Carrie Underwood Will Not Be Pigeonholed
Jay Joyce and Carrie Underwood make strange bedfellows, and that’s the point.
For Storyteller, Underwood brought in a producer best known for producing Eric Church, Little Big Town and more recently, Brothers Osborne. His experimental sound runs straight across the establishment’s grain. His records are often dirty, bluesy and unpredictable. He admittedly used to buy drugs near the East Nashville Baptist church he converted into a studio. Sure, he’s enjoyed mainstream success in recent years, but he’s about as mainstream as a unicycle.
Underwood is the “All American Girl.” She rose to country stardom after winning Season 4 of American Idol and has been the most consistent, most recognizable female face in country music for nearly a decade. She’s polished and polite and sweet and graceful. If both of these two Music City professionals were in high school, Joyce would be the guy Underwood’s parents go out of their way to make sure she stays away from.
And that's the point.
I feel like everybody expects this album to be some mushy, hormonal mommy album.
The cornerstone of Storyteller is a song called “Choctaw County Affair.” Underwood says that when she begins the process of creating a new album, she starts with an empty page and relies on one or two songs to open doors that lead into rooms she wants to build in. This Bonnie and Clyde story was first.
“It’s not ‘affair’ like cheating kind of affair,” she tells Taste of Country. “That’s what I thought it was, when I first saw the title, I was like, ‘Ugh, a cheatin’ song. Choctaw County, it’s probably Oklahoma. They’re trying too hard to make a Carrie Underwood, Oklahoma cheatin’ song.’”
Jason White penned a story about a Mississippi town with their own brand of justice. Someone may get killed — it’s not clear, and the townsfolk aren’t saying.
“I was just so excited about it, because it’s so different,” the star says, leaning forward, eyes wide with excitement. “It’s swampy and twangy and stomp-y. I don’t know, it just had … it was just dirty. It was just cool.”
“When we got in the studio, it became even cooler.”
Joyce produced this song and five others on Storyteller. Mark Bright returns to produce five, while Zach Crowell helms "Heartbeat" and its partner song "Relapse." While she may not have known what she wanted to say when she began the process, Underwood knew what she wanted to avoid. Then she and Mike Fisher got pregnant and gave birth to baby Isaiah. After that, she really knew what she didn’t want to say.
"I'm Still Me"
“I feel like everybody expects this album to be some mushy, hormonal mommy album,” Underwood says, a bit annoyed by the expectation.
“That's the way everybody acts to me, like what they expect. I’m like, ‘No, I’m still me. I just have something else to sing about, too.” Only once is Isaiah directly mentioned, and the singer says she had to be convinced to include "What I Never Knew I Always Wanted" as the album's final track.
I don’t want writers to say, ‘We’re gonna write a Carrie Underwood song, which is X, Y and Z.' I want it to be, ‘We’re gonna write a good song,’ and if I hear it, that’s good.
So, why Joyce? Underwood is a firm believer that when you do the same things with the same people, you get the same results.
“I feel that’s my fear as an artist, is creating the same stuff over and over again,” she reveals. “And I see it happen to amazing artists. Eventually you can sing their old songs to their new songs. I don’t know, you just want to see them go somewhere.”
“I don’t ever want people to pigeonhole me into one specific thing. I want to do what people wouldn’t expect me to do," she furthers.
Joyce, Underwood explains, doesn’t treat the album-making process as a routine. She brags on his creativity and ingenuity. At one point during the recording, she pointed to a group of strange instruments resting on a bench and asked what they were.
“He’s like, ‘I don’t know, bought it at a garage sale,’” she says, impersonating him. “He would use something like that. He don’t know what it is, but it sounds cool and he can make it sound cool and put it through this filter thing and it’s gonna find its home on a song.”
Following the success of her debut single “Jesus Take the Wheel" — and after that, “Before He Cheats" — Underwood says she began to sense writers using a formula to create the "next Carrie Underwood hit." She discouraged it, and the result has been surprising changes from album to album. “Heartbeat” (her collaboration with Sam Hunt) is as surprising as “Blown Away” was three years ago. The songs couldn’t be more different, but both leave one saying “Carrie Underwood is singing that?”
“I don’t want to spend my whole life chasing something from the beginning. I want to be able to make new awesome things and just keep ever-expanding and changing and growing," she assures, "As a person and as an artist.”
“I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” she reiterates, this time as if she’s said it a thousand times over the last five years.
The Isaiah Effect
She's still Carrie Underwood, but motherhood did slightly alter the course of the album. Some of the songs on Storyteller were written or put on hold prior to the singer announcing she was pregnant in September 2014. After Isaiah's birth, she eased back into work, writing just two days a week with her boy resting a short walk away.
“It is kind of hard when I go to work in the morning, and I get home and he’s asleep,” she admits. “I’m like ‘I got to see you for a small portion my day.’ I know he’s not gonna remember any of it, you know. But there is a lot deal with.”
She won’t say that motherhood has made her a better writer, but Underwood does say it’s given her more to sing about and a new way to relate to her fans. But it doesn’t define her.
“We live in a time now where you can just make good music, and I feel I’m up to the challenge of doing different kinds of things,” she says. Perhaps more than ever, her rock influences live on this album. R&B and soul seep into songs like "Heartbeat" and "Relapse" (written by ToC #LetTheGirlsPlay artist Sara Haze). Some of the drama is gone, but not all.
“I do feel like this album, it’s a little more organic," Underwood cautiously reveals. "It’s a little more traditional country. And when I say that, I don’t think this album is traditional country, because I don’t want people to misconstrue that either. I just feel it’s the most 'country' sound I’ve ever had.”
Storyteller hits stores and digital retailers on Oct. 23. Underwood will be hosting the CMA Awards for the eight straight year on Nov. 4. The 2015 CMA Awards air live on ABC at 8PM ET.
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