Thirteen years after winning American Idol, Carrie Underwood has sold 64 million records and counting. Next month, she returns with her brilliant new album Cry Pretty, her first for Universal. Here, Underwood, UMG Nashville’s Cindy Mabe, Virgin EMI’s Ted Cockle and Creative Artists Agency’s Jeff Frasco explain to Music Week why we ain’t seen nothing yet…
The way Carrie Underwood likes to see things, she’s a pretty ordinary person. Sure, she’s sold millions of albums and won some of the most prestigious awards music has to offer, but that has no real bearing on who she really is.
“My husband and I live the most normal life,” she tells Music Week, perched on the edge of a plush sofa in The HQ management’s, er, HQ on Nashville’s legendary Music Row. “If you didn’t know what I did, you wouldn’t know just by popping over for dinner on a Tuesday night.”
Gradually, details snowball: there’s tales of doing the laundry, dropping her son off around town before working with Nashville’s elite songwriters, or washing make-up off her face after a big photoshoot while trying to cook dinner. All of this, she says, is her “defence mechanism” to ensure she stays sane in a music industry that she still feels truly “blessed” to be a part of. As she recites all of this, her voice oozing Southern charm – Checotah, Oklahoma to be precise – she boasts the kind of endearing disposition that would make Paddington Bear seem like a war criminal by comparison.
Strictly speaking, though, she would be entitled to wield an inflated ego. Carrie Underwood is not ordinary, nor has she ever been since she auditioned for American Idol’s fourth season. As she belted out a soaring rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s I Can’t Make You Love Me, judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson were stunned. That day they heard what her agent Jeff Frasco of Creative Artists Agency declares is, “probably the best in country, if not in all of music. It’s in the top five of the big voices, for sure.” She can, Virgin EMI president Ted Cockle unequivocally tells Music Week, “hit any note and she can hold any note.”
Suffice to say, she eventually won the competition. And from there, Carrie Underwood became the American Idol winner that never stopped winning. The platinum plaques bearing her image that greet us upon arriving at her management’s offices offer all the proof you’d need.
“American Idol didn’t dominate or overshadow Carrie’s career,” observes Cindy Mabe, president of Universal Music Group Nashville. “For so many artists that is the pinnacle, a TV moment that ends in one season. For Underwood, it was only a launch pad; she continued to develop and evolve as an artist well beyond one season of a TV show.”
In fact, you would have to employ a full-time statistician – and work them round the clock – to keep accurate tabs on her spiralling achievements. Across 12 years, five studio albums and one greatest hits collection, she has sold over 64 million records, racked up 26 No.1 singles, attained over 2.6 billion streams worldwide and won over 100 major music awards, including seven Grammys. Underwood’s 2005 debut album Some Hearts is certified eight times platinum in America alone.
I want to keep setting personal bests... Every time I go out on stage I just want to crush it
Such success is not just confined to the US, either. In the UK she has headlined the O2 Arena tWice as part of Country 2 Country Festival, sold out the Royal Albert Hall in 90-minutes flat, and broke ground by being the first country artist to play Apple’s iTunes Festival. Underwood’s last album, 2015’s Storyteller, became her second best-selling in the UK, shifting 49,000 copies to date according to Official Charts Company figures (2012’s Blown Away remains her personal UK best on 61,000). All of this, it must be said, has been achieved by playing undiluted country music – boasting songs with unimpeachable titles like I Ain’t In Checotah Anymore – without capitulating to the needs of the mainstream. And now it’s time to do it all over again.
On September 14, Underwood releases her stunning sixth album Cry Pretty: the first record she has co-produced, and her first offering for her new label Capitol Nashville. While it is with a reasonable degree of certainty that artists will typically herald their latest album as their most personal to date, in Underwood’s case that claim has authenticity.
“I’m not an open book,” she says. “With so many celebrities, you know everything about them, but in my past, I have not been known to share a lot. That’s why a lot of my songs previously have been about characters, because it’s easier to get dramatic when you get that distance. But this one I feel like a lot more of it is in first person, a lot more of it is diving deep.” And what better time than now to dive deep and find out what Underwood and her team have in store…
American Idol was only ever a launch pad; Carrie continued to evolve as an artist well beyond one season of TV
Cindy Mabe, UMG Nashville
In November 2017, Carrie Underwood was at home – her son Isaiah fast asleep upstairs – when she took the dogs outside to do their business. What transpired was a freak accident in which she tripped – while still holding their leashes – and missed the opportunity to arrest her fall. The outcome at the hospital? One broken wrist and – brace yourself – over 40 stitches required on her face. Thus would begin a period in which country’s biggest superstar retreated from the spotlight, warning her fanclub, somewhat alarmingly: “I might look a bit different.”
It was in April of this year that Underwood finally made her first major public appearance at the ACM Awards: returning not only to the spotlight, but doing so with a magnificent performance-cum-emotional exorcism of Cry Pretty’s title track. The standing ovation she received made headlines. Today in Nashville, as at the ACM Awards, there are no visible physical signs of that mishap, but that’s not to say all scars heal so easily. Looking back, if there is annoyance regarding the accident – beyond lost time and coming to terms with its bizarre nature – it is, she explains, that the media’s focus on it has spun somewhat out of control. News of her fall and recovery – plus grating click-bait rumours of her using it to cover up a plastic surgery procedure – have obscured the real story: she has an excellent new album on the way, one Cindy Mabe believes may prove to be, “a career game-changer for Carrie”.
Everyone already knows about ‘Carrie Underwood: sensational vocalist’, but less-celebrated is ‘Carrie Underwood: gifted songwriter’, who is in full bloom on Cry Pretty. The title track, for instance, sees her co-writing with Taylor Swift songwriter Liz Rose, Little Big Town hitmaker Lori McKenna, and her long-time go-to collaborator Hillary Lindsey. Her face lights up when she recalls the chemistry in the studio.
“Sometimes you’ll get a song in written for a female, by males, and I can just tell because I’m like, ‘I would never say that!’” explains Underwood. “If there’s a lyric that says, ‘(sings) Me and my girlfriends are going out!’ – I’ve never said anything like that. There are a bunch of things men think women say or do that we don’t. There’s obviously so many incredible male songwriters here [in Nashville], and I wouldn’t take anything away from them if they’re writing for females, but there’s just something different if you’re writing with other females.”
On Cry Pretty, Underwood has writing credits on nine of the 13 songs – three more than on 2015’s Storyteller. It’s impressive, considering she has access to the best songs Nashville has to offer at any given time, and doubly so given her entries stand as some of the finest of her career, from the powerhouse chorus of Backsliding to the beautiful strains of Low.
“Every album has led me deeper and deeper into that area of what I do, every album there’s been more and more co-writes,” she explains. “But I don’t go into it trying to do that. This is Nashville, there are the most amazing songwriters in the world right here. At the end of the day, I want the best album, so when I submit mine, they’re thrown into the pot with everybody else’s. I want the best songs to win.”
One such track thrown into said pot from other people this time around is The Bullet, written by Marc Beeson, Andy Albert and Allen Shamblin. Underwood has certainly delivered songs with bite before – the murder mystery of hit single Two Black Cadillacs, for one. But on The Bullet, she enters altogether more compelling territory as she describes the ripple effect of gun violence in America. She didn’t address the subject lightly.
“I honestly wasn’t sure if I could even get through singing it in the studio,” explains Underwood. “We got pitched that one before the majority of [the recent] gun violence happened. We all had to have a powwow about it, because I would never, ever, ever want to seem like I was capitalising off of any tragedy, and sometimes I feel like that happens.”
I honestly wasn’t sure if I could even get through singing The Bullet in the studio... You want your music to make people think and make people feel something. That one definitely does
Music Week initially suspects that the song is addressing the events of October 1, 2017, when Stephen Paddock committed the deadliest mass shooting in US history, opening fire from his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay Hotel, leaving 58 people dead and 851 people injured. The fact that his broad target was Route 91 Harvest Music Festival – a country event – adds to the hunch.
“To me, that song is so much beyond that,” clarifies Underwood. “I think of soldiers, I think of gang violence, I think of cops. Any situation in which somebody would go through that, I feel like it’s just so applicable – even outside of any mass, awful tragedies.”
When we enquire about how the lyrics of the song affected her as a mother, she starts to well up.
“I’m gonna cry, sorry…” she says politely, dabbing her eyes. “The hardest line was, ‘Mommas ain’t supposed to bury their sons,’ because obviously I have a son, and it’s just...”
She trails off.
“Some songs are just important,” she explains, regaining her composure. “You want your music to make people think and make people feel something. That one definitely does.”
There is yet more evidence of Underwood’s evolution as an artist on Cry Pretty: look no further than her electing to co-produce the album with David Garcia. The dormant producer in her has gradually come to the fore with each album she’s recorded. At one point she impersonates her own fledgling studio instructions back in the day with a “What is that!?” here, a “Take that banjo out!” there and a “Turn this thing up!”
Ask Underwood how, given the combined burden of being both artist and co-producer in the studio, she knew the album was finally done, and her voice rises to a high-pitched mock interrogation of the question.
“Is iiiiiit, though?” she winces. “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiisssss iiiiiiiit?”
It was quite the experience applying the same exacting scrutiny to her own voice.
“It’s very humbling to comp your own vocals,” she smiles. “You think one thing is coming out of your mouth, you sit down listen to it and it’s like, ‘Do I sound like that?’ David would be like, ‘It sounds great! We’ll just fly it over to the next one,’ and I’d be like, ‘No, no, no – I don’t fly things around!’ I would notice if I was sitting listening to an album and the second chorus was the same as the first one.
“I sing live,” she continues. “I feel like if I was in the audience and somebody didn’t go for the high notes, I’d be like, ‘They can’t do it!’ That’s such a point of pride for me. I like to consider myself a vocalist, it’s what I love to do, it’s what I’ve been working my whole life to be.”
Fortunately, her hard work has paid off spectacularly: she will be spoilt for choice when it comes to picking singles.
“That means a lot,” she grins. “Because if it turned out terrible, it’d be like, ‘Well, she wrote most of them! She produced it!’ I’d have no-one to blame but myself.”
But while Underwood’s been busy making power moves in the studio, of late she’s also had to do the same when it comes to boardroom meetings.
Carrie can hit any note, and she can hold any note
Ted Cockle, Virgin EMI
Carrie Underwood doesn’t really keep tabs on just how successful Carrie Underwood actually is. For the record, that is not because she is allergic to, say, meta-data, rather she is just wary of it.
“I want to stay at the top of my game,” she explains. “I want No.1s on the radio, I want good sales, I want that stuff. I’m a competitive person. But I couldn’t tell you how many I have, I couldn’t tell you how many I’ve sold…”
When Music Week offers to present her with some of her phenomenal sales figures, we may as well be offering her a week-old egg mayo sandwich.
“No!” she refuses. “There are definitely certain things where I’m like, ‘No, I don’t care about that.’ I want to see my numbers going up on the charts, but if any artist gets too much into that, it just gets weird. You need to care, but if some artist is like, ‘I’ve had 37 No.1s,’ it’s like, ‘Calm down, good for you... Have a cookie!’”
That is not to say Underwood doesn’t mean business. The most pressing item for her lately was that, following the release of 2015’s Storyteller, she had fulfilled her original American Idol contract with Arista Nashville/Sony Music Nashville. Labels soon had her in their crosshairs, and one of them was Universal.
“We have such a passion for Carrie and her music,” Cindy Mabe tells Music Week. “The minute that this became a possibility that she might consider leaving her label, everyone from Lucian Grainge to many of the territories around the world raised their hands to say that we want to take the infrastructure that she’s already built and push it to a global level so her music has no boundaries. And Carrie’s willing to go where she’s needed. Many times, that’s not the case for an artist doing so well in the US.”
Make no mistake: Underwood stresses she is eternally grateful to Sony for everything they accomplished together. There was no bad blood, just an opportunity to explore.
“This was the first time in my career that I got to really call the shots,” Underwood explains. “It felt like a good time to switch if I was ever going to switch, and there was just so much creative passion there [at Universal].”
There was a big reunion in the offing, too. Before Cindy Mabe was appointed as president of Universal Music Group Nashville – making her the first female president of a major Nashville label – she had worked with Carrie right at the start of her blockbusting career at Sony Nashville.
“I knew that overwhelmed, wide-eyed girl who entered a contest and came out the other side a fully-fledged star and America’s sweetheart,” she reflects. “When I left the label in 2007, one of the biggest reasons I struggled with leaving was no longer being able to work with Carrie and her manager, Ann Edelblute. We accomplished so much together and had been in the trenches through it all. It was just so hard to leave them. Now, getting a second chance to pick up where we left off is such a gift to me. It’s really given me a renewed energy.”
“I loved Cindy from day one, and we were heartbroken when she left to go to Universal,” Underwood says. “[Universal] just felt like home to me, and there was somebody there that I knew and loved and trusted. She’s dang-good at her job and at wanting to understand me as an artist, and what I want out of things. Mike Dungan is too and everybody who I met there. From day one, it just felt so good. Even after all these years since Cindy’s been here and not been working with us, she’s always had my back. She’s always been super-supportive.”
What Universal is going to be focused on supporting her with is the small goal of conquering the world.
“Carrie has toured internationally in the past, but as we dig in strategically together as a global company, a big part of our strategy is to make sure Carrie’s music is exposed at every level,” offers Mabe. “She has repeat promo visits, album playbacks, interviews, and TV shows and tour dates in each of the territories, all in anticipation of the new release. More than ever before, our international territories are invested, and Carrie cannot be outworked. We are all covering as much ground as we can, because it’s important to all of us.”
In the UK, at Underwood’s new home of Virgin EMI, her team are well-prepared to do their part in the global mission. President Ted Cockle, for one, is ecstatic to be working with someone who has “ended up selling more records than all the people you think are big”.
"Clearly, part of our job is to continue to convey quite what she has meant to America,” he tells Music Week. And there are some big opportunities lined up to do just that. So far, Underwood is confirmed to headline Long Road Festival at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire on September 8, as well as a high-profile appearance at BBC Radio 2 Live In Hyde Park festival on September 9.
“We’ve had the time to get settled in,” says Cockle. “We’ve managed to get some sharp elbows in, and she will be back here just ahead of Cry Pretty’s release. It’s great for us to have that period of [early] September, for her to be in right on release, right in the intensity of what’s going on around the world. I’m not sure everybody’s always had the pleasure of that happening in the past.”
All of this certainly bodes well for her chart chances. Traditionally, Underwood remains an incredibly strong performer when it comes to shifting physical copies, Cockle predicting the UK will see a “60/70% physical market”. Mabe also stresses that streaming will be particularly important with this release, with Spotify, Apple, Pandora and Amazon all having major rollout plans. Her potential for growth in the digital space has already been heralded by Underwood’s one-off 2018 single, The Champion, which featured guest verses from Ludacris. Originally written to open the Super Bowl LII (its video was viewed more than 131 million times worldwide), it was also incorporated into coverage of the Olympic Winter Games. Underwood insists she is very much content to stay in her country lane, but that isn’t to say she wants to keep regurgitating old tricks, either.
“I think it’s important to try new things,” Underwood explains of the logic behind the song. “One of my biggest fears is that I’m going to end up writing and recording the same album over and over and over again. I feel like so many people just get stuck in that. There’s a lot of really talented artists that I’m like, ‘This is off your new album? I thought this one was off the last album!’”
There have certainly been some nice upshots for trying something new.
“The music of Cry Pretty will present opportunities for playlisting outside of just the country genre, much like The Champion did,” predicts Mabe. “Without radio, that track is a platinum single through the power of the Super Bowl, and being placed in many different playlists – from workout to pop playlists with the DSPs. We also had a lot of ad campaigns and sporting events outside of the Super Bowl pick up that track. They performed the song at the Radio Disney Music Awards. All of that speaks to the widening demographic of that song, as well as Carrie.”
Such growth is an added bonus for an artist who has traditionally been one of few female modern country artists to enjoy US radio support at a time when male acts – controversially – dominate the airwaves. More accurately, she is dominating them: Underwood is currently ranked as the top country artist (male or female) on RIAA’s digital single programme across all genres, which also makes her among the top five females in the history of the programme. Such success has not, however, made her blinkered: she knows the playing field is uneven. And she doesn’t like it.
“I’ll meet women that I write with and I’m like, ‘You’re so good, why are you not kicking my butt right now in every aspect? Because you should be!’ We keep talking about it, but it’s time to quit talking and actually do something! Some people are; Bobby Bones is a radio personality who is starting up this movement and playing more females. But it’s going to take more people like him to step up and be like, ‘Look at all of this talent that we’re missing.’”
I want to see my numbers go up on the charts, but if any artist gets too much into that, it just gets weird...
Carrie Underwood is not prone to issuing shocking statements, but during Music Week’s time with her she does say one thing that registers as genuinely surprising. It occurs as she explains why family and maintaining an ordinary life are so important to her while she’s conquering charts.
“All of this is going to fade away at some point,” she says. “It’s inevitable. It’s all going to go away and that’s what I’m going to be left with.”
She proceeds to draw a parallel to her husband, former NHL player Mike Fisher – with whom she is currently expecting their second child.
“Their careers do come to an end, and all these guys have to figure out who they are and what to do next,” she reasons. “I think like that for myself, too. I have to figure out who I am just in case all of this goes away.”
To clarify, in no way does she envision that end in sight anytime soon. Far, far from it. But what this speaks to is the fact that Underwood still treats her career, in her words, as “a fun ride”. It doesn’t seem a stretch to point out that this humble nature may well be the very thing fuelling her enormous success.
After all, what she has pulled off is remarkable: emerging from a TV talent competition only to become a member of a Nashville institution. In May 2008, she joined alumni like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn by being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Indeed, when you arrive at Nashville’s airport, chances are you will encounter Carrie Underwood’s countenance on murals and the sides of buses. She still can’t really get her head around all of this.
“I’m just waiting for the bottom to fall out at some point,” she smiles. “Like, ‘They’ve kicked me out! Finally, they’ve realised she’s a fraud!’ It’s that underlying fear.”
Quite to the contrary, Underwood’s career stands as an exemplar of how to do everything right.
“It took work,” she reflects. “In the beginning we had to be very intentional about what I wanted to be a part of. We came here and we were worried, because Nashville is a tight-knit community. Immediately after Idol I was over at CMA music festival, and I played at the Opry a lot – I made it clear I wanted to be a part of this, and I feel like they saw the genuineness. I visited Nashvillle when I was 10 years old and thought it was the greatest place on earth. I knew I wanted to live here. I still live here...”
At this point, our time is running low – Underwood has to attend an event for her own activewear clothing line, Calia. But there is time for one final question.
"This one’s going to be the hard one, isn’t it?” she laughs.
Music Week asks what’s the most important thing to her at this point in her career. Success? Respect? What?
“Well, honestly, the most important thing in my life is my family, that’s number one,” she says. “But, just solely speaking career, I want to keep getting better. I just want to keep setting personal bests. Every time I go out on stage, I just want to crush it. It’s that competitive thing, I’m a ‘show ’em!’ kind of person. I just want to keep pushing myself – the point when you stop trying is never good. However I go out, I wanna go out on top. I just want to keep getting better, not be like, ‘OK, I guess my prime is gone.’ My prime’s not gone…”
She smiles a wide smile.
“I’m in my prime.”
Cry Pretty is available on September 14. Carrie Underwood will headline Long Road Festival at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire on September 8 and perform at BBC Radio 2 Live In Hyde Park festival on September 9.
[Photo: Randee St. Nicholas]