Koe Wetzel on the ‘Sweet’ Smell of Chart Success After Finally Earning First Hot 100 Entry: ‘The Timing Is Great’

Koe Wetzel on the ‘Sweet’ Smell of Chart Success After Finally Earning First Hot 100 Entry: ‘The Timing Is Great’

Koe Wetzel may be one of 2024’s bigger breakout artists, but he’s certainly no rookie. The 31-year-old country-rock singer-songwriter has been releasing albums for nearly a decade, with a big sound that’s rooted in country but also mixes in plenty of alternative rock and Americana. His gritty (and sometimes uncomfortably personal) lyrics have helped him grow a sizable core audience. In 2022, he first made his presence felt on the Billboard charts with the anthemic “Creeps,” which reached the top 30 on Hot Country Songs and the top 15 on Hot Rock & Alternative Songs.

Now, Wetzel has reached the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with a song that integrates a new genre to his usual mix. “We kinda wanted it to have a little R&B feel,” he says of the soulful “Sweet Dreams,” which entered the Hot 100 at No. 47 on the chart dated June 1. “We had talked about just computer drums on it, off a beatpad. I said, ‘I think it would be really cool if we just set up a smaller kit, and tightened up the snare drum a little bit, and give it that pad sound.’ I think it really set the mood for that song a little bit more, to give it that R&B feel.”

Related

Hot 100 First-Timers: Country-Rocker Koe Wetzel Lands First Entry With ‘Sweet Dreams’

05/28/2024

“Sweet Dreams” is Wetzel’s long-awaited first taste of Hot 100 success, but it likely won’t be his only for very long — “High Road,” a new duet with country and pop hitmaker Jessie Murph released a few weeks after, is expected to follow it onto next week’s Hot 100 (dated June 22). Both are set to be included on the ascendant country-rocker’s upcoming album 9 Lives, due for a July 19 release on Columbia, which will be followed by the Damn Near Normal World Tour, taking Wetzel all over the U.S. and then through Europe this late summer and autumn.

Below, Wetzel talks with Billboard about his breakout chart hit, the factors that led to his recent crossover success and the unexpected cover song he has planned for this album cycle.

How did “Sweet Dreams” first come together?

We were in the studio writing — actually, a different song — and it was going nowhere. So we stepped back, like, “Do we want to go a different direction?” I wrote in my notes, probably two weeks prior, “It’s hard to have sweet dreams when I’m such a nightmare.” And we had a guitar lick that we had put together a couple days before on the road while touring. We went in and the song pretty much wrote itself. It came out quick and easy.

When you say “We,” who were the other primary players on the song?

It was Gabe [Simon, co-writer/producer], and then it was [co-writer] Amy Allen — she had a huge influence on it. She does a lot more pop music, and it’s something that I’m not really used to, working with somebody that’s in the pop world. My guitar player Josh Serrato, coming up with the melody for it, and the lick on it. Man, it turned out really good. 

“Sweet Dreams” has many lyrical similarities to your last single before this one, “Damn Near Normal,” including themes of sleeplessness and self-medication. Were those songs either inspired by the same moment or come together at the same time? 

Yeah, the mood was in the same realm — we wrote those songs probably 24 hours apart from each other. So we were still in that mood, kind of the same air of the song.

Is there anything you feel comfortable sharing about the personal meaning behind those songs?

Yeah, absolutely. A lot of my songs come from personal experiences, past relationships or [whatever]. This song wasn’t about a certain personal relationship, or a past relationship. It was just kind of multiple relationships — and then bouncing it off people who had had similar problems with relationships and then making it all come together.

When you heard the final product of the song for the first time, did you feel like, “This is going to be a song that takes me to a new level?” 

I mean, we knew it was good. We didn’t really have a plan for it. It was so much different than the rest of the record, different from anything I’d done before. So I was excited to have that kind of sidestep genre from the country-rock stuff that I’m normally used to. When we first heard it for the first time, we were like, “Man, this is cool, this is a different sound for us.” We didn’t expect the people to dig into it the way that they did, but we’re glad that they did. 

You’ve been building momentum step by step with your audience, getting a bigger foothold on streaming. Do you feel like this song having the immediate results that it has is more a matter of it being a different feel sonically than your other stuff, or is it just good timing? 

I think the timing is just great right now, because like you said, with “Damn Near Normal” and the other songs that we teased, people were getting behind [everything] because I feel like it’s something that they’ve expected from me for a while. The last five albums have kind of had the same similar sound. So this is me kind of getting away from that and trying a new sound. I never wanted to have the exact same sound all the time. I think that the way that these songs are going in a different direction, and people having the response that they are — especially after what I’ve put out the last five records — it’s awesome.

You talked about teasing new music. Is that something that comes natural for you, that sort of TikTok promotional aspect of it? Is that fun for you, or is it just, “This is the business, this is how we gotta get this stuff done”? 

Yeah, for me, it’s not really [that fun]. This is the first time we’ve actually teased the whole record. But I mean, in this world today, with social media and the way TikTok and all that stuff’s working, man, it’s so vital to do it. It helps out so much. Times are changing, and it’s really cool to see.

The week after “Sweet Dreams” debuted, the biggest debut on the Hot 100 was “Pink Skies” by Zach Bryan. You guys aren’t necessarily doing the same thing, but do you feel like his success opened up more opportunities for guys working in your lane of alt-country, country-rock, whatever you want to call it? 

Yeah, absolutely. Zach Bryan is, like you said, opening up a whole new world to country music, or whatever genre you want to call it. Because [listeners] go look at “Pink Skies,” they go look at “Something in the Orange,” whatever Zach’s done. And it sets them up for other artists that are in that kinda same sound. So all he’s doing is bringing more people into our world — it’s incredible for all of us. 

Do you have any more plans for “Sweet Dreams” now that it’s out? Anything to keep it in the spotlight given its success?

No, I think we’ll let it have its own time. Especially when the record comes out, it’ll make a little bit more sense. It’s one of those songs that kind of rounds out the whole sound of the record. So I think we’ll just let it have its own day in the sun — and that’s why we put it out as a single. We didn’t want it to get overlooked in the record.

Anything fans can look forward to on the album or tour that they wouldn’t be expecting, or maybe wouldn’t be obvious from what you’ve done already? 

We did an XXXTENTACION cover of “Depression & Obsession.” It’s going to be on the deluxe, after the record comes out. He was one of my favorite underground rap artists, and I always like to throw something kinda left field into my records. I put my own spin to it, and I’m really excited for people to hear it. 

“Sweet Dreams” is a pretty well-traveled song title from music history. Do you have a favorite “Sweet Dreams” from the past, whether it’s Eurythmics or Patsy Cline or Beyoncé?

Ah, man. Any that come to mind, no, [not] right now. I thought I was the only one that thought of “Sweet Dreams”! And then, like you said, a lot of people were like, “Well, there’s this song, and that song…” I was like, “Sh-t. Maybe I’m not as smart as I thought I was.” 

A version of this story originally appeared in the June 8, 2024, issue of Billboard.