Cherie Oakley grew up singing with her family full time on the road in evangelism touring churches, fairs and festivals. At 20 years old, she made the leap and moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music. She began singing background vocals in the studio and on tour for acts like Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Gretchen Wilson, Martina McBride and Amy Grant before signing a deal Number One Group in 2017.
I got the chance to talk with Cherie about her background, how she would describe her music without using genre names, the story behind her single “Work It”, her love of model homes and so much more! Keep reading to see what she had to say!
Tell me first a little bit about how you got into making and performing music.
Well, I’ve [been doing it] my entire life [laughs]. I was brought up in an Evangelist household and my parents had been in the theater. So I literally grew up singing and performing my entire life, sing in the mornings and then we would perform original musicals that my parents wrote in the evenings. So ever since I could walk and talk, I just started all of that. I got discovered by an agent when I was four and got a manager at five, sang all over at churches, festivals, theaters and all kinds of stuff, kind of my whole life.
Wow. But was there a specific moment or person that made you realize that music is something that you wanted to pursue professionally for the rest of your life?
I was a weird kid. My earliest memories were always involving me being a singer. So it wasn’t just something I did with my family. It was something that I fantasized about and did when I would play with my dolls, my doll sang; when I would draw pictures, it was always in me singing on stage and all these people. I grew up having this dream of having this career as a singer and I don’t remember ever knowing anything different. It’s just always been that.
Gotcha. So something I’m always genuinely curious about is what artists want to convey with their music. So your sound now would typically be classified as country, but if you had to describe it without using genre names, how would you describe the music that you create?
I try to always give hopeful messages in my music. I think it’s important to shed a light on things that we’re passionate about, whether it’s something that’s negative or exciting or happy. I think as artists we’re always trying to convey things that are important to us and things that we feel like have a right to be said and need to be heard, but I always try to do it in a way where it makes people feel good. It shines a light perhaps on something that’s negative, but maybe shines a light on it in a way that creates sort of a positive spin on a negative outlook. I want my music to make people feel good. I want to inspire people.
Kind of going off of that a little bit, who are some of your musical influences? I know you said you grew up in a very musical households, so what was some of the music that influenced you?
Well, I grew up listening to all different kinds of music. Because my parents came from the theater, I definitely grew up watching lots of movie musicals, like Sound of Music was a must in my house. But my dad always had a love of country music. From church to church, that’s all he would listen to was country radio. So I also grew up being heavily influenced by people like Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks. During that time, Reba was massive and so to me, she embodied such class. She was beautiful, strong, intelligent and spoke her mind musically, but she was so classy. I just thought, “Man, she can command a stage like no one else.” So I’ve always loved artists that really know how to perform, not just sing but really perform. So I grew up idolizing Reba, Aretha Franklin, Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand and [that] turned into Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Garth Brooks. It’s all been kind of a melting pot of different artists. They all have something in common and that one thing in common is that they are performers; they feel their music, they really feel it and you feel it from them. So that’s the one common thread that they all have, regardless of what genre.
Now that you yourself are trying to make it as an artist, do you really try to put an emphasis on being not just a good artist, but a performer?
It’s not something that I try to do, I just feel more comfortable in front of a larger audience, I feel more comfortable on a bigger stage. It’s like the bigger, the better. It’s actually really hard for me to do songwriters nights or really acoustic, stripped down stuff with like me and just one player. I feel very awkward because I feel like I can’t be 100% of myself and therefore I don’t know what to do with myself. Give me a seat or a stool to sit in and ask me to sing, and [it’s like] okay, that’s very awkward for me because I perform and they go hand in hand for me. So it’s not even something that I even think about or try to do, it’s just what I’m most comfortable with. And I guess that has so much to do with who I did idolize growing up and it’s sort of something that’s been engrained in me ever since I can remember. So yeah, the bigger, the better; [the] bigger stage, more comfortable I am; the more at ease I am, the more at home I am; the more players, the more fun I have. You take all that away and I’ll still sing a song as passionate as ever, but I really want to work every ounce of that stage [laughs]. I can’t help it!
Yeah and I’m sure some of that has to come from your musical theater background because the essence of musical theater is going out and performing.
It is. And for me, everything has just kind of all sort of come together in this really great way to sort of support exactly where I am right now. I use so much of my classical training to make sure I stay healthy and well and I support everything vocally, properly. And then, I know how to get out there and perform and if you’re sick as a dog, I know how to flip that switch and turn it on and nobody would ever know I’m sick as a dog. A lot of that comes from the training in theater and then also just kind of doing it my whole life. But it’s interesting; it all just kind of has worked together really, really well. I’m really grateful for my crazy background [laughs].
I want to talk about your new single “Work It” a little bit. What’s the story behind that song?
It came from sort of a negative place originally because it came out of frustration from being a woman in country music. At the time, I wasn’t an artist, I was a writer and I was going into rooms and no one was wanting to write for females. They were saying a lot of really negative stuff, like, “Oh gosh, we don’t want to write for females. We know that’ll never get cut” and things like that that was just really upsetting for me.
I’ve done a lot of work as a background vocalist, so it changed everything with my work because I started to notice that there were fewer and fewer female background vocalists being used on the road. Everybody was just using a guy that could sing as high as he could who played guitar instead. Studio work also became less and less. I mean it really, really affected everything as there were fewer women being used in country music; it affected every single area, writing and touring and everything. So it came from a frustration. But I wanted to do something and I thought, “There’s gotta be something I can do here. This is not okay. Women have to be heard, women need to be heard.” Women are a huge part of country music, especially for someone like me.
I grew up in an era where there were a lot of women and all different kinds of women in country music, with all different kinds of things to say. They were important and they were just as important as any other artists. So it came from that type of frustrated place. But when I signed my deal and I became an artist and I was like, “I have an opportunity here to do something, to change this somehow.” And I realized that the greatest opportunity that artists have [is] we have this incredible platform to be able to write about things that we’re passionate about, to be able to cause people to think, to take a moment and stop and shed light on something. And we can do it in a way where it does cause change and it does provoke action, but it can be done in a really positive way.
You don’t have to shed a negative light on a negative situation. You can shed a positive light on a negative situation and have a positive outcome. So that’s really what I wanted to do with “Work It” and I wanted to talk about women and celebrate women. I didn’t want any type of negativity. I don’t want this to be any kind of a man bashing song or breakup song or he did me wrong-kind of song. I really wanted it to be about [how] proud I am to be a woman in country music. I am proud of my friends who are women in country music, who are songwriters and artists and background singers. And I really wanted to celebrate all women from all different walks of life, regardless of what you do. I feel like this day and age, women are wearing so many hats. They’re working full time jobs, they’re single moms, they’re married, they’re trying to figure out how to have a social life and pay all their bills. You know, I mean we’re just wearing a lot of hats and I feel like that needed to be celebrated. So that’s really where “Work It” came from and how it sort of evolved. Then I brought it to a couple of co-writers and I was like, “Here’s what I want to write about and I want to write it in a really fun, celebratory, positive light.”
Once you took it to those co-writers, did it come together pretty quickly or was it something that you still worked at for a while [until it was perfect]?
Every song is different. That one took quite a few writes; I think it took a total of five writes [laughs]. I think it started with a loop and that sort of set the stage. We [ended up having] written part of a song and it wasn’t 100% finished. Then the fifth and final write, I just sat by myself and was like, “You know what? I’m inspired.” I had some ideas that just were floating around in my head and I sat down and just kind of tied up some loose ends and finished it out. I have a studio in our house and I told my husband, I said, “Look, let’s go upstairs. I just want you to put a loop on and I’m going sing all these parts.” And he was like, “What?” Cause I had written parts that the other two co-writers hadn’t heard, just to kind of tie up some loose ends in some areas. So then I had all these crazy vocal parts in my head and he just hit record and I sang each part and all the harmony parts and all the stacks and all that kind of stuff. So that’s how the demo happened and that’s how “Work It” started. Then of course Dann Huff produced the final product and he brought in some amazing ideas on the musical side of things cause I just did it with a loop and with vocals. So yeah, it was pretty crazy, not the conventional way.
So once he was brought in, were there any major changes made to it once you got into the recording studio with him, whether it be lyrically or something sonically? Or was it just because the demo was on a loop, a lot of the song naturally changed?
Well he always brings so much to the table with his ears. He’ll always come up with some kind of interesting part for a guitar player to play, whether it’s a fill or whether it’s the main baseline. He came up with this freaking amazing baseline that goes throughout the chorus, which it just changed everything about it for me. He always does that. I mean, he really is a genius. To get to see him work and put his magical touch on everything, it was quite a thrill I have to say.
Yeah. I know you also got to shoot a music video for this song. So I’m curious, what was that experience like and was that your first time shooting a music video?
No, I’ve shot several music videos with different artists as a background vocalist and I’ve done them on all different kinds of budgets, bigger, smaller, everything else. Then I’ve done a few cover song music videos myself. But this was my first official video as an artist and it was awesome. Patrick Tohill was my director and it was great. It was amazing to have such a large crew for just little ol’ me and all my friends are in the video and family [is] in the video. I really tried to capture as many roles as I felt like display what women do every day, and then one of those roles in the video is my own as the artist. I just tried to showcase that women are so many things now; we’re sisters, we’re daughters, we’re friends, we’re co=workers, we’re mothers, we’re wives, we’re single trying to figure out our dating lives, we’re divorced and dating younger men. There’s just so many different women from every age range you can think of, and I really tried, lyrically, to depict that as much as I could in the song and then I tried to also do the same visually in the music video.
You’re still relatively new to the music game. So what are some music industry-related goals or benchmarks that you’re aiming to reach in the next couple of years?
Well, I always dream big. That’s something that my parents have always encouraged, and I’m so grateful for that because never once did my parents say, “When are you going to get a real job?” So for me, I dream big; sky’s the limit. I want my music to reach the masses. I don’t put any limits on where it can be sold, where it can be heard. I’m going to do a radio interview with a woman in Australia. I just want my music to be everywhere. To me, you shouldn’t ever put limits on how big you dream, you should never put limits on how far your music can reach because you never know what country it’s going to be the biggest in, you never know who’s going to need to hear that song and be inspired by it. And so for me, I mean, yeah I want to win the awards, and be the female artist of the year and sell out stadiums and the whole nine yards. Why put a cap on it?
Last question — our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us because we all have an inner nerd. So I’m curious what is something that you are currently nerding out about?
Well a favorite pastime of mine, which might just be flat out weird, I like to stalk model homes and it’s my favorite thing to do on a Sunday afternoon, just go, “Oh that’s a new neighborhood. Let’s go look at that model home.” I’ll spend all day stalking model homes and taking pictures of model homes and I don’t do anything with it. I just have them [laughs].
So you’re not even trying to build a house anytime soon or anything like that?[laughs] No, I don’t even fix up my own. I just really like to do it.