Carrie Underwood has been country music’s golden girl since walking off American Idol and straight onto the country charts with “Jesus Take the Wheel.” The seven-time Grammy winner, including Best New Artist in 2007, has hosted the Country Music Association Awards for 11 years and sings the theme for Sunday Night Football, while going toe-to-toe with Keith Urban on “The Fighter,” fellow female supernova Miranda Lambert on “Somethin' Bad” and classicist Tony Bennett on “It Had to Be You.”

Beyond her dozen American Music Awards, 15 Academy of Country Music Awards and eight Country Music Awards, Underwood is a diva’s diva, easily among the strongest vocalists in any genre. Seeking to push her own artistry, the girl from Checotah, Okla., who grew up in front of us has changed labels—rejoining her original champion Cindy Mabe at UMG Nashville—stepped into a co-producing partnership with emerging producer David Garcia and dropped the storyteller in her writing for a more personal voice.

“Cry Pretty,” her lead single, is a tempest in a quiet storm, while the album of the same name, her Capitol Nashville debut, finds the vocalist seeking nuance and new ground, as she explores grown-up booty calls, emotional implosion, the impact of alcoholism on the one not drinking, acceptance/tolerance and the fact that bullets really do kill people.

Are people surprised by this record?
I don’t know if surprised is the right word; more “OK, this is different.”

It feels grittier and more personal than anything you’ve ever done.
For me, it’s always been easier to have that layer between me and the song by making it about a character. I’m not an outwardly emotional person in general. Even people who are close to me often don’t really know what I’m thinking about things—and that’s because I’m analyzing. I’ve always felt that it’s not everybody’s business what I’m thinking and feeling every second of every day [laughs]. But there are a lot of things you learn as you go through life, have a family and go through things.

It becomes a little easier and more important to tap into more emotions, but it also becomes harder to share those things with everybody. You write a song, and you think, “Do I want people to know this side of me, or do I want to keep this a secret?” For some reason, we think if we show our emotions, we’re viewed as weak. It’s what I love about “Cry Pretty”—it’s emotional, but also very strong; it’s vulnerable, but it’s not boo-hoo, poor me. It’s taking ownership of emotions.

It’s an empowering song. You not only give people permission to feel their emotions, you challenge them. Was that intentional?
When we started writing, we knew what “Cry Pretty” was about, but needed to figure out the right way to say it. It was intentional to make it be from a place of strength. We were four women sitting in a room, all in different places in their lives, all of us I’d consider to be strong, independent women. It wasn’t throwing it in anybody’s face, but we wanted to say it right, to make that point and make 
it strong.

They’re all badasses. Your co-writers Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and Lori McKenna all throw down. When you wrote it, did you think it would be the first single?
I did not. There are songs you write, you leave that day and you think, “Yes! This is great. This is definitely going on the album.” I knew I really loved this song, but it took me a minute to realize what I really wanted to do with it musically. I ended up changing it from the demo, because I had a different idea in my head musically. [The demo] was much shorter. When I’m writing, I don’t like rules and boxes: It has to have this much fiddle and this much steel guitar, or it has to be three and a half minutes long, because that’s what goes on the radio. I want to be creative. It’s so much better to let the song be what it wants to be.

When I got home and started listening to the work tapes, I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe we should have the first chorus, and have the guitar solo—because I love guitar solos. Then it just kind of goes nuts at the end. So I just ended up super-excited about it, for this vision I had in my head. When I would share it with people, I was saying, “Listen to this, but don’t listen to this—try to hear what I’m hearing.”

We didn’t know, even when we were in the studio, how long we were gonna go. You know, “Let’s just go till it feels right.” All those players are super-experienced, amazing musicians. So whenever we record, we let them play it through a few times so they get the program, then I’ll jump in. It’s like the energy changes, and we become this kick-butt rock-star band. Everybody’s feeding off each other. Everybody’s bringing their A-game, including myself. So we just didn’t know—and it ended up being perfect.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about you?
I don’t know what people think about me, to be honest. It’s been interesting to talk to my co-producer—and this might just be musically—but he would say, “The number-one thing people ask me is, ‘Can she really write? Does she do anything [to contribute]?” He’s been very nice to share with me that he says, “Yes, she does, and she can. She’s most definitely in there.” It’s weird to talk about somebody else complimenting me, but David’s always been quick to let people know how involved I am and what I bring to the team overall. I was like, “I guess I didn’t realize people didn’t think I was creative in that way.” I guess because I’ve come from a singing show, people know I love to sing—and they think I’m all right at it. But it’s interesting they didn’t think I was creative in other ways as well.

I think it’s a bunch of things. Those shows—and I put the other shows in there as well—get people so wrapped up in the story that they don’t really create any understanding of what the music is. It’s the celebrity versus the artist. When you auditioned, what did you think was going to happen?
Honestly, I thought they would immediately send me home. Then I could close that door, move on with my life. Of course, you go in hoping that doesn’t happen, but I just remember [feeling that way]. You get on the show, then it’s trying to get to some other level. If we make the top 12, we get to make some kind of album. First, you wanna get to the live shows, then you wanna make the album, then you can earn a little bit of money. I remember thinking, “I wanna get to that, so I can go home and I can pay for school. I’ll have some money in the bank when I start.” There were all these fallback plans in my head.

I’d always think, “Well, what makes me special?” So many people want to be singers. How many people are out there who are better than me who are never going to get the opportunity to do this?” To me, that’s a great way to think. If I were a mother, I’d want my child to think like that too.

And your success after the fact?
[Crying] I’m sorry, I’m pregnant. I’ve cried like five times today. But it’s good. It’s OK to be emotional, just part of my ugly cry. I feel like I’ve been so blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing people. God has looked after me and opened doors for me I didn’t even know existed. On top of that, we all work our butts off, which is an important part of it. You can’t just sit back and expect it all to fall in your lap. We just give it our all; everybody works hard. We trust that we’re all doing what we’re supposed to be doing.

You do work hard, but are you surprised by how much hard work it is?
I think initially, because you have these preconceived notions of what it means to be famous. Stay up all night, have fun, play some shows, think about music, sleep all day. You don’t realize. I remember being on Idol and going on tour, thinking, “I’m going to see America!” It was seeing hotel rooms, venue basements, we lived on a bus; days off I was recording an album. It was pretty cool, and I learned stuff, but it wasn’t what I thought. It was work. I come from a family of hard workers, and they lived their lives working for us, to make our lives better. I just do it in a different way.

You take things very seriously. You don’t lead your life in the press. Was it a hard decision to leave your label? That has to be hard, to leave your whole catalog?
I have a lot of career left. Changing labels was more about what’s ahead. I was super-grateful for all the super-talented people I got to work with. I’d just left American Idol and was on Arista. I worked with so many incredible people. But then I was in the driver’s seat, and it was the first time I got to have a choice. Again, I got so lucky when I didn’t have that choice. But I really wanted to hear what everyone had to say. Certainly, a piece of it was Cindy Mabe, who’d worked with me before. I loved her, and the more people I met there, the more it felt like a really creative environment. It just felt that I should be there, with them.

I think this record was a huge step. Maybe when you’re at a new label, you reset expectations, especially for yourself.
Being in that creative environment, having these people telling me all these things they could do for me, with me, it was a fresh start. New label, new team. I had time to spare, so when I wanted to co-produce and work with a new producer, it was resetting expectations.

When we were talking about misconceptions… Do you want me to tell you?

I think people think you’re this pretty little Barbie who’s got lungs of plutonium, who never has a hair out of place with a massive glam squad, the best clothes and walks through rooms with her own wind machine. And doesn’t get her hands dirty.
I think that’s solely because I’m a woman. I feel like we have those expectations on us to be that, and then if we’re not, we might as well pack our stuff up and go home. But it’s a double-edged sword, because if we try to put our best foot forward, that’s the category we get put in: the Barbie Who Sings.

So you go from those viciously perfect radio records to vulnerable, real, and speaking for an audience that isn’t really being spoken for. Did you need that?
It wasn’t conscious. I’m a more mature individual and an artist who’s still growing. I’ve always said I just try to let the album and the music write itself and try not to get in its way. Co-producing was a major step artistically and musically. An eye-opener. I have a lot of pride in my vocal ability; it’s one of my favorite things to do. I love to sing—I hope that comes through. I want to work hard at it and want to be good at it. I’ve been fortunate to work with people who listened to my thoughts and feelings; if I didn’t like something, they’d take it out. “What about this?” “What if we did it that way?” So I’ve always had creative input, but this is more really diving in. Sitting there with David Garcia, asking, “How does this make us feel?” Thinking about what the guitar’s doing—is it complementing or hurting? Is it making the song better? All those things, and really thinking about each of them.

And it was a different place with my vocals. I’ve always been such a perfectionist, going in, thinking, “I’m going to crush…this…song!” Not in a cocky way, but “I’m gonna give this my all and make it as perfect as I can.” Being on the other side, listening to my vocals, David was quick to point out to me, “Listen to what we had done on this demo day.” It would be just after we’d written the song, and I didn’t know it well enough to overthink it, so it didn’t have to be perfect, because it was just the demo. He’d play me that vocal, and the vocal I’d just put down, and ask, “Do you feel the difference?” The day we made the work tape, I wasn’t thinking about the performance, just the words we’d just written and the story we were telling. That vocal ended up being so much more powerful. Maybe not technically as good, but definitely more powerful.

People tell you their stories —you’re a magnet—because everybody’s movie of their life is in your songs. No doubt you absorbed a lot of life that way. This time, though, you seem to inhabit these adult themes in your own person.
I’m not 25 anymore. I’ll hear songs; people send demos, and I’ll think, “That’s too young for me.” You want to be believable. You definitely want to be relevant. I feel like you can always tell when somebody’s trying to be 23, or vice versa. A super-young person trying to sing something too old, you think, “What do you know about having five kids?”

We allowed ourselves to go there. “Backsliding” is kind of a booty-call song, but it’s really more of—I feel like the person in that song had been married, which made it less of a sexy booty call and more of a real-life situation. If you didn’t really listen to the words, I hope it would be a cool song. But if you really listen, you’d think, “Oh, wow. This says something.”

“Ghosts in the Stereo” is another one. It’s very real. Everyone’s been there.
I love that one too, because it’s not a simple song. That person is at home, not needing nobody, getting drunk by herself, kind of listening and lost in this moment, the music. But it’s very specific about this person’s kind of breakdown.

It’s not a pretty truth.

“Songs We Used to Make Love To,” “Love Wins,” “Drinking Alone” and “Spinning Bottles”—they’re all very different. Especially different for you, “Singing Barbie.”
I used to refer to myself as Barbie a lot. When we had the “Cry Pretty” tears, I called myself Alice Cooper Barbie.

Those songs are really a lot more than people expect.
But they’re all completely different [laughs].

What do they have in common? Love. Love in different ways. “Drinking Alone” is love lost, and feeling this need to do whatever to forget about it. In that one, we definitely wanted to make her not go too far. You know, I’m just hanging out, drinking, trying to feel better. This is the band-aid for now. “Love Wins” is greater love for humanity, showing each other love. “We Used to Make Love To” is a fun “miss you” song. And “Spinning Bottles,” that one is a different kind of love. It was hard to write, and I feel like we were all pulling from different kinds of experiences. We’ve all personally, or seen family members or friends, go through those things. We don’t know how it ends, but I’m sure people out there fill in the blanks from personal experience too. It’s just the cycle and the circle.

Until the cycle gets broken.
Or doesn’t.

There’s some anti-gun stuff on here; is that because you’re a mom?
I think the overarching theme is more about the people affected. What I loved about “The Bullet” was that it even addresses it in the song: “You can blame it on hate/You can blame it on guns/But Mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons.” You can say it’s people, you can say it’s guns. Or you can just say, “It really doesn’t matter, because these are people’s lives that are affected.” What I love is it takes a stand for the families and the future this person could have had, and not for any political agenda.

Even “Love Wins,” for me… I’ve done some interviews where people have tried to assign something to it, where I’ve had to say, “No, no, you’re missing the point. Seeing people who are different from us, seeing differing things, saying different things, believing different things—well, OK, we are different. But for me, singing it, I think God put us here, all different, so we could listen and learn from each other. It’s so much easier said than done. But it’s not one specific issue, group of people or party. It’s really more about the humanity behind it. I know I’ll get politically charged questions, about those two songs in particular. But I hope people can see past that.

Politics isn’t Republican or Democrat, NRA or Greenpeace—it’s really how we live with each other—but that’s not how people choose to view it. Are you nervous about that?
It’s impossible not to be. But if we let misconceptions stop us from writing important things, things that make people think, what’s the point? I’d rather look back on my career and say, “That song made a difference to somebody, made them feel, said some things they needed.” If people relate to it, it meant something. The good-time songs are fun; they’re important, too, because you have to have fun in there. But I can’t let what people might think of me stop me from being honest and truthful with myself, or in my music.

Feels like new label, new role as co-producer, new adult Carrie Underwood. You’re putting your art where your heart and your truth are.
That’s all accurate. Yes. 

The kids are almighty. (8/2a)
Not your father's Columbia (8/2a)
Happier days are here again. (8/2a)
Look at the guns on these giants. (8/2a)
It's high time for Justice in the Academy. (8/2a)
From tender shoots to mighty oaks.
Let's do the numbers.
It is not the name of a Henry Miller novel.
Could be. Dunno.

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