Gabby Barrett Isn’t Afraid of ‘the Grind’
Following her May 2018 American Idol win, Gabby Barrett scored a No. 1 country hit (and a Top 20 song on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100) with her debut single, "I Hope."
If that's all you know about her journey, it's easy to call Barrett an overnight success story: an out-of-the-gate hitmaker who released her anticipated debut album, Goldmine, on Friday (June 19) and is looking for another hit with her second single, the recently released "The Good Ones." It's not quite the truth, though.
While Barrett's career has begun on a high note, certainly, she spent years working to get there, both pre- and post-Idol. The Pittsburgh, Pa., native -- one of eight children in her family -- started singing around the age of nine.
"My dad kind of found something in me that he thought wasn't normal for a 9-year-old to sound like," Barrett shared during an industry event ahead of her new album's release, and he signed her up for a nearby gospel choir. Barrett spent two years in the group, which she says "showed me what I was capable of doing with my voice."
Barrett was being pegged as an R&B singer at the time, she remembers, but she personally gravitated toward country music, and pushed to make that her voice and style. From 11 years old on, she upped her schedule to four shows a week; her dad, meanwhile, encouraged her talent, sometimes scrimping elsewhere to make sure she had what she needed.
"I [played] many grocery stores," she shares, adding with a laugh, "Giant Eagles were my thing!"
"A lot of people assume that after 'American Idol', you're set, and that's not the case at all. You go back to almost square one."
The American Idol team scouted Barrett for the show when she was 17. She auditioned in Nashville and picked country-leaning songs throughout her run to the TV singing competition's crown.
"A lot of people assume that ... after the show, you're set," Barrett says, "and that's not the case at all. You go back to almost square one."
Indeed, Barrett had a management team behind her, but at first, every label in Nashville passed on signing her. "I understand why," she admits: "Idol is a platform that you come off of singing cover songs ... Labels and people didn't know if i could write original music or anything."
She had someone else in her corner, though: former American Idol champ Carrie Underwood, who's built herself into a country superstar in the decade and a half since she was on the show. Underwood had given Barrett her number, and the "Southbound" singer "stepped in ... and really became a friend of mine," says Barrett, who asked Underwood for advice on keeping her Idol momentum going.
"She talked about how really hard work gets it going -- that you have to be willing to work really hard," Barrett recalls, "so I was like, 'Okay, I wanna do that. Let's do that.'"
For Barrett, "working really hard" meant using every bit of free time she had during the post-show American Idol Live! Tour to earn clout in Nashville. She'd take red-eye flights from the show locations to Nashville, and then out of Music City to the next show.
"It was crazy," she now admits, "but it was worth it."
It was during that time that Barrett wrote "I Hope" with Zachary Kale and Jon Nite; it was, she says, the fourth song she wrote in Nashville. She released the song independently at first, and then the same labels that had passed on signing her came knocking.
Even with a label deal in place, Barrett's road to Goldmine had a few twists and turns. She was still finishing the album when COVID-19-related safer-at-home orders took effect in Nashville, so she and her team finished the project from their respective quarantines. In one instance, that meant Barrett recording a line of a song as a voice memo on her phone, from a closet at her in-laws' house in East Texas.
Two songs on Goldmine, "Footprints on the Moon" and the record's title track, are particularly indicative of Barrett's dedication to her craft. The former song, she wrote as a message of encouragement to her fans; the latter is a Nicolle Galyon / Caitlyn Smith / Liz Rose-penned track -- the only outside write on the project.
"I really feel like I've dug for these songs and this music," Barrett explains, comparing herself to a gold miner. "These are my little golden nuggets."
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LOOK: Country Stars on Idol, Then and Now