It’s not easy being new. New school, new job, new town; it usually takes someone a little time to get their footing and figure out how things work. Not for Gabby Barrett though. She doesn’t wait for doors to open; she opens them her own damn self.
Fans were first introduced to Barrett in 2018 when she stepped onto the American Idol stage, but her story hardly begins there. It starts nearly a decade earlier in Pennsylvania when she was just a 9-year-old girl who sang regularly with her church choir. More specifically, her all-black church choir. That’s an important detail because anyone that’s ever seen an all-black church choir perform knows it’s an entirely different kind of singing. There’s real power in those choirs with voices that can rattle the rafters of heaven and earth. While that might be intimidating to most 9-year-olds, it wasn’t to Barrett. Instead, it did just the opposite. It filled her with confidence.
“Being in that church absolutely showed me what I was capable of doing with my voice,” Barrett remembers. “I originally gravitated towards R&B because I really respected, from a young age, women that could sing their tails off live. You would hear a record but then you’d hear Whitney Houston blow it out of the water — better than the record — live. I really studied that. I would be with a group of women every week singing songs and showing me different ways and capabilities to sing. They brought that out of me and that’s still something I carry with me today.”
That confidence and those lessons have served Barrett well. Not only did they help her to a third-place finish on Idol, they propelled her past it. After all, singing competition shows are rarely the launching pad music fans think they are.
“People tend to think it’s very easy. That it’s like this overnight sensation, ‘you’re a star’ type of thing and everything is much easier. That wasn’t necessarily true for me,” she says. “I had a little more access to management and stuff like that, but it took me a while to get a label deal. There were no record labels that were interested in me in Nashville after I came off American Idol.”
How could that be? How could she garner millions of fan votes week in and week out and have no record labels interested? After all, hadn’t she already proved she could deliver? Most artists might be crushed by that blow; in reality, many have been. That end of the road is littered with the carcasses of woulda-coulda-shoulda-been stars — not because they weren’t talented enough, but because that’s where they simply gave up.
Nothing comes easy in this world and if Nashville will teach you anything, it’s the meaning of the word struggle. Barrett flat out decided she wasn’t going out like that, so she got to work. She put together a team, co-wrote a song with some friends and released it independently. You may have heard of it. That song, “I Hope,” was released in January 2019, and a few months later went on to top the SiriusXM The Highway’s Hot 30 Countdown. All of a sudden, Nashville was paying attention. Her phone started to ring and by April she was sitting in Warner Bros. offices working out the details of her record deal.
Today, “I Hope” is a chart-topper and a game-changer. Warner Bros. re-released the song, and this April — exactly one year after it brought her into the label’s fold — it not only hit the top of the Billboard charts, it caught the attention of pop superstar Charlie Puth.
“Charlie had posted ‘I Hope’ on his Instagram story, put ‘wow’ as the caption and tagged me,” Barrett says. “Eventually he messaged me and said he wanted to remix it. It fell together really quick, honestly, but it was really cool to have somebody like him reach out. I’m really excited for people to hear it because it’s a cool little spin and a little something different on the song.
“The hope with this is we’re going to be trying to take it to pop radio. I first wanted to establish country radio because country is my heart and I want to be known as a country artist, but we’re gonna probably end up taking it to pop radio and I don’t have a problem with it going over into pop.”
Today, the 20-year-old singer/songwriter and 2020 ACM New Female Artist Nominee has a complete album in Goldmine that not only houses both versions of “I Hope” (with and without Puth), but 11 additional songs. Produced by super-producer Ross Copperman along with Zach Kale, Barrett is proud of the fact that she had a hand in writing all but one of the tunes.
“What did Dolly Parton say?” she asks in rhetorical fashion. “She said ‘… the songs that last the longest are the most genuine ones to you and to your story.’ I think it’s important to be in the room and write from the perspective of your life and what you’re going through because there’s many situations that everybody goes through that are the same. I think songs just come out really unique when they come from your heart and what you want to write about.”
Two things jump out when you scan the album’s songwriting credits. First, there are a few names that appear over and over. Second, there’s not one instance where Barrett is the lone songwriter. It’s no secret Nashville is a breeding ground for world-class songwriters, and that’s exactly the way Barrett likes it.
“I definitely like co-writing. I’m the person that likes to be in the room with multiple other people to get all kinds of ideas going. I was not blessed with the ability to just sit down by myself and just write smash hits,” she adds with a chuckle. “I like to be in a room with multiple other creative minds like the Ross Coppermans and the John Nites and the Nicolle Galyons that can bring something more to the table.”
So far, Barrett has made all the right moves and the results have all been aces. She’s beaten the odds time and again and we’d be remiss if we didn’t address the fact that she’s done all of this coming from American Idol. Again, singing competition shows aren’t typically the gigantic launching pad fans think they are, and outside of a few exceptions, finalists (and winners) rarely carve out long-term careers.
Barrett doesn’t care about that. She knows it’s her past and she has to continue moving on, but she wears her Idol badge with pride. After all, between meeting her husband (fellow contestant Cade Foehner) and helping her connect her musical dots, it has given her everything she’s ever wanted in life.
“I would definitely say I would love to embrace it because Idol has done a lot of stuff for me,” Barrett says. “I mean, I probably wouldn’t even have management and be this far at 20 years old with everything that’s going on right now if it wasn’t for that. American Idol is such a large platform for people that are singers and I encourage anybody that’s a singer to go onto that show because a lot of wonderful stuff came off of it. I will always give credit to them and keep it as a highlight in my life.
“I think it’s just important when you come off American Idol to establish that I can be an artist separate from Idol. I have writing abilities; I have the ability to be an artist and not just sing covers and I think that’s important.”