On her new EP, Baytown, country artist RaeLynn becomes the latest in a long line of sassy Texas ladies intent on showing the world that strength and vulnerability are not contradictory traits; who aren’t afraid to exhibit both toughness and femininity — or to draw on sounds that don’t fit inside neat genre borders. Like two of her big influences, the Chicks and Miranda Lambert, RaeLynn, short for Racheal Lynn Davis, has attitude galore — and works it well in six songs that mix Saturday-night boldness and Sunday-morning piety. And in one song, “Judgin’ to Jesus,” she struts Saturday night right into Sunday with one cheetah-print dress.
RaeLynn headed to Nashville while still a teen, after competing on season two of The Voice. She released her first EP, Me, in 2015; with her debut album, 2017’s WildHorse, she reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. Baytown, named for her East Texas hometown, is her first for Round Here Records, the label launched in 2019 by Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley. RaeLynn is also signed to Tree Vibez Music, the publishing imprint they created in 2015. In this Q&A, she discusses songwriting and making it in Nashville — and cheetah-print dresses.
American Songwriter: You started out on Big Machine Records, then went to Warner Bros., and now you’re on Round Here Records. Why the switch?
RaeLynn: I just wanted to do something a little different and have that freedom to really embrace where I was at and just … be with somebody that thinks [like an artist]. … [It] has been so much fun because I just feel like anything goes, in the coolest way, and to be a part of a label that’s run by artists who know what it’s like to be on the road and meet fans and all the aspects that go into a live show and into making an artist be successful, I think there’s something really cool about that.
AS: You’ve got a variety of co-writers on here, including your producer [Corey Crowder]. How does that work for you; is it like having somebody set up dates, or do you actually meet these people and go, “Hey, we should write together”?
RL: The people that you’re comfortable writing with, or the people that you’ve had success with, you always want to continue to write with them because it’s just so much fun. During this pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot of Zoom, and I have been nervous, ‘cause when you write with people you don’t know, it’s almost like a blind date. You’re trying to figure each other out. You’re like, “OK, how personal am I going to get?” Like, you literally have to write a song personally about yourself with people that you don’t know. Something about that has always been kind of hard for me, but the great thing about Zoom is, you just have to dive into it; everybody’s in the same boat. Everybody just really wants to create. The people who set those up are my publishers, Tree Vibez, and whoever their publishers are, the other songwriters. They all get in a room and they’re like, “OK, I think this person would write really well with this person,” and they give me ideas and they send me the work that they’ve done. And I just trust them. If you have a great publisher, you know that they’re going to put you in a room with somebody that they think you’re going to write a great song with, which is awesome.
AS: You’re writing mainly with guys. Is that more challenging?
RL: I don’t think so. ‘Cause most of them have significant others who are females, so they know what it’s like to be around a woman 24/7. They know how we work and how we think. But I’ve always been kind of a guy’s girl. I had a lot of brothers growing up, so that’s never really bothered me. And I’ve always been unapologetically myself in songwriting and stuff. So I never have really worried. I mean, of course it’s a little anxious. But honestly, either they like me or they don’t. We’ll write a good song if they do, and if they don’t, it might be awkward and I’ll just get off Zoom.
AS: The one song I thought would have been a little awkward to write with a guy [Josh Kerr] is the one you also cowrote with a woman [Emily Weisband], “Bra Off.” That’s one experience most guys probably don’t have.
RL: He just rolled with it. And that’s the best thing that you can do.
AS: In “Judgin’ to Jesus,” the line, Goin’ to church in your cheetah dress, I honestly thought you said cheater dress. It could go either way, when you think about it.
RL: It could, for sure. But I feel like going to church in a cheetah dress is one hell of a statement.
AS: How would anybody know it was your cheater dress, either? But the implications are a little different. It was a good thing I happened to read it actually written out as cheetah.
RL: That’ve been a different interview, am I right?
AS: Uh huh. You do get pretty cheeky in these songs. And there was a reference to Cardi B in there, too.
RL: Yeah, A little bit down home, a little bit Cardi B. And If that doesn’t explain who I am in one line, I don’t know what else can.
AS: Did you have any trouble with being able to express yourself when you first got to Nashville?
RL: Honestly, I have been fortunate enough with every situation. Musicwise, labelwise, they’ve always let me beat to my own drum and do my own thing. But I feel like I’m being more comfortable with myself and I’m being more comfortable with the fact that I am different. Instead of being, like, “Oh, is this going to work?” It’s more like, “I really don’t care if it works. I’m just going to be myself and whatever works will work.” And when it does, I know that I was unapologetically myself. As you get older, you just evolve more, and a lot of my evolving has gone back to me being that fearless girl that lived in Baytown, Texas, that had a huge dream and didn’t let anybody tell her no. And that’s what I wanted to really embrace.
AS: It sounds like you had to learn to overcome your self-doubt when you got there.
RL: Oh, 100 percent.
AS: But by the same token, you hit big out of the gate with a No. 1 album. Did that quell your insecurities?
RL: Oh, a hundred percent. Honestly, I feel like you can focus on one thing that you want to happen in your life, like, I’ve never had a No. 1 song on country radio. There’s a few things that I haven’t [achieved], of what we determine in our heads of what success is, like, “Oh, this makes you a big artist.” But I’ve hit success in my own way, creating my own story. Like, my album went No. 1 on Bllboard Country, which is huge. Not everybody can say that. My debut album — less than 10 females have done that with their debut record. And I got to say that I was one of those women. And then you have a song that went top 15 on country radio, but sold over a million copies: “God Made Girls.” It’s all about how you define success. If you define success by radio, then I can get discouraged. And if I define success by huge accolades and things that I have gotten to accomplish and do, and got to be a part of, then that’s success. It’s just about reevaluating how you approach success, and how you approach what it means to be successful in your eyes, because it’s different for everybody. That’s what I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older, and instead of being insecure about it, I embrace it.
AS: It’s also difficult in an environment where there’s active discrimination against women on country radio. Having that No. 1 album despite that is a big deal.
RL: That’s how I felt, too. I’m like, “Well, hell, if it’s already going to be harder for me ‘cause I’m a woman, I might as well put out songs that I’m proud of. You know what I mean?
AS: Yeah. Dancing backwards in high heels, right?
RL: Hell, yeah.
AS: What’s your goal for this EP?
RL: My goal for this EP genuinely is just for people to see another layer of who I am. My hometown shaped a lot of the grit and the grace and the funk, the values and just the woman that I am, and that’s why I named it after my hometown. I’m proud to be from Baytown. I’m proud to be from a town where It was super diverse and I was around all kinds of people. It wasn’t your average Texas town. And that’s why I’m just so proud of this piece of work, because it really showcases my personality in a new way, and my songwriting and my sound; I’m fully embracing my sound and the fact that I beat to my own drum with this record.
AS: Speaking of which, there’s a lot of beats in it, I mean, literally. Like beats-per-minute dance rhythms. Did you have much say-so in that?
RL: I’m very much hands on when it comes to the sound. I grew up listening to a lot of hip-hop influences and R&B; alternative influences, too. You hear all that in this record. But I’m very much involved in the process, of being like, “OK, I hear 808s in this section. I hear a banjo in this.” Sometimes I can’t articulate what exactly I hear, but I can just start going — I literally have told my producer, “I hear something going ding ding ding ding,” just, like, random sounds, and he’s like, “OK, we’ll make it work.” I’m very much a part of the process. I’m not like a quote unquote producer, but I know what I like, and I know when something sounds like me and when something doesn’t. And if you know that, that’s just a huge sign, and one of the best parts to [being] an artist.
AS: When you’re approaching songwriting, do you have snippets everywhere, pieces of paper all over the place? A really well-organized notebook? A database of phrases? How do you go about coming up with ideas?
RL: I have a notebook of ideas; my notes in my phone. That’s why I always stress when I have to get a new phone. The amount of times that I’ve been in the shower and I’ve gotten an idea and had to run out of the shower and put it on my voice memo and then save it … . When it comes to songwriting, I know when I’m writing with certain people, due to their history of what they’ve written, what I want to write that day. If I write with somebody who’s more of a pop song writer, I know, “OK, this idea that I had, that’s more pop. I’m going to write it with that person.” I kind of have in my head what I want to write with each person.
AS: Do you have any dream collaborators?
RL: Oh my gosh, Dolly Parton, all day.
AS: I’m not sure anybody doesn’t say her, actually
RL: If they don’t, then something’s wrong, because she’s the queen.
LISTEN TO RAELYNN’S BAYTOWN HERE