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The other LeAnn Rimes: Catharsis and craft
The country singer-songwriter steps beyond tabloid headlines with her most powerful (and personal) music

By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music

It's entirely reasonable to suspect there may be two of LeAnn Rimes.

One lives in a drama-filled world populated by relentless tabloid gossip, public feuds with her husband's ex-wife, a seemingly endless parade of bikini pics, a barrage of tweets (61,000 and counting) and a self-imposed, monthlong stay in an in-patient treatment center late last summer for help with anxiety-related issues.

The other is a 30-year-old singer-songwriter of remarkable skill and natural talent who appears to be in full command of her career, her craft and her faculties.

It was the latter LeAnn who turned up in a windowless room in the basement of a Nashville recording studio on a recent spring afternoon and spoke with passion, pride and intelligence about her latest album, "Spitfire." Save for the leather pants — and the entourage — she could easily have been mistaken for the pretty girl next door.

The professional pride she exhibits in conversation is justified. "Spitfire" ranks among the two-time Grammy winner's best albums to date. (It debuted in the top 10 of Billboard's Country Albums chart.)

She co-wrote eight of the set's 13 tracks, most notably the poignant "What Have I Done" and "Borrowed," which detail, respectively, the emotions associated with the breakup of her first marriage, and the early relationship with her current husband, actor Eddie Cibrian. More up-tempo — and equally potent — songs like "Spitfire" and "God Takes Care of Your Kind" seem more pointedly directed at Cibrian's ex-wife, reality TV star Brandi Glanville, with whom Rimes has a contentious relationship, as does the more conciliatory track "Just a Girl Like You."

Among the album's other standout moments is a cover of Buddy and Julie Miller's "Gasoline and Matches," on which Rimes effectively enlists the talents of Matchbox Twenty's Rob Thomas on vocals and Jeff Beck on guitar.

In a candid and revealing interview, Rimes spoke with MSN Music about writing and recording the album, and the sometimes painful but often joyful emotions that went into creating it.

MSN Music: You've compared making this album to making a movie, where every song had to fit the story you wanted to tell. What's the trailer-length version of that story?

LeAnn Rimes: There's a lot of humanity on this album, more so than anything I've ever done. I approached writing and the performances from a very human perspective, and not from a LeAnn Rimes perspective of where I had to prove to people I could sing. There wasn't any proving on this record. It was just being and experiencing all the things I've experienced in life over the last four years. All the emotions that any human being could have faced or have felt are on this album. So I feel like I'm meeting the listener and the fan in a completely different place than I ever have. It's real life.

Photos: LeAnn Rimes in focus

You can't really feel like you have to prove to people you can sing at this point, can you?

I really don't, but at the same time, there's still that little girl that's like, "OK, I'm going to go kick ass. I'm going to go prove to people that I'm still the best." There's this little part of me that always will be that way ... the competitive part of me. I compete with myself all the time.

As far as my voice goes, I'm happier than I ever have been because I've grown, and the depths that I can reach are very deep when it comes to emotion. I have this lower end of my voice that I never had when I was a kid. I [also] don't think when I sing, which is a pretty amazing gift to have. It's the one time where I can just not think about anything, just kind of get lost in it. It's an amazing experience to be able to do that.

You wrote eight of these songs, and then gave some incredibly emotional performances of them in the studio. Which was harder, and which was more cathartic, the writing or the recording?

The writing was probably more cathartic. It's still hard to perform them. I tried to do [album cut] "Who We Really Are" today and I had to do it three times to get one take because I was [emulates sobbing]. My guitar player's like, "Think of sex. Think of anything funny," and it does work, but only for a very short period of time. ... It's very hard to get through some of these things still.

The songs that I really do tear up with now are the songs that I still am living, the things that I haven't quite gotten past or maybe never will get past. "Who We Really Are" [is] about [fighting] for love ... and [having] a love that's not the fairy tale, but something that's real. I live it every day, so I don't think I'll ever get past that.

Those tangible emotions are right there that you can actually reach out and touch, because they're right underneath your skin. Those are the [songs] I still have a hard time getting through.

Does that mean you left the recording studio every day feeling like a wet noodle?

[Whether] it was "Spitfire," where I was completely angry the whole time, or "I Do Now," I gave every ounce of myself on this record. So yeah, I left the studio every day completely exhausted, but woke up the next morning so excited to be able to walk back in and create again. ... The greatest thing is walking away from a project knowing that there's nothing else you could have given to it. That's rare.

You must be enjoying all the critical praise the album's getting.

For the first time, I wasn't really seeking anyone's approval. I made a record that I really loved, and left every ounce of me there. I was hoping everyone would enjoy it, but at the same time, if no one did, I actually felt pretty confident and comfortable with the music that I made. With that, there's a lot of freedom.

Artistically, how does 30-year-old LeAnn differ from 20-year-old LeAnn?

I've really grown so much in 10 years and, God knows, 20 years. I thought I knew a lot at 20. I didn't know crap. I'm a lot less fearful ... I realize we're all human and we all experience the same things. I'm not putting on any kind of front. This is just who I am. There are the things I've lived and experienced, and ... I'm not trying to shy away from it because it's not pretty.

Bing: More on LeAnn Rimes

You've said, "The intimacy in my music is just beginning." What does that mean for your projects still to come?

I'm meeting [fans] on a completely different level than I ever have, and I think I'm just going to be approaching music from here on out that way, where we're writing hooky songs, but at the same time they have substance to them. They don't have to have too much substance where people have to think real hard about them, but they're real songs, and they talk about real life. I have a lot more to give than just ... writing a ditty. I love ditties, but I want them to be smart. That's who I want to be from here on out. I'm finally starting to hone in on exactly what it is, and after 20 years, thank God people are still allowing me to do that.

This is your last album for your label home of the last nearly 20 years, Curb Records? What's next?

This is the sound that I will continue. I feel like I finally found exactly what I want to do, and there will be some kind of continuity as we go along from here on out. But I don't know [what's next]. I've been in the same place for 20 years, so it's exciting to be able to learn where we are now as an industry. I feel like I'm going to be interviewing a lot of [label] people. Now, it's my turn.

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. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.

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