Hit songwriters and brothers Stephen (pictured at right) and Justin Kirk, of new country duo Sunset West, were raised in a musical household where influences like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson had as much of an impact on them as Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts.
”When you grow up in the south like we did, the subject matter of country songs really speaks to you,” says Stephen. “The storytelling of country music has always inspired us. It’s like a different language. It comes from an honest, true place.”
In pursuit of their music dreams, the Kirks headed west from Charlotte, NC to Nashville in 2012 where they’ve spent the past decade writing and recording with other hitmakers like Ernest and Chris DeStefano. In 2016, they tried their hand as a pop duo, TRYON, opening for Carrie Underwood on select dates of her Blown Away Tour in 2012 and 2013.
Later, they headed west again to Los Angeles, staking their claim as pop songwriters and producers, Justin working with Jason Mraz, Tyler Jordan and more while Stephen is a co-writer and producer behind two of BTS’ worldwide hits, “Butter” and “Permission to Dance.”
They’re now going back to their roots as country duo as Sunset West, their debut single, “Cold Hearted,” released today.
“Sunset West is the culmination of everything that we’ve experienced in music and loved about music,” says Stephen.
”We wanted to blend the lines of the energy of pop music, but have the soul of country music, which was so important to us as writers and musicians,” adds Justin. “We want our music to come across as high energy. It’s a nice blend of both pop and country, but we hope our roots come out,”We are boys from the south, so we want that to show through.”
“Cold Hearted” is inspired by a breakup Stephen experienced, with lyrics about lamenting a lost love contrasting the summery melody. The bass nods to Jackson and the roaring guitar to Urban’s style (“the way he plays his guitar really spoke to me,” says Stephen). The harmonies are influenced by the brothers’ mutual love of Rascal Flatts (they point to “Take Me There” as a formative song) — and their complementary (thanks to DNA) vocal cords.
“As a duo, we wanted our first single to be something that really spoke to who we are as brothers and as artists,” adds Stephen. “I feel like our whole lives, we’ve been taking country songs and making them more pop, and now we’re making true, honest country songs that sound like us.”
In fact, the Kirks were in the process of writing a song for Sunset West that eventually morphed into “Butter.” Originally titled “Down to a T,” the song was a play-on-words about having someone who knows you “to a T” and by song’s end has them “down to a T-shirt.” Realizing it was “too pop” for Sunset West, the song went into a Dropbox folder where it lay dormant until Stephen got into a room with BTS frontman RM, later collaborating with co-writers Jenna Andrews, Rob Grimaldi, Alex Bilowitz, Sebastian Garcia and Ron Perry to create what is now the chart-topping, multi-platinum hit, “Butter.” “That turned into a pop song for another band because the stuff that leans more country is the stuff that we’re interested in cutting for ourselves,” Stephen says.
On the horizon for Sunset West is a second single dropping this fall and an EP slated for Feb. 2023, along with a collaboration with country star Kelsea Ballerini.
With Sunset West, the Kirks goal is to move country music forward in a way that combines what they’ve learned cutting their teeth in both Nashville and L.A.
“Moving to Nashville changed how we looked at music and how we wrote songs,” Stephen explains. “It really influenced how we made music across the board. … Today what we bring is a new energy that has worked in L.A.; it’s worked in Nashville; it’s worked globally. We want to push the genre into a different space it hasn’t been. There’s a place for everyone in the world, and for us, I think that’s another element to pushing the lines of country. I think people are going to experience something different with our music, but the message always is acceptance and love.”