This evening, The Tonight Show will feature a musician who, about three weeks ago, was ready to start looking for a new job. Thad Cockrell will perform his song “Swingin’,” with some remote accompaniment from the Roots, in a performance that was booked because Jimmy Fallon happened to be buying a light switch at the right hardware store at the right time.
The unexpected booking is one of those classic rock and roll fairy tales: For the past two decades, Cockrell has worked as a musician, releasing several albums under his own name and as Leagues, while also plying his trade as a professional songwriter in Nashville. He’s weathered countless ups and downs in his quest for that big break, but by the end of 2020, after dropping his sixth album, If In Case You Feel the Same in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Cockrell admits he was ready to call it.
“[The album] comes out and, you know, it does what it can, but it’s as flatlined as something can be,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I’ve been doing this a long time, but in order to do this on a viable level, enough people have to sign up for the conversation.”
In a story he shared on Instagram that’s since gone viral — and which Fallon re-told on The Tonight Show last week — Cockrell spent the first few days of 2021 writing down his goals and intentions for the new year. They included finding a way to release all the music he’d recorded during the pandemic, but also: “Look for a new career.”
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He wasn’t sure exactly what he would do: He’d earned his master’s degree in family therapy and counseling and could always go back to that. An ardent cook, he was also considering restaurant jobs or finding a way to bottle and sell the homemade hot sauce he’d been making for friends for nearly a decade. “I was really just trying to figure it out,” Cockrell says.
When Cockrell sent his list off to his management team, he was already predicting they were ready to drop him anyway. But on the phone, he was greeted with the news that Fallon had heard “Swingin’” and booked him for The Tonight Show.
“It’s hard to explain,” Cockrell says of the whiplash. “Like, maybe night and day does it, but there’s sun shining somewhere. I couldn’t speak. I was like, ‘Are y’all screwing with me?’ And they said, ‘No.’ And I just started bawling my eyes out.”
Fallon’s side of the story took place late last year.
A light switch in his home had broken and he ventured out to a hardware store to grab the necessary supplies. “Oh, I know how to do this thing,” Fallon says. “I think I learned it in basic electricity or something when I was in high school.” Cockrell’s song came over the speakers, causing Fallon to stop shopping and immediately pull out his phone to identify the track.
“It had this George Harrison-y feel, or ELO, Jeff Lynne-type of vibes,” Fallon tells Rolling Stone of Cockrell’s “Swingin’.” “I just stood there and listened to the whole song. I was mesmerized… I just kept listening to it. It’s a great song to crank in the car on the way home.”
Fallon soon sent an email Tonight Show music booker Julie Gurovitsch, asking if they could get Cockrell on the show. It was only after Cockrell was confirmed and he’d shared his story on Instagram that Fallon learned his musical guest had been on the verge of changing careers.
An aura of fate has surrounded If In Case You Feel the Same practically from its inception, though it took until this month for it to be fully realized. The album is a few years old, and its creation and release was spurred in large part by Cockrell’s friend, the artist Becca Mancari, who happened to play some of Cockrell’s tunes for her Bermuda Triangle bandmate Brittany Howard. Howard fell in love with Cockrell’s music and linked him up with ATO Records, who released the album last June; she also lent her voice to the album cut, “Higher.”
Cockrell began working on the album in Nashville, then drove out to Los Angeles to finish it. While he wasn’t able to connect with his dream producer, Blake Mills, he ended up working with Tony Berg — who just happened to share a studio space with Mills. Even though Mills, an accomplished solo artist and producer in his own right, does little session work these days, he still contributed a bit of guitar to If In Case You Feel the Same.
Cockrell describes If In Case You Feel the Same as “a love letter to all the music I was obsessed with growing up.” Each song pays homage to a different set of artists, and he adds, “It sounds like a mixtape because it’s supposed to. I was a song person, not a genre person. I don’t write ‘Swingin’’ without David Bowie and Arcade Fire.”
“Swingin’” encapsulates the fighting spirit Cockrell has learned to embrace during a career that’s taught him a lot about disappointment and perseverance. “I think that’s what makes the record connect,” he says. “Because even if you’ve not made any money doing something, if you make a record as if it’s made you a millionaire — I think that’s the only way to do it. It’s like you’re fighting your own cynicism.”
In that way, it makes sense that Fallon would latch onto “Swingin’.” As Cockrell himself put it in his viral Instagram video, Fallon is the “king of the uncynical.” His act is all about big tent laughs; it’s broad, goofy and heartfelt, a little sardonic and cheeky, but never misanthropic or disenchanted. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that music — a form generally way more earnest and heart-on-sleeve than comedy — has always been such a big component of his career.
“I would do impressions of bands, and that was good for me because I got to open up for a lot them,” Fallon recalls of his stand-up days. “I opened up for the Monkees and Air Supply, Counting Crows, Fiona Apple. I played Woodstock! I think every comedian has that rock star thing somewhere in their brain, like, ‘Man, I wish I could go out there and do that.'” He adds, “You just want that reaction, and I think that’s what music gets you — a big reaction.”
While Cockrell may be the first Tonight Show guest booked thanks to a happenstance trip to a hardware store, Fallon has always kept his ears open for up-and-comers and lesser-known acts. In 2011, his Late Night famously hosted Odd Future’s national TV debut (it ended with Tyler, the Creator leaping on Fallon’s back), while Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats, Alessia Cara and Julia Michaels all made their late-night TV debuts on The Tonight Show (Rateliff and Cara in 2015, Michaels in 2017). Just last year, the Irish post-punk band Fontaines D.C. played The Tonight Show after Fallon heard them on Seattle’s famed radio station, KEXP.
For Fallon, these performances provide a unique joy, one that Cockrell will get to experience tonight: “It’s those moments where you’re like, ‘Yeah, man, I know it’s hard, the grind is tough!'” Fallon says. “But it just goes to show, don’t give up.”