To rising country singer, songwriter, and musician Madison Kozak, it feels fitting that her debut, “First Last Name,” pays tribute to a father-daughter relationship. Not only did the touching ballad kickstart her career by leading to a publishing deal with powerhouse company Big Loud, but it also feels meaningful because it was Kozak’s dad who taught the Nashville-based artist everything she knows and loves about country music. Growing up the seventh child in a family of eight siblings in rural Ontario, Kozak treasured precious time with her father, who introduced her to the greats — Loretta Lynn (Kozak’s first concert), Patsy Cline, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash — and also taught her to play guitar when he discovered she loved to sing.
“Where I come from, kids and their parents would go to a hockey tournament every weekend,” Kozak says. “My dad and I were a little different. We would pack up this 1973 convertible Eldorado Cadillac, which was like my tour bus with my logo printed on the ragtop, and head out to the nearest county fair, festival, retirement home, or church — anywhere we could get in to play country music. That's just what we loved to do. My mom would make me little outfits, a matching cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and hot glue embellishments on my cowgirl shirts. That's where it all started.”
When Kozak was 10, she entered a singing contest at a country music festival in Ontario, the annual Havelock Country Jamboree, and won. “I'll never forget when they announced my name as the winner,” she says. “My parents started bawling. I think they were shocked because they'd never seen their kid, or any kid for that matter, perform without fear for that many people. I just felt like the stage was my living room. It was like performing a song with my dad at home was no different than performing it on a stage in front of 10,000 people. Now I like to joke that I peaked when I was 10,” she adds with a laugh.
That, of course, is not true. Now 22, Kozak is primed for a big future. At 14, she convinced her parents to move to Nashville where she continued to hone her skills as a vocalist and also learned that she wanted to write songs — a discovery she made while studying music business at Belmont University. “I was so inspired by the creativity of people my own age and getting to write from the heart while I was there,” she says. “I was really encouraged to do that and kind of come into my own. ‘First Last Name’ was one of the first songs where I felt, ‘Okay, I can do this,’ because it was the first time I got in a writing room and was completely honest. I didn’t worry about what my friends might want to hear or what the radio wanted to hear. It was just me telling my story.”
Co-written by Kozak with Claire Douglas and James Slater, “First Last Name” is a stellar showcase for Kozak’s gentle twang and vivid, detailed storytelling. Singing with heartfelt authenticity, she describes her dad as “the son of a salesman” and “one hell of a backseat driver” who puts his “pocket change on the counter” and isn’t “much of a crier till you’re halfway down the aisle.” Kozak wrote it during her junior year of college when she realized she didn’t have a gift for her dad for Father’s Day and decided to write him a song.
“I got all in my feelings and started playing these vignettes in my head from when I was younger, like a home movie of different times when we would hop in the car and drive four hours to go play a 20-minute set with a band we'd never met, singing the Dixie Chicks at the top of our lungs in that Cadillac, or him coming to my dance competition,” she recalls. “I walked into the writing room and said to James and Claire, ‘I want to write a song about my dad.’”
“When I first moved to Nashville, I kept hearing one piece of recurring advice, which was that was that ‘three minutes can change your life,’” Kozak continues. "And that's exactly what happened with ‘First Last Name’ — all these amazing opportunities because of one song.” Kozak was discovered when she performed ‘First Last Name’ for a panel of publishers that Belmont put together to critique the students’ work. There were four publishers on the panel, including Big Loud. By the time Kozak finished singing the first chorus they were all weeping.
It wasn’t long before Kozak found herself opening for Willie Nelson and Morgan Wallen, as well as performing at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Café and CMA Fest. Kozak is also a newly minted recording artist — the first signed to Songs & Daughters, Big Loud’s new female-focused joint label venture with award-winning songwriter Nicolle Galyon. The company’s mission is to be a music house for female creatives and address the gender disparity in country radio by nurturing female artists. Kozak describes Songs & Daughters president Galyon – who has written hit songs for Dan + Shay, Miranda Lambert, and Keith Urban – as a mentor before the two even met. “She was a big inspiration to me as a female writer who also came out of Belmont and worked really hard to make a name for herself in Nashville. I really looked up to her and still do.”
Kozak’s career has come full circle in other ways. She recently performed “First Last Name” at a charity event headlined by Urban at Nashville’s fabled Ryman Auditorium. “It was just me and my guitar in that beautiful mother church,” she says. “My dad was in the audience and I thought about how we toured the Ryman on our first trip to Nashville when I was 10. He took my picture outside the building and I told him, ‘I'm going to play here someday.’ To see these things come to fruition … it might sound cheesy, but it’s a dream come true.”