Photo: Stephanie Siau

Caleb Hearn

Ahead of the release of his new song "Little Bit Better" with ROSIE, Caleb Hearn talked NF, his decline in virality, and new music

On a blustery but relatively warm February morning during what was his first visit to New York City, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Caleb Hearn was attempting to navigate the copious amounts of scaffolding on the sidewalk, as well as the lack of any visible signage, to locate the meeting spot for this interview. Once we sat down in the middle of the crowded Brooklyn coffee shop, he was cool, collected, and incredibly quick-witted.

He was in town to promote his new duet with singer-songwriter ROSIE, “Little Bit Better,” which was set to drop just over 12 hours later. The pair would be celebrating the release with an intimate set at Rockwood Music Hall later that night. We discussed the song, and its implications, in detail.  

“Even when it’s hard, with you… it’s a little bit, little bit better.”

“ROSIE’s brand and aura is so much about mental health awareness… it’s a driving factor in her music,” said Hearn, on what drew him to the “Never The 1” singer. “I’m maybe not as vocal about it as she is, but music has been such a healing thing for me mentally. I love to talk about it, but she has gone much further than I have with it, and I envy her for that.”

The track sees both players take on the role of damaged lovers seemingly in the early stages of a new relationship, each sharing their own perspective of the other’s evident emotional scars. Hearn takes the first verse: “I met somebody… selfless and kind/ She’s got a smile even when she isn’t fine/ She can be hurting, but she’s got enough love to fill up Tennessee.” ROSIE takes the second, her light, emotive mixed register in its full gut-wrenching fury: “I met somebody… gentle and smart/ He underestimates the size of his heart/ He can be laughing, but he’s got enough pain to fill up New York City.” From beginning to end, lead vocals and all, they stick to a unison vocal line to maintain an even playing field emotionally.

They meet for the chorus, pleading that the other stick around: “Please, stay… love me through the weather/ Please say this will be forever/ Hold me in the darkness/ Even when it’s hard, with you… it’s a little bit, little bit better.” “I think what we were going for in the song is that we’re both going through these things, and we will continue to,” he said. “Obviously, with whoever you’re with, you want to make it A LOT better. Your partner isn’t supposed to just FIX you. That’s an internal battle. But life is so hard, and having someone that can make the difficult things just a little bit better is enough sometimes.”

Full Discovery Mode 

Hearn, who grew up in a small North Carolina town of 1,000 people before making the move to Nashville, began his career trajectory in a very different way. His debut, and so far, only, full-length album, 2020’s Reflections, saw him jump on the NF rap-sung bandwagon. The album track “Anxiety” was a glaring example of the rapper’s influence with an almost identical pitch-shifted vocal intro, cadence, and flow to something off NF’s Therapy Sessions.

He acknowledges Reflections for what it was for him in that moment but still discusses it with a raised eyebrow and halfhearted embarrassed smile. “The project I’m working on now is what I’m going to want to consider my debut album because it’s… me. I was in full discovery mode making the music I was making in 2019-20. I was releasing independently, just throwing stuff at the wall… not feeling like anything was digging deep into how I feel.”

“… I know for a FACT that the MUSIC is Better”

A ballad called “Always Be 2.0” resulted in a change of sound… an exclusive shift to piano and acoustic guitar-driven singer-songwriter fare. He softened his visual aesthetic and presence. Songs like “1000 reasons,” “Damage,” and “It’s Always Been You” racked up streams in the tens of millions. Hearn still shows love to NF, who was a pivotal voice throughout his teen years, but he successfully pivoted away from that sound.

His 2023 EP Birthday’s & Funerals, even with just three songs, is his best project yet. He challenged himself structurally and lyrically, landing on a more country feel with the title track and “Dear Son or Daughter,” the latter a career highlight in which he nails the often-dead end/cliché concept of a “Dear ___” song, penning the song to his future child: “If I get to be your father, I’ll be the best one I know how to be/ I’ll be your strength whenever you feel weak/ And when the time comes, I’ll let you take care of me… ‘til I have to leave.”

As strong as that project is, it failed to move the needle in a generally post-COVID music landscape. ROSIE is a victim of the changing times as well. Her latest solo single “Lose Me Too,” while incredibly solid, has, by her standards, received minimal attention. “It’s frustrating, but I know for a FACT that the MUSIC is BETTER,” said Hearn, referring to both his and ROSIE’s recent releases. “It makes no sense. There are going to be different variables in every situation, but I think the key to being not just a successful artist but a HAPPY artist, is to understand that you’re making better music and that it WILL click if it’s meant to click.”

Just A Hurdle 

Streaming numbers, while somewhat tangible, are not always a defining factor of an artist’s relevancy. “I can probably speak for both ROSIE and I, but one thing I can say is that we’ve developed a small following that WILL come and ARE coming to shows and streaming the songs, but that’s it,” he said. “I just need a lot more of that. Multiply that by 1,000 and we’re good. We have to reach a larger audience before it translates to streams.”

While confident that his next wave of material will do well, “Little Bit Better” was almost a litmus test for both artists. “It’s the first one that has really received some real attention, and I’m excited to see what it does,” he said. “I think that’s going to be a good indicator of if this sound is going to work for me.” If he was bluffing for the sake of it, you couldn’t tell.

Just a few hours later, the pair arrived at Rockwood and stepped out from the green room to watch and support the performer playing the slot before theirs. When they took the stage, they debuted the track to a room of 30-35 that included ROSIE’s family, a handful of her dedicated fans, and some close-knit team members. A true no-pressure situation with good vibes all around and undeniable musical chemistry between the pair.

At the time of writing, “Little Bit Better” has accumulated just under two million streams, and counting, on Spotify in just over a week, and has been added to major playlists such as Pop Rising, Chill Pop, and teen beats. The success of the track is, by all accounts, the jumping-off point for both him and ROSIE. The proof that maybe, just maybe, the algorithms, the over-saturation of the market, and the post-COVIDness of the music industry is just a hurdle for them to push through.

Stream “Little Bit Better” :