A cappella music is its own kind of beast. Ingrid Andress should know. The country breakout first competed in a group called Pitch Slapped on The Sing Off’s second season, finishing, quite shockingly, in last place. Unfazed, she returned one year later as part of Delilah and competed alongside Pentatonix ─ rising in the ranks for an admirable sixth-place finish.
Both creative endeavors were forged amidst her studies at Berklee College of Music, and even now, those experiences inform her work. “It taught me to stay on pitch at all times,” she tells American Songwriter over a call earlier this week. “If you aren’t singing on pitch, then you’re messing up the whole thing. It also taught me phrasing and what things seem natural to sing and what things are clunky.”
On the show, she helped rearrange big pop hits like Cobra Starships’ “Good Girls Go Bad,” Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” and a medley of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” “A Woman’s Worth,” and “If I Ain’t Got You.” Each component, from percussive lines to vocal layering, must all work together for a common goal: to sound effortless.
“When you’re doing an arrangement for a cappella, all these parts need to sound like instruments but also not something that’s really difficult to sing,” she says. “Eight other people are singing it, too. You can’t get super crazy.”
More importantly, her songwriting ─ as evidenced with her current hit “More Hearts Than Mine” ─ has benefited most from her experience. “When I write a lyric now, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s so great,’ and that’s when phrasing comes in. I think, ‘I’m going to push the limit a little bit, but it can’t be clunky enough where it is not singable.’ I always have to sing lyrics before they officially make it into a song. I have to feel how it feels in my voice.”
She looks back fondly on her a cappella days and offers observations on her younger self. “The more I think about it, I haven’t changed a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever taken myself super seriously. I’d probably tell myself not to worry so much about what everyone else is doing. Everyone has their own path,” she considers. “A lot of times in the entertainment industry, people tell you there’s one specific way to do things. I would always freak out about my story and timeline not being what everybody else’s was. Now, I know it’s just what makes you the musician and artist you are. I’d tell her to chill the fuck out.”
Andress’ story might not be quite the same without early guidance from Berklee professor and prolific pop songwriter Kara Dioguardi (Kylie Minogue, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson), who was then-giving a pop songwriting class. “She was a real hard-ass, honestly,” she acknowledges, laughing. “She told me I slacked for a real long time, and it made me want to get better.”
“Looking back, she inspired my whole idea of starting a song with a concept and idea. She started making my brain work in a way that it hadn’t before and think, ‘What about what you’re saying hasn’t been written? Why should I listen to your song?’” she recalls. “Her and I are still very close, and we have different opinions now on what songs are good or not. But as a mentor in the beginning, she was very helpful in pushing me to move past basic songwriting.”
A cappella music and Berklee College in her rearview, Andress arrived at country music’s epicenter in 2014. While waiting tables, alongside another of the format’s bolder rising stars Devin Dawson, she was on-hold for a writing session with Frank Rogers, whose songwriting credits include Brad Paisley’s “I’m Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin’ Song),” Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes,” and Darius Rucker’s “Alright.” Rogers, also a producer for Trace Adkins and Josh Turner, was “super open to my ideas,” she remembers of the collaboration.
“I went into that session ready and had a lot of ideas. He tweaked songs in a way that I would not have thought about doing ─ in a more traditional outline,” she says. “It was a meshing of two generations. It was a great turning point for me.”
Early songs like “Caught Fire” and “Friend of a Friend” landed her a publishing deal with Dioguardi’s Arthouse Entertainment, in partnership with Sea Gayle Music and Universal Music Publishing. In those early days, she found it difficult to straddle the line of lush pop sensibility with country music’s grounded storytelling, picking up tidbits here and there and folding into her tool belt, but always feeling on the outside.
“At first, people were not super stoked about it. That’s part of why I went out to LA a lot to write. I was in this weird in-between where my songs were definitely flirting with pop, but I still wanted to tell a story,” she says. “When I’d go out to LA, I’d bring up these concepts, and pop writers would go, ‘Oh, what are concepts?’ It was weird. I was kind of the only person doing it at the time, but spending more of my time in Nashville writing taught me how to tell a solid story. You’re in a room with a guitar or piano. It’s hard to bullshit your way through a song when you just have that.”
Andress’ blood, sweat, and tears is clearly paying off.
With her debut album, Lady Like, the Colorado natives toys with pop conventions, rearranges classic country sounds, and completely upends the Nashville establishment. From the title track’s (co-written with Derrick Southerland and Sam Ellis) examination of femininity, defining it on her own terms, to the caressing swing of “Both” (another Southerland co-write, alongside Jordan Schmidt), a look at modern relationships and dating apps, the record runs at only eight tracks but feels must grander.
“I’m such an emotional writer. Everything I write has some tinge of remorse or sadness,” she says. A waterfall of melancholy showers across the stories, and it’s never a sensory-overload but simply immersive. What is most evident is the quirky, off-beat lyrical structures welded throughout a bold, eccentric production style.
“Lyrics are very important, so if I need to move things around a bit to make it work, I will. Being real and honest, lyrically, is important,” she explains, “and sometimes, songs get caught up in trying to stay catchy and have a certain grasp they need to stay on. That’s super fun, as a challenge, to write that way, but I find songs are more honest when they’re more free flowing.”
Originally released in 2017, as a rootsy piano ballad, “The Stranger” (written with Ryan Lafferty) is a songwriting masterclass. Gone are the earthier, rougher tones, and in their place, Andress exchanges for a more haunting approach. “When I put it out a few years ago, I still thought it was a really strong song. It was the song that made me realize it was time to start doing my own artistry. As far as production goes, it has grown a lot,” she says.
“I now have the resources to creatively expand on something that used to be pretty stripped down with piano and vocal. I love it even more now. I’m surprised I’m not sick of it. The intro is different, and there’s more ambiance and swell. It takes you through a story of emotions, and that’s what I love about production. When done well, it really takes you on that journey.”
Ebbing and flowing beneath her, a choir of backing vocals is the kind of artistic choice that elevates her already evocative lyrics to A-level caliber. “I didn’t even think those vocals would be the intro. I just thought it would be cool to have as a pad in the background. When I heard them solo, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s really eerie!’”
Album opener “Bad Advice” (co-written with Southerland and Jamie Moore) is another achievement, both in style and production. The lonesome stunner glides across a western landscape, filtered with a pink effervescence, and operates as a musical outlier and confirmation of true ambition. “I wanted a song that showed my personality a little bit, so people knew I wasn’t just this gloom and doom, sad girl crying in a corner.”
Andress mingles casual speech on the verses with a melodic, punchy hook. Her meticulous attention to songcraft lends itself quite effectively to her main mission: marrying “a throwback western sound with modern production,” she says. “The spoken word sets the tone of it not being this serious thing, just very conversational. It’s being playful with the fact you’re having a hard time getting over somebody.”
“Anything But Love” (co-written with Zach Abend and Jamie Floyd) is another true heartbreaker. It’s more introspective in nature, a bit forlorn as she kicks up dust against a throbbing back beat. “Why won’t this heart turn to stone / Why won’t this fire go cold,” she calls out. “You’ve moved on / And you’re OK / But I can’t even find a way to say goodbye.”
Guitar-driven, and rather scorching, she serves up the most “poetic [song] on the album,” she says. “This one is really fun to dive into, lyrically. I’m very emotional, but I do things in a very practical way. Getting over somebody is this push and pull of ‘well, why can’t I just be feeling this right now?’ In my mind, it’s a choice how you feel, but really, when you deal with love, it’s an emotion you can’t control all the time. This song captures that back and forth in my brain ─ maybe I should be feeling this or that or not. Everything trickles back down to still being in love with this person.”
In addition to leaving songwriting fingerprints all over the place, Andress serves as co-producer on every song. “Bad Advice” and “The Stranger” were notably the most fun to pin down. “They don’t really sound like anything that’s out right now. That’s always the goal ─ to push boundaries and try new things and make songs I’d actually want to listen to. The songs that inspire me the most are the ones that don’t sound like anything else.”
The former was also “the hardest to hone in that genre mesh. It started pretty barebones with fake strings and an 808. It sounded cool, but enhancing it, at one point, there was too much going on. We had to slowly take things out and figure out how to do it without going overboard. When you don’t have anything to compare it to, it’s hard to know to push the limit or not.”
Ingrid Andress does more than push boundaries; she bounds into thrilling new territory, carving out her very own lane. “I learned there is more style to songwriting than I think. When you’re creating it, you’re not thinking about creating a brand. You’re just writing what you feel,” she reflects.
“Now, hearing all these songs together as a project, I’m just like, ‘Oh, I guess there is a vibe here that I wasn’t aware of.’ It’s cool to start listening to yourself in a different light. I’ve also learned that I’m very particular as far as production goes. Co-producing was really fun for me. I got to really express the sounds I was hearing in my head. As a songwriter, you don’t always get to be a part of that process.”
Earlier this month, “More Hearts Than Mine” entered the Top 10 at country radio and shows the makings of a No. 1 hit. The heart-thumping ballad has so far racked up 26 million Spotify streams and eyes a mainstream pop push this year. All signs point to a crossover smash.
But she never thought this would happen.
“When I first picked it as a single, I wasn’t sure if it was too specific. Sometimes, when you write, and you get really specific with details, you risk isolating people listening to it,” she weighs. “But the more specific you are to your own story, the more relatable it actually is. That’s been cool for me to see that. When you’re being that vulnerable, you worry it’s almost too much. It’s proving to be worth it.”