Interview: Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott on ‘Bartender’ and the Power of Positive Songwriting
By Kurt Wolff
You’ll hear every country artist say it: their fans are their most important asset. They drive the enthusiasm for an artist’s music, and then back that up with album and concert-ticket sales. So when an artist feels their fans are showing interest in new directions their music may be heading, they pay attention.
For Lady Antebellum, that fan enthusiasm is now leading them in new musical directions. Two recent singles of theirs in particular, “Downtown” and “Compass,” showed the band shifting away from the mid-tempo ballads (“Need You Now,” “Dancin’ Away with My Heart”) on which they’d built their career and testing the waters with more upbeat material. And according to Lady A vocalist Hillary Scott, fan response for that shift has been overwhelmingly positive.
“When we released Compass,’ it was embraced so well,” Scott told Radio.com during a phone conversation last week. “We could tell our fans were just wanting uptempo from us [and] not wanting another mid-tempo [song] or ballad. They wanted to see a different side of us.”
The result of that is a shift toward higher-energy songs in their shows—and on record. The trio (Scott, Charles Kelley, Dave Haywood) is putting the finishing touches on a new album that is brimming with songs that have tempo and, as Scott describes it, a “fun” spirit. They’re also working with a new producer, Nathan Chapman, who’s best known for his work with Taylor Swift.
“Nathan saw things in the three of us as a band that we hadn’t seen,” Scott said. “And [he] gave us the confidence and permission to explore that, to be fun.”
“Fun” is a word that comes up frequently in our conversation. It represents the bandmembers’ ultimate goal of musical longevity. “If we’re trying to be a successful touring act for years to come,” Scott explained, “we need to have these high-energy moments throughout our show.”
One of the last songs that Lady A wrote for their upcoming album is “Bartender” and as soon as they finished it, they knew it would make a great lead single for the new project. “Sometimes whenever you take a little bit of the pressure off is when you have a surprise show up,” Scott said.
The bandmates wrote “Bartender” with veteran Nashville songwriter Rodney Clawson. “He’s been a part of so many songs,” Scott said, among them Luke Bryan’s “Crash My Party,” Tim McGraw’s “Southern Girl” and Jason Aldean’s “Amarillo Sky” and “Take a Little Ride.”
Lyrically, “Bartender” is about drinking in the wake of a romantic split — familiar territory for Lady A, yet the song’s attitude and spirit are vastly different than the group’s best-known breakup song, “Need You Now.” In “Bartender,” the female protagonist is “not going to drown in her tears,” Scott said enthusiastically. “She’s going to go have fun with her friends, experience life, and make a new memory. And I love that.”
Radio.com: Tell us the story behind “Bartender.” The three of you wrote that song with Rodney Clawson?
Hillary Scott: It was the first time he’d come out on the road to write with us. And it was really one of the last songs we wrote for this [new] record that we’ve been writing for and recording over the past few months.
Dave [Haywood] had started the guitar track, and then we started writing the lyrics. And as a woman…what I’m most proud of about this song from the lyrical standpoint is, this girl is heartbroken and she knows she needs to figure out how to heal her heart and move on. But she’s not going to drown in her tears. She’s still going to go have fun with her friends, and experience life, and make a new memory, trying to move on from her relationship. And I love that. You’re taking your heartbreak by the horns and just saying, ‘You know what, it was a part of my life, but let’s move on.’
The song almost feels like the flip side to “Need You Now.”
Yeah! “Need You Now” was totally about that desperation, that ‘I don’t know if I can breathe another moment without you. Whether it’s wrong or right, I need you now.’ And this is much more like, ‘Let’s go have a girls night. It’s beyond repair, let’s just go have a great night.’
You and Charles Kelley have expressed different points of view on “Bartender.” He’s spoken of its darker side, while you emphasize the empowerment angle.
You can kind of interpret it however you so choose. For some people it’s going to be an excuse to go get drunk. [laughs] For others it’s going to be, ‘You know what, let’s just go dance.’ I remember so many times throughout my life, if you were dating someone and got your heart broken, you would call all your girlfriends, they would come over and you would go dance and just forget, even for a couple of hours.
That’s the cool thing about the song, and about music. We’ve had people come up to us over the years since releasing “Need You Now” and say, ‘This song, it meant so much to me and my significant other, we were in a long-distance relationship and it just explained how much I needed them now.’ And we’re like, ‘Well, it’s really about a breakup, but if it works for you and speaks to you in that way, then great!’ It’s just interesting how people make a song their own.
When did you decide it was time to start working on a new album?
It really happened naturally. When we released “Compass” it was embraced so well, and we could tell our fans—and I believe country radio—were just wanting uptempo from us, and wanting energy. Not wanting another mid-tempo [song] or ballad. They wanted to see a different side of us.
And at the same time we were getting [that reaction] from radio and from fans, we were finding that out on our own as well. Like, ‘This is so much more fun.’ If we’re trying to be a successful touring act for years to come we need to have these high-energy moments throughout our show…and coming out of the radio. So we quickly realized that and thought, ‘Let’s just start writing.’
Up until a few months ago we weren’t sure if we were going to do another single off Golden. We’re still so unbelievably proud of that record. But as it got closer to time when we would release our next single, it just made more sense [to release a new song]. We were far enough along in the process of making our new record that we were ready for something fresh. And then when “Bartender” happened, we were like, ‘OK, let’s have some fun.’
How was the album-making process different for you this time around?
We just went in with a conscious effort. It was the first time I think we held our hands to the fire, making sure we didn’t revert back to being a band that has a difficult time writing and finding uptempo songs [to accompany] the mid-tempos and ballads that we love. We were determined to write and find songs of tempo that we flipped out over. And that’s hard! Good, fun uptempos are the hardest to write and to find. For whatever reason, all of us fragile and sensitive musicians can write a ballad or mid-tempo all day long. But uptempo is just hard! At least it is for us.
You’re sensitive souls.
Well, we are! [laughs] We’re very sensitive souls. But yeah, we went in and were like, ‘We are determined to write uptempo, and to find it.’ And between the three of us, we got pitched well over 1,000 songs.
Over 1,000 songs! How do you manage that?
Extra Gmail storage! But we listened to everything, between the three of us. It just became our mission.
You changed producers as well for this new album?
With our old producer Paul Worley’s blessing we moved on to Nathan Chapman, to have a different perspective from a production standpoint as well. And the cool thing about it was, as bittersweet as it was to step away from Paul, he introduced us to Nathan. So it was a great kind of progression. But with new eyes and ears, and a fresh perspective, Nathan saw things in the three of us as a band that we hadn’t seen. And gave us the confidence and permission to explore that.
It may have even been subconscious, but when the majority of your success is in these midtempo-to-ballad dramatic moments on stage—and they’re extremely powerful—you end up going back there, without even knowing you’re necessarily doing it. So with Nathan, coupled with the three of us sitting down and going, ‘We’re going to make a fun record,’ it was just the right recipe. We’re still tying up some loose ends, but the majority of it is done.
I’m so excited. I mean, this is a fun record. And there’s songs on there with depth, that say some things. But for the most part, this is [an album to] ‘put on when [you want to] throw a party and just hang and have fun.’
You’ve said ‘fun’ a lot, so that’s obviously an operative word for this record?
I need to widen my vocabulary. [laughs] In my life, I’ve never had more fun being a mom and watching our daughter change and grow every day. When you have a child, all of the things around you that are happening in the world, the weight what goes on, you want to find release. It can bring you down, the reality of our everyday life. [Music] is a way, not to totally escape from it, but to step away and not let it get you down for a little while. That’s what we want our shows to be for people. That’s what they are for us. That’s what we want our record to be.
Did the positive response you got to “Downtown” help wake you up to this new direction?
Yes. Between “Downtown” and then “Compass,” that was the one-two punch of like, ‘OK, this is a side of y’all that you need to explore a lot more.’
During live shows, does having uptempo material then help the slower songs stand out?
It does exactly that. It sets up the ballad moments to really be impactful. And the fans seem to really be responding to it.
Do you feel country as a whole is trending positive these days? Is there still a place for sad songs?
Oh yes, no doubt. Everything is so cyclical. There are lot of songs doing great right now that are all about having fun and letting loose. But I think also there will always be a place for sad songs that, when you’re going through a really hard time, will be able to express how you feel better than you can.
Will we see the new record sometime this year?
I’m hoping so!