First Published October 2020
THE SACRED, THE SPIRITUAL, AND LEMONADE
Singer/songwriter TENILLE TOWNES is an extraordinary artist. And she is such, because she’s also an extraordinary human being first and foremost. The same kind of empathy and awareness for the well-being of others that saw Tenille begin her Big Hearts For Big Kids project long before her name was ever seen in lights or known throughout the country music world, is found in her writing. Somebody’s Daughter and Jersey On The Wall – both of which have topped the charts in her native Canada, and also claimed the prestigious Single of the Year prize at the C.C.M.A. (Canadian Country Music Association) Awards, in 2019 and 2020 respectively – are perfect examples of this.
In the last few weeks alone, Tenille was honoured with the accolade of New Female Artist of the Year at the A.C.M. (American Country Music) Awards, where she also joined country mega-star Miranda Lambert, together with Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde, Caylee Hammack, and Elle King, in picking up the award for Musical Event of the Year for the song Fooled Around And Fell In Love. Not long after that, Tenille had further reason to smile in what has been a trying year for everyone in the music business, as she was named the winner in the Female Vocalist of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, and Music Video of the Year categories – with the last two both coming for Jersey On The Wall – at the C.C.M.A. Awards. That’s a heck of a few weeks!
And yet, despite being inundated with media requests from literally all across the United States, Canada, and beyond in the days following those successes, Tenille was more than happy to give some of her time to chatting with OTRT. Which takes us right back to our opening lines today. As well as being an extraordinary artist – part of which, no doubt, involves being an absolute pro – Tenille is an extraordinary person, well aware that she has fans all over the world now, and ready to acknowledge them. For a little context there, let me just share with you the fact that it’s not unusual for some artists, a lot closer to home too, to refuse interview requests after their first couple of singles gain them some attention, because of their “busy schedules.”
Having already been a fan of Tenille’s for some time, the opportunity to finally spend some time in her company was a real pleasure. In fact, I joked with Tenille that I should perhaps be addressing her as Miss Female Vocalist of the Year, given the events of the few days before we spoke when that was one of the awards she took home from this year’s CCMA Awards. I asked Tenille if she could describe what it felt like to be the person at the centre of nights as magical as the ones she had recently experienced?
“[Laughs] Thank you for the congrats! I mean, it truly is just like…it feels very surreal, like a movie or something! It’s just so wonderful to have the community of Canadian country music believing in this music, and wrapping their arms around it. I grew up watching and learning from that industry, so to have really have them believing in this right now, and just knowing that that song – ‘Jersey On The Wall’ – really made its way to people, really means so much to me. I’m just really grateful to wake up every day and get to do the thing I love most to do.”
I asked Tenille if she ever goes into nights like the A.C.M. or the C.C.M.A. Awards with any sense of expectation as to what might lie ahead? How does Tenille prepare for nights like those?
“That’s a great question! I don’t really know how you’d prepare, I just was excited to be there! To get to play the show this year was very different in the sense of not being all together as a community. Usually with the Songwriter of the Year and the Video of the Year it’s like we’re all at a big gala event the night before the televised show, and they give some of the awards out early. So you’re just kind of sitting at your table with your team, and just going, ‘Oh my goodness, are they gonna call my name?!’ And it’s so exciting [laughs]. And you get to have some dinner [laughs], and just be together with your people. So I really missed that this year. But I’m so glad that the C.C.M.A.’s still found a way to really push through and make it happen, and still bring everybody together. And yeah, the award for Female Artist of the Year was entirely a surprise. We were getting ready to tape the performance and they were like, ‘Annnnnnd we have some news for you…!’ [laughs]. I just was like, oh my goodness! So very cool! [laughs].”
Did that throw Tenille off a little bit or anything, finding that out at such short notice, literally just before she taped her performance? Or did it end all the more to the excitement of things?
“I think it’s a little bit of everything! Definitely extra adrenaline [laughs]. Oh my goodness, I mean, how do you emotionally respond to that? It’s something to be so excited about, and thankful for. You want to say all the right things, and really, more than anything, just soak in the moment. It’s a lot like a dream. And it’s a crazy reminder to be like, ‘THIS is real life’, and I don’t want to miss any part of what this feels like.”
At this year’s A.C.M. Awards, Tenille had the most unique of moments, performing her song Somebody’s Daughter – which won the C.C.M.A,’s Single of the Year award last year – on an empty stage at the famous Ryman Auditorium, because it is, after all, the year we’ll never forget! And it was the same night Tenille followed in the footsteps of artists like Maren Morris, Ashley McBryde, and Kelsea Ballerini by being named as New Female Artist of the Year. It must have been the most emotional of moments for her…
“It was, absolutely. I mean, it’s so surreal to have been a part of that show at all. And finding out about that award, I found out through a Zoom call when Keith Urban showed up on the screen. I was just like, ‘What is happening?! This is crazy!’ [laughs]. I was so emotional and so thankful. And the day that it was announced Ashley McBryde called me, and Lauren Alaina called me, just this little community of people who were all like, ‘We’re just glad you’re in this spot.’ It meant the world. So stepping into that performance, I was really imagining that embrace of the community that’s pulling up a new chair to their table! That, just in itself, was emotional to me. And then getting to play was so fun. And, very strange in an empty venue! It really is missing the most beautiful and the most important part, which is the community of people who come to shows for that shared experience of live music. It was very, sort of quiet and weird. I sometimes experience this during soundchecks, where you know, you step out into an empty venue and there is a sort of sacred, spiritual part of that because you can imagine the people who are going to fill those seats. And to me, especially in the Ryman, it’s picturing my great-grandmother in there. And all the angels that are really kind of filling the space. Even though it was empty and missing people, there’s a lot about that experience that really didn’t feel empty at all.
Tenille has described her debut album, The Lemonade Stand, in the most beautiful of ways, calling it, “a gathering place, where people can come and be filled up.” What I love about that, is that she clearly doesn’t see her album as being simply all about her, but rather about what she – and her music – can give and can do for other people. Firstly, I asked Tenille if she considered that to be a fair observation, and secondly, I wondered which albums by other artists give her that feeling of being somewhere she can go to fill up when she needs to?
“Thanks! That’s an excellent question, so cool. To me, that’s really what music is, a place where we can realise we’re not alone in something, and be comforted and lifted up. And it is about where communities can meet up, it’s always going to be that anchor. I’m so glad that this album is kind of an introduction to what I hope is a lot more of that feeling. And I mean, I feel that from so many different records, especially having been on the road this last little while – well, it’s been a while now [laughs] – but the most recent tour with Miranda Lambert, listening to her music makes me feel like, you know because she ‘s talking about things that are real and are true, so her art is a place where I can find pieces of myself. I feel that when I listen to Shania, that’s what I grew up listening to, or to ‘Joshua Tree’ by U2. I would listen to that with my dad and it kind of felt like a piece of my soul, like I could just come and be there. And I think that about Dolly Parton when I hear ‘Coat of Many Colours.’ I imagine listening to that in a motor-home driving around with my grand-parents. I think music is just like a big invitation. It’s opening a door to a space that you can just walk into and not be alone in.”
Even though I’d only been talking to Tenille for a few minutes at this stage, it was already very clear to me that she’s a very spiritual person. And another thing that I really love about Tenille is that all the while she’s been putting her heart into building up her career, she’s also been putting her heart into building better lives for others too, by way of her annual fundraiser, Big Hearts For Big Kids. I knew this was something that’s very important to Tenille, so I asked her to tell us about the Big Hearts For Big Kids project…
“Thank you for asking, I love getting to talk about this. Big Hearts For Big Kids was like a concert fundraiser that I started in my hometown after hearing about our youth shelter and the kids in our community who needed a safe place to turn to. Home wasn’t a safe place for them. It was just kind of alarming to think about kids my age in my own hometown that were struggling with that. I wanted to do something to help, and music is my outlet for that. It’s this thing that really does bring people together. We rented this hall and decorated it, invited people to come and bring some auction items, but the night of our first event the shelter had to close due to lack of funding. It was like, wow, we’re really supposed to do this today. It was amazing, that night people showed up and we raised like thirty-thousand-dollars. I was just blown away. Every year we’ve continued that event and helped to keep the shelter on their feet and those doors open to youth who continue to come and find the guidance and love that they need to keep going. It’s been just remarkable watching that. It makes me so excited about where Big Hearts For Big Kids can go next. This year we weren’t able to go back to my hometown and travel, and do the event in our traditional way, so we did one here in Nashville, a live-stream where anybody from anywhere in the world could tune in and watch! And it was really special, both to benefit the shelter in my hometown, and for planting a seed for something here in Nashville with Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, Troop 6000, which helps young girls without permanent housing here in Nashville. So that was just a really fun event. We had performances by Luke Combs, and Dierks Bentley, Brandi Carisle, and Lori McKenna, so many of my friends and heroes. It was a really wonderful evening and one of the highlights of this year for me, for sure.”
Right now Tenille is part of something called the American Currents; State of the Music exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. I wondered if she could tell us what anyone who is lucky enough to get along there will see of the girl from Grand Prairie, Alberta?
“I believe there is the outfit that I wore for my Grand Ole Opry debut, and some hand-written lyrics from ‘Somebody’s Daughter.’ I just can’t even believe that that’s real! I’ve visited the Hall of Fame so many times, and I feel inspired every time I go in there and I find little pieces of history. It just always kinds of…I don’t know…it just fills my soul up. So to be in there is insane, that does not seem like real-life! [laughs].”
Tenille is an award-winning songwriter, who has #1s to her name, and who has everyone from iHeart Country, to Bobby Bones, to C.M.T backing her as country music’s next ‘big thing.’ But everything I’ve just mentioned starts with a song. So what I wanted to know was when Tenille is at that stage, is there a certain way that songs tend to come together for her?
“I think, for me, it’s really just kind of about listening to whatever I’m supposed to write that day. It’s very much like being a vessel. You’re just catching what’s coming through. But I love to write from the observer perspective, I love to tell stories and kind of process how I feel about the world. I’m doing a lot of writing in this time, at home right now, writing over Zoom with all my friends. I’m really grateful to be able to be creative in this time. I’m just kind of digging into my own emotions, and thoughts, and loneliness, ya know, or celebrations in this season. I’m just really trying to have music be my safe place to communicate that. Ideas really come from anywhere and everywhere. Conservations with friends, or a movie I’m watching, or a book I’m reading. Just kind of whatever is pulling at my heart!”
Has Tenille’s songwriting spark stayed with her throughout everything that’s been happening this year?
“I think it was very difficult, especially in the beginning of the shutdown. It was a strange time to feel inspired and creative. To me, writing songs and tapping into that creative space is a lot like a practise. Even if I’m writing songs that are just exercising that muscle and helping me just, you know, feel good in the day [laughs], to me it’s been like a piece of my sanity and a bit of a lifeline. I’ve really kind of continued that practise through this whole time and I’ve written a ton of songs this year. And it’s really brought me a lot of peace in a very heavy-hearted time.”
Would Tenille be an everyday writer?
“I think in seasons for me. It’s hard for me to step into that space when I’m on the road, or when I’m focusing on Big Kids With Big Hearts or some kind of project, I like to really jump in with both feet. So this past season of putting out the record, but really kind of just being home, has been an opportunity to jump into writing with both feet. So it has been every day for the last while, for sure.”
Tenille had mentioned her Zoom call with Keith Urban earlier in our chat, when she thought she was going to be doing an interview, but instead, he appeared on her screen with the news that she had won the A.C.M. New Female Artist of the Year Award. During that chat of theirs, Keith asked Tenille who her first call would be to after they finished talking and she replied that it would be to her parents. I wondered if that had happened, and how did they respond to her good news?
“Oh it was, and they were just so excited! They were in the car driving, and I wanted to make sure that both my mom and dad were there. And they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re here, what’s goin’ on?’ So I was like, well, Keith Urban just called…and they were like, ‘Ummm….what?!’ [laughs]. They were so excited, there was lots of cheering, and lots of emotion. It was wonderful to share that moment with them, even across the distance.”
Tenille was meant to be over here in Ireland back in March for C2C, which unfortunately didn’t happen this year. But hopefully next year it will be back, and hopefully Tenille will be back, too. When the world settles back down again is more international touring something Tenille would like to see on her schedule?
“Oh my goodness, I will be on the first plane that I possibly can to come and see you guys! [laughs]. I was so looking forward to seeing Ireland on this past trip, I have not been before. It’s one of those bucket-list places in my heart to travel to in the world. I was just devastated that we couldn’t get there in March. But I promise that we’ll be back as soon as we possibly can.”
~ THE LEMONADE STAND, the debut album from TENILLE TOWNES, is out now.