With her dusky, soulful voice and moody viral hit “Villain,” newcomer Lily Rose signaled that she has the vocal presence and writing talents that make her poised to take her career to the next level. Soon after she posted "Villain" on TikTok and then released it independently in December 2020, the track went viral, topping the all-genre iTunes chart for several days and was included in over 40,000 TikTok videos.
“I was delivering groceries seven months ago...that’s how fast all this has happened,” Rose tells CMT via Zoom of the windfall of opportunities that have come her way over the past several months. “I didn’t really have a huge Instagram following that carried over to TikTok or even vice-versa...to watch those numbers go from zero to crazy in a few weeks was wild.”
Rose wrote "Villain" in 2019 with Kyle Clark and MacKenzie Carpenter, with Clark singing on the worktape. “We were doing it as a male pitch and I didn’t have a lot going on and sometimes as an artist, when you leave the writing room, there are songs you just can’t shake. ‘Villain,’ was a story that we all felt connected to.”
The song’s success brought attention from several labels, and she ultimately inked label deals with Big Loud Records and Republic Records, and a management deal with Back Blocks Music at the start of 2021.
“I think three or four years ago, country music was still in that pretty boy/beautiful girl section and we’ve moved away from that a bit, but even back then, they always let their artists be who they are,” she says of Big Loud. “They had authenticity and song credibility. And when ‘Villain’ hit, [Back Block’s] Rakiyah Marshall was the first one that called. We always joked as the song was about to be released, ‘Hey, I know you are only trying to be my distributor on this song, but you and I really clicked, and it’s going to have to be a management situation.’ As an artist, sometimes when you find that person who just fits as your manager, you talk them into making a management division of Back Blocks,” Rose says with a laugh.
Rose followed “Villain” with “Overnight Success,” a wry look at her hard-won career path.
“It’s been a blessing that it took this long for it to happen,” Rose says. “I’ve been grinding it out for so many years being my own manager, my own booking agent, all of these things so now I know who I am and what I need. But also being onstage and playing a thousand shows before this happened, I feel more seasoned than people think I am.”
So many of those thousands of shows took place in the Athens, Georgia music scene, before Rose moved to Nashville in 2017.
“Athens is not an industry town, but it is a music town. I learned to write a set list and learned what songs bring girls into bars, because girls bring boys into bars. I learned what songs sound like openers and closers and how to read a crowd.”
Growing up, Rose says she didn’t hear a lot of country music, but she was immersed in the music of artists such as Bruce Springsteen, as well as the rap music that saturated Georgia's music scene from 2007-2012.
“In my opinion, Bruce is the greatest songwriter and storyteller and one of the best performers of all time. I had that in my music DNA for a long time. It wasn’t until I got my first car and I heard songs like ‘Barefoot Blue Jean Night’ and ‘Dirt Road Anthem’ and that era of country music, that I started making the connection in my head of what country music is, and the storytelling. I’m a late bloomer to the country world but I cannot imagine being in any other format.”
Gesturing to her collection of Springsteen vinyl albums, she notes her favorite is the legendary rock star’s 1975 album Born To Run.
“I know it’s only eight songs, but it’s this beautifully constructed rock opera about being a youth and trying to get out of a town. ‘Thunder Road’ is still my favorite off that album.”
Most recently, Rose released “Remind Me of You,” which was written by Sam Hunt, Corey Crowder, Ryan Vojtesak and Ernest Keith Smith. While it marks the first song Rose has released that she was not a co-writer on, she says the song felt special when she first heard it.
“Talk about being humbled--Sam Hunt is one of the reasons I am in country music and is one of the reasons I’m brave enough to be myself and stay true to who I am sonically. I’m so grateful they trusted me enough to record it. The demo is a pretty fleshed-out demo and hip-hop beats are heavy in his stuff, but also in mine,” she says, also noting the work of co-producers Joey Moi (known for his work with Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line) and Matt Morrisey. “It was the first day I had been in the studio with Joey Moi so it was cool to watch him direct the band, and then sending it to Matt, he would bring the hip-hop elements. Both of those elements working together I felt like I was in good hands.”
Rose chose to leave the song’s pronouns intact as she/her, in order to reflect her own perspective as an openly gay artist and writer.
“For me, when we are cutting songs, it’s not like we are specifically looking for pronouns that will change the game and these subtle evolutions, but what serves the song--having pronouns in there like that, or can we do a song like ‘Villain’ where we don’t have pronouns and it’s this wide open thing.”
Rose credits her management and label teams with supporting her decision.
“It was a no-brainer--they didn’t even ask, ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’” Rose says. “They were just like, ‘Yes, that’s you. We want who you are as an artist.’”
Rose’s “Remind Me of You” comes at a time when more country artists are being open and authentic about who they are--Brothers Osborne's TJ Osborne, as well as artist Brooke Eden, are among those who have gone public their LGBTQ journeys this year.
“We have so many things that are happening now, in textbooks for kids we have President Biden and [Vice President] Kamala Harris and one day, kids are just going to be flipping through and they will see, ‘Oh wow, I’m a young girl of color and I can be in the White House,’ and stuff like that. That’s going to be really dope when we look back and that’s just like a blip on the radar, these evolutions, so that down the line, kids don’t have to ‘come out,’ they can just be themselves and they never have to think they can’t do something. It’s cool to be in the middle of it now and I can’t wait for it to just be a blip. That will be awesome.”