It was nearing the last days of spring. Already, New York City was sticky with an enveloping mugginess, the heat thick and bouncing off the concrete onto sweaty bodies and into office buildings. A young budding talent stepped into Sony Music Entertainment (whose air conditioning happened to be broken that day) with her tattered guitar in one hand and a dream to make it big. Candi Carpenter‘s story is a harrowing one: from the abused teenager to the battered wife, her entire life led up to that moment. Standing wide-eyed and nervous, in what seemed like 100-degree weather, baring her soul for executive Doug Morris, who could make or break her career, she wore her heart on her sleeve for a 12-song set. She was joined by a pair of accomplished Nashville musicians, fiddle player Julie Kennedy and guitarist Philip Shouse, and Carpenter even improvised several additional songs at the urging of her manager Danny Nozell (of CTK management). “It was the scariest and happiest day of my life,” she remembers.
Morris was immediately struck by her silky, caramel tone and wanted to sign her on the spot. “I left there, and I was so shaken up that I drank three martinis and went to bed,” she jokes.
Four months later, she signed the contract (which she framed, “because I’m pathetic,” she laughs), and her viscerally-indebted first single “Burn the Bed” arrived in late November 2016. Musically, it fits somewhere between Tammy Wynette and Keith Whitley, a blistering wallop of a performance which doesn’t avoid such gutsy songwriting to knock you off your feet. Her voice is lilting but bites hard, an indication she has much more up her sleeve.
Since the release, she also dropped a live performance take of uptempo number “Nights & Weekends” (which has four different incarnations, including a brand new one no one has yet heard) and “Ghost on a Bridge,” a smokey, evocative tune honoring her late friend Missy Broome, who took her own life. The sheer scope of Carpenter’s work so far is impressive and cements a sturdy foundation of real life narratives plucked directly from her own experiences, signaling she’s right on track for a break out. “It’s been a long year for me. I’ve just been doing a bunch of writing and preparing for the next single,” she tells B-Sides & Badlands. “Doug got it immediately, and that’s because he’s a songwriter.”
Carpenter’s yet-untitled debut album is tentatively expected later this year and might carry some surprising twists and turns. “Because of my background in traditional country music, storytelling and details are really important to me. I’m trying to mix contemporary music with the traditional sound I grew up with to create something different. I’m just really glad Doug is behind that. It’s going to be a very different sounding record,” she says, teasing vast stylistic pops and style dynamics.
While rooted in tradition, Carpenter (who toured with her family’s gospel band as a kid) stresses this will be a commercial country record. “We’re making an album that will have a home on country radio, but I do have my own sound. I’m bringing in a lot of gospel, big choirs, a lot of drama. The arrangements will be a little bit different. They won’t sound out of place in the format, but they’ll be unique and exciting for people to listen to.”
Brimming and bubbly, Carpenter called B-Sides & Badlands recently to dig into the meat of her story, how she escaped her marriage, her friend’s suicide and music’s healing power over her life and career.
Why did Doug Morris have you rewrite “Nights and Weekends” so many times?
Doug has been A&R’ing the project every step of the way. When I submit a song to him, he’ll always give me notes on it. I’ve learned so much about songwriting in the past year, because he gives intricate feedback. On “Nights & Weekends,” he wanted me to revisit the pre-chorus and change the melody. He loved the lyrics. The very first version of the song is unrecognizable compared to the version you’ll hear now. Doug is a brilliant music industry mind. Being mentored by him has helped me grow as an artist, exponentially.
You tease “different” arrangements that we might not expect. Cam had a similar approach with her debut album Untamed, which was unconventional and cool and dramatic. Is that how you’ve approached this record?
I’m a huge fan of Cam, first of all. She’s such a strong female voice in country music and a kind person, from what I’ve heard. I have not gotten to meet her yet, but I really hope to work with her in the future. I can’t really compare my album to anybody else. It’s going to be…really different. Cam is a bit more traditional, and my album will be a bit more rock. But it’ll still be very much rooted in traditional music, as well. We’re right in the middle of really crafting the arrangements. We’re not going to be using quite as many drum loops. We have organic drums and heavy electric guitars. There’s a sick choir. It’s like gospel-meets-rock-meets-traditional country. It’s a bit like Miranda [Lambert] but with more of a gospel infusion, maybe Janis Joplin-meets-Wynonna-Judd-meets-Dolly Parton. It’s going to be loud. I’ve been trying to write a couple songs to break up the volume. [laughs] I don’t want people to get a migraine when they’re listening to this.
You were just talking about working on arrangements for the songs. So, have you already selected the songs you want for the album?
I have. It’ll depend on whether or not the label agrees. When I write a song, I don’t just write the lyrics and the melody. I actually spend a lot of time on the demos in the studio making sure that the lead licks are interesting and memorable and filling the songs with not only lyrical hooks but also musical hooks.
“Ghost on a Bridge” is such a knockout, honest performance, which serves as a tribute to a friend who committed suicide. How were you able to muster up strength to write and record it?
I don’t think I had ever been that sad before in my life. Missy Broome was this powerhouse person. She had bright pink hair and the personality of a rockstar. She actually used to design accessories for Paul Frank. I was the last person she talked to before she took her own life. It was the night before Easter, and I was begging her to come down to Nashville to stay with me for a few days. She told me she just didn’t have the energy to travel, but she promised me that she wasn’t going to do anything to hurt herself. The next day, I tried to call her to check in with her. She didn’t answer. I was thinking she was probably resting.
Then, a few days later, I got a busy signal. I messaged her on Facebook, and her brother wrote me back to tell me what happened. I remember being in the driveway at my house and falling apart in my car. It was really the only way I could deal with those emotions. I didn’t have anywhere else to put them. I think a part of me felt guilty, like maybe there was something else that I could have said to her to help her that I didn’t say. Her husband Jeff is like a brother to me. We became so close while we were mourning her. I wanted to keep her memory alive in some way. One night, I was writing with my friend David Myer, and we wrote that song in one sitting. It fell out of me like tears.
The song has such an honest, simple, powerful lyric when you sing, “I’ve been there, too.” Have you been in that kind of mental state, too?
I have. I went through a very abusive childhood as a teenager and then went into an abusive marriage. I had no self esteem. I was letting other people tell me I wasn’t worth anything. I believed them, because I was so young when it started. Over time, I stopped loving myself, and I lost sight of who I was as a person. I let those people’s opinions of me take over completely. It was really hard to find the strength to leave that marriage, because I didn’t have anywhere to go. I was only 16 when I met this man and 19 when we started dating (if you can even call it that). I had nothing. I had no money.
When I left, I left with the clothes on my back and my cat and an old MagnaVox TV. I was heartbroken. I lost so many friends, because they believed him. Sadly, sometimes, when you come forward and ask the people around you for help and you tell them that you’re in an abusive situation, you don’t always get the support that you hope to get. I had people take his side. I don’t know if taking my side was just too risky or if they were afraid to. He was more powerful than me in the music industry, but I was completely alone except for a few friends. I didn’t really know how to go on. I was heartbroken and scared, and I definitely had been where Missy had been.
How did music then help you heal after that trauma?
At first, making music was painful. It brought up bad memories of my childhood. Part of me never wanted to sing again. I didn’t know how to access those hurt places without reopening the wounds. My friend Truly Alvarang took me up to New England to live with her for a year, and something about that fresh mountain air and maybe just being out of Music City helped me catch my breath. I started listening to the traditional country music of my childhood and fell in love with the songwriting process all over again. It became my therapy and the way I could finally explain the way I was feeling to myself. I also wanted to help other people that had been in a similar situation and help them understand that they weren’t alone.