The Lady A Interview: How The Trio Discovered ‘What A Song Can Do’

With the release of Lady A’s eighth studio album, What A Song Can Do, the iconic country trio finds themselves in a time of reflection and gratitude. 

Videos by American Songwriter

Expecting to spend 2020 touring their 2019 record, Ocean, Hillary Scott, Charles Kelley, and Dave Haywood instead faced the grim reality of quarantine—with their shows canceled and their ability to collaborate in person gone, they hunkered down and started focusing on ways they could stay creative. Ultimately, thanks to Zoom, they were able to connect virtually and pour all their energies into writing—thus, What A Song Can Do was born.

This past summer, Lady A was able to return to the road and start connecting with their audience in the flesh again, but nonetheless, the lessons and newfound appreciation they discovered during the quarantine have stayed with them. Speaking with American Songwriter, the three explained how focusing on their craft was an essential lifeline throughout the pandemic, shedding light on how they bring their signature country-meets-pop sound to life. Read the interview below:

American Songwriter: When did the pandemic begin for y’all? What were those early days like?

Charles Kelley: We were planning on going on the road for our previous record, Ocean. The minute this pandemic began for us was when that tour was cancelled—that’s when it was like, “Wow, this is real.” I think at the time, we had been thinking, “Okay, this won’t last but a month or two.” Then it was like, “Oh no… this is going to stay awhile.” We tried to push the tour back, but eventually, we just had to call it off. That’s when the depression really sunk in. 

The one bright spot—other than being able to spend some time with family—was that everyone started writing music over Zoom. That kept me going, it gave me at least one thing I could plan my day around. So, when we got the news we couldn’t tour, we immediately were like, “Okay, let’s still stay productive.” Because of that, we wrote as much as we’ve ever written for a record!

Dave Haywood: Yeah, I think that songwriting was the thing that kept us going—it was really healing for us. I mean, that’s how we started out as a trio in 2006—in the 15 years we’ve been a band, it’s just been part of our DNA. We’ve got ideas on our phones, we’re always sending them back and forth, always working on and talking about new ideas—we even finished writing some more music this past weekend. So, it was really healing to be able to focus on that. During that uncertain time, I don’t know what we would’ve done without each other and our ability to connect and make music.

AS: Did that period of uncertainty trigger any creative shifts? Do you feel like it offered y’all a new perspective on your careers?  

Hillary Scott: It was hard for me because I have three younger children—three daughters, one 8 years old and two twins that are 3 and a half—so it would take me a few minutes to settle in and flip the switch whenever I logged onto Zoom. Sometimes my daughters would even come in and ask me for things… I think grace was given all around. We were doing the best we could in the times we were in.

I ended up asking myself a lot of the big questions, like “Okay, music, writing, and pursuing all of that is what I’ve been doing for more than half of my life—who am I if I don’t do that?” I know that we were able to find ways to stay connected to that, but you just can’t help but think of all of the worst-case scenarios. I was also asking myself questions like, “What makes me happy? What gives me joy? What is my purpose?” I think we all went through something like that for our individual lives. Ultimately, the writing—just being able to be creative—was such medicine. It really helped all of us feel tethered to the creativity within ourselves, which allowed us to keep moving.

AS: Well, y’all’s productivity during that period definitely wasn’t an illusion—you ended up writing dozens of songs. What was that creative burst like? Do you feel like there were particular subjects that were inspiring you? 

CK: We were just writing—for me, I was just trying to write as much as I could. There would be times where we weren’t together, but we’ve kinda gotten to the point now where whenever we’re writing, we can keep the group in the back of our heads. We’ve found that we can write separately and still gear it towards the sound of Lady A, and I love it. There’s been times where it’s been really cool.

For example, a song like “Worship What I Hate”—I would’ve completely shot down that title, I would’ve said, “That’s too heavy.” But I wasn’t in the room, so they wrote it, and when I heard it I was like, “This is absolutely amazing!”

So, I think there was some beauty to the process of writing just to write, you know? A lot of the songs were specific to last year—songs like “Fire,” which was about learning about ourselves, going through hard times, and rising above, finding a lot of beauty in it. Then there are other songs like “Friends Don’t Let Friends,” which are just fun. We’ve always tried to be a band with multiple sides, so there’s a bit of a journey throughout the record.

AS: Charles, you mentioned that y’all are able to gear your writing “towards the sound of Lady A”—how would you define that sound, in a writing context?

CK: Well, for the most part, our biggest songs are always duets, that’s kinda been our staple. So, with a song like “What A Song Can Do,” I remember going “Man, this second verse could totally be Hillary” So, we make sure to keep the lyrics kinda unisex in order to leave that door open.

Beyond that, I would say that we’re a band who, subject matter-wise, try to keep it positive. We love writing songs about lost love and things like that, but I feel like our greatest material is the stuff that has a strong positive message. Our first No. 1 was “I Run To You,” which is still so relevant today—“This world keeps spinnin’ faster/ Into a new disaster, so I run to you.” Singing that on tour this past summer was like, “Gosh, this feels more relevant now than it did back then. So, I think that energy behind our sound is part of what makes a song quintessentially Lady A. 

DH: We also know each other so well that, I mean… when we’re in the studio, Hillary already knows exactly what vocal run Charles is going to do.

HS: Yeah, is it going to be [singing] “Woahhh”?

DH: Exactly! I think we understand the sound of the group and what we each can bring to the table. So, when we’re in separate rooms, we can still wave that flag. 

AS: One of the highlights on this record is the ‘80s-esque track, “Like A Lady”—what’s the story behind this song?

HS: I wrote this song in September 2020 in a virtual writer’s camp with Dave Barnes, Michelle Buzz, Martin Johnson, and Brandon Paddock. It was fun—I just wanted to make a female-forward song. Brandon had started a track with Martin and when I heard it, I was like, “Okay, let’s write a song about all the ways I feel most confident as a lady.” It has this layer too of being like, “I’m not going to wait around for you, I’m going to do my thing”—ultimately, it celebrates womanhood. Writing it was really fun, though I gotta admit that a lot of what was going through my mind was the hope that we’d be able to perform it on stage. When we were able to get back out on the road again, we opened the show every night with it, which was really fun. 

AS: Another highlight is “Friends Don’t Let Friends” with Thomas Rhett, Darius Rucker, and Carly Pearce—how’d this one come to be? 

CK: I started this song when I was down at the beach with Thomas Rhett. We were both watching our kids play and when we went to grab beers, he was like “Friends don’t let friends drink alone.” I was like, “We should write that.” So, we got with a couple of our co-writer friends and wrote the song, knowing that it sounded like a big collaboration.  We’ve been on so many tours with Darius Rucker and he’s one of my closest friends in the music industry, so we played it for him and he loved it. Then, we’ve also gotten close with Carly Pearce over the past few years and she’s been our tour mate on this year’s tour, so we wanted her to be another strong female in there along with Hillary. It’s just a big, fun, laughing country song—I’m already dreaming of the video.

AS: There’s also a pretty exciting “first” for y’all on this album—Dave sings lead vocals on a track, “Workin’ On This Love.” What can you tell us about that tune? Dave, how did it feel to step into the center stage like that?

DH: It was a little daunting, especially next to two of the best vocalists in the format. But Charles and Hillary were so supportive. The song started just as a private song that I wrote for my wife on this year’s Mother’s Day when we were in the last month of making the record. We were looking for ways to round out the album and I just thought, “Well, I just wrote this thing for my wife…” I sent it to Charles and Hillary and was like “If y’all don’t dig this, it’s totally fine, but what if I took lead on one just as a way to have a different kind of character towards the end of the record?” They were super supportive and helped me out in the studio with some of the delivery and different vocal techniques. It was really special.

AS: Now that the record’s finally coming out and y’all have been able to get back on the road, how do you feel? What’s next?

HS: We’re excited! We had to pivot from so many plans last year… to be able to say that we’ve completed a successful tour and got to see so many fans, that we have new music that’s out in the world… we’re very grateful. After so many months of feeling unsure about the timeline of our lives, we’re just very thankful and excited to be back to doing what we love.

Lady A’s new album What A Song Can Do is out now—watch the official album trailer video below:

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