When I entered the plush Blackbird Studios in late spring-based in Nashville’s Berry Hill district, home to some the city’s most thriving studios and the “alternative to Music Row” in some respects-I was expecting to listen to a few tracks from LeAnn Rimes’ upcoming album (at the time slated for release on August 28, her 25th birthday) and then return to the grind.
When I entered the plush Blackbird Studios in late spring-based in Nashville’s Berry Hill district, home to some the city’s most thriving studios and the “alternative to Music Row” in some respects-I was expecting to listen to a few tracks from LeAnn Rimes’ upcoming album (at the time slated for release on August 28, her 25th birthday) and then return to the grind. I assumed there would be other members of the press present, but luckily for American Songwriter, Mrs. Rimes was prepped for a one-on-one chat about her evolving life and music. “She’s a sweet girl…I heard her next album is brilliant,” she says, flipping through the Mandy Moore cover story in the American Songwriter on the coffee table in the break room. “Dean [motioning to husband Dean Sheremet], we had talked about incorporating this Joss Stone-ish design in something of mine. This is great!” (Coincidentally, we received word in July that Rimes and Stone-the popular British pop/soul diva-will be teaming up in late summer to tape an episode of CMT Crossroads.) Taking a cue from the left-of-center, pop-art-inspired photo illustration, Rimes’ eyes light up as if to say, “Yeah, these are my homegirls. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
When she broke onto the country music scene in 1996-at age 13-with her major label debut, Blue, Rimes captivated the inner-Patsy Cline in fans across the globe with a towering voice that belittled her years at least three-fold. She was a child prodigy in the truest sense, and Nashville became a fertile ground for her to stake her claim as the next generation’s Patsy. And while the traditional, country roots sound remains imbedded in her identity, her influences and musical scope has-like most things of upward trajectory-grown with age. She’s been smart, and brave, enough to experiment with her career in the way that most good artists do. Whether it’s making an overtly pop-oriented album like Twisted Angel(2002) in an industry that gets off on repudiating such a thing, or handing in an album that’s self-penned and unflinchingly personal (Family, due out October 9 now), Rimes is able to channel herself fully into whatever project she undertakes. Seven albums and 37 million units sold later, she tells us with a joyous sigh, “I swear, this feels like my first record…”
And in many ways, it is. Rimes has been married for more than five years, has survived a handful of legal issues with her family in the public eye, emerged sane after the typical record label woes, and to put it plainly, she’s all grown up now and has a few things to say.
That brings us up to date, to Family, an affair that simply required a room of friends and fellow tunesmiths, lending ears, open feedback, lives and experiences to draw from, a bit of focus and a desire to put the pen to paper. We conversed about her writing process for the record, growing up in the public eye, her Music Row education, her fondness for the freedom of songwriting, and lastly, her life and work in the music biz.
Rimes: So, do you want to hear some music?
AS: Yeah, play me something and then we can chat some.
Ok, I’ll play you the first single [hands me lyric sheet]. So this is the single, called “Nothin’ Better to Do.” [plays song]
I like that short and sweet bridge…got a nice punch to it.
Dean and myself and Darrell Brown wrote that song. Darrell’s amazing. He’s one of my very best friends. What’s cool about this record is that the whole album was written between five people…me, Dean, Darrell, Blair Daly and Troy Verges. I also did a duet with Marc Broussard, and we wrote one with Blair called “Nothing Wrong.” So between the five of us-and all of these people are very close friends of mine-we wrote the record. It was really kind of a family affair, and the album’s titled <i>Family</i>.
Was it planned out that way, or did it just happen to come together like that?
Blair, Dean and I wrote the song “Family” on Valentine’s Day last year, and that was really the first song we wrote…so that kind of spun the whole idea of what we wanted to write about. It really become a thematic record, where we wanted to tell a whole story from front to back about all these different relationships-from different sides of the family-whether it’s between a husband and wife or…for me, it’s my extended family and friends. I feel like everybody has grown up with me and I’ve grown up with them, so the world feels like my family. And there’s a lot that I’ve been through…legal battles with my family…and all of it has been very public. So this is kind of my album to clarify for myself and also the world…where I am, who I am…just where I’m at.
The first single, “Nothin’ Better to Do.” Where did that come from?
I grew up in a little town in Mississippi called Pelahatchie.
Near Jackson, right?
Yeah, about 30 miles outside of Jackson. My house was literally across the street from a bait shop. They sold bait, chips, beer and ammunition. We started with those things that were real, and really me, and built this story around a girl-as if she never left. There’s nothing better to do than cause a little trouble. It was fun to create songs like that. Then there are other songs that are very, very personal…and they just kind of came out.
Did you co-write most of the album?
Yes, every song I co-wrote. It’s sort of funny because when artists start writing songs, a lot of people are skeptical….you know, like, “Do they just sit in the room or do they really write?” I’ve been writing songs forever. But what I didn’t really realize when I started writing in this town is that people would come in with a half-written song…and say, “This is the idea.” And I said, “Whoa, I don’t wanna write like that. Let’s start from the beginning.” Once I started working my way through, I began to see that people had these low expectations for artists writing songs. I was kind of shocked because I didn’t realize how it worked…because I had never worked that way. It’s been quite interesting to try to build my reputation up in this town as an actual writer. There are times now when I enjoy writing so much that I’m like, “I could just write for the rest of my life.” You know?
Yeah, just get some cuts and go from there…you’ve got a song for Faith Hill on hold right?
Faith does, and Jamie O’Neill has one on hold. So we’ll see what happens…
Is it hard to give up some of these songs for other artists? Because at some point I guess you have to say, “Let’s just see what happens with this one.”
Yeah it is hard, but it’s fun. I feel like I’m writing really good music so I have no qualms with calling up myself and saying, “Hey, I’ve got a song for you.” I enjoy the process of writing so much that I don’t stop after I’ve written my own record. I’ll just continue to write, and if I know someone’s cutting an album I’ll go for it.
About how many songs do you have in your catalog?
I’ve probably got about 75 to 100 songs.
Are those fully demoed…or pitchable demos?
A lot of them are demoed. All the demos have me singing on them, so anything I pitch out, I have to go find someone else to sing on them [laughs].
Or else it’s like, “That sounds a lot like LeAnn Rimes on that demo…”
I know! But it’s funny to be on the other side of things, as…just a writer…because you know, people put your songs on hold. Some artists hold them forever and nothing happens with them. I apologize to everybody I’ve ever done that to. As an artist, you don’t really think about it…all of these writers’ lives…this is their livelihood. I’m realizing the other side of it. I have a great respect for songwriters.
You wanna play another new tune?
Sure. I’ll play you one that’s a little more introspective. It’s called “What I Cannot Change.” Darrell and I wrote this. I went into Darrell’s house one day, bitching about something-venting-and he was writing on the computer the whole time. I was wondering if he was even paying attention, but he was typing everything I was saying. And we wrote the verses that day…just took what I said and put the words and phrases into the verses…and then tried to figure out where the chorus was leading us. We came back a couple weeks later and wrote the chorus, and this is probably one of the most special songs I’ve ever been a part of.
That sounds like a typical pro songwriter move, to get the everyday conversations down on the laptop…
Totally, and I’ve worked with so many Nashville songwriters that get in the habit of crafting, and this album wasn’t really written that way.
More of a free-thinking, free-flowing approach?
Yes. I love to sit in a room and talk and write down a lot of what’s been said…and then figure out how to put it in a song. That’s what’s been the most fun for me. [plays “What I Cannot Change”]
That’s a strong ballad. I could hear that for the second single.
I definitely set out to make a country record, but I think that it kind of crosses genres. I felt like I didn’t have to do or be anything in particular this time. I think this sound is very much my own. And for so many years of doing this…for the first time to really find my own sound that will be able to carry over through several records is…well it’s the first time that’s happened. I do credit that a lot to being able to write my own music and tailor it to what I’m doing and what I want. And just being an adult too is important-knowing what I really want to say and where I want to go. You can hear the country influence, the rock influence, the blues influence…it’s all there.
Songwriters, at times, can hit a wall and think, “This has been said a million times, I’m being redundant, et cetera.” When you tackle something as universal as change, you’ve really got to put your own stamp-or personality-on it, which you’re able to do with this one. It’s got that therapeutic, talking-things-out quality.
That whole chorus came about when Darrell and I were having a conversation. I was moving on and ahead with my life and trying to change some things. I was realizing the good and bad about myself and accepting those things that I cannot change…and accepting other people. It’s such a universal message. I was wondering, “How do you deal with people who don’t move on with you.” You kind of grant them the grace to be able to be themselves…accept what you can’t change. And it’s just that way in life, period. It became my little serenity prayer in a way. It’s a very personal thing, and I remind myself of that daily.
When you’re sitting around co-writing, what’s your instrument of choice?
My main instrument is my voice. I play piano a little, but with people sitting around playing chords, I just start singing. Someone might hit something that piques my interest, and I’ll sing over it and see where it takes us. Sometimes melody doesn’t come first. Sometimes I definitely have a specific lyrical idea and try to work around that. I think most people would think that, because of my voice, that melody would be my first thing that I would jump to. But really in the past, it’s been the lyric. I feel comfortable enough now, which is so strange because I’ve been singing my whole life, creating my own melodies. I don’t play an instrument very well, and I think that’s why I wasn’t that comfortable with the melodies…because even though I could sing them, I wasn’t sure quite where to go. But I feel so confident with my writing now, it’s just a great place to be able to experiment with people you’re very comfortable with. There’s no limit. There’s no wrong or right.
You’ve had a few songs on each of your previous albums. Did it slowly build up to where you felt like this full album should have your mark on it?
I thought I had a lot to say. I needed to grow up and figure out what I wanted to say. It is a totally different thing singing your lyrics as opposed to someone else’s. It’s much more gratifying. I get so much more out of it. And I see people’s reactions. We play “What I Cannot Change” in concert. In fact, I put it in the set list the other night in Las Vegas. I knew somebody was gonna wind up crying. I just knew I shouldn’t look down at the audience. As soon as the song was over I opened my eyes and the audience was crying and they stood up. I realized the power of my own words. I lost it. It was the first time I’d ever lost it on stage and just started crying. I was like, “Oh my God, how cool! This is what I did it for. This is what it’s about.”
So it was just time to make a move in this direction.
I have such a respect for the craft of songwriting. Whether it is for film, or music, whatever it is, I never try to dabble in something just to say I did it. I want to know that I can do it, and do it well, do it justice, and enjoy it. You know, actors want to sing, and singers always want to act, and nobody’s really ever great at both.
Who are your favorite songwriters, contemporary or otherwise?
This whole album stemmed from a few records that I was listening to at the time…the Bright Eyes record, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. I love that really earthy sound. It has interesting, artistic lyrics. He has some great steel guitars sounds, and it blends the rock thing with an earthy country sound. I just fell in love with that record. And I was listening a lot to Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy. And the latest Tracy Chapman, Where You Live. Those three records really inspired me to make this record. The Chapman album, and the song “Change,” are just….
And it didn’t get the attention it deserved…
Oh gosh, it’s one of my favorite albums from the last 20 years. There was such honesty to it. She had no fear about just writing whatever the hell she wanted to write about. I listened to that album front to back so many times…just wore it out. When I was younger I couldn’t stand Bob Dylan…because I couldn’t get past his voice. But as a songwriter, you just start to get it and go, “Whewww…” Oh Mercy is just amazing. There’s that song “Most of the Time”…I love that song. I felt there’s been something missing lately in country music…I mean, we definitely set out to make a great “radio” record. We set out to write great hooky choruses-but with verses that said something.
It’s almost like people are forgetting to write good verses.
Yeah they really are. It’s just about the hooky choruses these days! So we set out to make a singer/songwriter, earthy record, but also wanted it to be commercial too. So when I talked to Dan Huff about it, and I gave him a mix CD of my inspirations, I had a specific sound in mind and wanted to make kind of a sparse record…at least start off that way. So we cut the album in two sessions. It’s been such a learning experience. I’ve never been involved in something so deeply. It’s really my first record. I’m playing it for people, I’m going around to radio stations, and I want people to know that these are my words…to know where they’re coming from. I’m not assuming that people will get it and understand it right away.