. How was that?
Kalisa Ewing: It was a blast. Everyone’s asked me ‘what was it like to play the Opry?’ I’m like ‘it was amazing, but unexplainable.’ Amazing doesn’t top it off. I don’t normally get nervous before shows, and I wasn’t necessarily nervous to play the Opry but it was definitely nerves. It was a different kind of nervous. I was like ‘I can’t believe I’m about to walk out onto the Grand Ole Opry stage. Is this really happening? Why can’t I get it through my head?’
EX: I hear you wrote your first song when you were 11. What was it called?
KE: It was called “Is This Love.” I remember what inspired me to write it. I was really into Jewel’s record. I’d always been a fan of [hers] but she had just recorded and release the “This Way” record in Nashville with Dann Huff. I just loved it so much, and I listened to one repeat all day, every day. I was finally like ‘I want to write a song. I want to be like Jewel.’
NG: Later in high school, you were in a car accident. How did that experience change you and fuel your passion for music?
KE: I’ll try to make it as short as possible. I was on my way home [from] clothes shopping. School was about to start the next week; it was right around the corner. So, I was out with my mom. On our way home, I drove. I had my permit. Long story short, going up the same hill we always drove up going home, right off the interstate in Kingston Springs, a car was coming directly at us in my lane. They hit us head on, and I immediately blacked out. It was the stangest thing. I ended up breaking my arm from the airbag impact, and I now have rods in my arm, as attractive as that sounds. I didn’t even know at the time that I’d blacked out. I couldn’t feel anything. I just remember the strangest...it hasn’t happened since...your eyes are open but they’re not. I had visions. I saw this like neck of a guitar, and then I saw my hands. I knew immediately somebody was trying to tell me something about my music and how to take it a little more seriously.
[Adding:] That had a huge impact on me. I ended up not going back to school my sophomore year. I ended up being home schooled. I’d planned on going back to school in January once I had healed and everything. I made a vow to myself at that young of an age. I was 15. Luckily, my arm wasn’t in any more damage than it was in, but I vowed to myself ‘as soon as I get this cast off I’m going to go play writers’ nights and play my songs and play as much as I possibly can. I’m not going to be stubborn about this anymore.’ My parents never forced me to do music. They kind of made it my own decision, but they definitely encouraged it in a huge way. I think they were probably happy for the divine intervention in the long run, and I am, too. I truly believe everything happens for a reason. You learn from everything.
NG: Your grandfather was a huge inspiration, too, and you never met. How exactly did he inspire you?
KE: I grew up without knowing him, and I just had stories from my grandma and my mom telling me how they came to Nashville for him to make it. That’s literally the reason they came. They didn’t have jobs here or anything like that. They just packed the kids up and headed on to Tennessee from Wichita, Kansas. I just used to be fascinated with that story. I always thought it was kind of ironic and interesting that we never met, but we shared the same dream. He was alive when I was born but died six months [later]. I think we have one picture of him holding me. My grandmother gave me his cassette tapes of songs that he’d recorded (of his own songs he’d written). He’s been even more of a reason why I work as hard as I do. I really want to show people that dreams are possible.
NG: Your song “Redemption” is so powerful. What is the story behind it?
KE: I wrote that with Laurie Webb and Brian Maher when I was in a publishing deal. My contract was about to be up. So, I knew that was coming up. I knew there wasn’t a paycheck coming in, and I kind of had to fend for myself a little bit, to figure things out. I’m a very spiritual person. We all got together; we’re really good friends. We were all sort of our own outcasts. We all related in that sense, naturally that’s why we were really good friends. It was just me writing to myself a little bit like ‘don’t you forget that this is a beautiful time in your life.’ The hard times are hard to get through, but when you look back at them, you’re like ‘it all makes sense now.’ I guess it was an ode to myself. Actually, it’s really helped me get some bad days even now.
[Adding:] I like to write about my own problems. I truly believe everybody has issues. We’re all going through something to get to the next thing, to climb the next mountain. Life is a lesson.
NG: Kellie Pickler recently cut a song of yours called “Where Did Your Love Go,” which you wrote with Rivers Rutherford. What inspired it?
KE: Well, that song definitely is my reflecting back on the first time of falling in love. We all go through [that]. It feels like a fairy tale at first, but then whenever the fire dies out, you look back and you’re like ‘wow, how did that just happen?’ It’s hard to explain love in words, but I woke up -- I knew I was writing with Rivers the next day -- and I couldn’t sleep. We had never written before, never met. Laying there on the couch in the living room, I was just staring at the wall in silence. There was this one lamp on in the corner of the room, and it [there] was a picture of me and my ex. I started thinking, in the middle of the night, when you’re in the company of your own silence, ‘huh, where did that love go?’ You know, all the questions about why it ever ended. I was then like ‘oh wow, that must be a song. I’ll take that with me to Rivers tomorrow.’ Long story short, I told him my idea, and he was like ‘oh yea, jumping on. Here we go.’ We wrote it real fast in probably all of an hour. All the images and everything are true.
NG: Kelly Clarkson also cut a song of yours. What’s the song?
KE: It’s called “Go On.” I wrote that with Neil Mason and James LeBlanc. I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m so excited about it. [To] just think of Kelly Clarkson singing a song I wrote is wow. She can really sing the phonebook, and it would be fine.
NG: What’s “Go On” about?
KE: It’s a song about a girl at a bar and a guy coming up to her and trying play his game and be cool and suave. She’s like ‘dude, I’m just having a drink with my friends. Go on, back where you came from.’ It’s a fun song. It’s very much feel-good, cool, groovy song.
NG: What’s the vibe of the song? Country, pop, rock?
KE: It’s like Country-pop-rock-ish. To be honest, our demo of it, which was our work tape [was stripped down]. Neil Mason does a great work tape, with a drum loop and everything, as you’re writing along. I haven’t heard the production they’ve done on it. To me, it reminds me of her “Miss Independent” record. It could fit very well in with that kind of thing.
NG: Are there any songs you listened to over the years that helped and inspired you?
KE: There’s a Patty Griffin song called “Nobody’s Crying.” There’s another on her "Living with Ghosts" record. “Fruits of My Labor” by Lucinda Williams. I love that song. Patty Loveless’ “Here I Am.” I think I’ve always loved a sad song. [laughs] Whatever pulls my heartstrings.
NG: What is a song you wish you’d written?
KE: I have a lot of those. “Here I Am,” Tony Arata wrote that. That song...I play it at my shows. My mom turned me onto Patty Loveless. I would just lay my head by the radio while she was listening to her. I was always like ‘she’s cool.’
Read the full interview here.
Photo Credit: Jeff Warfle