Diplo Doubles Down With Second Country Collection, Calls For More Nashville Collaborators [Interview]
When Diplo, or Thomas Wesley Pentz, released his first collection of collaborations with country artists—dubbed Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley, Chapter 1: Snake Oil—heads in Nashville turned.
The mega-hit DJ/producer behind the multi-Platinum hits “Where Are U Now” (with Skrillex and Justin Bieber), “Close To Me” (with Ellie Goulding and Swae Lee) and many others had dug into the country community, creating songs with Thomas Rhett, Zac Brown, Cam, Orville Peck and more, puzzling some on Music Row.
No one was prepared for Diplo’s collaboration with a then-rising new artist, Morgan Wallen, to became the six-time-Platinum smash hit “Heartless.” The trappy, dance-pop beat of the track mixed with the grit and ache of Wallen’s voice was a perfect mix, driving “Heartless” to become one of the biggest songs of 2019 and 2020.
Now, Diplo is back at it again, scratching his itch to create refreshing country sounds. His newest project, Diplo Presents Thomas Wesley: Chapter 2 — Swamp Savant is out today (April 28) via Columbia, featuring collaborations with Sturgill Simpson, Dove Cameron, Morgan Wade, Parker McCollum, Sierra Ferrell, Paul Cauthen and more.
While it is quite unique for a pop music headliner to take such an interest in Nashville, it makes sense for Diplo, as he spent a lot of formative years in the Middle Tennessee area. He even graduated from Hendersonville High School in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
“I delivered Chinese food to Reba McEntire‘s house in high school,” Diplo tells MusicRow. “I was always a country fan. I loved country and hip-hop growing up. Some of my favorite artists were Alan Jackson and Wu-Tang Clan. That’s kind of normal if you live in the South and [are] exposed to both things.”
After spending time near Nashville, Diplo moved out to the swamplands of Florida, where his dad lived. “We had both worlds [in Florida]. We had a really big hip-hop scene and a lot of people just loved country. My dad would drive me every day to the Indian reservation and buy cigarettes—we would listen to country records.”
As he got older, Diplo dug in to Americana music as well as classic country and rock. His attention turned to modern country music, as the genre has grown over the last few years, and discovered different sub-genres such as Texas country, Americana/folk country and straight-ahead Nashville country.
“I’ve learned about modern country in the last five years out of necessity, because it was getting bigger. I was meeting some of these artists who were asking to work with me. I was learning about them and I thought it was exciting.”
Diplo’s first Thomas Wesley Presents project got him in the room with Nashville songwriters for the first time, which he says was a welcomed new method of making music.
“[When I first started writing that album], I was like, ‘Damn, these country songwriters are really good.’ They’re really fast. They have great voices. They don’t take any bullshit and they’re diplomatic in the studio—they have their opinion but they listen to you,” he says. “It was just a different way [of writing] than I’m used to. I’m used to either having to fully control the session and do everything myself, or [having to navigate] when an artist has such an ego that it’s hard to get anything great.
“The country guys, they really have respect for me and I have a mutual respect for each of them. There’s a level of trust too, because they’re really going out on limb.”
He shares that even though plenty of country artists are interested in working with him, they and their teams get nervous about what a collaboration with a pop-hitmaker could look like in their catalogs.
“That was something I had to navigate. It was hard to find the guys who would give me a chance. Thomas Rhett and Young Thug is something I never thought I would ever see, and I think that was my favorite record from the [first] project,” Diplo says, adding that he also looked to rising stars and those on the periphery of country music who could take a bigger risk and be on a track with him.
“We had people who were on the periphery of country because they were giving me a chance and we were doing something different, pushing the boundaries,” he says. “For this next one, I just leaned into the genres I loved and the songs that I thought would really tie together as a strong set of songs that push country in different directions.”
Earlier in the year, Diplo released a taste of the Thomas Wesley Presents project’s second portion when he dropped “Wasted” with Kodak Black and Koe Wetzel. The track combines Wetzel’s country grunge sound with Black’s signature flows, culminating to Diplo’s vision of artists that work perfectly together who wouldn’t normally collaborate.
“With Koe, we made a heavy rock record with a country attitude with Kodak Black. It was very confusing for people, but a lot of people like Kodak and Koe. They have a similar fan base, but you wouldn’t think about it that way.”
On another track, Diplo captures the glitz of Urban Cowboy. He enlisted Sturgill Simpson, Dove Cameron and Johnny Blue Skies for the track “Use Me (Brutal Hearts).”
“Something I was really inspired by was the Urban Cowboy movie, with the nightclubs and the idea of dancing to disco and country music, which really had this little affair in the ’70s. That’s where ‘Use Me’ came from. I really wanted to do something that felt like country and disco,” Diplo says. “I really felt like Sturgill could do it because he’s such a huge Bee Gees and Tom Jones fan.”
As for the next chapter, Diplo is still itching to make more creative country sounds with other Music City hitmakers.
“I’d love to do more. I’d love to get more artists on with me. I want other artists to say, ‘This guy is successful and he’s doing it in our world, too.’ I think I proved that with ‘Heartless,'” he shares. “We’re not getting country radio [on board yet] and we’re not getting on pop radio, but we really crushed on streaming. We really do a good job with some SiriusXM stations like The Highway, who really don’t have the rules that Nashville has. We just find where we can get in and then we push it that way.”
When asked if there’s someone specific he’d like to collaborate with, Diplo says definitely Luke Combs.
“I love Luke Combs. He’s so awesome and I think there’ll be something that we could find that could be a mix for both of us and would make sense,” he says. “Doing a collaboration is not a dirty word. It’s not so crazy. I think guys take it way too serious in Nashville, but what’s the worst that could happen? You have a weird song? The greatest records come to those people who take chances. So anybody who’s willing to take a chance with me, let me know. I just love that Nashville has so many great voices.”
Diplo will take over Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon for a special Thomas Wesley show on May 10. Tickets are available here.