“It’s been interesting to talk to my co-producer,” Carrie Underwood says of the gap between how she creatively functions and what people think. “And this might just be musically, but he would say, ‘The No. 1 thing people ask me is, ‘Can she really write? Does she do anything (to contribute)?’”
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She pauses for a moment, leans closer and locks eyes. It’s not anger, but gratitude she exudes.
“He’s been very nice to share with me that he says, ‘Yes, she does, and she can! She’s most definitely in there.’
“It’s weird to talk about somebody else complimenting me, but David (Garcia) has always been quick to let people know how involved I am, as a writer, and in what I bring to the team overall.
“I didn’t realize people didn’t think I was creative in that way, because I’ve come from a singing show. People know I love to sing – and they think I’m alright at it — but it’s interesting they didn’t think I was creative in other ways as well.”
Carrie Underwood, unless you’ve lived under a rock, burst into public consciousness as the golden-haired girl who won the fourth season of “American Idol.” The series, then in its initial dominance transfixed America, and the young woman with the massive pipes who wanted to be a teacher became the ultimate Cinderella story.
Simultaneously shuttled out on the “Idol Tour” and into the studio to record Some Hearts, it was a blur. But a blur worth noting.
“Jesus Take The Wheel” hit country radio hard. The faith-based ballad about a young mother hitting an icy patch and spinning out of control was designed for optimal vocal pole vaulting – and emotion-wrenching. By the time it hit No. 1, country music had a brand new “it” girl – equal parts Amy Grant, Faith Hill and Mariah Carey.
By the time she’d earned her seven Grammys, 15 Academy of Country Music Awards, a dozen American Music Awards and nine Country Music Association Awards, she was the goodie-two-shoes diva who could sandblast the most challenging vocal part at 30 paces. Still, few seemed to take the Checotah, Oklahoma songwriter seriously. While she co-wrote many of her 15 chart-topping country singles, as well as many of the other songs that helped propel her to over 65 million records sold, many assumed it was courtesy credit.
Never one to brag or call attention to herself, she has quietly continued doing what she does.
That changed with Cry Pretty, as the genuinely likable mother of two decided it was time to get real. Signing up to co-produce meant more layers of decisions, but it also opened up her creative thought process in a way that emboldened her.
Whether the late night 30-something booty call “Backsliding,” the immersion into pain of “Drinking Alone,” the haunting bluesiness of “Ghosts in the Stereo” or the out of control reality of love and addiction “Spinning Bottles,” this version of Underwood isn’t the operatic morality play of “Two Black Cadillacs” or even the bravura “Before He Cheats.” Yet when you ask her about the common ground, she’s more measured than one would expect.
“Love,” she says flatly, tucking a leg underneath her on a small sofa several floors above Nashville’s booming construction epidemic. Considering the question, she deepens her answer, opening it up to let the light of her process shine in.
“Love in different forms. It’s never one thing. ‘Drinking Alone,’ obviously, is love lost, and feeling this need to do whatever to forget about it. In that one, I definitely wanted to make her not go too far; I was protective of her. You know, ‘I’m just hanging out, drinking, trying to feel better. This is the band aid for now.’ She knows what she’s doing – versus ‘Ghosts in the Stereo,’ where the person’s at home, ‘not needing nobody,’ getting drunk by herself, kind of listening and lost in this moment, the music. But it’s very specific to this person’s kind of breakdown.”
There’s no judgement when she talks, nor some kind of good girl showing she can be gritty brio either. She acknowledges changing labels fired her up creatively, and also acknowledged growing up, becoming a mother, even losing a child gave her a maturity to embody emotions and situations she wouldn’t have understood as a 25 year old superstar.
“I have a lot of career left,” she acknowledges. “For me, it’s always been easier to have that layer between me and the song by making it about a character. I’m not an outwardly emotional person in general. Even those close to me often don’t know what I’m thinking about things, because I’m always analyzing. I’ve always felt, too,” and she laughs as she admits, “it’s not everybody’s business what I’m thinking and feeling every second of the day.
“But there are a lot of things you learn as you go through life, have a family. It becomes a little easier and more important to tap into more emotions… You think (when you write a song), ‘Do I want people to know this side of me? Or do I keep it a secret?’
“You want to be believable. You definitely want to be relevant. I’m not 25 any more, and I’ll think (when listening to songs), ‘That’s too young for me..’ I feel like you can always tell when somebody’s trying to be 23 and they’re not. Or a super-young person trying to sing something too old,? You hear it, and you think, ‘What do you know about having five kids?’”
This isn’t defiance, just a reality she’s come to know either first hand or through friends, musicians, extended business associates.
“’Spinning Bottles’ is a different kind of love song,” she begins, returning to the theme. “It was hard to write, because I feel we were all pulling from different kinds of experiences. We’ve all personally, or seen family members, friends, friends of friends go through all those things in the song. We don’t know how it ends, but there’s room for people to fill in the blanks from their own personal experiences, too. It’s the cycle and the circle, trying to love and do the right thing, not judge.
“With ‘Backsliding,’ it is kind of a booty call song. But it’s more of – I feel like the person in that song has been married, so it’s less of a sexy booty call hook-up song, and more of a real life situation. Something she just needs. But I also hope if you didn’t really listen to the words, it would be a cool song – and if you really listen, you’d think, ‘Oh, wow! This says something.’ And it’s something, maybe, someone needs to hear.”
Much has been made of the things Underwood’s role in putting women – struggling, herself included, to get meaningful country radio airplay. Her 360 Live Tour was supported by Runaway June, who cracked the Top 5 with “Buy My Own Drinks,” and Maddie & Tae, who launched with the pointed indictment “Girl In A Country Song.” Cry Pretty grew up and tackled more adult, nuanced themes, but she also took on the added role of co-producer. She also remade the “Country Music Association Awards” as a celebration of women, tapping single named legends Dolly and Reba to co-host.
Since this interview, the woman favored to win Entertainer of the Year lost to Garth Brooks, who played 10 major stadiums. She has stepped down – after a round dozen years – as host of the “CMA Awards” broadcast, via social media. Given the way her creativity has opened up, but also the challenges she sees rising, it is obvious the Oklahoman who’d never traveled as a kid has things to do.
And so the next wave begins…