Little Big Town Rocks the Boat With a Powerful ‘Tornado’
Little Big Town is on the precipice of something major and, in spite of the fact that they’ve been together nearly 15 years, there’s a sense that some of what’s happening has come out of nowhere. The momentum that began building with the group’s first No. 1 single, “Pontoon,” early this summer has given way to giddy excitement and a cyclone of promotional activity surrounding the release of the quartet’s fifth — and come to think of it, aptly-titled — album, Tornado, out today (Sept. 11). As Phillip Sweet, Kimberly Schlapman, Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook gather in a conference room at their management’s offices on this warm summer day, there’s more in the air than just the hint of changing weather. News of the single’s ascension to top of the country chart has just broken the morning The Boot is scheduled to talk with them about the new album.
Spend any time with Little Big Town (something we’ve happily done since 2002) and it’s easy to be lifted off the ground by their enthusiasm. Just another reason that the album’s title (and the title of their follow-up single to “Pontoon”) is merely one aspect of the perfect storm brewing in and around the band. Another is the first-time experience working with superstar producer-guitarist Jay Joyce, whose long list of credits includes Eric Church‘s Chief. With handshakes, hugs and congratulations out of the way, the foursome take their seats next to each other, to weigh in on the songs that shaped this project, the way audiences are responding to the new material and how putting together one of the songs could have resulted in a very different album title.
I was so surprised when I realized “Pontoon” is your first No. 1 song!
Karen: It’s been fun to pretend. [all laugh]
Jimi: It’s been a fun summer.
Kimberly: It sure has!
We had “Pontoon” on our 2012 summer songs countdown …
Karen: [quizzically] Yes …
But we put it at No. 2 because it hadn’t been out for very long at the time, and if it didn’t really take off, well, we didn’t want to look like we didn’t know what we were talking about!
[all laugh] Karen: What was No. 1?
“Chattahoochee,” by Alan Jackson.
Kimberly: That’s OK to be beaten out by “Chattahoochee”!
Although now that you’ve had a huge hit, we look kind of stupid!
[all laugh] Karen: No, no! We grew up on “Chattahoochee.” We would pick “Chattahoochee.”
Phillip: ["Pontoon"] is fun and it’s cool, but it doesn’t say all those ‘beat-your-chest, I’m country, I’m this, I’m that.’ It’s just a party without beating you over the head. It was just infectious … you want to be in that party. Our whole goal about this record was to capture those moments, the real energy, the live excitement. I really feel like we captured a moment in time.
Now that people will have had a chance to hear the whole album, I think you’ve probably got a few more No. 1s coming! How much time did you spend deciding what was going to go on this record?
Kimberly: Maybe six or eight months?
Karen: We got started really late. We were kind of panicked. We had just been touring so much and we’d been writing a little bit here and there but not as focused as we thought we should have been. And then when we got focused, we went crazy!
Jimi: It was a fun time because we were making some new relationships and writing with some new people. Just feeling really inspired.
Phillip: And we were getting a lot of songs pitched us by writers [whose songs] we hadn’t heard from before. That was exciting to hear all those new songs. Once the snowball happened, it started getting bigger and bigger and it really came together. But when we got in the studio with Jay to rehearse, we really hadn’t whittled down as much as we had hoped.
Jimi: We had a small core group of songs that we felt confident about. Of course, you don’t know when you get in there. We hadn’t worked them out to see how they would be with us singing them. We had a really good handful of songs that we felt were really strong but some of those didn’t make it.
Karen: There was a list of probably 25 other songs that were on the fringe.
Phillip: It was funny, too, because I think it was Karen who called Jay and asked, “When are we going to get together and hash out these arrangements before rehearsals?” We had four rehearsal days when we were going to be doing pre-production and rehearse the songs with our band. We wanted to have them picked out and figured out so that we could rehearse some. Jay was like, “Oh, we’ll be fine. Just get there an hour or so before everybody else does …”
Jimi: Not the answer that comforts [laughs].
Kimberly: Not the kind of answer we’re used to!
Karen: That did give me comfort because he knows what he’s doing. And we kind of do, a little bit.
Phillip: But we lived on the edge a little bit.
Do you think you were fully prepared for working like that?
Jimi: The looseness of it all, and kind of flying by the seat of our pants, we were ready for that. To let go of the tedium some and just get in there and go for it, just do what we do.
Kimberly: It made it more spontaneous. (Jay) pushed us there and made us let go. We can be perfectionists. We can work on something too far, sometimes. So he stopped that from happening several times. But we enjoyed the spontaneity because we’ve never really done that before. We already knew what we were doing to a certain degree, but we have not perfected it at all. I think that’s what lends to some of the energy that you hear on the record. We were all a little bit on edge because we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen.
Phillip: We didn’t have time to really think, we just had to go for it.
How do you decide who’s going to sing which parts?
Jimi: That’s another process, figuring out who’s going to sing the lead behind it and how that’s going to work. None of that was really decided.
Karen: Which is not like a solo artist. I think Dierks [Bentley] knows that he’s going to sing on a song.
Well, he did have one song that he had to figure out ... [Karen sings with Dierks on "When You Gonna Come Around," from his 2012 album, Home].
Karen: That’s true. This band is going to always be about what the four of us do together. There is a home for the harmonies. Usually Kimberly is that high-toned sound that’s so identifiable to the band, Phillip is that fullness of the bottom and Jimi and I usually end up in the middle. Sometimes we have to mess with keys: Who sounds good in that key? Who sounds good singing that lyric? We all feel the lyric or we wouldn’t cut it, but that’s really what it comes down to. But there are a lot of group moments on this record. Like “Night Owl,” that’s delivered almost top to bottom by the band, same thing as “On Fire Tonight” or “Can’t Go Back.” It’s just the way we’ve always done it.
Phillip: If one of us felt the real strong urging to be the storyteller on a song and one of us would step forward and by all means say I really feel a strong connection with this lyric. We would have those discussions but we really had a natural, organic feel to it and felt guided by something bigger than us.
“Night Owl,” which closes the album, is absolutely chilling. The four of you wrote that with Natalie Hemby, who actually has five co-writes on the record, including “Pontoon,” although those two songs couldn’t be any more different!
Karen: The title was Natalie’s. It was the first day we had ever written with her and she came in with guns loaded, with lots of ideas. It was really very flattering because she had listened to all the band’s records and she knew the history so much that she said, “I want to write something with you guys that you’ve never written before. A style that you’ve never written before.” So we were like, “Let’s do it!” We love creative exercises like that, exploring new avenues. So the call-and-answer between the two duets of Kimberly and I and the guys is kind of an Everly Brothers homage. It was something that we had never done.
Phillip: The one thing that’s cool about that is we don’t sing together until the bridge.
Jimi: That’s the only place and then it’s back to the call-and-answer. It reminds me of a [Quentin] Tarantino movie. It’s got this really old quality but it’s so cinematic.
Karen: Maybe we can make a Western.
“Tornado” also has shades of a spaghetti Western to it. Why did you decide on that for the album title?
Karen: It came about as a title because, of course, it’s a song on the record. But the process also kind of felt like a storm. Fast and furious and overwhelming and quickly gone. It feels like there’s a really good storm brewing in our camp. Something that comes through every once in a while and it’s really good, but it’s powerful and just a change in the air twirling around. It’s a tornado in a good way.
Phillip: To the end result of the recording process that we went through, the record itself has a bigger, bolder, more confident sound from us. We love the records that we’ve made in the past, but this has kind of a new swagger that we hadn’t achieved before.
Is there anything that you can attribute that to?
Karen: Timing, maturity …
Jimi: This whole record, from the writing process to the cutting of it, there was something happening within us. That comes from how long we’ve been together. We feel really good right now, we feel really inspired. We felt a new creativity that kind of took over. Our band playing on the record with us was a big part of that because of the relationship we have with them and how invested and excited they were and how excited we were to bring them in to this process. And working with Jay and getting in the studio, created an atmosphere [twirls hands in opposite directions and laughs when he realizes what he's doing] I just did a tornado! But it felt like all of that stuff created this great experience that we had. I think you feel it in the music because it’s genuine. It wasn’t anything that was over-thought about or tried to be manufactured. It was genuinely having a love for the music and having such a great time and getting in there and just going for it.
Kimberly: It was a rush.
I absolutely love “Sober,” not only because it’s a great song but also because it isn’t at all what I thought it was going to be! It’s actually about not being so serious and enjoying life to the very end.
Karen: It’s not what anybody thinks it’s going to be when they look at that title.
Jimi: [laughs] I know! You see that title and you think, “Oh, I know where this is going.”
Phillip: In the live show I see it every time, there’ll be somebody singing along and they’re not sober … at all. [laughs]
Karen: When people get to know the record really well, that’s going to be a fan favorite. You can tell because of just what it says about life and about being in love and being content.
Jimi: I see people tweeting about that song.
Kimberly: At a private show we did recently, there was an older couple sitting at a table. They had never heard this song before. They’d probably been married about 60 years. By the end of it, he had his arm around her and he was singing it to her. I will never forget that sweet, sweet picture. That puts it in a totally different perspective.
“On Fire Tonight,” written by all of you with Luke Laird, that must be an exciting one in the live show, too? Great party song!
Jimi: That’s another one that morphed into something completely different than how it was written. We got in and experimented with it. It turned into this thing that was so much fun and had so much energy. The band was jamming on the outro on just one take and Jay said, “That’s really cool, what you’re doing, let’s throw that part under the verse melody.”
Kimberly: Like a tossed salad. We put some tomatoes over here and the lettuce and then we decided, no let’s add some onions here. We tossed it out and it became that.
So, the album could have been called Tossed Salad instead? Tornado probably is a better name.
[All laugh] Jimi: Kimberly would like that, though! A nice light fresh salad. [laughs]
Karen: Luke Laird knows how to write a party song. He so much fun to write with. He’s a happy fella.
Jimi: You’re always going to have a fun groove when you walk in to write with him.
“Self Made” [written by Karen and Jimi with Natalie Hemby and Jedd Hughes] has a very gritty quality to it and a really strong message, too.
Karen: We like music that feels a little bit raw. We’ve been singing together so long that we like to match the vocals with some roughness in the tracking, and also in melody choices. Natalie is great at that and so is Jedd. They’re so much fun to write with. “Self Made” was his title.
Phillip: That moment in the studio, too, you guys having written it with him and him playing guitar, we saved that song for the last day, the last one to track. There was a lot of magic in the studio that night.
Jimi: I’ll never forget recording “Self Made.” It will forever be a marked moment because you could’ve cut the energy with a knife. It was such excitement. Down to Jay standing on top of the B-3, screaming at the top of his lungs, counting everybody in! It was just one of those musical moments that I’ll always remember.
Kimberly: Plus the lyric, everybody can identify with working hard for something. Unless you’ve been handed everything on a silver platter. Most of us have had to work really, really hard to get where we are.
Jimi: It’s the ultimate underdog song.
Karen: There was a lot of belief in the room that none of us were saying. Belief in the record, belief in each other, just pure believing in something. And that becomes alive and that intangible thing becomes tangible in a track. You’re always trying to shoot for those moments but you’ve really got to be synced up together as a recording unit, everything’s got to line up for that moment to happen.