Love In The Time of Co-Writing: The Love Junkies’ “Girl Crush”

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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The Love Junkies. (Pictured l to r) Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey and Lori McKenna. Photo by Becky Fluke.

They call themselves the Love Junkies for good reason. These three Nashville songwriters (Liz Rose, Lori McKenna and Hillary Lindsey) have learned an important songwriting secret: that when songwriting is injected with joy, that joy is infectious, and it shapes their songs.

It’s a winning strategy, having generated great songs such as “Sober,” “Tumble And Fall” and “Save Your Sin,” for Little Big Town. Most recently, they created the phenomenon of “Girl Crush” for the same group, the first country song to be nominated for a Best Song Grammy Award in several years. (Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” ended up taking the prize.)

To capture the joy, they unite at Liz Rose’s Nashville home for a combo-sleepover and writing camp.

“We hole up for three days,” Rose said. “We write in our pajamas. In the morning the songs we write are our coffee songs. And by the late afternoon, with the sun starting to set, we write our wine songs.” They usually keep writing – making quick phone recordings – till about 2 a.m. Their roles are designated: McKenna cooks eggs in the morning, Rose cracks the whip, and Lindsey sleeps in.

The idea is to embrace the joy and fun that comes when three gifted songwriters merge their collective love of music and song to see what emerges, without too much thinking. Like most of their songs, the origins of “Girl Crush” were quick and painless. “Lori had the idea one morning in the kitchen with the title,” said Rose. “Hillary picked up my Gibson and said, ‘Do you mean like this?’ and literally wrote the whole first verse. And Hillary and I said, ‘Yes – just like that!’ It was magical and awesome.”

The title, McKenna said, held a lot of possibilities even before becoming the song that it is. “It was one of those hashtag things you see,” she said. “I was thinking about how sometimes people will use that one just inspired by other women, not necessarily in love with them. That song could have gone in many directions.”

“It could have been a woman-power song,” Lindsey interjected. “It didn’t have to be about jealousy. But we never did discuss the title, we just leapt on it.”

As soon as Lindsey heard the title, she grabbed the nearest instrument – Rose’s old acoustic Gibson – and began to sing. “She sang the first four lines,” said McKenna, “and then we all knew what it was going to be. We wrote the entire song in an hour and a half and taped it on our phone. We didn’t demo it. We didn’t know really what happened.”

“We recorded it in as long as it takes to sing it on our phone,” added Lindsey. “Three and a half minutes. We didn’t have time to overthink it. You have to turn your filter off often to get somewhere special. And it’s a beautiful thing when you can turn your filter off.” As Rose said, “The song gods in the heavens gave it to us.”

Unlike almost every other hit song recorded by a major band by outside songwriters, this one was never even demoed. “Usually you work up a full demo with all the parts,” Lindsey offers. “This wasn’t. It was so raw.”

For their phone recording, Lindsey played barre chords on guitar as Rose and McKenna chimed in with harmonies.

“We didn’t have time to think how we would produce it,” said Lindsey. “We put it on the phone and walked away and started writing another song. We knew it was sparse and sexy and sultry. [Little Big Town] had an empty canvas. And what a beautiful picture they painted.”

“It came out of the air,” said McKenna. “I didn’t have a conscious grasp on it, it just came out of my mouth.”

Being savvy songwriters, they quickly followed her lead. “I wasn’t thinking what it meant,” said Lindsey “But once those four lines came out, then the song painted itself.”

A meeting with Kimberly Schlapman and Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town was scheduled for that afternoon. Not even realizing the power of what they had, they played several of their fast phone recordings for their friends, who loved one song the most: “Girl Crush.”

“We played it for Karen and Kimberly,” said Rose, “and that was it. Karen said, ‘Thank you – can we have this song?’ Next thing we knew they called us and said they were cutting it. Wow. Just off this little killer work tape!”

“It all lined up perfectly,” said McKenna. “Karen and Kimberly hearing the song right away, and the way it was produced, the way the band does it, is amazing to us. There is so much restraint in that vocal and track. What they did with it was so perfect for the idea and the lyric.”

Given that such an impactful song can come through almost of its own accord, the three agree that the source of songs is often spiritual. “That is the craziness of songwriting,” said Rose. “Songs come out of nowhere sometimes.” Lindsey chimed in: “It comes from the spirit. From your heart and soul. Other songs are calculated, where you’re working on a rhyme. But ones that happen like this? They come from the heavens and spirit.”

Merle Haggard, 1937-2016

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