Five Lessons Learned with Trevor Rosen
The ’99 UM-Dearborn graduate reflects on his unpredictable path to becoming a hit Nashville songwriter and founding member of the country band Old Dominion.
1. You can survive the death of your dream.
From age 5 all the way into college, hockey was all I ever wanted to do. My dream was to play in the NHL, and so when I went to college, I chose Northern Michigan University, which has a Division I hockey program. I thought I was on my way; then a month into the season, a few teammates and I got caught smoking pot and got kicked off the team. It was a brick wall in terms of playing there or getting drafted. But then I talked to the coach at UM-Dearborn, and he convinced me to come play. I knew I wasn’t going to get drafted out of that league, but it was great hockey, and to be honest, it took the pressure off. When you have this thing that’s the one thing you always planned on doing and it’s not there anymore, you have to find a way to move forward. It meant doing some major soul-searching over those next three years. But I look back on that as the time I grew the most as a person.
2. Feeling lost can lead you somewhere.
When I got to UM-Dearborn, it felt like everything was in flux. I didn’t have that definite profession that I wanted to do, so I tried a little of everything. Psychology, anthropology, philosophy — it was all extremely interesting to me. I even became kind of a science nerd, which was not how anyone in high school would have described me. It all gave me such a bigger sense of the world and myself. Outside of classes, I started acting. I tried standup comedy. I was playing in bands and writing music, though not necessarily with the thought of pursuing it as a career. The thing is, so many people are just pushed to specialize immediately when they get to school, and I get that. But the biggest thing I took from my college years is all the self-exploration I got to do. Up to that point, my whole life had been pretty regimented. And then suddenly, it was like the whole world was open.
3. Your big break is really a slow-motion series of small breaks.
It was actually an old hockey friend that led me to Nashville. When we played together, I would bring my guitar on bus trips, and he was always very intrigued. He ended up going into music before me. In fact, I found that out when I heard him on the radio one day. So I emailed him, we reconnected and he planted the seed about moving down to Nashville to pursue songwriting. We didn’t do it right away, but eventually, my wife and I decided to give it a chance, and that’s been 16 years now. The thing that you don’t know when you’re going into it is the whole journey is really just a series of carrots being dangled in front of you. It’s funny the things you count as a big deal or a big break when you’re first starting out. Just meeting a certain person from a certain band can feel like the thing that’s gonna break things open for you, and it isn’t like that. But it is a big deal in a sense because it’s that excitement and naivete that keep you moving on to the next carrot. If you knew in advance how hard it was going to be, you’d never stick with it.
4. Setbacks can make you hustle harder.
There have been so many times when something that seemed like a bad thing ended up being the best thing that could have happened. For example, my first publishing deal was a three-year deal. And by the end of it, I didn’t have any big hits or cuts, and the publisher decided not to renew the contract. It was scary suddenly not to have a salary. But I was never more motivated. I started writing twice as much, and I got better because of it. It makes you hustle because you know you need to find a way.
5. Don’t chase somebody else’s idea of what’s good.
In Nashville, I watch a lot of young songwriters chase the radio. I think we all do that to some extent when we move here: We have this idea that we want to write a Kenny Chesney song — or what we think sounds like a Kenny Chesney song. And hopefully at some point you come to realize it doesn’t work that way: If you’re trying to write what Kenny Chesney sounds like right now, that song was written five years ago. The turning point for us — first as songwriters and then as a band — was when we started to write stuff that we thought was great, even if that meant lyrics that were too wordy or a chorus that didn’t sound like a chorus. At the end of the day, if we wanted to listen to it over and over in the car, then we felt we were onto something. And I think that applies to things beyond music. If it’s going to happen for you, it’ll happen because you have something interesting to say and are willing to say it.