It was April of 2019 when Jillian Cardarelli walked into Charles Esten’s living room with the piano in the corner with the hopes of writing a song together. They didn’t know each other very well and didn’t know each others stories and certainly didn’t know the pain that each had individually gone through as they watched someone they love battle cancer.
But before the afternoon was over, they would.
And it was their shared experiences with one dreaded disease that eventually led to the creation of one of 2020’s most powerful songs.
In the context of a year that has brought an onslaught of pain and challenges, “Strong” is a song of strength and resilience, a song of honesty and vulnerability, a song that will serve as a salve to any hurting soul brave enough to let it sink in.
But in its earliest beginnings, the song was written with just two special people in mind.
For Cardarelli, the song was for her mother, who had just gotten through a risky cancer surgery with flying colors and whose determination to fight despite the often overwhelming odds was nothing short of heroic.
“It just was so natural to write that story,” Cardarelli tells American Songwriter in a new interview about the song that serves as the country artist’s third single off of her upcoming EP. “My mom has always been my inspiration. It wasn’t easy to go there in terms of her cancer fight, but as a songwriter, you just have to be vulnerable”
“Jillian (Cardarelli) shared with me the journey that her mom had been on and it just impacted me so strongly,” adds Esten. “The things she was saying about her mom just radiated with this love and with this admiration.”
Esten, too, had someone in mind as the song began to develop on the page in front of them, with each verse seemingly conjuring up those painful days when he and wife Patty were faced with their daughter Addie’s leukemia diagnosis.
“Everything Jillian (Cardarelli) was saying was resonating with me,” says Esten, whose daughter has now recovered and is now a division 1 soccer player. “When someone you love is fighting cancer, you have to find some sort of strength. It’s the kind of strength that you don’t necessarily want to have to have, but at one time or another, you find out that you kind of need it in order to make it through. And in this song, we were able to lift that sort of strength up and truly celebrate it.”
Esten laughs for a moment.
“The word ‘strong’ also hit me,” Esten added. “When Addie was in that gap between infant and toddler, I would raise her up so she could grab the monkey bars and let her hang there. She was just so strong.”
These separate inspirations propelled the two songwriters to dig deep into each powerful word of “Strong,” and as they did, they instinctively knew they were creating something very special.
“We knew instantly,” Esten said. “I mean I was getting chills hearing Jillian (Cardarelli) singing it as we were writing it. It was one of those songs where you didn’t have to wait till the song is over to feel the impact of it.”
An aspect of the song that wasn’t as clear was if Esten would join Cardarelli vocally on the song.
“To be honest didn’t hear it in my head at first,” laughs Esten, an actor who has appeared on ABC’s Nashville and Netflix’s Outer Banks. “It was such a personal song. I didn’t know if I belonged or where I belonged. And gosh, what Jillian (Cardarelli) did on that song was perfection. Why did it need my voice?”
But it did, with Esten eventually contributing a harmony line that results in an unusual, standout sound that actually seems like it was always meant to be there.
And when the two sang “Strong” together at Esten’s Light the Summer Night Benefit Concert to benefit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society in June 2019, they knew they had made the right decision.
“I always knew my mom would love the song, but when we saw the reaction from the fans after that performance, it felt like it was a song that needed to be out there,” remembers Cardarelli.
And now, it is.
But now, it seems to have taken a whole new life in a world where a pandemic continues its cruel hold.
“Strength can be shared and it can be borrowed and it can be taught,” Esten says. “Because you were strong, I was strong…and vice versa.”
“2020 has been challenging for everyone in some way,” whose mother still finds herself in the battle of her life against cancer. “It’s ok to cry and be upset and be vulnerable, but its also ok to have resilience and strength to pick up the pieces, no matter what the obstacle might be. I think we are all a lot stronger than we think.”