Meet The Nashville Songwriter Behind Lady Gaga's Country Sound | Nashville Public Radio

Meet The Nashville Songwriter Behind Lady Gaga's Country Sound

Nov 29, 2016
Originally published on November 29, 2016 8:02 am

You might expect one of Nashville's leading hit-writers to advertise her status with a flashy home. Not Hillary Lindsey. She lives in a quaint bungalow on a quiet street. A concrete walkway leads past the house to a small studio of sorts out back. The cozy space is shared by a rack of guitars, a piano and, more unexpectedly, a queen-size bed and bassinet. Lindsey says it was originally a writing studio — until she had a baby. Now it's where her parents or her fiancé's parents sleep when they visit, but Lindsey says she still writes in there sometimes. "And sometimes I sit on the bed when I write, which is funny," she says.

Lindsey hasn't lost her soft Georgia drawl. She grew up in the small town of Washington, Ga., covering country and pop hits with a karaoke machine and dreaming up melodies on the family piano. "At that point I assumed that all of those artists wrote their own songs," Lindsey says. "So when I moved to Nashville, that was my assumption and I was wanting to be an artist and also write my own songs."

But she discovered that a lot of the work is done by a professional songwriting community, and she started carving out a spot in it. Then American Idol winner Carrie Underwood launched a country career with one of Lindsey's songs, "Jesus Take The Wheel."

Underwood has been coming to Lindsey for material ever since, and so have a lot of other country acts. Lindsey relishes the challenge of transcending her own perspective. "It's amazing when you can tap into your own thing, to your own personal life," Lindsey says. "But when you write every day, I mean, what in the world are you gonna say? Right now I would be writing about dirty diapers. Nobody wants to hear about that."

Several years ago, Lindsey's friendships with a couple of other songwriters, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, grew into a partnership. They call themselves the Love Junkies. For these collaborators, a lot of song ideas arise organically from conversation. "We end up just talking as friends, as girlfriends and mothers and wives and daughters and sisters and all the things that we are in our lives," McKenna says. "Then something will come up and we'll be like, 'That's a song!'"

The three women get together once a month for a songwriting sleepover. McKenna makes the trip from Massachusetts, and Rose hosts the gatherings at her Nashville home. These epic writing sessions have produced songs for Little Big Town, whose smash "Girl Crush" is a good example of the bruised emotional territory the Love Junkies like to explore.

Rose says it takes a lot for the group to reschedule, but some circumstances do call for flexibility. "When Lady Gaga calls Hillary, we kinda go, 'OK, we'll hold off on that one. We'll move that week,'" she says.

That's right: Lindsey co-wrote two of the songs on Gaga's latest album, Joanne. While she's used to brainstorming with Underwood, country's quintessential girl next door, Lindsey wondered whether Gaga might be looking for something more out-there. Lindsey agreed to the collaboration, but she says she had some worries at first. "I didn't know if I was going to be able to give her what she wanted or what she needed," she says. "I had no idea how it would play out."

It turned out that Gaga was a big "Jesus Take The Wheel" fan, and she opened up to Lindsey as easily as any other co-writer. The biggest difference was that Gaga captured her lyrics on a vintage typewriter. "It makes it hard ... she can't email me anything," Lindsey says, laughing. "But it's still so cool."

You can hear Lindsey's voice on Joanne, too, singing harmonies on the song "Million Reasons." She and Gaga dueted on Saturday Night Live, an experience Lindsey describes as "unbelievable." At sound check for SNL, Lindsey saw a mic stand next to Gaga's piano. "I looked at one of the crew guys and I said, 'So is she getting up in the middle of the song or something and moving over to stand to sing?' And he said, 'No, honey. That's for you.'"

Artists often ask Lindsey to harmonize on songs she's written. But when they take her tunes on tour, she stays close to home with her infant daughter and her fiancé, Cary Barlowe, a successful songsmith in his own right. She says he keeps a constant eye on the charts and social media, while she does her best to block all of that out. "It makes me feel like I'm not cool and I don't write good songs and I have no friends," she says, laughing. "So I don't like looking at it."

Even if Lindsey doesn't tweet about what she's up to, she's got no shortage of followers: They practically line up at her door for songs.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Lady Gaga performed a new song, "Million Reasons," on "Saturday Night Live" last month. This is the story of a guitar-playing background singer who was also on stage. Hillary Lindsey was the co-writer of the song. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN has this profile.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: You might expect one of Nashville's leading hit-writers to advertise her status with a flashy home - not Hillary Lindsey. She lives in a quaint bungalow on a quiet street. A concrete walkway leads past the house to a small studio of sorts out back.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

HILLARY LINDSEY: Hey.

HIGHT: I was hoping I had the right place.

LINDSEY: Yep, this is it.

HIGHT: The cozy space is shared by a rack of guitars, a piano, a queen-sized bed and a bassinet.

LINDSEY: This was our writing studio, and then I had a baby. And so this became, like, where my parents sleep and where my fiance's parents sleep. And sometimes we still write, and sometimes I sit on the bed when I write, which is funny (laughter).

HIGHT: Lindsey hasn't lost her soft Georgia drawl. She grew up in the small town of Washington, covering country and pop hits with a karaoke machine and dreaming up melodies on the family piano.

LINDSEY: At that point, I'd assumed that all of those artists wrote their own songs. So when I moved to Nashville, that was my assumption, and I was wanting to be an artist and also write my own songs.

HIGHT: But she discovered that a lot of the work is done by a professional songwriting community, and she started carving out a spot in it.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARRIE UNDERWOOD SONG, "JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL")

HIGHT: Then a certain American Idol winner launched a country career with one of Lindsey's songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL")

CARRIE UNDERWOOD: (Singing) She was driving last Friday on her way to Cincinnati on a snow-white Christmas Eve, going home to see her mama and her daddy with the baby in the back seat. Fifty miles to go, and she was running low on faith and gasoline. It's been a long, hard year.

HIGHT: Carrie Underwood has been coming to Lindsey for material ever since.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL")

UNDERWOOD: (Singing) Jesus, take the wheel.

HIGHT: So have a lot of other country acts. And Lindsey relishes the challenge of transcending her own perspective.

LINDSEY: For me, as a writer - and I would venture to say most writers - it's amazing when you can tap into your own thing, to your own personal life. But when you write every day, I mean, what in the world are you going to say? Like, right now, I would be writing about dirty diapers. Like, nobody wants to hear about that, you know?

HIGHT: Several years ago, Lindsey's friendships with a couple of other songwriters grew into a partnership. They call themselves the Love Junkies, and Lori McKenna is one of them.

LORI MCKENNA: We end up just talking as friends, as girlfriends and mothers and wives and, you know, daughters and sisters and all the things that we are in our lives, and then something will come up and be like, that's a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL CRUSH")

LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) I got a girl crush. Hate to admit it, but I got a heart rush, ain't slowing down. I got it real bad, want everything she has - that smile and that midnight laugh.

HIGHT: The Little Big Town smash "Girl Crush" is a good example of the bruised emotional territory the Love Junkies like to explore. Once a month, McKenna makes the trip from Massachusetts, and the trio's third member, Liz Rose, hosts their songwriting sleepovers at her Nashville home.

LIZ ROSE: Very few things will come in between us. But, you know, when Lady Gaga calls Hillary (laughter), we kind of go, OK, well, we'll hold off on that one. We'll move that week.

HIGHT: These epic writing sessions have produced songs for Little Big Town and one on Carrie Underwood's latest album. Lindsey is used to brainstorming with Underwood, country's quintessential girl next door, but she wondered whether Lady Gaga might be looking for something more out there.

LINDSEY: So of course I said yes, but I honestly was scared because I didn't know if I was going to be able to give her what she wanted or what she needed. And I had no idea how it would play out.

HIGHT: It turned out that Gaga was a big "Jesus Take The Wheel" fan. She opened up to Lindsey as easily as any other co-writer. The biggest difference was that Gaga captured her lyrics on a vintage typewriter.

LINDSEY: It makes it hard. Like, she can't email me anything or whatever. It's like (laughter) - but it's still so cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MILLION REASONS")

LADY GAGA: (Singing) You're giving me a million reasons to let you go. You're giving me a million reasons to quit the show. You're giving me a million reasons, give me a million reasons, giving me a million reasons, about a million reasons. If I had a highway, I would run for the hills. If you could find a dry way, I'd forever be still. But you're giving me a million reasons, give me a million reasons.

HIGHT: That's Lindsey's voice gliding above Gaga's on the pop star's new album. They've also dueted on live television.

LINDSEY: SNL was unbelievable. I mean, when - we were there for sound check, and her piano was center stage, and there was a mic stand next to her piano. And I looked at one of the crew guys at SNL and said, so is she getting up in the middle of a song or something and moving over to stand to sing? And he said, no, honey, that's for you.

HIGHT: Artists often ask Lindsey to harmonize on songs she's written. But when they take her tunes on tour, she stays close to home with her infant daughter and her fiance, Cary Barlowe, a successful songsmith in his own right. He keeps a constant eye on the charts and social media while she does her best to block all of that out.

LINDSEY: It makes me feel like I'm not cool and I don't write good songs and I have no friends (laughter), so I don't like looking at it.

HIGHT: Even if Hillary Lindsey doesn't tweet about what she's up to, she's got no shortage of followers. They practically line up at her door for songs. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.