Whitney Duncan was born to be a superstar. It was just a matter of the small-town Tennessee native ultimately finding the place in which her star would shine its brightest.
And finally, she has found it.
“You gotta just keep going,” Duncan tells American Songwriter in an honest new interview. “There have been many moments during the last few years when I have asked myself if I am doing the right thing and if I was on the right path. But I swear, the minute I start having those thoughts, a door opens, and God send me another sign that I’m right where I need to be.”
Granted, Duncan’s superstar quality was undeniable right from the beginning, as she signed her first record deal at 17 years old, appeared on the singing competition show Nashville Star and released her breakout single “When I Said I Would.” Pair that with the stardom she received during her much noted ‘reality television detour’ on shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race, and the fact remains. Duncan just has that unexplainable thing that attracts people to see what she’s up to, makes people want to root for her and keeps people at her side despite every twist and turn in both her professional and personal life.
Her new EP Heartbreaker, with an addictive title track written by the dream team of Hillary Lindsey, Barry Dean and the late Andrew Dorff, was released independently back in January and permanently puts the spotlight back on a star that still has probably not reached her full potential.
But she’s getting ever closer.
The 5-song EP shines brightest on songs such as “Damn I Do,” “All She Wants” and the strongest of the group “Lightweight.”
“I was in (former group Post Monroe) at the time and we were just struggling to get anything happening and yeah, it was a real frustrating place,” remembers the talented 37-year-old of a time not so long ago. “(Producer) Michael Carter, who I had written with in the past, called me up one day and simply asked me ‘what are you doing?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I was just in this weird place.”
And then, just as Duncan was swearing up and down that she would never do the solo thing again, Carter reminded her of a song that went and ignited her musical soul yet again.
That song was “Lightweight.”
“’Lightweight’ was the song that this whole project started with,” she remembers. “All of a sudden, there was a song I wanted to sing and a direction I wanted to go.”
Working alongside Carter with a worthy assist from manager extraordinaire Kerri Edwards, Duncan seemed on her way to writing another chapter of her musical story. She went in the studio in December of 2018 and began whittling down 30 songs to the best five, even coming to terms with the fact that this might be the first time in her career that she actually wouldn’t write every song on a project of hers.
“We live in a city with the best songwriters in the world,” Duncan says emphatically. “It doesn’t make sense not to look outside of what you are writing yourself.”
The summer of 2019 brought with it a completed project ready for consumption. And in the beginning of 2020, Duncan was well on her way, booking shows and preparing for the EP’s release. But then, COVID-19 hit, and quarantine took hold. And as luck would have it, Duncan found herself releasing her first solo single in more than a decade and the first single she didn’t have a hand in writing. The song was “Homesick,” at the very time everyone had had just about enough with being stuck at home.
“You just gotta laugh,” says Duncan, who has been married to her Amazing Race counterpart Keith Tollefson since 2014. “You can’t let that stuff get you down. Something happens all the time, no matter who you are.”
Now, we are here. Duncan finds herself with an already strong fan base that has stuck through with her through each and every roadblock. But she’s not the woman she once was.
“I’m a grown woman and I’m so freakin’ happy that some days I have to literally go back to those darker days just to have something to pull from in the writing room,” she says loudly. “It’s easier now. I am way more confident. I have no filter. I just say what I feel.”
And what she feels is this—maybe this was always supposed to be the moment in time that Duncan’s star was meant to shine at its brightest.
“There for a while it was all about sounding perfect and everything was autotuned the crap out of,” she concludes. “The only thing that can stand apart now is your voice. It’s not about hitting some high note or some low note. It’s not about that anymore. It’s about having a unique voice and people hearing it and knowing who it is.”