Story by Nick Krewen for Words and Music
TENILLE TOWNES: ANATOMY OF A CAREER BREAKTHROUGH
As the pride of Grande Prairie, Alberta, begins her major-label run as the next Canadian country female superstar success story, the career stats will begin to mount. But there’ll always be one number that will stick out in Tenille Townes’ mind: 140. That’s the number of local townsfolk that chartered a 737 to fly nearly 4,000 km to witness Townes make her Grand Ole Opry debut in Nashville in 2018.
“My family, friends, and community have been such a big part of this adventure from the beginning,” says Townes. “They’ve been so supportive and excited, from back when I was singing the anthem at hockey games in Grande Prairie. They joked and said someday they were going to come to Nashville and see me play the Grand Ole Opry.
“But they weren’t joking. They showed up, and 140 of them came down the escalator at the Nashville Airport. It was the most beautiful and overwhelming hometown hug I could have ever imagined – and getting to step into that circle for the very first time was so very sacred to me. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
Such a gesture says as much about Townes, 25, as it does about her local community. She’s now climbing the charts with “Somebody’s Daughter,” her debut Columbia Nashville single, which boasts more than 500,000 YouTube views at press time. It’s an extraordinary song, inspired by a homeless girl that Townes and her mother saw holding a cardboard sign near an Interstate exit. But the journey to get to this point has been anything but overnight.
Known simply as “Tenille” while she carved out a Canadian career, Townes has been working it for a while, her ambitious initiative resulting in a self-directed, 32-week, cross-Canada, motor-home tour called Play It Forward (to inspire kids to make a difference), that hit hundreds of high schools across most of Canada (sorry, Newfoundland!) and trekked as far North as Nunavut and the Northwest Territories.
At the age of 15, Townes released “Home Now,” produced by Duane Steele, followed by two Fred Mollin-produced albums on Royalty Records – 2011’s Real (earning her a Canadian Country Music Award nomination for Female Artist of the Year) and 2013’s Light. In Grande Prairie – and this is where community again plays a crucial role – Townes established her annual Big Hearts for Big Kids benefit for a hometown homeless youth shelter, Sunrise House. Now entering its 10th year, Big Hearts has generated more than $1.5 million for the cause.
With Light and a 45-hour drive in her rear-view mirror, Townes re-located to Nashville in 2014. On her arrival, one of the first neighbors she met was fellow Canadian David Kalmusky, who co-owns Addiction Sound Studios with Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain. After Townes spent her initial days becoming acclimatized to Nashville, Kalmusky took her under his wing.
“Tenille kept bringing me songs that were making the hair on my arms stand up.” – David Kalmusky
“David became like a big brother to me and invited me to hang at the studio,” says Townes. “I was just writing and exploring, having the time and space to just really dig into what I wanted this music to represent, who I was as a person, and what my voice is really going to feel like. David was very instrumental in the early part of developing that sound.”
As Townes’ artistry evolved over the next four years, Kalmusky was impressed by her patience and tenacity. “I remember people asking her if she felt frustrated because things weren’t happening fast enough for her,” he says. “Because they felt she was ready, and Tenille’s response was, ‘You gotta do the work.’”
And work she did, constantly setting up writer and publisher meetings, guitar pulls and performing whenever and wherever she could.
“I’ve never met a harder, more passionate worker,” says Kalmusky, who’s worked with everyone from Journey and Vince Gill to Justin Bieber and The Road Hammers. “I’ve been working for 32 years, and there isn’t another artist [to whom] I dedicated four years of my life, and demoed 32 songs and 14 masters, or championed. Tenille kept bringing me songs that were making the hair on my arms stand up.”
After five years of dues-paying, satisfaction struck quickly, thanks to the duo’s game plan. “The last five masters we cut together, we sent them out to publishers to really target the Nashville executives,” Kalmusky remembers.
Townes had also found an ally with ASCAP’s Creative Director at the time, Robert Filhart. “I had been meeting with Robert every few months, playing him new songs, and picking his brain about more people I could write with or meet,” says Townes. Filhart reached out to Carla Wallace, co-owner of Big Yellow Dog Music, publishing home to Meghan Trainor, Maren Morris, and Daniel Tashian, among others.
“He sent me a text saying, ‘I have a girl I want you to hear,” says Wallace. “I remember when the music was sent, it only took two lines of one song and I knew she was special. Her phrasing, her delivery, her unique sense of lyric all captured me immediately.” Although Big Yellow Dog was one of the three publishing offers Townes entertained that week, the songwriter liked Wallace’s atmosphere the best. “I felt like they just really got it,” says Townes. “They heard me. She asked me to come back and we started working together right away.”
Simultaneously, David Kalmusky also reached out to Jim Catino, Sony Music Nashville’s Executive Vice-President. “When it came to Sony, I wanted to get him out of the office and avoid the traditional drop-by,” says Kalmusky. “I wanted to bring him into our world, to meet and hear Tenille in a space where she was comfortable, and where we created music. And by the time Jim was sitting on our couch, she already had a major publishing deal with Big Yellow Dog.”
Catino was instantly smitten. “The day I met her was the day I knew I wanted to sign her,” says Catino. “Her songwriting comes from such a unique place, and the songs are identifiable – they match up with her personality. And her identity as a singer as well. Her voice is so unique and different. She’s very prolific, and the depth of her lyrics is incredible. That’s a huge part of our format in the country world – that storytelling, singer-songwriter gist.”
On Friday they met; on Monday she played for the company, and Columbia Records Nashville proffered a deal. “Jim literally called me that weekend and said there was a deal on the table,” says Kalmusky.
Townes says her family has a tradition; whenever there’s good news to share, she buys ice cream in Nashville and her parents buy it in Grande Prairie, and they celebrate long-distance over the phone. “We had a lot of ice cream that week,” she laughs.
With Townes working on her Jay Joyce-produced, as-yet-untitled 12-song album, she snagged an opening acoustic slot on the 2018 Miranda Lambert/Little Big Town tour. Columbia moved quickly, issuing the four-song Living Room Worktapes. “We wanted to have something to share with fans in the marketplace,” says Catino. “We used the Miranda tour as the radio set-up for ‘Somebody’s Daughter.’”
Catino thinks the sky’s the limit for Tenille Townes. “She’s going to be a big superstar,” he says. “I think she can be as big as any female we’ve ever had in the format. She’s got the personality. She’s got the work ethic. She’s got the identity. The songs, the powerful voice, the powerful delivery – she’s got all the tools to be an incredible star.”
While Townes awaits the album’s release, she’s occupying her time opening for Dierks Bentley in North America, and at least one show for her idol Patty Griffin, as well a few dates in Australia… and pinching herself in the process.
“It’s been so much fun,” she says. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little kid, and it’s so surreal to see all these things come to life: ‘Someday it‘ll be so cool to live in Nashville,’ and ‘Someday it’ll be so cool to write songs,’ and ‘Someday it’ll be so cool to get played on the radio.’ It’s been a wild season of these things becoming real life – and I’m so very grateful.”
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“It was a friend and fellow Canadian expat, producer David Kalmusky, who got Townes’ music to someone in the A&R department at Sony Nashville. When she arrived for her second meeting at the label’s headquarters, she was surprised to learn that she’d be auditioning for a room full of executives. “I definitely had to go to the bathroom and collect myself,” she recalled. “And once I did, I was like, ‘You know what? This is just what I get to do today.’ The outcome is not nearly as important to me as the feeling of being there.”