Ten thousand hours. One thousand songs. And plenty of practice. That’s what it takes to make a living off music. At least for Jeff Cormack. Since 2013, the longtime Denver musician has been wearing the hats of bandleader, recording engineer, producer, composer, songwriter and commercial licensing guru, all in the pursuit of a musical livelihood.
It’s why Cormack was chosen to be a guest of free monthly music-industry meetup Balanced Breakfast, happening Saturday, August 31, at Mercury Cafe. Beyond imparting commercial licensing advice and detailing his skills for fellow music-industry vets, local musicians and anyone who cares to listen, he wants people to remember that hard work will set you free.
The old adage perfectly sums up Cormack’s current career arc: In 2018, he joined Mosley Music Group, the publishing outfit of hip-hop producer extraordinaire Timbaland, to pen tunes specifically for licensing deals or placement with popular artists.
Now, Cormack’s longtime indie-rock band South of France has signed with Dualtone Records to release its sophomore album, Remember That Cool Thing We Did. The lead single, “Comme Ça,” will be featured on the animated Netflix series BoJack Horseman. Meanwhile, Cormack is about to get married, have a baby and move into a new house.
For all the stuff going on in his life, Cormack is oddly calm and collected. He’s sitting in front of the tall mixing desk that rounds out his home studio where he creates tracks and practices with South of France. Eventually, he’ll sink further into his chair and start mixing new songs to pitch for commercial use. But first he needs to remember how he got here.
“Well, I was working on a film score for a documentary, and I had written one song, and I really liked the vibe,” Cormack recalls. “So I kept going and wrote an album.”
The record, befittingly called Thirteen013 Summer Dreams, dropped in summer 2013 and marked Cormack’s first official solo album. Its cohesive mix of lush, hazy pop made it perfect for commercial use. Since then, the single “Run” has gained more than one million Spotify streams after being licensed by Harper’s Bazaar.
Licensing occurs when a company pays an artist or a music publisher to use copyrighted music. From a business standpoint, it’s a guaranteed way for musicians to get paid.
“That’s what hit me,” Cormack explains, setting down his Topo Chico to talk with his hands. “Watching this solo album surpass everything I worked so hard on — what it comes down to is songwriting. Can you sit down and write a song that people can connect with? That solo album I put out — I never played it live, I recorded it in six days, it’s kinda sloppy, but it’s some of the best songwriting I’ve ever done.”
Cormack’s knack for solid songwriting that’s prime for licensing didn’t just show up one day. After growing up learning piano, guitar and drums, plus playing in a high school band, it was actually snowboarding, of all things, that led him to pursue music as a full-time job. As a teen, he began hitting the slopes and quickly got sponsored, turning his winter hobby into a nearly ten-year career before injuries forced him to quit.
“Snowboarding was how I got looped in with filmmakers who were doing action-sports documentaries,” Cormack says. “My friend was like, ‘Yeah, we’re always looking for music. So what do you have?’ I sent him one track, and he wanted a bunch more.”
His first attempt at composing, for the documentary One for the Road, won him a Best Soundtrack Award from the 2011 IF3 International Freeski Film Festival. Cormack soon realized his snowboarding expertise and love of music could translate into making film scores.
In between working on films, Cormack decided to form South of France in 2012 and try his hand at fun, reverb-soaked indie-rock songs. Ones that could sound just as exciting on the big screen as they could on a Spotify playlist. The result was South of France’s debut, Another Boring Sunrise.
With composition work under his belt and South of France in full form, Cormack signed a deal with Rough Trade Records to do songwriting and took part in two SongCamp writing retreats organized by Rough Trade and Anthem Entertainment Group (formerly Olé). The camps were held at Westlake Recording Studios, where Michael Jackson recorded “Thriller,” and included a number of bona fide hitmakers, including Timbaland co-producer Angel Lopez.
Cormack was initially nervous about being around so much talent inside such a famed studio, but he simply focused on the work and his knowledge. Two of the songs he started at the camp ended up being commercially viable.
After that success, Mosley Music Group decided to bring Cormack into the fold to work on commercial songwriting. In the last session, which consisted of four fourteen-hour days of nonstop writing, Cormack and the Mosley team cut several tracks that have now been placed in a variety of media, including an upcoming Toyota commercial. To organize all the work more easily, Cormack decided to put it under the moniker Kingsly. Even though Cormack is an indie rocker at heart, he has crafted hip-hop bangers, smoky R&B romps and infectious pop numbers under that name.
“I’m obsessed with pop and hip-hop, but I can’t sing like a twenty-year-old female or rap,” Cormack says with a laugh. “So it’s fun to write songs and find other artists who can pull them off.”
To Cormack, these accomplishments and different artist personas are just a means of diversifying his résumé. He maintains the mindset of a freelancer trying to make money off many different gigs, including producing and recording bands — most notably, a 2015 EP by Denver psych-rockers Flaural.
All of this will be covered in delicious detail during Saturday’s Balanced Breakfast event.
Started in San Francisco by DJ Stefan Aronsen, the meetup aims to educate anyone who enjoys music, but especially those who are in the music business. Currently, Balanced Breakfast hosts monthly meetups in 27 cities. Denver chapter founders Reed Fuchs and Mona Magno think Cormack’s perspective on how to make music work for him will inspire and inform many attendees.
“Licensing is one of the things I’m really excited for him to talk about, because it’s such a mystery to most people and can be really lucrative,” Fuchs says.
Denver bands struggling to eke out a paid existence from playing support slots at various venues or organizing small tours could be generating revenue through licensing. But many musicians don’t know what it is.
“For some artists and myself, if someone asked at some point, ‘Are you interested in licensing?’ I would be like, ‘I have no idea what that is,’” Magno explains. “I think that’s why it’s great to have Cormack in there: to elaborate on aspects of the industry that people don’t know about.”
It also requires a flexible mindset that some artists don’t have.
“You have to be willing to compromise,” Cormack says. “I think people who are early in their careers are a little too stubborn, but once they have responsibilities like dogs, babies and mortgages, they can ease up a little. It doesn’t matter what style of music you’re making; you still have to be willing to meet someone in the middle.”
And — in Denver, specifically — Cormack has found that many musicians are just too band-oriented to give songwriting and licensing a second thought.
“It’s hard for people to understand I’m a paid songwriter,” he says. “In other cities where music is more of an industry, it’s a pretty normal gig, whereas in Denver, it doesn’t really exist. It’s more like, ‘We should form a band’ instead of, ‘We should just write and pitch it and see what happens.”
Of course, Cormack still loves being in a band and is elated that South of France was picked up by Dualtone. As things were growing stagnant at Rough Trade, he decided to reach out to Dualtone and offer up his writing services to bring a fresh, indie-rock perspective to the otherwise folk-heavy label. Dualtone not only wanted Cormack as a writer, but decided to release South of France’s second effort.
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Remember That Cool Thing We Did is set for release by early 2020. Judging from the Strokes-esque “Comme Ça,” this new album is a throwback to the golden age of indie rock. It’s easy to see why the earworm song — complete with its sunny guitar licks, rollicking beat and instantly gratifying hook — caught the ear of both Dualtone and BoJack Horseman.
For Cormack, getting a record deal or landing a song on a popular show all circles back to love and labor.
“I think it comes down to putting in 10,000 hours — the more you do it, the better you’re going to get,” Cormack concludes. “If you were to put together all of the stuff I’ve done, I’m at probably more than 1,000 songs. Without those, I stand no chance at writing a good one. So the way I’ve done it is always showing up and working hard.”
South of France plays at 8 p.m. Friday, August 30, at the Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax Avenue. Tickets are $16 to $18. Denver Balanced Breakfast: Jeff Cormack takes place at 11 a.m. Saturday, August 31, at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, and is free.