“We’re actually in the process of creating a genre, and we want to coin it right now,” says Brooks Hoffman.
Southern Pop is born.
Hoffman — one part of country duo SixForty1, along with Austin Gee — jokes that they’re going to have to inform iTunes about the new category. “Our country roots are still there, but we definitely love our pop elements. It really is all blended in, so we landed on Southern Pop.”
Still newbies to the Nashville circuit, the duo pierced it with their concoction of country cloaked in pop and R&B fusions in their 2016 debut, 641 — named after the highway that cuts through the campus of Murray State University in eastern Kentucky where the two first met during their sophomore year and behind their spelled-out numeric namesake — and follow up, 2018’s Picture This.
Gee and Hoffman, who were members of rival fraternities in their Murray State days, later reconnected in Louisville, then relocated to Nashville in 2018. After grabbing the attention of manager Aaron Keiser (Brantley Gilbert, Old Dominion, Kenny Chesney) and booking agent Aaron Tannenbaum, the rest was SixForty1 history as the Kentucky natives spilled out 2019 singles “Next Kiss,” “Plane Crazy,” and the double release of “Show You Around” and “I Get That.”
Focusing on their upcoming EP, in some ways, is like SixForty1’s debut once again. Their first release since moving to Nashville, it’s a big one for Gee and Hoffman as they showcase more of their versatility. Kicking off 2020 with new singles “Somebody’s Gonna” and “Forget Those Heels,” the duo reveals a more melodic and sonic pop, all buttoned up.
Track by track, the EP is unraveling what’s to come, says Gee. “It’s like when you hear about these big albums and how they heard this pitch before the album comes out, and they decided to replace a song at the last minute,” he says. “If we write another one that we like, we’ll put it on there.”
Hoffman adds, “We sit on a lot of songs, so if we’re putting it out, it means that we absolutely love it.”
Still “Nashville babies,” according to Gee, they’ve already started growing their writing circle, including Morgan Johnston and Kyle Schlienger (Brett Young) — two of the writers Hoffman and Gee have tapped in Nashville. “We have a small group that we’re trying to write with regularly,” says Gee. “Me and Brooks started writing songs in a basement at his house in Louisville, and now we’re writing songs with these big-name songwriters. It’s given us a lot of inspiration and guidance of how a song is written and we’ve definitely grown, writing-wise, since we’ve moved to Nashville.”
Just like that, SixForty1 went from writing in Hoffman’s basement to hitting the road with Brantley Gilbert, Michael Ray and Walker Hayes. “We’re just always taking notes, and we’re always trying to study the process,” says Hoffman. “Lyrically, melodically, we just feel like we’ve matured over the past couple of years, just learning from these amazing songwriters and artists.”
Learning to write within the Nashville “system” took some adjusting. Accustomed to writing whenever they wanted, they had to learn to wrap a song up within allotted time blocks. Gee says that Hoffman’s tendency to freestyle is the perfect balance to their own songwriting system. “There will be a track playing in the room, and Brooks will just start free-styling, and I can’t do that to save my life,” laughs Gee. “In Nashville, it’s systematic. You go in at this time, you gotta be out by this time. It’s a hard transition, but we got used to it.”
“Forget Those Heels,” a slower, crooned ballad, was one of those tracks SixForty1 was excited to release most, but it needed an extra lift. That’s where Johnston and Schlienger, who also co-wrote the band’s “Show You Around,” came in. “The songwriters in this town are so talented, it’s unreal,” says Hoffman. “You would think that some of these songs take months and years to write, but it took a couple hours and they’re able to piece together this masterpiece.”
Working around the recent COVID-19 lockdown, Gee and Hoffman are slowly piecing together the new EP, which Hoffman says should be ready by the end of the year. While some of the songs have been sitting around for a few years and are getting a new life, others are just being born. They’re always thinking big picture — namely a full-length album — but all of it is part of their SixForty1 puzzle.
“It’s our first album since being in Nashville and it’s showing everybody how much we’ve evolved since those college EPs,” says Hoffman. “We’re trying to make a name in this industry. I know we’ve only been here for two and a half years, but we feel like we can compete with the best of them, so this is what this EP is all about. It’s just showing everybody that we’re here.”
Photo Credit: Sarah Elizabeth Photography