Carrie Underwood doesn’t seem the least bit fazed by the fact that she was primarily asked pregnancy-related questions on the red carpet when she arrived at the CMT Artists of the Year honors last month. Underwood walks into most interviews prepared to field questions about things like her workout routine, beauty regimen, and family life, topics that simply come with the territory of being the celebrity face of a fitness clothing line and a makeup brand. As she points out patiently, perched on a meeting-room couch in the Music Row offices of her management company, that’s “part of the empire you wanna build for yourself as an artist.”
“I just like being creative in different ways,” she says, “so I don’t mind talking about a lot of it, but it can get a little wearing, I guess, when you do wanna talk about new music or you wanna get across that, ‘Hey, I write music too.’ It’s so weird that I feel like people still don’t quite grasp that.”
Music, she emphasizes, is the “cornerstone” of her identity. Underwood’s been a country-pop superstar, in the classic sense of the term, for more than a dozen years now — not only one of her genre’s most reliable hit-makers, but one of its most poised, polished and ambitious ambassadors, adept at managing her image. She’s also served as a bridge between the country stars of the ’90s and early aughts — many of whom were vigorous song interpreters who drew stirring ballads, dramatic story-songs and danceable honky-tonk numbers from the catalogues of professional songsmiths and aimed to stage ever bigger and better arena tours — and the crop of artists who’ve broken through this decade, making music from defiantly casual, personalized, millennial postures. Underwood arrived just as it began to matter more that country artists wrote their own songs, and just before Nashville really began to feel the influence of contemporary pop, hip-hop, and R&B on its production techniques, vocal approaches, and overall sensibilities. She’s adapted to the changing landscape at her own, measured pace.
As for the more symbolic facets of her country music role, Underwood has co-hosted her industry’s leading award show for the past decade, and at a recent CMT event celebrating women artists exclusively, she was called on to anchor a tribute medley that culminated with one of her own songs. At the end, she held out the money note, belting with all the force she could muster, while the backing band paused in salute to her athletic feat. Then she caught her breath, scanning the crowd with a look of satisfaction, and finished the final line.
The power ballad that Underwood wrapped up her performance with, “Cry Pretty,” is the potent title track of her sixth album, which came out in mid-September. In the months leading up to it, a fall that severely injured her face and necessitated stitches was the subject of much fascination. Then, attention turned to her revelation that she’d endured three miscarriages while working on the album. But there was another quieter bit of news, one that specifically had to do with the making of music: She’d not only co-written a greater number of the songs on Cry Pretty than on any of its predecessors — nine of its 13 tracks — but had, for the first time, co-produced herself. With a new collaborator, writer-producer David Garcia, she tested the waters of broodier expression and, here and there, nudged her trademark glossy sound, a blend of modern twang, hair-metal guitars and propulsive pop rhythms, toward icy synths and spacious beats.
People aren’t necessarily used to considering how Underwood shapes her output, because dominant narratives tend to minimize women’s artistic agency, when it’s recognized at all; that’s even more true for a performer launched by a reality-TV competition into a format viewed condescendingly by some as a home to packaged stars. Garcia told her that acquaintances have inquired, “Does she really write?” “And I know he’s quick to let ’em know how it is,” says Underwood. So is she, when the right questions are asked.
It seemed like you were thrust into the Nashville system right after American Idol, green but eager to learn the ropes. What was your initial understanding of what being an artist entailed?
I did obviously try out for American Idol and landed in the big middle of everything. One of the first conversations I had with my new team after I won, I remember saying to them, “I know enough to know that I don’t know anything.” So I was very reliant upon people around me to help me. I was 22 years old. I didn’t know what kind of artist I wanted to be, other than country music. I felt like I would know it when I heard it, but I just needed a lot of direction and a great team behind me, and I was lucky enough to have that early on.
When did you feel like you were starting to make significant contributions in the songwriting process?
The second album definitely. The first one was such a blur. I had writing sessions and we had these big camps where we’d have ten writers or whatever come in, and I would kind of bounce around from room to room and just see what was going on. I was learning then too, just seeing how everybody did everything. The second album, getting to write with people like Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird, those two specifically were really good for me. They were just very welcoming. They never treated me like some singer kid who came off of American Idol that didn’t know what she was doing.
I remember also saying, “If I’m not any good at this, I’ll know it. I don’t wanna go into a room and sit with a couple other songwriters and feel like I didn’t do anything or feel like I couldn’t contribute. I don’t wanna waste their time, waste my time.”
At what point did you start taking an active role in shaping the sound of your albums?
Definitely from the beginning, but I would say with each album it’s been more and more me taking ownership and more control and more writing. I’ve seen artists in the past where when they were new artists and somebody else was more or less telling them what to do, their albums were way better than when they started writing everything themselves. You could tell. I didn’t want that.
I still rely on my team. I’ve been with some of these people literally since day one, and trust their opinions. It’s not just all about what I wanna hear on the radio. I know what feels good to me to sing. I do know what I wanna hear. But everybody’s not exactly like me … So I think it’s just [about] being willing to be your own artist, know what you wanna do, know what you wanna sing, know what you want things to sound like, but also having people around you that you trust and listening to their opinions. You can throw ‘em out the window if you want at the end of the day, but I always want to know what those around me think about things as well.
You made your first several albums with the same producer, Mark Bright. When you made your 2015 album, Storyteller, you branched out and brought in a couple of additional producers. Cry Pretty marks the first time that you chose a completely different producer, David Garcia, and co-produced. Was that about adapting to changing times and trends? Was it about taking control of another facet of album making? This is one of my biggest fears: If you write with the same people, if you always use the same producer, if you always use the same musicians, you’re pretty much gonna end up with the same album over and over again … If the formula is the same, there’s only so many different ways you can rearrange the puzzle pieces. So I felt like at that point in my career [making Storyteller], it was time to just mix things up a little bit.
With this one, it was all about taking more ownership over what I was doing in my artistry. It was kind of a leap of faith. I had started working with David Garcia as a writer, and he would send back the most incredible demos.
Once we had a few songs going and kind of felt like we knew there was a direction to this album, I remember just being upstairs in [manager Ann Edelblute’s] office and saying, “Okay, this is probably a stupid idea. We have the time with this album. I’m not touring. I have lots of time to spend really diving in. What if David and I produced the album together?” It’s always scary throwing out some kind of random idea, because you’re worried people are just gonna think you’re out of your mind or stupid or try to gently talk you out of it.
I wasn’t familiar with Garcia until I read that you were working with him and looked him up, and found that a lot of his work has been in the Christian pop-hip-hop arena.
Somebody that is musically talented like he is can work anywhere. We’re the exact same age, but I felt like he knows everything that’s new on the radio right now. He works at making sure he knows what’s up in the world of music, which is really important.
I want to know what you were listening to during the writing and recording process that became an important reference point.
I don’t know if there’s one thing, because I feel like we cover so many directions with this album. It was more like I would associate with songs that are in your [memory] bank, in your head.
Such as “Cry Pretty.” From day one I’m like, “This has such a cool, Aerosmith vibe to it.” I love rock music. I love screamy guitars. I love having that energy. This goes with kind of the yin and yang with me and David. He does listen to a lot of hip-hop, which I don’t listen to a ton of. When you look at [the song] “Backsliding,” that would probably be more David-influenced musically, because he would know the cooler way to approach a song that had more rhythmic things happening in it.
Vocally, you’re known for giving really athletic performances. A shift toward a more relaxed, pop and R&B-influenced singing style arrived in Nashville several years after you did, ushered in by artists like Sam Hunt, Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini. I felt like you began to experiment with that a little on your 2015 song “Heartbeat,” which you did with Sam Hunt and writer-producer Zach Crowell. But on this album, you worked a lot more with your low range and your phrasing is so much looser, especially during songs like “Backsliding,” “Low,” “Ghost on the Stereo.” How did you alter your vocal approach?
It was just trying to move the artistry forward and not do the same things that I’ve always done. Like, I literally hold out notes until I start seeing stars. I will pass out some day on stage. It hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood. But it probably is really only a matter of time, because I will push myself until it hurts, which I love [to do].
On the producer side of things, David was really good at saying, “Okay, listen to this.” And he would play me the demo. It would be something that I sang a couple times [at the] end of the day [when] I didn’t know the song well enough. I didn’t have all the things planned out in my head that I was gonna do with it, what runs I was gonna do over here or how long I was gonna hold this note out or whatever. I wasn’t thinking about it; I was in the moment … So there was an emotion to it that became lessened when I knew the song backwards and forwards and was thinking more about my vocal delivery.
He would play them back to back and ask, “Can you hear the emotional difference between this one that is imperfect and this one that you’re trying to be perfect?” I’m like, “I do.” So that became such a growing experience for me as a vocalist … That would lead me to not try and be perfect and hold the notes out as long and do the Carrie thing that I had been doing for the past 12 years, which got me where I am, you know? But it was just such a great artistic step forward, being able to feel a song and deliver it in a different way.
But it’s not like you completely left your vocal signatures behind.
Right, because that’s just me.
That’s there when you belt out each chorus.
If I’m gonna sing a song like “Cry Pretty” where it gets all crazy at the end, I’m gonna “Carrie” all over that thing.
Did you just use your name as a verb?
I did! I think that’s okay.
I’m never gonna become some folk-y singer where it’s just me and a guitar and I never leave my mid-register. That’s just not who I am. This is part of me … If you have too many songs in a row that are more chill or laid-back, I don’t wanna say I get bored, but kinda. I grew up listening to people that did vocal acrobatics, and I loved it. I listened to every note and would try to teach myself how to do it. That’s just me, but it’s nice to explore other sides of what I can do and figure it out for myself: Can I sing softer? Can I not belt out everything? [Laughing.]
The voice is an inherently physical instrument, every little detail of the structure of a person’s face, mouth, and throat effects how they sound. Freddie Mercury famously refused to fix his teeth because he felt that was part of what gave his voice resonance. You were dealing with a serious injury to your face while you were making the album. What difference did that make? How did you adapt?
I felt like the differences were more in my head than they were in anybody else’s that would listen to the things I was doing. I had wanted to be in the studio sooner than I was, actually recording these songs, but I had stitches inside my mouth, outside my mouth. It was physically impossible … Going into the studio for the first time, it was a mind game: “Do I sound the same? Is my diction the same? Does my mouth move the same as it did before?” I would sing something and then look at David and be like, “Did that all come out clearly?” My m’s and b’s and p’s were kind of the issue. And he was like, “I thought it sounded great.”
Things change just as you get older; your muscles change. I kind of expect I’m not always going to sound like I’m 22 coming off of American Idol. Hopefully I get better.
Did you work with a vocal coach?
No. the only time I have ever sought a vocal coach’s counsel was when I was doing The Sound of Music, and that was because it was a completely different kind of music and I wanted to be respectful of what I was singing, as much as possible and try to get some of my twang out. But not during anything else. I feel like you just kind of have to find your way through it. I don’t like it when people try to tell me how to sing, because it should be natural.
From the beginning of your career, you established the expectation that the lyrics you were singing wouldn’t necessarily be autobiographical, that you’d toggle between extremes: playing the part of a woman taking revenge and delivering grand, inspirational sentiments. How have you kept emotional expression and personal experience separate?
I feel like that’s just kind of my personality; I’m not a mushy person. I’m not good at sharing my feelings. I feel like I always gravitate toward [songs], or write songs, I just want the women characters in there to just be fierce and strong … Whatever the situation was, it’s like the woman was pushed to her limit and fought back … I want to be perceived as a strong woman. So it would be harder for me to pen something that was more open-book about myself. That’s just so personal. If you tell a story and somebody says, “Oh, I don’t really like that story,” that’s fine. But if you put yourself into a song and put that out there and somebody says, “I don’t like that song,” they’re talking about you, and that’s hard. I feel like just with getting older and having a kids and going through some of the stuff that we’ve been through, it just maybe becomes a little easier to share after that.
I first heard this album before you did the big TV interview and spoke about your miscarriages. Even though I didn’t initially have that context, that was the first time I’d listened to your music and wondered how it reflected things you’ve lived. How did you draw on what you were personally experiencing and feeling during the creative process?
It wasn’t a conscious thing. It wasn’t like, “I’m gonna write about this, because this just happened.” It would be completely inevitable. I’d have a terrible day at the doctor’s office and then come into a writing session and be like, “I’m sorry guys. I might suck today. I just got some bad news.” … Things aren’t literal, but I look at a song like “Low,” and that was my year last year. It was not about a person leaving or anything like that. I listen to that song now, and there’s a good chance I’ll cry, because it was just so personal … I was lucky enough to be around people that I felt really comfortable with. I thought, “What am I gonna do? Go home and wallow in this all day long? No, I want to keep working. I want to keep pushing forward. This is still something that has to be done.” And I kinda needed that at the time, just to have something to stay focused on that wasn’t my personal life.
When you’ve sung about unpleasant things in the past, you haven’t dwelled on pain or melancholy. The song “Blown Away,” for instance, tells a story of alcoholism, death, and survival from the perspective of an omniscient narrator and doesn’t dwell on the feelings of the daughter involved.
Right. Because I don’t like victim songs. I feel like that is a big difference that’s just come with getting older and being more mature, [recognizing] the difference between being emotional and singing in an emotional way versus a victim song, which I just don’t like. I love the ones that the girl fights back. Even in “Blown Away,” it’s like the [dad] gets what he deserves. It’s coming at it from a strong standpoint. And with this one, with living last year and thing after thing happening, realizing that none of that made me a victim and writing these songs that [made space for] still feeling it without feeling sorry for yourself. I was just feeling these things that everybody feels, you know? And that doesn’t make you weaker, dealing with things.
Over the years, when you’ve taken up social, relational, or political concerns in songs, your approach has been to zoom in on their emotional impact on people rather than to stake out a position. That’s true of your new song, “The Bullet,” with its story of a family impacted by gun violence, too. Why has that been your preference? Why do you feel like that’s effective?
It’s not something to be tweeted out, what I think about some political or world issue. It’s a conversation. And at the end of the day, there are lives affected by things and I find it better to focus on that rather than taking a stance musically or on social media. For me, it’s more about the people involved. I don’t know what other people have been through. There are reasons people feel and think they way they feel and think, and I don’t know what those are unless I sit down and have a conversation with them. That’s just not my style. I don’t want to tell people what to think. I want to make great music. I want to open dialogue. I want people to talk about things and figure that out for themselves, instead of me saying I believe this and you should too.