When you think of TikTok, what is it that you think of? Dances, funny videos, and probably spending an hour or so of your day without closing the app not even realizing that you’ve spent such time on there. That’s undoubtedly almost the greatest beauty of the social media app, how it manages to engage users and then draw them in with customized “For You’ pages for sometimes hours on end. But, if one thing you don’t think of with TikTok is music, then it’s time to think again.
Lil Nas X is undoubtedly the largest name to come from TikTok so far, but as the music industry dives deeper and deeper into this app, rest assured that you will be seeing more and more music careers burst out of the app pretty soon. One person to keep your eye on is St. Louis-born, Nashville-based country artist Alexandra Kay. She currently sits at 1.3 million followers on TikTok alone, and that number just won’t stop going up. Her videos are simple in nature: singing songs. Whether it’s while she’s curling her hair, making coffee in the morning, or sitting in her car — singing a cover, or an original song, is what has drawn her audience in.
But, as quickly as she’s blown up on TikTok, she’s not just an overnight sensation with music. Her relationship with music is one that started a long time ago, and is once again hitting it’s stride at just the right time.
While she currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her fiancé, Kay grew up in Waterloo, Illinois — about 30 minutes southeast of St. Louis, Missouri. “I didn’t grow up in a musical family,” she begins to tell me back in December, “It was kind of strange that I found myself in music.” She started writing songs when she was about 14 years old, and she used it as a way to navigate her feelings when she was growing up and going through the typical teenage feelings: struggling to fit in, find out who she is, and of course her first heart break.
“I went and got myself a journal — diary entries turned into poems and then I started hearing melodies,” she says, describing the process of writing songs as one that was very organic. “I started showing my parents and friends some of the songs I had written — and that’s when I realized I could sing. I really didnt know I could sing until people were like ‘You can sing.’ I was like, oh cool, I kinda always knew I could carry a tune but you know, you really dont know if you’re good until people start telling you you’re good.” From there, she took that and turned to musical theatre. While she picked up a commercial agent and did some commercials when she was younger, she reflects that musical theatre is where she really found her voice, and then continued to write music and would work with anybody in the St. Louis area that would work with her.
As to why she chose country music to dedicate herself to, that’s another choice that Kay explains is very organic. Growing up, while no one else in her family are musicians, country music was almost always on in the house. “When I started writing, I started to realize it sounded like Jo Dee Messina, Sarah Evans, like the 90’s stuff that I grew up listening to. I really think it was very natural for me to be in country music,” she says.
“I dabbled in R&B very early and hip-hop actually. I did a lot of just like, singing hooks on hip-hop tracks for St. Louis artists. That’s how I got my first record deal when I was 20, and was really doing like a weird R&B crossover country, because I was signed to an R&B label. I was young and tried to figure out who I was as an artist, so I really just signed a deal and asked them — I was young and naive — like ‘What do you guys want me to do? Okay I’ll do it.’”
However, that wasn’t exactly what Kay wanted to be doing. So eventually she left the label and started thinking outside the box, and really just got back to the basics: having fun with music. “That’s when I took to Facebook and was like, okay, I’m just gonna share my voice. I started covering 90’s country songs that I grew up listening to on Facebook, and then that’s how I started gaining a fan-base. I think country music always was very organic to me. It lived inside of me, it just took a while for it to come out for me to realize that that’s where I belong,” she emphasizes.
It’s nearly impossible to argue that she made the wrong choice. Watch a single TikTok of Kay’s and you’ll immediately be blown away by what you hear in her voice. Her voice is very reminiscent of old-country music, almost serving as a time capsule recently just opened up from the 70’s/80’s era of country music. But, as she tells it, this is not something that she had ever thought until it was pointed out to her by others. Six years ago, when Kay was doing covers on Facebook, she covered Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and began hearing the comparisons to Parton. “That is what surprised me the absolute most because I had never heard that before,” Kay begins. “My parents, they listen to modern country, so at the time we were growing up it was Alan Jackson, Martina McBride, Fatih Hill, Brooks & Dunn, but we didn’t listen to anything in the 60’s or 70’s, so Dolly Parton wasn’t really played.”
The choice for her to even cover “Jolene” wasn’t even really intentional. At the time, she had covered songs from Brooks & Dunn, Deana Carter, and other 90’s country songs. She was releasing multiple covers a week and gaining a significant following doing so, and one day she was trying to figure out what her next song was going to be, and that’s where “Jolene” came in. “I was looking up on Youtube and I typed in ‘Alexandria Kay’ and the first thing that popped up was ‘Jolene.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I have not even covered this song why are people looking for it’ and figured I might as well give it a try,” she recalls.
“I learned the words, and I didn’t even know the words to the song. For what it’s worth, we sat down and we did it, and to be honest, I wasn’t even happy with the take. But it was like whatever, just post it. So we did, and it just went insane. That was something that was so cool for me, because it really jump-started my career. It got me so many cool opportunities, I got to open for some of my idols — I opened for Jo Dee Messina, Diamond Rio, I got to open for Thompson Square, The Band Perry, and go on tours, do a whole press tour because of that video.”
Speaking of opportunities that arose from the above video (lifted from Facebook and uploaded to Youtube), Kay was nearly featured on NBC’s The Voice. After being invited out, she explains “They put me straight through the preliminary auditions because of that video. I didn’t end up getting a chair to turn, but I think that was all just for the best.” Instead of going onto The Voice, Kay ended up going on the Netflix original series Westside, which followed Kay and eight other musicians looking to follow their musical dreams.
The timing lined up nearly perfect for Kay, as Netflix came calling exactly 30 days after their audition for The Voice. If she had gone through one more round of The Voice, then contractually speaking she would not have been able to do Westside — which she looks back on with fondness and great appreciation. “[Westside] was such a crazy experience, cause I had been struggling with anxiety very bad for some reason that just kind of hit me in my very early-20’s and I had been struggling pretty bad with it,” Kay explains. “There’s nothing like facing your anxiety in a city where you know absolutely no one. So I really had to push myself out of my comfort zone; I had to move to LA alone with no family or friends. I had to leave my now fiancé, at that time we were together for 6 years I think, behind in Illinois and go make friends with these other 8 artists. At first, it kinda felt like high school, you know, I was like ‘Where do I fit in?'”
But, despite the sudden move and anxiety at first, Westside ultimately pushed her and helped round out her own art, and she made friends with everyone she was with on the show. “I learned so much from that incredibly talented group of people because I had only worked with country artists for so long at that point in my career. To be able to work with a Latino artist like Taz [Zavala], a rock artist like James [Byous], and Pia [Toscano] who is purely pop and one of the best vocalists I have ever heard in my life, it rounded me as a person and an artist.”
“All The Cowboys” — featured above — is the most recent single from Kay, one that shows off her chops as a self-described “sad girl country” artist. It’s a devastating single that, while she delivers it with conviction and perfection, wasn’t necessarily inspired by her own life. “‘All the Cowboys’ was something that came out in the middle of the night,” she begins to explain. “I had a conversation with my friend earlier that week and she’s such an incredible person. Unfortunately she was just having some really hard luck at dating. I woke up in the middle of the night, I couldn’t sleep, it was weighing heavy on me. I got up to sit and think about it, pray for her, and then I started to think what a conversation with her and her mom would sound like at the end of the day going through this whole thing.”
While the overall idea behind the song wasn’t based on anything she was currently going through, she sprinkled in bits and pieces of herself to make the song what it is. For example, the opening line on the song “Hey mom, I’m so glad you called / I’m finishing a load of wash / And I’ve been feeling a little lost” came to Kay rather quickly, as she tells me that seemingly every time her mother calls her, it’s in the middle of her doing laundry. For the writing process of the song, she wrote the majority of it in the middle of night and around 3am woke up her fiancé — who then provided a set of ears to help Kay finish it out. “I made [her fiancé’] stay up and listen to it. I took it a couple of friends in Nashville, Andrew Capra who produces for me, and then Matt Wynn, and it became what it is,” she says. “Honestly, it’s one of my favorite songs that I have ever written and I could not believe the response. I couldn’t believe it. I’m just so happy that everybody saw it for what it was and believed in it the way that I did.”
While country music has shifted and changed a bit sound-wise over the years, the most drawing part of country music has never really wavered: it’s story-telling lyrics. Kay, on top of possessing a stellar voice, has a wonderful knack for telling stories in music — with “All the Cowboys” serving as a great example, as well as her previous single “I Kinda Don’t.” That kind of authenticity is what drew her to country music in the first place, and she quickly fell in love with it. “I fell in love with the story telling aspect and then I fell in love with the artist and what they can do vocally as well. But, all around, I feel like — three chords and the truth, that’s what country music is built off of,” she says.
“The last thing that I want to do is take away from the genre and the culture of country music, and I just want to be able to provide to it the way that it provided to me all those years when I was trying to figure out who I was,” Kay states. She references country music as the best genre to be in, citing personal preference, and hopes that there are people out there she can touch the same way that Taylor Swift impacted her when she was younger. “I just want to continue to give people that feeling that Taylor Swift did for me very early in my life, which was ‘I get you, I understand you, and we all go through this.’ So as long as I keep that in mind when I continue to write, I think that I’m headed exactly where I want to be.”
Everybody wants to be genuine in their music, and nearly every artist will talk about it — and that’s because it’s important. As consumers of music, after you listen to so much music, you can generally tell what song was put out with a message and what ones were put out to be catchy, summer-y pop songs. As someone that loves catchy, summer-y pop songs and music that hurts, both are respectable and have their individual places in music. Neither, in all reality, is “better” than the other just because it may have a better chorus or may have “deeper” lyrics behind that. This is something that Kay and I both discuss and agree over, and at the end, know that it comes down to personal preference.
“That’s what’s incredible about music, it’s subjective. It can be whatever you want it to be. You can get from it whatever you want to get from it. I could be telling a story, you could listen to my song, and it could tell a completely different story to you. I think that’s what makes it so relatable,” she says. “I think that, as far as creating pop crossover country and genre-bending, I think that if that’s what you wanna do, do it and do it well. That’s amazing. I’m not somebody that really hates on where country music is today, I just, in my opinion, want to take it back to where I fell in love with it and that’s just a personal preference. I know that there’s a group of people who want to hear that as well, and I’m just here to provide that.”
Country music has stayed relevant for a lot of reasons, one of which is that the crowd of country music fans largely goes with it. Someone like me that grew up in a household that loved Toby Keith, Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, and so forth can appreciate those and fall in love with newer country artists like Dan + Shay, Sam Hunt, and so on that all sound vastly different from the country music I grew up with. Of course, at the same time, you have people who may not like where country music has headed the last ten years, or even twenty years — they, like Kay, may just prefer that older style of country music. And that’s where she comes in with her music.
“I also think that it’s a life lesson in the sense to know the you’re not going to please everybody ever, no matter what you’re doing. So as long as it stays true to who you are, I think that you’ll find your audience. There is that audience out there that wants to hear 90’s reminiscent country songs, and then there’s a full, incredible audience that loves country/pop crossover. I think I know who my people are and I just want to give them what they love,” she tells me.
Her future in country music is bright, and truthfully each day it gets a little brighter. Her platform on TikTok only continues to grow : earlier I had mentioned she currently boasts over 1.3 million followers on the app, but back when Kay and I did our interview in December, she had just crossed 1 million. 300,000 more followers in four weeks. “First of all, that was very crazy to me,” she begins recalling when she hit 1 million followers, “I sat there staying up at night — it was the night before the Christmas show. I watched it crossover to 1 million and I was like, ‘That is nutty.'”
At first, she was pretty hesitant to signing up for TikTok, however. She was in the middle of writing “I Kinda Don’t” with Ryan Robinette and Tana Matz, when Robinette brought up he had a friend who was blowing up on the app. “I thought it was a kids app,” Kay mentions with a laugh. After some convincing and Robinette explaining that the algorithm was going crazy and it was stuff that no one had seen before, Kay downloaded it. She continues, “I got on and saw everybody dancing, and there was a lot of young kids on there. I was like ‘I feel weird being on this app,’ but I posted a couple videos of me just singing my songs and they started to do really well. I started to collaborate with other Tik Tokers like Thomas Mac,” who has had success on the app with his songwriting and own brand of country music. “So I was collaborating with him very heavily and my following just started to grow like crazy. And so once I started doing the coffee covers is when it skyrocketed, I think I gained like — I had 35 million video views in 7 days. It was crazy. Within one month I gained 900,000 followers and I was like, ‘Woah, okay, so people like to see me making coffee and sing 90’s country songs.’”
But, for. Kay, the best part about TikTok is that the followers she has gained through doing these various different covers, they stick around for her original songs as well. This can be unusual and it’s not guaranteed than an audience will care for your own songs — songs they don’t know yet — as much as covers of songs that make them feel nostalgic. “People say all the time ‘You gotta do what you gotta do until you can do what you wanna do.’ So I was trying to figure out how I could get my music in front of more people. When I started to do the coffee cover videos, I was noticing an insane amount of traffic to my page. Once I dropped ‘I Kinda Don’t,’ I mean, it really made sense to me. I was like okay, I’m getting the people’s attention by giving them songs that are reminiscent of their childhood, but then they’re still listening when I drop my own,” Kay says, commenting on the spot she has carved out for herself on the app.
Unlike some of the other TikTok videos you see, which involve tons of editing and work behind it, Kay’s are largely simple. “I wake up every single morning and find a comment with a song that I want to do, I reply to it, I make my coffee and then I go on with my day. And that’s it,” she says, before explaining the time it takes to really make a video. “Maybe an hour, because I have to wake up early and warm my voice up, otherwise I’m gonna sound like a man trying to sing a Dolly Parton song.”
As is the case with most of her career so far, it’s all a very organic and natural process for Kay. Nothing is ever forced or unnatural, everything you see of her on TikTok is simply just the person she is. She’s just going through her day, making coffee or curling her hair, whatever it is. “I think it’s really cool that people have gravitated to my page the way they have because I’m really just being myself, you know,” she says. “So just to be able to click record and sing along with whatever I’m hearing, then post it and have it get millions of views, I think is absolutely insane and I’m just grateful for the traffic. And even more grateful for that when I’m singing my own songs, they still love it just as much.”
For the majority of her career, Kay has spent that time trying to convince people in the music industry that there is a market for what she’s doing and the type of country music she is creating. To see that payoff on TikTok and translate to streaming has been a surreal thing for her. “Although I don’t sit down and write for radio, I’ve just been trying to convince people for so long that there’s still a market for it and that people still want to hear it. To have been able to take to Tik Tok and have them prove by getting my songs to #1 independently multiple times that there is a market for what Im writing and what I’m creating, I think that’s absolutely incredible. I’m just grateful for it.”
What makes her success on TikTok all the more impressive is that it is largely a younger demographic on the platform. It’s not just older people longing for the “good old days” of country music. In many ways, Kay is playing a role in showing younger generations some of this music from her childhood — whether they themselves never knew it existed, or whatever the case may be. Kay has effectively proved any doubters wrong: there is a market for what she’s doing, and it’s only getting bigger. Compare this to when she first started popping off on Facebook, which at that time was right when Facebook shifted from younger/college kids to largely an older demographic.
Adding in this younger demographic of TikTok to her following was also a large part in what drew her to the app. “I was able to kind of captivate a younger audience with my music and get in front of those people on Tik Tok. Ever since then, I have more and more people in their early-20’s or teens listening to me on Spotify than I did before. That was another thing that was really cool, it helped me round out my audience demographic wise,” she says.
The cold hard fact of the matter is that TikTok has changed the way that consumers listen to and take in music, and the way that the music industry finds it’s next upcoming talent. It’s even impacted radio play, and how these radio stations find their music to play, as well. “If you turn on pop radio, 90% of the songs that you’re hearing are Tik Tok songs, that’s nuts. I don’t even listen to pop just because it’s not my preference, I just listen to country music, but if I turn on pop radio, I’ll know at least one part of every song because it’s on Tik Tok,” Kay explains.
Kay has seen a lot of great benefits from blowing up on Facebook and is now seeing them again through TikTok. Of course with the views and the followers, and that is transitioning into music industry personnel again. “When ‘I Kinda Don’t’ did what it did, the amount of label attention I get just from one Tik Tok that blew up — because the A&R’s are watching now. They’re watching what artists are doing. And I just think it’s really cool because its another way to get unsigned artists their chance. There’s a lot of people out there that are really incredible and deserve a shot, but don’t really know how and I think that Tik Tok has opened up so many doors for these people, it’s just crazy but it’s really cool,” she says.
As we near the end of our conversation, I talk about how I still don’t use Tik Tok (some of my best friend’s do and send me the greatest hits, anyway) and I tell her that this is my first time interviewing someone who’s got such a large following on the platform. Through the whole nearly 60 minute interview, Kay never once says anything negative about TikTok — instead consistently focusing on the positives it has given her, how grateful she is for every opportunity she’s earned thus far. However, there is one simple frustration that she has that are likely shared with many influencers and content creators on the app: the algorithm.
“If I can say one thing about TikTok, it’s that the minute you think you have it figured out, you don’t,” Kay begins. “That is what’s so strange about the app. Because the way that the algorithm is set up, it changes constantly, and if you’re not producing what they call viral content, then you’re not going to hit a For You page. And if you don’t hit the For You page, good luck. I mean, there are people out there — friends of mine, we’re in a group chat and they’re like ‘I’m shadow banned!’ And it’s like, no you’re not. You’re not shadow banned, you’re just not producing content that Tik Tok feels like is deserving of going on people’s For You pages. When they feel like it’s not, you can have — I know people that have 1.2 million and up followers, that get 17,000 views on a video all the time. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many followers you have, it’s about constantly creating content that TikTok feels is being worthy of people’s on For You page.”
Unlike Facebook, there is no option to pay for boosted content. You either create content that TikTok loves and pushes it out to people, or you don’t and then you’re sort of stuck. But, through trial and error, Kay has found success with the collaborative group she routinely works with — dubbed the 615 house. Unlike it’s counterpart houses on TikTok, such as Hype House or Sway House, they don’t all necessarily live in and share the house together. Instead, they simply focus on getting together in the house a few times a week to work together and create content together.
Earlier in the interview, Kay had mentioned that she once felt that TikTok was a kid’s app, and in the 615 house, she tells me that she is the oldest one there and self-proclaims herself fas the mom of the house. “A lot of people don’t know how old I am, because I look young. So I get there and I’m the oldest person in this house,” she tells me — if you’re wondering how old she is, I may or may not know, but if I did, I would have told her the secret is safe with me. She recalls the first time that she walked into the 615 House, ‘”Someone had a white claw popped open at like noon and I was like oh I should’ve known that like I was going to be the oldest person in this damn house. Everybody is drinking before we even start filming,” Kay says. “But honestly at the end of the day, it’s really cool and I’m really happy to be collaborating with everyone and it’s not weird because no one knows how old I am.”
Kay tells me she was also concerned about her age as she began taking label meetings again. While she is at the point in her career where she knows exactly who she is and who she wants to be, she was worried that labels might have some hesitation on working with her. “I honestly thought once I started taking label meetings again, like I have been doing, I thought people were going to be really shook by my age and they’re not. They’re like oh yeah you’re right where you need to be,” she explains, jokingly telling me that she had her casket picked out and ready to hear that her career was over.
But country music has never let age been a barrier between the artist and success. Sam Hunt, who had been a songwriter and producer for many years, was in his early-30’s before he branched out and blew up on his own. Brett Young was 36 when his major label debut came out in 2017. Ashley Mcbryde famously signed her record deal with Warner Records when she was 34, and then earned a Grammy nomination the following year when she was 35. A little hint for you: she is currently younger than everyone mentioned. And at the same time, Kay isn’t too worried about it — because she knows that now she’s more ready than she’s ever been for the country music scene. “I feel like honestly, I was signed to Warner Brother Records in 2018, then I was with Network Entertainment in 2013. And honestly both of those record deals, I didn’t feel ready to have them. I really didn’t. I felt very much like I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do yet, and in the meetings that I’m taking now, I feel so fully confident and I know exactly who I am, I know who my audience is, and I just feel ready. I think that like, sure, having a career when you’re in your early-20’s is great, but personally, I wasn’t ready for that. I feel ready now. I’m really happy for things to be happening at this point in my life, I feel like the timing is right.”
So far, there’s been no evidence that the timing is anything but right. As for the future for Kay, she tells me that she’s got her next single ready and hoping to release it in February, it’s called “We Wouldn’t be Us” and was written about her fiancé. While she will continue to make videos and content on TikTok, Kay is much more than another TikTok star, and her story on how she got to this point is not one without some bumps and bruises. But in the end, it’s all part of what makes her, her — and that’s truthfully all that she ever has cared about; her undoubtable upcoming success is just a bonus.