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Interview: Tenille Townes on her UK debut, songwriting and working with Jay Joyce

We spoke to the rising US country star on her recent visit to the UK.

Tenille Townes
Credit: Jessica Steddom

Tenille Townes has rapidly established herself as one of the next big things in country music.

Originally from Alberta, Canada, Townes gave her first public performance aged nine when she was invited to sing on stage at a Shania Twain concert. She drove 18 hours from her home town to move to Nashville aged just 19, and has toured alongside Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert. Currently she’s working on her debut album with legendary producer Jay Joyce, after releasing her debut EP The Living Room Worktapes to great acclaim earlier this year.

I caught up with Tenille during her recent visit to the UK for Country Music Week, where she performed as part of the CMA Songwriters Series and opened for Drake White. Read on to find out more about her songwriting process, new music and

How have you found your first trip to the UK?

I love it here so much. It is just beautiful, and I love all the history and the amazing architecture. I’m just really enjoying meeting everybody. Everyone’s been so friendly and kind and you can just feel this love of country music coming up from the underground. I love it.

Is there anywhere you particularly enjoyed visiting while you’ve been here?

There is definitely an energy in London I have completely fallen in love with. There’s just this fire about this city. It’s really, really cool. I really enjoyed Gateshead and we took a train to Edinburgh and I really loved that as well. But honestly all of them have had a really cool, unique quality. The venues have been gorgeous. Liverpool’s venue [St George’s Hall] was… oh, so beautiful!

Did anything surprise you about the audiences in the UK?

I think what’s amazing is how everybody stays at the end of the show to say hi, and being able to look everybody in the eye and give them a big hug and hear their story. They’ll tell you part of their story or tell you about how a part of the song connected to something in their life. That’s one of the greatest gifts so I really appreciated that. And just how attentive they listen. The way everybody’s completely invested in listening to where the song comes from and the lyrics behind it is really cool.

Somebody’s Daughter is your debut single. Can you tell us more about that song and the video you made for it recently?

So the song was inspired by a drive I took with my mom. We were going furniture shopping. She came to visit me and we took this exit off the interstate and saw this girl standing there holding onto a cardboard sign. It just kind of pulled at something in us and we started talking, just wondering what her story might have been – who she belonged to, what happened. And also just thinking about the fact that everybody’s got a story. We’ve all got things we’re going through. It made me so happy to be able to put the song out as the first message. It’s really important to me.

The video for the song was really cool too. I was really excited about the representation of the eyes of a child, and looking at everybody’s beginnings as the same. We’re all dealt this hand of circumstances that sometimes we don’t really have any control over, but I feel like remembering what everyone’s beginning felt like is so important when it comes to compassion for others.

You’re currently working on your first album – what can you tell us about that?

Oh my goodness, I can’t wait to get it out there. I had the most amazing time disappearing into Jay Joyce’s studio. He has this church in East Nashville. We just really carefully explored all these songs. He’s not afraid to try anything and I respect the way he trusts the process so much and really just builds things from the ground up. It was really cool to dig into these songs in that kind of way. But I’m excited about the theme of the record and the way everything’s tying together. I can’t wait for people to hear it.

How did your working with Jay Joyce come about?

Oh, what a dream! He was on the very top of my list of people I would have loved to have worked with, and it was such a honour. I got to go play some songs for him, and he listened and started speaking into the vision for what he would have for the record. It gave me goosebumps and I was like, ‘oh my gosh, this is real life’. So I’m still wondering how that actually worked out myself [laughs] but it was very much a dream to get to do that with him.

Do you have a typical songwriting process, or does it change every time?

Yes, it definitely depends. It’s so interesting – every time is different, but to me I very much feed off the music and the lyric together. They kind of feed each other and I would think it would be hard to do one without the other for me. But it always starts with an anchor of a concept or a feeling. But co-writing’s so interesting because sometimes you can walk in the room and you can have a conversation with somebody and they say something that triggers something in you, ‘oh I think that’s the song we’re supposed to write today’. Sometimes it’s something you walk in with on your heart and a couple of lines started and ‘I really want to dive into this today’. So every song is different.

Are there any songs you’ve found particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

Somebody’s Daughter was very cool in the way that it just felt like the song we were supposed to write that day. I’d seen that girl and Luke [Laird] had a loop started in a similar key and very similar tempo, and I was like ‘hey, this kind of sounds like this idea I had in my head’. Barry [Dean] had this folder of newspaper articles that reflected the same kind of concept, so that was pretty cool.

Honestly, a lot of these songs it very much just kind of happened. I think a lot of times writing is being a like vessel, where you’re kind of catching this idea that’s coming through you, and a lot of these songs kind of happened that way. There’s one song on the record, When I Meet My Maker, that I wrote on my own sitting at this coffee table. It was like 20 minutes and all of a sudden I had these verses written out, and I was like ‘what just happened?’ It fascinates me every time – ‘where did this just come from into the world?’

You recently appeared on the Women Want To Hear Women podcast. Do you feel things are changing with the new wave of female artists coming through?

I’m really excited about this new generation of female country music. Just all of the music that’s coming out of Nashville – I think there’s a really exciting wave of creativity that’s happening and I’m really honoured to be a part of it. I grew up listening to female voices so much and completely inspired by people like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks and all these people who’ve paved such unique paths. And I think there’s an uprising of that coming again, and I’m honoured to be a part of it.

Is there anyone at the moment who you think more people should be listening to?

Oh my goodness, let’s see. I’ve listened to the new Eric Church record, I think that’s incredible, I’m very excited about that. The Ben Rector album, I’m a big fan of – it’s called Magic. I really like Donovan Woods too.

You’ve been very heavily involved with various charitable activities since you were 15 – can you tell us more about how that came about?

Thank you for asking about that. Big Hearts For Big Kids was started after I saw this pamphlet about a youth shelter in my home town. It was kids my own age in my own home town who needed a safe place to turn to and sleep in, and it just kind of triggered something in me to want to do something and help out. My mom would drive me around to local businesses with the sponsor letter and we’d go and just ask people to come to the show. Honestly, so many people said yes. My community is incredible and they’ve shown up for this event now for 10 years, and it’s been a big part of keeping the youth shelter on its feet and directing some of the paths of these kids in such a positive way.

It’s been life-changing for me to witness that and to me that’s what music’s for – it’s bringing us together. And it’s really an amazing thing that can happen when everyone sits down and gets connected by a song or by a mission and starts going ‘wow, we can really do something if we all put our hands in this together’. I’ve just been honoured to witness that year after year.

You also had a schools project which led you to write your song Jersey On The Wall – can you tell us a bit more about how that song came about?

Yeah, so Jersey On The Wall was inspired by a group of people I met in New Brunswick. At this point I’d been travelling to a lot of different schools and playing for middle schools and high schools and loved it. I loved getting to see the look on all these kids’ faces and hearing all their stories about inspiring things they were doing in their hallways. But this group was really special. You could tell the way the older kids were looking out for the younger ones and there was a powerful community spirit going on in the room.

I played a community show that night and then the teacher sits me down and tells me that there had been this fluke car accident a few months prior with kids from the high school, four of which I’d been hanging out with all day and had no idea what they’d been through. And one of them, Danielle, she was the valedictorian, star basketball player, and she was killed in this fluke car accident. It was so devastating to hear about that and even more so moving to have gotten to know that community. So they just really stuck with me and I got to keep in touch with them and fly back the next year and surprise them for the high school graduation. I saw Danielle’s jersey up on the wall, and I looked at those numbers and thought ‘I have questions for God’.

And I think it’s OK to have those questions and to be honest with whatever you’re feeling in that painful season. I think there’s healing in the conversation itself. Shortly after that one of my best friends from home lost her little brother and put me in that place of wanting to ask questions and dig for this sort of emotion in a song.

How did you get into music, and what made you decide you wanted to pursue it as a career?

I’ve always loved listening to music. There’s something about hearing a voice tell a story in a song that’s just incredible. I love the way it connects us. I grew up listening to music all over the place, especially in the car. I’d follow along to the lyric booklet of all my favourite records and dream of being up on a stage someday and getting to play for people. It’s a pretty incredible thing to be waking up doing this. I love it so much and I’m having the time of my life.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Let’s see, The House That Built Me, Miranda Lambert, that would be one. I love that song so much, it always makes me weepy. And then maybe At Last, Etta James. I love that song.

What do the next few months look like for you? Is it mostly just finishing the album?

Yep, getting the record ready. I’ve got a few more shows this fall and I’m out on a radio tour that’s just about wrapping up in the States so looking forward to that. And then from there getting ready for new music next year and some more touring next year that I’m really excited about.

Will you be coming back to the UK any time soon?

I can’t wait to come back to the UK next year. I just love it here and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to come back! It’s been a joy to be here.

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