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Runaway June: The Cover Story

Runaway June: The Cover Story
Runaway June; Photo credit: Kristin Barlowe

Runaway June are the torch bearers for modern day women in country music. This traces back to their origin story as three women singing together around a guitar, their harmonies flowing so naturally they couldn’t deny they were meant to be a group. Women are an integral part of their success story, beginning with the team that helped them write “Lipstick,” the debut single that gave them the staying power to create a debut album in the form of Blue Roses, to being handpicked by Carrie Underwood as an opening act alongside Maddie & Tae on her 2019 Cry Pretty Tour 360.

But like many artists, their journey to success wasn’t a direct path. Though all three women were raised on traditional country music, Wayne has it in her blood – literally. Growing up in southern California as the granddaughter of iconic Western film actor John Wayne (he passed away before she was born), she heeded the famous words of her grandfather when she was 18, “courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway,” by abandoning her initial career path as a professional tennis player to chase her dream of being a songwriter to Nashville. Her bold move paid off, spending five years as a member of the former trio Stealing Angels with Caroline Cutbirth Hobby and Loretta Lynn’s granddaughter Tayla Lynn, later competing with Hobby on The Amazing Race and The Amazing Race: All-Stars, before achieving a hit as a songwriter by co-penning Eric Paslay’s poignant ballad, “She Don’t Love You,” which reached the Top 15 on the country charts.

Meanwhile, Cooke was establishing a reputation as singer throughout the bar circuit in her hometown of Gainesville, Fla. before making her way to Nashville in 2011 where she juggled songwriting with nanny duties and a gig at the famous Tootsie’s on Broadway. Writing music throughout childhood, Mulholland was exploring her passion for the visual arts working as an art teacher in her native Los Angeles, a job she considered making permanent had she not made the pilgrimage to Nashville in 2014 to bring her dreams of being a music artist to fruition.

After planting roots in Music City, their paths became intertwined. Having written with both women over the years, Wayne served as the point of contact between Cooke and Mulholland. On a day when Wayne and Cooke were scheduled to write, Wayne extended an invitation to Mulholland, knowing she’d be a seamless fit. They discovered the power of three gathered around an acoustic guitar, Wayne hitting the high notes, Mulholland taking the low register while Cooke was a happy medium between the two on lead vocals. The singers quickly realized they had an aptitude for three-part harmony, unanimously describing the moment as magical. “The most special thing was when we started singing. We all obviously connected as friends, we all liked each other, and then writing the music, we all wanted to say the same thing and liked the same kinds of music,” Wayne recounts to Sounds Like Nashville of that monumental day. “You could have three singers who are amazing singers, but don’t sound well together, don’t sound blended, so it was kind of a natural thing. I think that that was part of the magic was ‘we have something really special here.’” 

The magic they felt in the room that day and the organic chemistry between them are key factors when discussing the band’s initial founding and their long-awaited debut album Blue Roses that saw the light of day in late June 2019. They all agree with Mulholland’s sentiment that the project was a “four-year labor of love” they’ve been working toward since forming in 2015. They spent those valuable years in between navigating touring life, record label changes and switching producers to the renowned Dann Huff whose talents are behind some of the biggest acts in country including Keith Urban, Thomas Rhett, Brooks & Dunn and now their debut project. Persevering through the growing pains made the coveted debut album experience more of a slow burn than a rush job.

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“From being on the road for all those years, we were able to really figure out ‘what actually do we want to say? What do we want to perform to our audience, what are they reacting to?’ At the end of the day, we were able to really shape and shift to our live show of who the band actually is now. It ended up being a blessing,” Mulholland reminisces. “The big theme through our music and the record is we want to be really honest, we want to be really real. We only really want to sing things that connect with us personally that we know are going to connect with other people. I think honesty and truth is a big one, organic in all sense of the word.”   

The current identity of the trio is self-described modern women, which is proven in their catalogue that brings their ever-evolving viewpoints into the spotlight. All three women note their affinity for western flair and traditional country music, which makes itself known with the presence of the fiddle and mandolin on “Lipstick” and is the foundation of “Wild West” where they make reference to Wayne’s grandfather and fellow outlaw legend Jesse James. “We’re modern women, so we have taken our influences of traditional country and made it modern, without losing that feel with the steel guitar and the banjo,” Wayne details of their sound.

The trio introduced their mentality as modern women in the song that launched their career, “Lipstick.” The trio called on a team of female writers – Wayne’s former Stealing Angels cohort Hobby along with Elisha Hoffman and Rebecca Lynn Howard – to help them write the positive reinforcement song that encourages women to wait for the person who brings excitement and passion into their life as opposed to tears and heartache. The song instantly lights up as their harmonies present the first line “If you’re gonna love somebody / Yeah you better love somebody / Who ruins your lipstick, not your mascara,” marking their initial ascent into female empowerment, a theme that comes out full force on Blue Roses.

“To be modern women, we’re living in a world that women are able to talk about a lot more things and it’s not frowned upon. We’re able to really absorb the world that we live in and fully be ourselves and it’s really encouraging. Being able to sing about that is really freeing and liberating,” Cooke remarks. “On the album, we’ve got all of these different songs that encase us as women in a sense of all these different emotions that we showcase and different stories of ourselves.”

This idea of empowerment isn’t always portrayed in clean brushstrokes, but rather stories that show the less glamorous sides of life. Across the 10-track project, listeners meet a woman who is caught in a moment of weakness going back to someone she knows she shouldn’t, another who’s taking a stand against falling back into the habit of being used and one who takes responsibility in a failed relationship. But what each female figure has in common is the ability to own her mistakes while gaining clarity and strength through the process that leads to personal growth. “There’s a song called ‘Head Over Heels’ where we talk about a repetitive one night stand situation. It’s not pretty, no one’s proud of that, but everyone’s done it,” Cooke narrates.  “You’ve stayed with someone a little too long, you know it’s not right, you know you’re being used, you might be using them, it’s not healthy. And then you also go ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’” This same integrity comes into play on “I Am Too” that conveys an atypical perspective of a broken relationship. Replacing feelings of bitterness or vengefulness toward her ex, the song finds the leading woman self-reflecting on how she contributed to the breakup. “She realizes ‘I messed up, I don’t want you back, but I realize that I’m at fault at this one,’ and you don’t hear that side of a story from a woman a lot,” Cooke continues. “So we’re in a time where being modern women, you can talk about that and people want to hear it.’

But the album’s most unwavering anthem for female empowerment is in the song that made them the first female country group in 14 years to have a Top 20 hit on radio, “Buy My Own Drinks.” The trio recalls when co-writer Josh Kear put forth the title, not knowing what it meant or which direction to take it. But they did. “That’s a modern woman right there that’s like ‘you know what, I’m going to take care of myself, I don’t need a guy to buy me drinks, I don’t need my friends to come out with me. I’m totally cool with just loving myself and being independent,’” Mulholland says confidently. “That’s certainly what I think of for a modern woman.” With the proclamation “I can be my own boyfriend,” the trio raises a championing fist to independence and feeling secure in oneself, Cooke citing the resilient line as a “naughty nod.” “It’s something that you would never be able to say five years ago or 10 years ago,” she observes. “It’s kind of suggestive, but it’s pretty sexy, and people really like that we’re a little bit raw in that sense.” 

What makes Runaway June’s delivery unique is the way this theme surfaces, as the trio innately infuses empowerment into their music without preaching it. “We are three independent women so we’re just writing what we know. We’re not intentionally going ‘we are women, hear us roar.’ We just are that way,” Wayne illustrates. “For us it’s important to empower everyone, not just women. Everybody has felt like that before, we just happen to be three women singing about it.” For Cooke, interweaving empowerment into their songs is a conscious effort, wanting to help listeners navigate their personal struggles by learning how the self-possessed women singing about them overcame their own tribulations. “It’s intentional, the empowerment, that we’re encouraging other people to find their footing,” she explains. “We’re still young women figuring it out, but we want to be empowering, we want a good message out there for people that are looking up to us that might be going ‘what do I do in this situation.’” 

While empowerment is a vital part of the group’s core, it stems from their desire to connect with their audience in a vulnerable way. This manifests deeply in the trio’s distinctive track “Blue Roses,” a heartbreaking ballad where all of the components of the trio thrive: stirring three-part harmony, powerful lyrics and organic chemistry that brings the words to life. The song took shape through co-writer Marcus Hummon, who presented a few of the lines from the first verse in a writing session with Cooke, Wayne and Hobby. They used his words as a launching point to paint a melancholy picture of heartache, one so profound that it robs a songbird of its voice and buries the remnants of a broken heart in a far away field. While the universal theme of heartbreak has the power to take on a range of identities, each member of the trio attaches the meaning of the tragic ballad to a loved one who’s passed on. It sits heavy on Cooke’s heart, wrapped around the memory of her late brother who passed away in a car accident. “Immediately I just felt the presence of my brother,” Cooke reflects upon hearing Hummon’s haunting lyrics for the first time. “And I was overwhelmed with emotion. I was like ‘this is so cathartic, he’s so here with us.’ I’ve just felt that every time I perform it.” 

The song has become the pinnacle moment in their live set as well as the album, the trio building up to that final moment after the listener has ventured through stories of breakups, new relationships and independent women, ending the album with the stunning three-part harmony that convinced them to join forces years ago. “It wasn’t an easy song to always sing but every time we sang it the audience, the whole crowd was really engaged, really listening. You could tell they felt it because they’ve also lost people that they love; everyone has experienced it. That song really became important for us to connect with our fans on this emotional level,” Cooke conveys of the impact. “It was really happening organically, and so we put that as the title track because it also ends the album in a capella and that’s how the band started. It was in a room where we were singing, just us three with a guitar. It felt really fitting to do that and steer everyone to the heart of who we are by calling the album Blue Roses.

In nature, blue roses take on a variety of meanings, including new beginnings, defying the odds and honoring the qualities of “wonderful” and “unique.” While these collectively relate to Runaway June, perhaps the most fitting is how they symbolize a woman who follows her own path. It’s this mentality that helped land them in the company of other trailblazing women as part of Underwood’s tour, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that awards them the platform to share their inspiring messages to vast audiences eager to listen.

“A lot of people tell us too ‘your songs are empowering’ and it’s like ‘okay, what are we empowering people to do?’ I think one of the things that we would like to see is empowering people to love themselves. It takes you, don’t look for it externally, it’s all there. Just remember that you’re the one, you’re where it starts and being independent in all the ways. We’ve all had to learn that,” Cooke defines. “But that’s how we want them to feel empowered.”