Carrie Underwood on Storyteller and Country Music Girl Power

With seven Grammys, 65 million albums sold and 14 No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, Carrie Underwood is one of the most powerful women in country. Here, she talks about her new album, the industry‘s sexism problem and "normal" life at home with Mike and Isaiah

carrie underwood

Storyteller (19 Recordings/Arista Nashville)

Your new album is called Storyteller and you teased the songs on Instagram as though they were chapters in a book. What overall story did you want to tell with it?
Oh, golly. I’ve always been a sucker for a good story song and that was the common theme that I noticed running through the album—the songs were either very personal or character-driven stories, which I love.

Can you share a bit about creating one of those characters?

We had the music for “Renegade Runaway,” the first song on the album. I was working with Chris Stefano and Hilary Lindsay, and Chris had this really cool twangy sound. It was like a train just took off and I was like, “Where is it going? Who is this about?” It sounds like this strong female renegade-type woman. We started looking at women throughout history that were like from the Wild West days—gun-slinging women that were just gorgeous and strong, like Belle Star who was one of the inspirations behind the song.

What will surprise your fans most about the album?
The tone is a little more traditional country than I’ve ever done, it’s a little more twangy, it’s a little more laidback, especially when you like compare it to Blown Away, which I felt like was dramatic and fierce and strong and darker. This one has some rock elements and it’s just more casual and a littler cooler.

Blown Away was really pop-country. Was it a conscious decision to go more traditional country with Storyteller?
No, no. I’d never be like, well this one I think needs to be 50 percent more this way or that way because it just becomes really forced.

You mentioned that it was a personal album. Can you tell me about creating a song that’s close to your heart?
The last song on the album is called “What I never Knew I Always Wanted.” It’s about the men in my life. I never pictured myself being married, I never pictured myself really with a baby, but now that I have Mike and Isaiah, I didn’t know that I needed them in my life. It’s not like I ever felt like something was missing, but now that I have them, ugh, I don’t know what I’d do without ’em.

What did you picture, if not marriage and baby?
I don’t know! When I told my mom that I was engaged she was excited for me, of course, but she was like, “I don’t know, I guess I never thought you’d get married.” I don’t know what that means, like am I not marriage material? I just never quote unquote like “needed” anybody. I’ve always been good by myself.

I’ve read a lot of think pieces discussing how you and Miranda Lambert are displacing “Bro Country,” which has dominated charts for a long time. Do you notice a shift in the industry towards women having more success right now?

[Inhales deeply]. It’s strange that in our genre, you’ll look at the chart and see two women in the top 30. That means there are 28 guys. Over the past five or 10 years since I’ve been in the business, people would try to pretend there wasn’t a bias. But there have been some things that have happened over the past year that have forced people to acknowledge it. I think the doors are opening and there’s so much talent floating around Nashville—or anywhere; it doesn’t have to be Nashville. There are so many female country singers that have so much potential to be absolute megastars, so it’s not lack of talent, that is for dang sure. They just need the opportunity.

What kinds of things happened in the last year to change the conversation?
The whole tomatoes thing.

What’s the tomatoes thing?
Oh gosh. There was an analyst? I don’t even know what he does, I’m going to get it all wrong because I really didn’t pay that much attention to it, but he was talking about women in country and saying that in the salad of country that certain men are the lettuce and women are the tomatoes. So women were buying shirts that said “Tomato” on them and radio stations started doing “Tomato Tuesday” and playing women all day Tuesday, which is awesome.

Can you tell me about “Somethin‘ Bad,” your collaboration with Miranda Lambert? The video looked like it was fun.
It was. Videos can be awkward. You’re standing there lip-syncing to your song, trying to look cool, but when there’s somebody else there you can laugh about how goofy you’re both being, trying to be cool.

This is your first album since you had your son Isaiah. How does having a baby change your public image?
I have to have some separation between Carrie and Carrie Underwood. I couldn’t be that person at home. That would probably be annoying as all get out because when you’re onstage, there’s just a freedom, you can be somebody that you’re not in real life, you can sing this super-sassy song, even if that’s not really your personality. But at home, we’re the most normal family. I’m at the grocery store every other day, we make dinner. I’m a wife, I’m a mom, I’m a daughter, I’m a friend and then I just have this cool job that puts me in front of lots of people.

What surprised you most about motherhood in the last few months?
I expected myself to be super-stressed out and, like “Don’t do that, don’t touch that, no no no!” But I feel like Mike and I have both been a lot more laidback than I thought we would be.

It’s hockey season in Canada, and we’re all excited about that, but for you it must mean that your husband’s away. Plus, you’re ramping up to promote the new album. How do you guys deal with the distance?
We’ve always been fine with it. It’s not like one of us suddenly became a pro hockey player or a country music singer. We’ve always been like that, so the first six months of our marriage, he lived in Ottawa and I lived in Nashville and that was fine. But now it’s a little bit different with a son, making sure that they get to see each other enough. It’s like, OK, here’s your hockey schedule, you’re going to be home that week, I should probably try to like route something that direction so we can see you for a couple days.

carrie underwood

(Photo courtesy of Sony)

You recently launched your own athletic line called Calia. What makes it different from a lot of the athleisure stuff that’s out there right now?
I feel like there was a big gap between functional and pretty. Things were either one or the other, you know? I wanted to create things that worked for whatever you had to do and make you feel good. We asked lots of women of all body types and ages to tell us what would make them feel better about themselves while wearing our stuff.

How would you describe the aesthetic of the collection?

It’s fun. We have a lot of pieces that are full-on print and brightly coloured. They’re feminine and pretty and everything lies in the details—a little lace at the top, or printed side panels. Our shirts are a bit longer and the panels [on the pants] come up higher so they stay in place and keep your muffin from topping over it as we all do.

Last question: American Idol is ending this year. Are you going to watch it?
Definitely. I mean 15 seasons. It’s bittersweet, right?

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