Empathy has long been at the root of Tenille Townes’ songwriting.
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Growing up in her native Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada, Townes discovered the art of songwriting when she’d follow along to the lyrics in the album booklets, making a point to find out who wrote the songs she was listening to. At the age of 14, her grandparents gifted her a guitar that opened up the door to songwriting even further. Soon, the young Townes started pairing the pages of her journal with the music she was playing on guitar, allowing her love of songwriting to grow. The first song that she wrote was inspired by a political cartoon they were reading in social studies class about a soldier fighting overseas.
“I sat in class and was like, ‘What would that feel like if this person were my dad? What a hard thing to have him be so far from home,” Townes recalls to American Songwriter of how the story sparked inspiration for a song. Describing herself as a “third party observer,” Townes says empathy naturally shows up in her writing.
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“I think that is what storytelling is, imagining how someone else feels about something,” she continues. “I think that’s the most human part about music when you strip everything down, the emotion of ‘How does this person feel about this’ because there’s probably some invisible thread that runs through me that would feel the same. That’s how we connect as human beings and I think it’s our job as songwriters to capture that and do our best to really feel it in a real way.”
Townes’ gift for empathy was first revealed to the masses in her debut single, “Somebody’s Daughter,” inspired by a young woman she saw on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign in her hands. The visual ignited Townes’ inspiration as a songwriter, imagining who this woman was before she ended up on the street. She also channeled empathy into her current single, “The Thing That Wrecks You.” Townes wrote the song with friends Daniel Tashian and Kate York that Lady A recorded with Little Big Town for their 2019 album, Ocean.
Townes came up with the idea for the song, inspired by a friend of hers who was stuck in a toxic relationship that she couldn’t let go of, her story leaving Townes “concerned” and “heartbroken.”
“I sat back and thought about it what it means to be human,” Townes observes of the song’s origins. “It doesn’t matter how many people tell you this is not good for you, or how much you know yourself. Sometimes to get to the other side, you just have to go right through it. I wanted to write a song that felt like it could sit beside somebody in that spot and be a bit of a comfort in that really hard place.”
That sentiment is expressed through such powerful lyrics as you’re running down a darkened road/Where even angels might not go/It might look like a dream come true/But it only leads you straight into/The thing that wrecks you.
“I feel like you can’t help but feel this literal wall of sound coming at you when you hear all their voices in harmony together,” she raves of the two country supergroups joining forces. “It feels like a bunch of arms reaching out, embracing you in the absolute wreckage in the best way. I loved hearing their interpretation.”
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After the song was written, Townes knew that one day she wanted to record her own version, a vision that came to life with the help of fellow Canadian and superstar Bryan Adams. She met him by happenstance when she was recording at a studio in Canada that happened to be Adams. What started as the two crossing paths in the stairwell led to Adams giving her a tour of the facility. Talking to her manager in the parking lot after the fateful meeting, Townes had the epiphany that she wanted to record “The Thing That Wrecks You” as a duet with Adams, going so far as to mail him a CD with a demo of the song alongside a handwritten note explaining the song’s meaning.
Much to her surprise, she received an email from Adams days later asserting that he’d love to be a part of it.
“His voice has this texture and this character—it feels like it wrecks you, it really does destroy you, in the best way to hear his emotion come through in a song,” Townes professes of what made Adams the right fit for the track that’s currently climbing up the top 40 on the Canadian country chart. “I think when he heard the song, he was like, ‘I love the image of wreckage. I think we could hone in a little bit more on that language and be specific about calling it a love story.’ I think that really works best in this duet format to zoom in, particularly on that. I appreciated a lot of his wisdom in how to craft the song.”
Adams isn’t the only music legend Townes has worked with as of late. Townes was recently invited to write with Vince Gill. Their session proved fruitful, resulting in Gill’s new song “Heroes” that he performed during the 2023 Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. Gill had much of the first verse written by the time Townes arrived, the lyrics exploring country music’s origins where it was performed in church revivals and beer tents. But the two came to the table with a simple concept.
“What if we wrote a song that talked about wanting to show up and be a part of this community and learning from the people around you?” Townes recalls of the idea the song was shaped around. “I love the line that says, sing all my sad songs about heartbreak/Until my heroes are calling me home, because that to me is exactly what we’re all here doing is feeling the things we’re going through in this crazy life, and country music is a safe place for all that.”
The line that’s most personal to the singer comes in the chorus when Gill sings I just wanted a seat at the table to pave a path of my own, an offhand comment she made that Gill then suggested they add as a lyric. “That song will always be very special to me,” Townes shares.
In between trading lyrics, Gill shared stories ranging from his guitar collection to what it was like recording his first album. What stood out to Townes the most was the way Gill’s passion for music shone through, Townes saying that she rushed home after the session to fill her journal with Gill’s words of wisdom.
“I think his love for music was the greatest pearl of wisdom that I walked away,” Townes observes. “Just feeling reminded if you keep that at the front of everything, the rest will work itself out.”
Townes will showcase her love for music on her headlining Side A + B Tour that kicks off on April 19 in Newport, Kentucky, and concludes on November 14 in Vancouver, Canada.
Photo by Robert Chavers/ Essential Broadcast Media