A country ingenue evolves into a confident, hands-on artist
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
Carrie Underwood says she'll never take a producer credit on her albums, but listen to her talk about the making of her latest, "Blown Away," and it's clear she had a guiding hand in everything from the songwriting on through to the recording.
In the span of four albums and seven years, Underwood has fully evolved from a wide-eyed "American Idol" winner with little professional experience to a strong, confident artist with a clear vision for her music and her career. On "Blown Away," she's a co-writer on eight of the 14 songs, including many of the album's best tracks.
Even before making her first album in 2005, Underwood expressed her desire to learn the craft of songwriting, so executives at her record label began pairing her with some of Nashville's top writers to see what happened.
"I didn't really know if I would be any good at it," she admits, "but I thought, 'Why not try?' I wouldn't have been devastated if somebody had said, 'Hey, kid, maybe you should just stick with singing the songs,' but I just loved it. I ended up with several cuts on the album, and then they were pitched to be the singles. It was very reassuring and very confidence-building to me."
To date, six of Underwood's 14 No. 1 hits have been songs she's co-authored. As a result, she says, "I feel a lot more confident in myself. ... It's kind of that process of practice makes better. I won't say 'perfect.'"
That confidence extends to the studio as well, where the five-time Grammy-winning performer teamed up for the fourth time with producer Mark Bright. But while many of the production touches on "Blown Away" are her ideas, including the whistling on "One Way Ticket" and Brad Paisley's guitar playing on "Cupid's Got a Shotgun," Underwood says she's happy just being the singer.
"It's definitely a team effort," she says of the recording process. But she gives Bright much of the credit for her successful career. "A producer helps make [the artist] and define their sound," she explains. But for many artists, she says, "a couple albums later all of a sudden they're co-producing. I told Mark, 'I'll never do that to you.' I know who does the hard work, and it ain't me."
The album is impressively packed with potential future hits, and one that's already made it. Leadoff single "Good Girl" -- another song Underwood co-wrote -- is top 10 and rising on the national radio charts, and has sold more than a half-million downloads to date.
Underwood says the album's 14 songs are unlike anything she's previously recorded. They include two deadly revenge-themed tunes that run back-to-back in the second and third slots in the album sequence. The first, "Blown Away," tells the story of a daughter who locks herself in the storm cellar during a tornado, while her abusive father lies passed out on the couch in the home above her as "every trace of whiskey memory [is] blown away."
"There's not enough rain in Oklahoma to wash the sins out of that house," she sings in the song thematically reminiscent of Martina McBride's "Independence Day."
On that title track, Underwood says, "Mark really stepped up to the plate. Every time he would send me a new mix of it I was like, 'No, no, bigger, more!' He'd go back to the drawing board and add more things to it ... There's so many layers in there. Musically and sonically, I just think we did a great job."
The next song, the darkly humorous "Two Black Cadillacs," tells the story of a wife and a mistress who meet for the first time at their mutual lover's funeral and share a "crimson smile" over their secret plot to do him in.
Underwood says she had some concerns about starting the album off on such a dark note, but ultimately decided those two songs shouldn't be split up, and worked best at the beginning of the album.
"I don't want people to hear 'Good Girl' and then "Blown Away' and then 'Two Black Cadillacs' back to back to back and think 'What kind of album is this?'" Underwood says, adding with a laugh, "It does get happier after that." But she's delighted to have such fun, dramatic songs to sing live on her upcoming tour.
"I think people expected me to get married and then start singing nothing but love songs," she says of her 2010 marriage to NHL star Mike Fisher. "That's my real life. So for me, it's more fun to sing about the opposite and play this other character. I get to go onstage and act and do these dramatic, epic songs that are totally the opposite of my life."
One album track she won't be performing in concert is "Forever Changed," which follows a woman's life through marriage, motherhood and, finally, dementia.
Check out msnNOW: The social trends people are talking about
"I love 'Forever Changed,' but I hope it's not a single," she admits of the song written about songwriter Tom Douglas' mother, who suffered from Alzheimer's. "I know that's such a weird thing to say, but that would mean I'd have to sing it again. I really can't get through it. I challenged Mark on that one [in the studio]. I don't know if I even gave him one completely useable pass. He had to do some [vocal] comping because I'd stop singing. I'd drop out because I'd get emotional."
Album closer "Who Are You," written by Mutt Lange, was a song Underwood gravitated toward because of its ambiguity.
"The great thing about that song is it really can be about whatever you need it to be about," she says of the track that includes the lines "You're my savior/You're my center/My beginning and my end."
Photos: Carrie Underwood In Focus
"It can be about the person you're in love with. It can be about a parent. It can be about your friend. It could be even a religious song, which is what attracted me to it," says Underwood, who admits that someday recording an album of her favorite hymns is on her "bucket list."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the hilarious "Cupid's Got a Shotgun," which finds a trigger-happy, camouflage-wearing Cupid in a tree stand with a "sawed-off double-barrel" while Underwood hides from him in a foxhole protected by a Kevlar vest. As the song draws to a close, a twist has Cupid fleeing from his intended target as she sings, "He's about to find out I'm a dangerous shot myself."
Underwood wrote it with Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins, inspired by the vibe of Alan Jackson's "I Don't Even Know Your Name." She says of the song, "It's so different for me. I sing country music, but I don't think I've ever sung that brand. It's almost redneck, and I love it."
The writers deliberately left space in the track for Paisley to show off his guitar skills, and Underwood says, "I told Mark Bright, 'Just let him go. Don't give him too much direction, and just let him be Brad.'"
As "Blown Away" hits stores May 1, Underwood is busy planning her upcoming tour, which will take her to the U.K. and Australia for her first-ever performances in both territories. In London, which she's previously visited only as a tourist, she'll play the Royal Albert Hall.
Extensive U.S. dates are also planned for the outing, which will launch in September and run through the holidays, with plans to resume in early 2013.
While her focus for the remainder of this year will be the new album and tour, Underwood, who made her acting debut in the 2011 film "Soul Surfer," is interested in pursuing more screen roles in the future.
"I'm kind of one of those people that's up for anything," she says. "I am certainly open to acting again. It was a lot of fun. I would love to do something else meaningful like 'Soul Surfer.'"
Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has been reporting extensively on the music industry for two decades. As a freelance writer, her work appears regularly in numerous publications and sites, including Radio- Info.com, where she authors the newsletter Stark Country. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.
I voted for carrie every time she is still sweet and a great singer, I am sure she is a Christian, she sang Jesus take the wheel where it touch your heart. i am worried though that she is being too sexual, i wish she'd dress more conservative. she is setting an example of modesties for everyone who sees her. we have enough people out there that don't realize that. i heard a little girl keep saying oh my God when she was talking. For anyone who is morally responsible please dress modest, stop cussing and taking our God's and Jesus' name in vain. and no i am not a prude.