Music is at its most powerful when it tells a story. Few things are more potent than a song that washes over the listener, each cinematic line surging with emotion and taking the audience on an unexpected journey. In the past decade, Carrie Underwood has emerged as one of the most compelling storytellers of her generation. Beyond the range and timbre of her impressive pipes, Underwood knows how to weave and deliver a delicious tale. Aptly titled Storyteller, Underwood’s fifth studio album is filled with intriguing characters and fascinating ruminations on life, death, love, and heartbreak.
“I feel like one of the things that sets country music apart from other types of music is the storytelling aspect,” the seven-time GRAMMY® winner says. “I want three-and-a-half-minute movies on the radio. I love that there’s a beginning, middle, and an end, and it all makes sense. You can follow the characters, and you can see it all playing out in your head. That’s what I’m drawn to, so that’s what I write, what I pick, and what I want to sing. All the songs on the album either are very character-driven mini-movies or they’re my own personal stories. Hopefully, both are entertaining and relatable.”
One of the most awarded singers in any genre of music, Underwood has built a stellar career on cinematic songs that pack an emotional wallop, from her first chart-topper “Jesus, Take the Wheel” to more recent No. 1 smashes such as “Blown Away,” “Two Black Cadillacs,” “Something in the Water,” and “Little Toy Guns.” Since winning American Idol in 2005, Underwood has sold 58 million records worldwide, scored 21 No. 1 hits (including 11 she co-wrote), and earned over 100 major awards. She was the first female artist to be twice named the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year. A respected member of the Grand Ole Opry, Underwood has tallied 38 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart with songs that have been streamed more than 1.5 billion times worldwide. In addition to her impressive recording career, Underwood branched out into acting with roles in film and television, including starring as Maria von Trapp in NBC’s Emmy®-winning The Sound of Music Live!, which attracted 44 million viewers. She has also launched her own fitness lifestyle line, CALIA by Carrie Underwood, which made a splash during New York Fashion Week 2015.
The Checotah, Oklahoma native’s four previous studio albums – Some Hearts, Carnival Ride, Play On, and Blown Away – have each been certified Platinum or multi-Platinum, and all have been named Country Album of the Year at the American Music Awards. In 2014, Underwood released her first hits collection, Greatest Hits: Decade #1. Storyteller has already continued that momentum with the record-breaking success of the hit first single, “Smoke Break.” “‘Smoke Break’ is all about the overworked, the tired, the people that just run to catch up,” Underwood says. “‘Smoke Break’ is about taking a step away for just a minute and being able to clear your head and collect your thoughts. We were very careful when we wrote it in wanting to make sure people understood the metaphor. That’s why we said, ‘I don’t smoke, but sometimes I need a smoke break. I don’t drink, but sometimes I need a stiff drink.’ It’s more about finding those things that take you away, whether that’s your coffee break or a glass of wine at night or your exercise or chatting with your mom. It’s that thing that is just for you, and it’s a release.”
From the small-town working mom and big-city ladder-climbing man she sings about in “Smoke Break” to the unsavory Bonnie and Clyde type couple in “Choctaw County Affair” and the spousal abuse survivor in “Church Bells,” Storyteller is populated with complex characters: an intentional effort by Underwood. “I naturally gravitate toward songs that have strong characters,” she says. “I don’t ever want to write a song or sing a song about a person that’s just there. That’s just not my style. And I feel like in the whole storytelling aspect, people are strongest when they’re pushed to their limits. When it’s do or die. Fight or flight. You’re either going to bend and come back stronger than ever, or you’re going to break. That’s why I pick songs like ‘Church Bells.’ This girl had to do something, or else she was going to pay the price. I just love songs about strong women. I love being sucked into that story: rooting for the woman and seeing that she does something powerful that she never thought she could do.”
Underwood describes the woman in “Church Bells” as “Fancy’s little sister,” referencing Reba’s iconic hit. “It’s just a cool story of a strong woman,” says Underwood of the song, which finds a poor but beautiful young girl married to an abusive, wealthy man. “In the song, she ends up killing him – which is not a new storyline for me – but again, it’s a movie in song form. The church bells do evolve. In the beginning, they represent a wedding. In the middle, they represent her needing some help after he abuses her, and at the end, the church bells represent the ones that ring out at his funeral, and she’s free. So a lot happens in three-and-a-half minutes.”
The woman in the album’s picturesque opener, “Renegade Runaway,” owes a lot to the women of the West. “She is dangerous. She’s wild. It’s not like she’s evil. She just can’t be tamed. She doesn’t need anybody to complete her,” Underwood explains. “The song has this great western Young Guns feel to it. When Hillary Lindsey, Chris DeStefano, and I were writing ‘Renegade Runaway,’ we were Googling all these belles of the Wild West. We were looking up pictures of these strong women standing there in their corsets and lace, and they had their guns on their hips. There were all of these incredible images and stories we were learning about these really strong women, and we were incorporating them into this character.”
Though the characters Underwood and her co-writers created drive a lot of action on Storyteller, the most poignant songs are those snapshots of her own life, including the tender ballad “Heartbeat.” “My husband and I are so lucky to be able to go to so many events and things,” she says. “We live our lives in the public and around people, but I’m the kind of person that just wants to be alone with him and be one on one. I don’t typically do very many love songs, but when we were writing ‘Heartbeat,’ there was something so real about it. “We live in this crazy, loud world where so much stuff is flying at us. Sometimes we just need to get back to what’s simple and what’s real.”
Another very personal song is “The Girl You Think I Am.” She says, “This is me telling my story about my dad. This is Hillary Lindsey talking about her dad. And that was David Hodges using a lot of his experience being a dad to girls. All of our personal stories are injected into this song that I hope is super-relatable on every level to others.”
The song that reflects the biggest change in Underwood’s life in 2015 is the closing track, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” a celebration of marriage and motherhood that explores her feelings about her husband and their son Isaiah. “‘What I Never Knew I Always Wanted’ is definitely my story,” says Underwood. “I was pregnant at the time when we wrote it. I was never the kind of person that wanted this huge family, but the second I found out I was pregnant, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I did want this. Let’s write a song about it!’ And even with my husband, I was never the kind of person that wondered, ‘Where’s my Prince Charming?’ That wasn’t me at all. But then once I met him, and we started dating, I guess I realized I was wrong. And I could admit that. I could admit that I never planned this, but it happened, and I couldn’t imagine my life any other way. Stuff like that is extremely personal, but there’s going to be a lot of people out there that relate to this song. It’s my story, and I think it’s a lot of people’s story.”
In crafting her new album, Underwood worked for the first time with producers Jay Joyce (Little Big Town, Eric Church) and Zach Crowell (Sam Hunt, Keith Urban), as well as her longtime producer Mark Bright. “I want to grow, and I want to change, and I want my music to reflect that, and I felt like I just needed things to switch up a little bit in order to achieve that.
“I’m a very scheduled person,” she continues, “and I like knowing how things are going to happen and when they’re going to happen, which is why I also needed someone that was unpredictable to me. Jay Joyce is just an uber-creative guy. One time he literally had me singing through this voice box thing, like a bullhorn. It was just a different way of doing things. Zach Crowell was somebody that was new for me to work with, as well. I had written with him a little bit, and his name kind of started poppin’ up all over songs that I was choosing, so it just kind of made sense to work with him in a production sense. I’ve been working with Mark Bright for 10 years, and we are such a great team. I knew I wanted him to work on this album. All three producers allowed me to be me. Nobody ever tried to tell me to sing it like this or do it like this. I felt like that helped with the continuity of the album. We have an album with three producers, but with each, it was about bringing out the best for every song.”
In an already distinguished career, Storyteller feels like a landmark album. It’s a milestone felt by its creator. “The Storyteller album marks the beginning of a new chapter in every way in my life and my career,” Underwood says. “Musically, I feel like I’m stronger than I’ve ever been. I feel like I’m more confident in myself as an entertainer, as a songwriter, as a singer. I’ve definitely evolved, and it’s all been very organic. The album has some songs that are a little more gritty and edgy, and others that have an R&B feel to them. Then there are these other songs that are just twangy. We brought in a lot of different elements in a way that makes the album feel fresh and new. I hope people just call it good music.”
Carrie Underwood – Church Bells
Carrie Underwood – Smoke Break
Carrie Underwood – Heartbeat