Interview: Tenille Townes
Rather than push back the release of her new album, this country star embraced the healing power of her music
When releasing your new album, one that’s been years in the making, you probably weren’t imagining launching it during a global pandemic that’s keeping your entire fan base indoors and unable to attend shows. Yet that’s exactly the situation faced by Canadian country star Tenille Townes back in June. It speaks volumes for her that, rather than push things back, she pressed on and gave The Lemonade Stand to the world.
And you know what, we’re very glad that she did. A country album which will appeal to fans of the genre young and old, it’s immediately apparent on songs like Somebody’s Daughter and I Kept The Roses that Townes is something of an observer and storyteller, weaving what she sees, hears and experiences into her music. A versatile artist equally capable of rocking out, melting hearts or creating radio-friendly pop numbers, The Lemonade Stand has something for everyone.
There’s also an admirable philanthropic side to Townes who hosts an annual fundraiser for the Sunrise House, a youth shelter in her hometown of Grande Prairie, Alberta. This year’s performance (live-streamed) featured performances by huge names such as Dierks Bentley, Luke Combs and Brandi Carlile.
All of this and more cropped up in this recent conversation…
You can’t have expected to be releasing an album in the middle of a global pandemic with so many people in lockdown, how has that changed things and has it given The Lemonade Stand a different significance?
“That’s a good way to say it, it is a different kind of significance at this time for me. I am just so grateful for the way that music has been a piece of a lifeline, a big contribution to my sanity over the last few months. I’ve been listening to so much music and enjoying turning to it in this time so it really does make me happy to know that my music can hopefully be something that people turn to as well and I really am grateful to share these songs.
“I’ve been looking forward to sharing this album for a little while now and it definitely was different than I had anticipated, but I do believe it is exactly how it was so supposed to be. This collection of songs reflects a big piece of my life and it’s like a window into the way I see the world and stories that I have been really honoured to get to witness and learn from. I am very thankful to be able to share this piece of my heart right now.”
Is it important for you to write about real people and real situations?
“It is, music is this gift that gives us permission to realise that we are not alone in how we feel and writing music about the true essence of human connection and experience is important. Those stories deserve to be told and deserve to comfort us and that will always be a part of how I write music – to draw from stories or things that I’m witnessing.
“I like to write songs from the observer perspective because it gives me space to understand how I feel about something and to have a moment to process that and where I belong in a situation. I like looking at things from a bird’s-eye view. It’s really helpful for me and my own feelings to write and express my thoughts in that way.”
Are you always thinking that the things you’re seeing and hearing could make great songs or do those moments come back to you when you are writing?
“It’s a little bit of both, there are definitely moments when I’ll be in a conversation or watching something happen in front of me and taking something in and it will be, ‘This feels important.’ I don’t know that I necessarily go, ‘This is a song,’ I think it goes, ‘Wow I really need to think about this, I need to process and understand it.’ My way to do that is to pick up a guitar and write a song, so it’s a little bit of both.”
Is that normally how things start, by picking up a guitar and processing your thoughts musically?
“Yeah, I think so. I like to start with a concept or a feeling or sometimes it starts with something musically that feels like it opens up a door to a certain emotion. I mean truly every song is a bit different but I do love to work off of titles or concepts as a place to jump into. It’s such a spiritual process, we get to be the vessel. Sometimes it’s more about listening and that can come in many different forms or starts or ways of understanding what the song is that you’re meant to write that day.”
Is it helpful to have co-writers with you during that process?
“Absolutely, it’s a wonderful thing to enter that sacred creative space with somebody and feel safe to really open up. It’s also terrifying, I mean I don’t always enjoy sharing my feelings with other people but when it comes to writing songs it just makes sense. I feel more comfortable sharing those thoughts in the name of music.
“I do a lot of writing on my own and I do a lot of writing with other people and it’s really wonderful how someone else can catch things that you’re just saying and say, ‘Hey I think that’s something.’ A lot of the time we get in our own way, you’ll be like ‘I’m not going to say that thought out loud,’ or, ‘That’s not a good line,’ but even just speaking things might trigger something in their mind that brings you to a line. It’s really fun to give each other permission in that space to just speak up and really say anything.”
How is the split between co-writes and songs you wrote alone on The Lemonade Stand?
“Mostly the songs I end up liking more are ones that I co-write but there’s one song on the album that I wrote by myself called When I Meet My Maker. The rest of the songs are ones I got to write with great friends.”
What can you tell us about When I Meet My Maker?
“That song brought me a lot of healing on its way through. This really was that moment of feeling like a vessel. I was thinking about my great-grandmother; she’s an extraordinary woman, very much the glue to our family and always came out to different shows. She was so supportive and like a human teddy bear.
“She had recently passed and I was thinking about her and missing her and just imagining where she is now. That thought brought me a lot of comfort and I really just held the pen in my journal and these lines started appearing before me. At the end of this poem that I had written out… it really felt like it brought me a lot of healing on its way through and I’m very grateful for that.”
It’s great that a song can be a platform to pay tribute to someone who means such a lot to you…
“Absolutely. Writing music comes from a place of inspiration and the people in my life who show me love and show me what it’s like to be brave and to pave your own path are always very inspiring. I love getting to talk about the people that I love.”
The flipside is that a song which is so personal to you can take on a different meaning for the listener. Is that something you’ve experienced?
“That’s my favourite part, the fact that music has this transcendent quality where a song speaks up in different peoples’ lives in different ways. The most powerful thing, when it comes to being in a room with live music, is when everyone is listening to a song and one moment has people playing different movies in their minds, different personal things that a song makes them think of.
“Yet, in that moment, we’re all more alike than we ever realise. I love that about a song, that it pushes the walls down and lets us bring our own stories forward so we can go to those harder places and be together. That’s the most mystifying wonderful thing about a song for me.”
We read a comment on Genius.com where a mother was saying how much they could identify with the song Somebody’s Daughter, what does that mean to you as the writer?
“That always means so much to me. I feel that way when I get a message from somebody writing in on Instagram or YouTube about what a song makes them feel. It’s the same feeling when someone comes up after a show by the merch stand and tells me a story of someone in their life that it makes them think of and it just means the world, because I know how much courage it takes to talk about the things that are hard and also to someone that you don’t really know. It’s just extraordinary that music pushes those walls down. I feel really honoured to hear those stories and they entirely inspire me to continue to write songs.”
From the rockier numbers to country pop to ballads, was it important to show your various different musical sides on The Lemonade Stand?
“Yes, it’s important to me to be able to provide people who are listening with an emotional ride. I hope these songs make people feel great joy, make them feel like they can just dance in their kitchen and forget about their worries, make them feel confident in themselves when they hear music that maybe rocks a little more. For me, that, combined with songs that really sit next to you… the balance of both of those things existing together is very important. We’re all so complex in the highs and lows that we ride between and music should be there for every part of that.”
Do you have a finished sound in mind from the start or does it slowly reveal itself as you’re working on the song?
“I think it definitely reveals itself as it comes to life in the studio. The foundation of the song is one thing, I can often go, ‘I love the structure of it, I love the message and what it says.’ The experience of working with Jay Joyce really blew me away, watching the way he was not afraid to try anything and everything.
“A lot of these songs were musically turned on their head and turned out in such a different way than I had expected and I love that. It was so fun to push the boundaries of what you imagine a song can be and then be completely surprised that it still feels exactly like it’s supposed to feel with something different musically around it.”
Are there any particular examples from the album?
Lighthouse was a song that turned out very differently to the original demo. I loved the energy. White Horse as well, it did not feel as empowering before, it did not have that consistent snare drum that was this meditative and empowering musical piece of it. I love the way that song feels like it put on a leather jacket, thanks to Jay. It was really surprising to get to hear that come to life.”
Are you sponge-like in the studio, picking up tips and tricks for next time?
“I get a little bit from everyone, especially Jay. His courage to try something, even if it’s completely wrong, it’s worth it to explore it and see what happens and he is just never afraid of that. He very much had me perform these songs as we recorded them in the way that I would step up on stage and play them, carrying the same energy. I was stood at the microphone with my guitar as I would on stage, and that is something I will forever carry with me.
“You can get in your head in the studio and really focus on it but capturing the spirit of how you want to talk with somebody listening is a much more powerful part of recording. I loved that and will definitely carry that with me.”
It must be strange that you’ve not played these songs live since the album came out?
“Yes, a very strange feeling to not be able to share these songs in this time. But we’ve been able to do some cool live-streaming events and I just feel overwhelmed and grateful for all the different messages and watching people post about the songs and what the album means to them. It’s so exciting and makes me so happy to know people are finding comfort in them, but I cannot wait to get back out on the road and play these songs live.
“I’m dying to get out there. I can’t wait to come and see you guys in the UK, you’re one of my favourite places to play in the whole world. I can’t wait to bring these new songs to life.”
Is it currently prime songwriting time or has it been hard to create new music when you’re promoting the album?
“It’s been a weird feeling to be honest because I’ve been looking forward to, and working towards, this album for a while now and letting that go is like a sense of freedom and also a sense of loss at the same time. It’s like I’m standing on the edge of something new and I’m so happy to be there and I feel really grateful for this time right now to be creative.
“I’ve actually been writing with a lot of people over Zoom. It’s not the same as being in the room together in person but I’m still thankful to be able to be turning to music because it’s been a big part of keeping my sanity right now. I can’t wait to share some of the new songs that I’m writing.”
As much as you can say right now, what do the next few months look like for you?
“Well, I really am looking forward to getting back on the road. The second we can, I will be there but until then I will just be focussing on new music. I hope for the next little while to be able to take some of these songs that I’ve been writing and record them and get them ready to share. Continue to tell stories and make music that hopefully makes people feel encouraged.”
Lastly, we wanted to mention your fundraising event Big Hearts for Big Kids. What can you tell us about it – how did it go this year and can people still get involved?
“It was wonderful. I’m so grateful that we were still able to do it in this time. That’s been one of the biggest silver linings for me, doing Big Hearts for Big Kids through a live stream and having so many of my heroes share songs for it. That never would have happened, it’s so hard to put all of them on an aeroplane and bring them up to my home town, so it was really special.
“And also, to be able to invite people from around the whole world to participate and lift up these kids that we’re raising money for and are struggling with homelessness. People can absolutely visit bigheartsforbigkids.com and there’ll be information on the next events that we will be doing and ways to donate there.”
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