Nashville's Newest Voice
Demo recordings, those rough sketches of what songs might sound like once they're fully produced, aren't typically meant for public consumption. That's especially true in Nashville, where mainstream labels still test new artists' viability by leading with a polished product: the radio-ready single. But when Columbia Nashville introduced Tenille Townes as the newest addition to its roster in April, the announcement wasn't paired with any glossy tracks. What we got instead was the 24-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter's spare acoustic EP, Living Room Worktapes.
Introducing her that way was hardly a hasty, unconsidered move. Though the label was just starting its public promotion of Townes, her professional journey stretched back years. Throughout her teens, the Canadian country music scene had been her training ground, and she'd spent the last half-decade in Nashville, distilling her style and finding a publisher, manager and label willing to bet on her. During an exploratory period, she did some recording with Daniel Tashian, one of the writer-producers behind Kacey Musgraves' shimmering, kaleidoscopic ruminations on Golden Hour, before ultimately beginning work on an album with uber producer Jay Joyce.
But she and her team elected to reshuffle their release strategy: an unvarnished, four-song project with Tashian would come first. Without any additional players, Townes and Tashian laid down a pair of her humanizing, empathetic portraits of suffering ("Somebody's Daughter" and "Jersey on the Wall") and two romantic declarations, one gallant ("Where You Are") and the other knowing ("White Horse"). He captured her warbling, crooning and curling her vowels into heartfelt confidences as she strummed expressively on her acoustic guitar, and applied the softening agents of reverb and translucent keyboard pads in gentlest fashion.
When new artists test the waters in the country format, it's not at all unusual for an EP to precede an album. That was how Maren Morris landed her major-label deal. Everybody from Florida Georgia Line to Kelsea Ballerini, Brothers Osborne, Cam, Clare Dunn and Cadillac Three have put out abbreviated, digital-only projects as soft roll-outs of a sort. But their EPs consisted of fully produced tracks, at least one of which was typically a single they were hoping to convince radio programmers to play. It was an anomaly when Sam Hunt and Walker Hayes released acoustic mixtapes; they were borrowing a hip-hop move, a way of building buzz around an act that either has or wants indie cred.
Packaging work tapes for sale is still largely reserved for established artists ready to empty their vaults and put their creative processes on display for devoted fans. Townes reversed that order by showcasing the elemental parts of her expression — song and voice — first. By situating her EP in an imaginary "living room," she invoked the up-close-and-personal setting of the house concert, which was, not all that long ago, integral to her touring income. Her label wagered that presenting her as a soul-baring singer-songwriter was the way to go.
Last fall, Townes sat across from me in the home of one of her managers and gave a brief, winsome, one-on-one concert. At that point, no decision had been made about what her first release on the label would be. She was, her publicist had informed me, fairly inexperienced at giving interviews, but it quickly became clear that she already knew which parts of her back story were important to tell, which vignettes would help convey how faithfully she'd nurtured her sense of purpose. She spoke in high-minded language — of wanting to be a "vessel," to have an "impact" — the way that people tend to talk when they've dedicated themselves to lives of service.
In the country world, new acts typically go through media training before they start doing their initial rounds of interviews. By the time I sit down with them, they've often been coached in how to handle themselves, project the right image and promote their official narrative. It's a rare and appealing thing to have an early chance to follow the progress of an artist in Nashville in real time, especially one like Townes, who has spent nearly half her life developing her artistic ethic and identity, who's becoming aware of but seems unruffled by the rules and expectations of the system she's entering.
Townes displays a mixture of humility and ambition that apparently emerged in childhood. At age nine, Townes attended an arena show on Shania Twain's Up! Tour alongside tens of thousands of other fans. Recognizing that it wouldn't be easy to catch her idol's eye that night, she begged her parents to secure front row seats and help her copy a look that Twain rocked in a concert film (Townes' DIY version consisted of yellow, orange and red stripes hot-glued to her top and hair pulled into a high ponytail). She hoisted a sign begging for a chance to sing with Twain on stage, and her wish was granted.
Her almond-shaped eyes grew wide when she described what she took away from the encounter: "It just felt like, 'This is where I will stand again, and I can't wait 'til I pull up some nine-year-old kid one day.'"
By her teens, Townes had taken up both songwriting and charity work, organizing a benefit show for an underfunded youth shelter in her hometown of Grande Prairie, Alberta. She recruited fellow performers and sponsors, and the event drew hundreds of people. (It's grown in scale each year since.) "That's what I think drives me, the emotion that was in the room that night I wish I could bottle," she told me. "We just kinda were all connected for a minute. ... I was like, 'Wow, this is awesome what music can do!'"
She was also an eager student of the Canadian country music business, convincing her parents to drive her to songwriting workshops, industry seminars and the annual Canadian Country Music Association conference, where she would eventually win the CCMA's Humanitarian Award. Her standard position at every gathering was "front row, taking notes, collecting business cards."
Immediately after high school, Townes sat her folks down at the kitchen table and made her case for skipping college in order to get on with her pursuit of a music career. She fleshed out a plan to do a tour of Canadian schools, and even secured the support of regional grocery store and truck stop chains in order to make it affordable. She and her three-piece band crisscrossed Canada for 32 weeks, awarding an honorarium to a do-gooder kid at every school they played.
Townes put out ballad-filled albums on a Canadian record label, but ambition drove to leave her native nation's cozy scene for the industry epicenter of Nashville in 2013. She still flew back home fairly frequently for house concerts, but spent much of her first year in a new city holed up in her garage apartment. In solitude, she studied the songwriters she was discovering — warmhearted storytellers like Tom Douglas, Lori McKenna and Patty Griffin — to figure out what it was about their work that moved her and, as she put it, "found a new part of my voice that just had not been there before."
"One of the most important qualities of all my favorite songwriters," reflected Townes, "is their empathy and the way that they can step into a role like that and make somebody feel less alone."
She certainly falls into that lineage, inclined to apply her compassionate, confessional lens to the particulars of others' plights.
After a number of other publishing companies made empty promises to keep in touch, Townes found an advocate for her writerly voice in Carla Wallace of Big Yellow Dog, who'd also signed Tashian and Maren Morris to publishing deals. Speaking admiringly of Morris in 2015, Wallace told me, "She's not afraid to say what she's thinking, what's on her mind, or what could possibly be on yours." Wallace no doubt picked up on a similarly distinct vantage point when she met with Townes on a Friday and signed her the following Monday.
Townes went with a manager, Crystal Dishmon of ShopKeeper, who has a strong track record with representing women artists and letting their personalities and priorities, rather than market pressures, dictate the directions of their careers. (ShopKeeper founder Marion Kraft has long handled Miranda Lambert, and the company roster also boasts Ashley Monroe and Pistol Annies.)
It was a friend and fellow Canadian expat, producer David Kalmusky, who got Townes' music to someone in the A&R department at Sony Nashville. When she arrived for her second meeting at the label's headquarters, she was surprised to learn that she'd be auditioning for a room full of executives. "I definitely had to go to the bathroom and collect myself," she recalled. "And once I did, I was like, 'You know what? This is just what I get to do today.' The outcome is not nearly as important to me as the feeling of being there."
After she sang a few songs, label boss Randy Goodman told her she'd made him think of Jeff Buckley, a comparison that can't be all that common in Nashville boardrooms. Townes wasn't familiar with Buckley's soft, sweeping emotionalism, and admitted as much. So Goodman asked if she knew "Hallelujah," the epic penned by her countryman Leonard Cohen that Buckley had lifted to prominence. She summoned a distant memory of having covered it, and made enough of an impression for the talks to continue. Four months later, she signed her deal.
Artists who are still in the honeymoon phases of their business relationships tend to speak optimistically about their prospects, but Townes is even more of an idealist, and even more convincing about it: "I feel surrounded by people who really believe in the art of this, and the purpose of it. Having people who are seeing this from the same perspective as I am is just the most exciting thing."
With that support in place, she focused on building her repertoire, co-writing with others from the Big Yellow Dog roster, like Tashian and Keelan Donovan, and with Music Row hit-makers like Luke Laird and Barry Dean, coveted collaborators for newbies and stars alike. An A&R exec at Columbia Nashville, a division of Sony, asked who her "dream producer" would be, and Joyce's was the name that came to mind. "I felt almost a little like, 'Do I say it out loud?'" she grinned.
Most country artists would probably point to career-defining entries in the catalogs of Eric Church, Little Big Town and Brothers Osborne as their reasons for wanting to work with Joyce, one of modern Nashville's most influential record-makers. But it says something that the first Joyce-produced album Townes mentioned during our interview was Griffin's visceral, rocking set Flaming Red.
I visited Joyce's converted church studio on a grey, chilly day last fall to watch him and Townes chip away at her album. In what used to be the sanctuary, neon light fixtures bathed the walls in columns of pink and green, incense haze wafted through the air and a pair of giant, gentle dogs padded around. From behind a partition with a window, Townes sang guide vocals and played steady rhythm guitar, while Joyce and the other musicians seated in a semi-circle, along with the drummer quarantined in an adjoining room, laid down their parts.
At one point, Joyce asked them all to allow a little more air into the arrangement: "I think the pauses will be stronger."
Townes made every change he asked for, but also seemed to be engaged in her own search for the truest, most heartfelt inflections. Her dad, visiting from Canada, slipped in and put headphones over his ballcap in time to listen to her record her final vocals. She was singing a song that contemplated the problem of suffering, and its theologizing was thoroughly conversational. During particularly pained passages, she squeezed her eyes shut or shook her head, cocooned by the band's molten, gently melancholy accompaniment.
When she was done, Joyce inquired, "Hearing what you need to hear?"
"Feeling what I need to feel," she reassured him.
Holding these recordings back, and letting Townes' stripped-down EP become the first thing people heard from her was about finding the right feel, too. "I like to think about it as a way to introduce myself to somebody as though we truly are just sitting in a living room, letting all the walls down," she wrote in an email. She hoped it would "create a foundation of trust."
Country audiences like their artists to be believable and accessible, but Townes is trying to take it further: to encourage them to think of her music as a safe space.
Before Taylor Swift's Nashville reign, the idea that coffeehouse-style intimacy could exist within a massive arena show would've seemed out of place in the country mainstream. But we've arrived at a moment when the impulse to close the distance between performer and audience and the impulse to go big don't seem mutually exclusive. As I've pointed out, "artists sprinkled across the country landscape, from the fringes to dead center, are exploring the potential of playing up the particular."
That's true of Lambert, whose tour Townes will join this summer, and of Hayes, who shared space with her on a recent Rolling Stone Country list of songs of the week.
The song of Townes' that made the roundup was "Somebody's Daughter," in which she imagines what a young, panhandling woman's aspirations might have been and what sort of support system she once had.
Townes told me that while running errands with her mom, she was struck by the sight of a woman her age holding a cardboard sign at a stoplight. "She was so young," Townes marveled. "I was like I'm sitting here with my mom and I'm going to the furniture store. What is her story?"
The RSC critic took note of Townes' "compassionate eye." A fan tweeted that the song is "so heartfelt and close to home."
A country blogger recognized self-expression in her music: "[I]t is apparent these ideas have been working their way through her life and just had to be expressed through song."
While watching Townes perform in Vegas the weekend of the Academy of Country Music Awards, a colleague texted me, "Tenille Townes sounds like Joanna Newsom." I nodded my head as I read the message, because it makes sense to connect the quirky, personalized nature of Townes' delivery to indie folk singer-songwriters.
Twenty years ago, she might have been steered toward the world of self-disclosing, popular performers that filled Lilith Fair bills. But she, and those in her corner, seem to recognize that she's an heir to Twain and Swift, Griffin and McKenna alike, as well as a potential peer to figures like Morris and Musgraves, who've built significant followings and visibility with strong, self-written material and middling radio support.
Townes' songs have already been placed on a variety of streaming playlists, some organized around an acoustic or folk aesthetic, but many focused on new textures bubbling up in the country format. She's still very much in the market-testing phase, putting herself out there, gauging the response and talking through her next moves. No release date has been set for her album, nor is there any word on a debut single. But she seems more giddy than anxious about what's ahead, whatever it may look like.
"This next season is a little bit of a question mark to me," she admitted. "I'm not exactly sure how this part works."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.