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Interview: Tenille Townes discusses her first UK headline show and her ‘calling’ as an artist

The Canadian singer-songwriter was the big breakout hit of Country Music Week.

Tenille Townes
Credit: Jessica Steddom

Canadian singer-songwriter Tenille Townes made quite the impression when she played Country Music Week in 2018 and a year on she returned to play it again.

Tenille performed her first headline show in London during Country Music Week, supported Striking Matches on their UK tour and received a standing ovation at the Country Hits Radio Daytime Hub at London’s Bush Hall. She’s also been announced to return for C2C: Country to Country in March 2020.

I sat down with Tenille during Country Music Week to talk about her headline show, discuss her distinctive voice and relatable songwriting, and to find out more about her original Christmas song…

Welcome back to the UK…

So glad to be back.

It’s been about a year since you were last here hasn’t it?

Country Music Week. It was exactly a year ago last October. It’s so exciting to get to be back again this year and playing some shows with Striking Matches, which has been so fun, and I got to play my first headlining show in London last night, which is such a dream. I’m not over it. I’m like, ‘did that really just happen?’ and then I get to come back for C2C in the spring and I can’t wait to come back here.

Let’s talk about your headline show last night. People are absolutely buzzing about it and there’s been a lot about you on social media today. I presume it went well?

I can’t even… I just don’t quite have words. It felt so special to me. It’s such a crazy thing to be this far from home and to have people who went and listened to these songs and came willing to sing and they blew me away. I couldn’t even believe the energy in the room. They got tickets and they came and everyone was so kind. I got to say hi to a bunch of people after the show. It was wonderful. It’s such a great feeling to be surrounded by such kind people here.

You know, it was such a Sophie’s Choice for people because it was you and the Striking Matches playing on the same night….

Oh, man, I know. Originally we were supposed to play at the same venue and I was thinking maybe we could share. Then we got to move venues, which is really exciting thing. I missed them last night. We’ve been doing a song together in their set at the other shows and we both were texting each other last night like, ‘oh, we’re missing doing The Chain’. (laughs)

Tenille Townes

Credit: Joseph Llanes

One of our writers, Laura, who’s a big fan of yours thought for a while that you’re going to do the support slot for the Striking Matches and then go upstairs and do your own show…

Oh and run over? (laughs) I mean, that would have been fun. I like that plan. We’ll have to do that next time (laughs).

You mentioned that you’ll be back for C2C in March. You’re going to be opening the Main Stage in London at The O2 on the Friday in a writer’s round style show with Abby Anderson and Eric Paslay. Have you started to think about that yet?

Yes. I am so excited. I found out that it was with Eric and Abby, and I was just instantly so thrilled. I love both of them and I can’t wait to get to do that song writer’s round together. I love getting to do songwriter’s rounds. It’s special to get to take the time to really talk about the stories behind the songs and where they come from and hear the songs stripped down in such a raw way. I’ve heard so much about C2C through the years, and I’ve just been dreaming of the day to get to be a part of that so I’m really looking forward to coming back in the spring.

Hopefully you’ll get the chance to do some more shows around C2C too as a lot of artists do…

That would make sense. I am crossing all my fingers that we get to do that because playing here is just such a joy. Everybody listens to music in such a joyful way and then they’re so invested in it. It’s my favourite audiences to play for really, it really is.

I always feel like English and Canadian people have a lot in common but is there much difference between a UK audience and a Canadian audience?

Yes, a little bit different. I think that some of these venues and the ways that they’re a little bit more intimate and cool, I think that lends itself to really listening in. I just think people appreciate music here differently than at home. Canada audiences are different, US audiences are different… it’s exciting to get to play all the places but I really love it here. I do enjoy the commonality of celsius. I’ve been in Nashville for five years so I’m like, ‘oh, these are my people here’. It’s very exciting.

It’s quite fun though isn’t it, when you say to an American that it’s 30 degrees here today and they’re like, ‘what that’s so cold?’ and then you point out you mean celsius…

I know right (laughs). It gets them every time. That’s funny.

You’ve been having a really good year. Didn’t you sweep the CCMAs earlier this year?

That is still really weird to hear out loud but it was such a fun time to get to go back for the CCMAs. They move every year and they were in my home province in Alberta, which was really exciting. I’ve been going to CCMAs… this was my 11th year attending… and I’d just go and take it in and learn so much. It’s the community that I got to grow up in and learn so much from. It was really special to go back and such an honour to be a part of the community in that way and to be recognised like that.

Every time you’ve dropped a song this year, it seems to have gone crazy. Jersey on the Wall seems to be shaping up to be one of your biggest ones so far. People seem to be really connecting to that in an emotional way. How’s the response to that song been for you?

It’s overwhelming. Truly, it’s a great demonstration of people’s courage. People come up to me after a show and tell me about someone they’ve loved and lost and maybe what their number was on the jersey or what their name was or what happened to them. To me, that’s what I love about music, it gives people permission to go to those harder places and to talk about those things and that is the greatest gift to me. The response of that from this song is really what means the most or maybe it’ll be in an Instagram message or something. To just hear about what that song means and different people’s stories, is crazy to me.

I notice you’ve put out two Christmas songs, which I was happily listening to this morning on my way here…

Oh, thank you!

I’m right in thinking that one’s a cover, The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire), and the other, One in a Million, is an original right?

Yes!

Tell me about the original because it took me a while to realise it wasn’t a cover…

That is the greatest compliment. Thank you for saying that. That’s what we’re going for. It’s like, ‘what if we could step back in time into these beautiful classic feeling melodies that Christmas songs always have and what if we can make up our own?’ It was really fun. It’s a different stylistic way of writing, picking more of those jazzier chords and like, ‘OK, how could we get to tell like a snowy, enchanting story?’ I wrote this with my friend Daniel Tashian, who I just adore, and we had a lot of fun. We were on a writing trip at the beach and we started talking about snowflakes for some reason. Then we came back to Nashville and finished writing it there and I’m really excited we got to record it. Thank you for listening to it.

It got me thinking that I’d really like a full Christmas album from you in the future, after your debut album for the label of course…

I hope so. I hope every year we get to maybe record a couple of extras and eventually work ourselves up to a Christmas collection.

That’s a good idea! Do a couple every year until you have enough to repackage it as a Christmas album. Marketing genius!

Well thank you (laughs) I don’t know about that (laughs).

You’ve been part of Miranda Lambert’s Pink Guitars and Roadside Bars tour along with Ashley McBryde, Elle King, Maren Morris and Caylee Hammack. What was that like?

A dream! I was like, ‘is this real life?’ I look up to all of those women so much and Miranda’s the first person who invited me on the road and I got to tour with her last summer for a bit. I just was so darn excited to be invited back to be a part of this tour this year and she’s just she’s incredible. She makes such beautiful art and she’s such an encouraging force. I mean, getting to hang with her and have conversations about what her beginning was like. She’s like nobody else. She’s really something special.

It’s really heartwarming to see females in Country grouping together and supporting one another because that doesn’t really happen in many genres. It certainly doesn’t happen in Pop and some of the mainstream genres here…

That’s an interesting point, I like that.

Is it like having a sisterhood?

That’s exactly what I like to say, it feels very much like a sisterhood and what’s really awesome is everyone is so stylistically different and has something unique to say, I think. To hear that on a bill together is a really exciting thing. I feel like I’m going to look back hopefully years from now and be like, ‘wow, I got to be a part of that in this season right now’. It’s really cool to see everybody just leaning on each other back there. It’s a lot of fun (laughs). We have a good time.

The cover you all did of Fooled Around and Fell In Love works so well. You can hear all of your distinct voices, which is interesting because with a traditional girl group can be hard to spot the different vocals. With all of you, you have such distinctive voices but you’re all so different and your styles are so different as you mentioned. For me, your voice is very soulful country and it hark backs to a more traditional time. When did you know you have that voice and that you wanted to pursue a career in music?

Thank you for saying that. Let me think about that. I just grew up singing and I sang along to the radio in the backseat of the car as a kid and sang wherever I could for people. I just kept falling in love with it. I will say that I think there was a pivotal time when I moved to Nashville. It’s like 45 hours away from my hometown. I did the drive and it was the first time that I was living by myself in this little rental apartment. There’s so much to be inspired by in Nashville, I’d go out to the Bluebird and hear my heroes play. I’d go to the guitar store and you’d hear people in the guitar store just sitting noodling trying our guitars. It’s like, ‘oh my gosh, everyone here is so insanely talented’ and it made me so hungry to just go home and and play. I’d sit with my guitar and sing for hours and write songs for hours. I really feel like I did some digging and found the way that I think my voice feels the most raw. I enjoyed that season very much and I’m glad to just keep working at it.

It sounds like it was more like a calling than an actual choice for you to be a musician?

I like that word. I think so. I think that’s sometimes how a dream works. It picks you sometimes more than you pick it and I love it that way. It’s a spiritual experience for me to be a part of music in this way and I think writing songs very much feels like you’re being a vessel. Playing shows is such an interesting experience. You stand in a room when I’m at a show and I’m watching and it’s like everybody’s got their own little movie going on in their head as they’re there listening to the song. In some ways it’s all the same movie and we’re all so much more alike than maybe we realise and that’s really special to me. I just am really grateful. The ‘calling’ word is a powerful one to me and I’m just grateful that it did call out.

Tenille Townes

Credit: Jessica Steddom

One of the things that’s always fascinated me about songwriting is how the lyrics can mean one thing to you but something completely different to someone else. Have you heard any stories from fans over the years that made you look at your own song differently?

Yes, definitely. I had one the other night in Bristol. A lady came up to me and told me that she’s recently become a mum and spoke about the song Where You Are. She was like, ‘I’m sure that maybe wasn’t how it was intended when you wrote it but it makes me feel like the love I have for my son’ and I was like, ‘oh, that’s so sweet and that’s really cool’. It’s true, you listen to the song and it might mean something completely different but I think that’s the job of the song and it’s really special to witness that. I just get it to carry it out there and it becomes whatever someone out there might need.

Country music has a tendency to be able to appeal to a lot of people while at the same time being very specific. As a writer do you prefer to be specific or do you like to write about broader themes to reach a wider audience?

I don’t know that I necessarily think of it as one or the other. I think writing a song comes from, ‘oh, I had this story to tell or I had this thing on my heart’ and I just write it the best way that I feel like I know how in the moment. As a listener, I love to be able to hear the details. One of my favourite writers is Lori McKenna. You hear the way that she’ll paint the song in Humble and Kind about popsicles and what it feels like with the window down, and it’s like you’re in the car with her. It’s like you’re right there. I think that songs are a lot like time machines in that way. I think the more colourful it is, the faster it takes you there.

Songwriting is such a powerful thing and the way it resonates different with people is so special. I remember telling Ashley McBryde I was a wreck after Girl Going Nowhere, and I hadn’t even been through the same experiences as her…

Isn’t it crazy? It just takes you there anyway. That’s so awesome. I love Ashley, she’s such an incredible talent.

What have you got planned for 2020 other than coming back to the UK in March?

I’m really excited to be getting more of this music out there and and working up to releasing this record. I’m excited to get to be on the road more and and very much looking forward to the spring coming back here.

I’m looking forward to your next Christmas songs…

Oh good! OK thanks. I’ll get working on those (laughs). That’s awesome!

Tenille Townes’ new single Jersey On The Wall (I’m Just Asking) is available to stream and download now. Watch the music video for the song below:

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