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Carrie Underwood: The Cover Story

Carrie Underwood details the emotional roller coaster she went on when writing and producing her sixth studio album 'Cry Pretty.'

Written by Deborah Evans Price
Carrie Underwood: The Cover Story
Carrie Underwood; Photo Credit: Randee St. Nicholas

Everyone has ups and downs in their life–even a superstar like Carrie Underwood. But while most people just cry, pray and do whatever it takes to work their way through the tough spots, Underwood has the opportunity to turn life into art. And that’s just what she does on her sixth studio album Cry Pretty, the singer’s most personal collection of songs yet.

“I feel like I’ve always been good at writing stories about other people, and not so great writing about myself,” says the expectant mom, looking radiant in jeans, a white t-shirt and a flowing peach wrap. “I felt like through all the ups and downs of last year, and the beginning of this year, I had to. That’s just what was on my mind and on my heart. I guess I was more self-involved. I don’t know. [I was] dealing with my own crap along the way, and it just made its way in there.”

Underwood has indeed had a tumultuous year. Last November she fell on the steps of her home while taking her dogs out. She broke her wrist and needed 40-plus stitches to close the wounds on her face. The accident prompted what she calls “forced relaxation” before she could throw herself back into working on the new album. But what she kept hidden until mid-September 2018 was the fact that she had suffered three miscarriages in 2017 and 2018. She talked about the heartbreak in an interview on CBS Sunday Morning.

Knowing what fans now know about the past two years, it’s easy to see why the new album is such an emotional project for the Grammy winning chanteuse. Life’s challenges and triumphs find their way into Cry Pretty. The 13-song collection opens with the hit title track and closes with “The Champion,” her anthemic collaboration with Ludacris. In between there are songs that cover a lot of emotional territory from gun violence to lost love to familial bliss. “There’s a lot of really personal songs on this album,” she acknowledges. “2017 was just a year full of ups and downs for a lot of reasons, and a lot of reasons that I’m not quite ready to talk about. But I feel like it made its way. Life, when you’re writing, kind of makes its way into what you’re doing, and I feel like this was the first, or the most, that I could really inject myself into what I was writing.”

Though reluctant to delve into too many details of her personal life, Underwood admits 2017 was a year of soul searching and dealing with things that weren’t easy. Yet music was her therapy. “Life needs ups and downs,” she sighs. “As much as we’d all like to avoid the downs, I feel like we wouldn’t know what the ups felt like if we didn’t have them. I was just made to deal with a lot of things that I’m just not good at dealing with. I’m good at working. I’m good at kind of shoving things to the side.

“This past little while has just been really good at making me deal with my own emotions,” she continues. “It’s been good for me, but it’s also been scary, because if you inject yourself into your art and then you put your art out into the world and people don’t like it or judge it or whatever, it’s like they’re kind of judging you or they don’t like you. So I really hope for better or for worse people just get it. I think we can turn situations into positive things. Whatever might be going on in your life, I feel like you can use it. For me, it was making music and it was good therapy.”

Underwood also took a different approach in writing and recording Cry Pretty. Her usual mode of operation has been to block off specific time to write songs. “My 2017 kind of became like write a little bit, and then I’d have to like go do something somewhere: I’d have shoots and I’d have some sort of media something or whatever to do, and then I’d come back to writing. I’ve never quite done it like that before. Normally I block off a time for writing and I’m writing four or five days a week every single week. This was a little more broken up, which I think was good ’cause I was living life in between writing sessions.”

Cry Pretty also marks the first time Underwood has ever co-produced one of her albums. She ventured into this new territory with co-producer David Garcia, a Grammy winning Nashville-based writer/producer who wrote Florida Georgia Line and Bebe Rexha’s hit “Meant to Be,” and has worked with TobyMac, Mandisa, Kip Moore and other acts. “I met David Garcia. . . through Brett James and just loved what he brought to the table,” Underwood says. “We worked well together as writers, and then he would send me demos that I loved. I really was just like, ‘What is this guy’s story? How are his demos so good?’ I knew he was doing them himself, and I started looking into more of what he did from the production side of things.”

Underwood credits Garcia with helping her step into the role of producer. “I had the time to produce myself. Obviously knowing I have a lot to learn, I asked [my manager] Ann [Edelblute] about maybe producing with David, which was totally new… He’s not that familiar in country music yet. And I stress yet,” she says with a big smile. “He was just so good and we wrote so well together. I felt like it made sense. And then we jumped in the studio [at the] beginning of this year.”

The partnership has been–by all measures–a success. At press time, Cry Pretty had sold 265,654 equivalent album units and debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard 200 and Top Country Album Charts, making Underwood the only woman in history to land four country albums at the top of the all-genre Billboard 200 chart. Cry Pretty is the best-selling country debut of 2018, as well as the biggest country album debut since August 7, 2015 (Luke Bryan’s Kill The Lights) and the biggest female country album debut since October 22, 2012 (Taylor Swift’s 2012 Red). In fact, the album is the biggest all-genre debut by a female in 2018, topping Cardi B’s Invasion of Privacy (April 6, 2018).

Underwood is just happy fans are finally able to hear the fruits of that labor, especially the upbeat anthem “Love Wins,” which she wrote with Garcia and James. “When we were writing it, it was a little scary because I was like, ‘Whatever we say, I just want to make sure people see this for what it is and what we’re trying to say,’ because it’s so easy these days to skim the surface of something, draw some crazy conclusion that’s not correct, and then make a thing out of it,” she says. “Above all, we want people to feel hopeful. We weren’t trying to speak negatively about our world, ’cause we live in an amazing world, too. But I feel like we just get really caught up in surface things, and I feel like in this world we’re quick to get angry at each other. Personally I think that we’re all different for a reason, and I feel like if you just sit down and talk to somebody who’s not like you and keep it chill, keep it calm, we can all learn from each other, and I feel like that’s what the good Lord would want us to do.”

Their intent in writing “Love Wins” was not to offer up simplistic moral platitudes, but to remind listeners that people are basically good. “I know it sounds super easy, and that’s certainly not what we were trying to say either– ‘Let’s just all hold hands and be friends.’ I know it’s a little more complicated than that, but I do think that we as humans are inherently good and we need to remember that,” she says. “And because we’re different that doesn’t make somebody else bad. It just makes us different. We just wanted that song to be hopeful and to maybe make somebody to stop and think.”

Although her three year-old son Isaiah is obviously too young to fully embrace the message of “Love Wins,” it’s a philosophy Underwood incorporates into her parenting. “I want Isaiah to be around people that don’t think like he does,” she says. “I want him to form his own opinions about things, and I want him to talk to people, and come to people with love. You may never agree with somebody else, but that’s okay. Talk to them and maybe you’ll be like, ‘I never thought of that’—whatever it is—‘that way.’ That’s definitely something that we need to teach our children: to love each other and love others, because that’s what God said. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Not love your neighbor if they think like you do or feel like you do.”

 

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In the 13 years since her debut album, Underwood has definitely grown as an artist and that confidence is on display throughout Cry Pretty, especially when it comes to songs that are a little more sultry and passionate. She admits sexy songs weren’t in her comfort zone when she debuted in her 20s. “It’s just so easy for that to get exploited and it’s so easy to start heading down that path,” she says. “In my early 20s, I was still a kid and figuring out whatever. If I’d sung the songs that I sing now back then, it would have been ingenuine. It would have been trying too hard or something. As I get older, I just become more confident in myself in every way. It’s not like trying to be sexy or trying to go there. Confidence gives way to being sexy. There’s something sexy about being confident in yourself, and I feel like the older I get, just the more confidence I have in myself in that way–just owning it. Musically, too.”

Underwood cites “Backsliding,” which she wrote with Garcia and Hillary Lindsey, as one of the album’s steamier moments. “It’s a very sexy song. It’s still a very grown up song,” she says. “When we were writing it, I was like, ‘This kind of feels like a booty call song,’ but I wanted it to be in a way that it was like, ‘Okay, these people were married at one point. For whatever reason, it didn’t work out, but they just can’t be apart, but they can’t be together either.’ That’s real life. You don’t have to be married. There are a lot of people that deal with that kind of [thing where] you just can’t stay away, but you shouldn’t be together either.”

One of the most powerful songs on the record is “The Bullet,” written by Marc Beeson, Andy Albert and Allen Shamblin. “I feel like we as a society [are] so conditioned and so used to seeing bad things on the news every night, that we really don’t stop to think about all the other people involved. That’s what the song is about,” she explains. “You say, ‘That’s really sad that that person lost their life,’ but then you’re not [thinking about] ‘Oh, their mama. Oh, they have two kids. Oh my gosh!’ You don’t think about that as much.

“One of the great things I love about how the song was written is you don’t know what happened,” she continues. “You don’t know what the incident was that they are dealing with. It could have been military. It could have been some sort of street violence. It could have been a cop. It could have been anybody. It doesn’t matter what it was. It matters that there are people dealing with this, and unfortunately it’s a subject that I feel like way too many people are gonna be able to relate to. It’s just a beautifully written song. I don’t know if I could ever sing it live.”

Fans are getting a chance to see Underwood perform some of the new songs during a barrage of media performances this week, but they’ll feel the full impact of the new music when she delivers it live next spring during her “Cry Pretty 360 Tour.” The trek kicks off May 1 in Greensboro, NC with Maddie & Tae and Runaway June as opening acts. “I just wanted our tour to be a good tour. I wanted a good show. I wanted talented people on stage that I respected musically,” she says of the all female lineup. “So it was mainly about just putting together a great show, and then it’s an added bonus that they’re all women. I definitely feel like we need to lift each other up and support each other, and I believe in these women. And hopefully they’ll just continue to have more and more doors open for them, ’cause they deserve it.”