Tenille Townes: Putting down the mask

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Tenille Townes

Tenille Townes has been one of my favourite artists since she first burst onto the scene with her first major label release, ‘Somebody’s Daughter’ in 2018. In the October of that year, she came over for Country Music Week and toured the country as part of CMA Songwriters Series where she instantly won the hearts of both myself and my Gran! That’s the power of music, but in particular, Tenille Townes’ music – her conscientious lyricism speaks across the generations and across cultures. Here in the UK, Townes has built a loyal following which all came to the forefront at her performance at Country 2 Country.  

“London has always been magical,” she beams, “I know it’s going to be something special and C2C did not disappoint. I could not get over the amount of love that I felt in the room and I had been telling my band just wait until we get to London and we had the best time with you guys. Honestly, it’s one of my favourite shows I’ve ever played.” Townes performed both an acoustic songwriter set during the day with friends and fellow artists, Caitlyn Smith and Alex Hall before doing a full band set in the main arena on the Saturday night.  

Her music suits both settings; acoustically, in an intimate setting, her stories can tug on the heart strings. “I really do feel like two different people sometimes,” she comments, “I feel like this introverted reflective storyteller person who loves to just read and sit in the quiet and collect my thoughts. I think that side of me in an acoustic setting goes hand in hand. What’s really special about the UK and you guys is that you’re there for all of it. There’s not a lot of audiences who will meet you in that more intimate environment and meet the energy of that in a really beautiful way.” Meanwhile, the energy her full band brings, acts as a rocket launcher for her voice to soar. “Something just happens when I get up there with a band, I can’t even explain it. It’s like the voices in my head all just go silent and it’s one of the quietest times for my mind. I get to feel more fierce, that more confident version of myself. I think that the bridge between those two different sides of me are very much the songs, the music, it’s like this way that I can kind of travel between them.” 

Watching the Canadian songstress take that leap onto the O2 Arena stage left me breathless as her songs came to life and she captivated a new and larger audience. However, it wasn’t an easy road to the top for Townes and even on the day, though you wouldn’t know it, things didn’t go smoothly. “There were so many factors on the day that added to this crazy feeling of it – the trucks with all of the gear, had trouble getting over the ferry. So we didn’t have a soundcheck or any of our normal setup during the day. And we were like, no big deal, we’re just in the O2 arena, this is casually going to be fine.” 

Townes, surrounded by a supportive band and crew didn’t feel flustered and fed off that adrenaline, “All of a sudden we huddled with the band and we were going to do this. It was so special, I loved that night so much. I think it adds to the adrenaline in a really great way because when things are comfortable, you can sit back a little bit more but that whole day, everybody leaned in on their toes to what’s about to happen. Treating it like an adventure has been helpful to me. Being around great people that I trust and that have each other’s back – that helps too.” She pulled off an incredible, high energy performance, those unique vocals never faltered.  

 

With singles dropping either side of the festival, Townes geared up to release her latest EP ‘Masquerades’ just a few weeks after returning from the UK. Her most personal collection of songs to date, had Townes filled with nerves. “My favourite place to write from is the observer, storyteller, like in Jersey On The Walland Somebody’s Daughter, where I’m just the one driving by, thats my favourite place to tell a story from but I could not help the way the songs were coming out more personal in this writing process of the past couple of years. I trust the music. It seems really scary and crazy, but you have to trust it,” she insists as she begins to reflect on the stories behind this new collection of songs. “To me songwriting is a spiritual experience, it’s very much like a vessel where you’re just carrying whatever creativity is coming through you.” 

The process of writing ‘Masquerades’ took the young Canadian by surprise as she found herself observing the outside world less and searching deeper within. She found herself saying, “Music, you really want to go there?” As it forced her to put down her mask and allowed vulnerable lyrics to flow. “Sometimes the song finds you out of nowhere, youre sitting and having a conversation with your friend or co-writer and you start talking about something and you watch the light light up in someones eyes and you think oh theres something were supposed to say about this today. Youve got to chase that instinct, just really listen to the song youre supposed to write that day.” 

A whole cast of creatives helped her to craft this EP from Alex Hope to Steph Jones, from Daniel Tashian to Lori McKenna, the latter of which has been an inspiration to Townes for a while. They penned ‘Same Road Home’ together. “I’m such a huge Lori McKenna fan, I obsess over her records and have stood in line to see her at the Bluebird. I love the way she plays on the perspective she comes from. Nashville is such an incredible community of creative souls, people who love waking up everyday and writing songs.” 

However, with the pandemic, it wasn’t just Nashville she called upon as zoom helped to open up new possibilities of the way we all could work and her collaborators didn’t just help with penning the songs either. “This is an entire tapestry of creatives that were a part of this process. I really do think I learned a lot about the resilience of music in the creation of the songs and how the song will still find a way whether it’s through a computer screen or somebody FaceTiming me and teaching me how to use this vocal mic to be able to record things in my house.”  

As others in the industry struggled to adapt to co-writes over zoom, Townes embraced it. “My good friend Wrabel is actually the first person that I got set up with to write over zoom at the beginning of the shutdown in the pandemic, and the song When You Need Itis the very first song we’d ever written together,” she grins. “We were sitting there just talking about this strange time and how grateful we were for the people in our lives that we could really just call and say, I’m not doing okay, and how that became more accepted in this past couple of years.” Wrabel joins Townes on the song for a duet between the pair. “The song marks the beginning of our friendship, and we very much became those people who are calling and just checking in. We both got dogs around the same time and we’ve probably written over 20 songs together at this point.” 

The duet with Wrabel isn’t the only collaboration on the record as Townes teams up with another artist who performed at C2C – Breland. The pair blend so well together on the song ‘Shared Walls’. “I had written the song about the neighbours that I had in my apartment and thinking about neighbours around the entire world. It was such a dark time but in a lot of ways, I think it’s good to look for the silver linings – seeing videos of people singing in the streets, out their apartment windows in Italy made me feel like we’re all kind of going through the same hard thing at the same time together.” Finding the perfect person to perform it with wasn’t hard for Townes. “I thought how cool would it be to have the song be like a neighbour duet. I admire Breland’s music, he just has this joyful spirit about him that is so beautiful. I think his perspective is so important in country music and in music in general – I’m blown away by his versatility. So I just reached out to him.” 

As Townes’ songwriting evolved and she set aside her mask, I was keen to find out if she found wearing her heart on her sleeve more rewarding. She laughs, “I’ll let you know!” The singles she has already released prior to this interview have been well received by fans already. “I think so, I feel like we give ourselves permission, to each other. If I see you putting your mask down, or being vulnerable and sharing a side of you, then it’s like, I feel safe to do the same thing.” One such song that fans have already come to know and love is ‘Villain In Me,’ a song which is perhaps the pinnacle of the whole project and where the EP title comes from. “That song is definitely the most personal song that I think I’ve written up to this point,” she begins. “As I was writing it, I was like, I can’t believe I’m saying these things because this feels very real and terrifying. I finished writing the song and was like, let’s move on but I felt the song continue to pull at me. So I just sat on the floor and made a video of it, playing it through and posted it. It was incredibly encouraging to me to hear from people saying, this is so real, I feel the same way, I have the same voices in my head. Hearing that gave me the courage to really continue on this whole journey of the songs on this EP that feel more vulnerable in general.”  

The vulnerability Townes displays in the lyrics in this song really speak deeply to her fans and offer some comfort in their own lives, “I really do think we’re our own inner critic, and that darker side of us is something I think we all figure out how to hide well, but it exists in all of us.” 

 

It’s not just Townes’ lyrics that seem to wrap their arms around the world and bring comfort, her whole ethos as an artist and human is to find ways of helping others. This all comes to a peak at her annual Big Hearts For Big Kids fundraiser which she began 12 years ago – long before the accolades and awards began coming her way. “I really do believe that anything in the entire world is possible because of what I’ve witnessed happening through Big Hearts for Big Kids through the years,” she says as she reflects upon the $450,000 raised at the last event at the beginning of April. “We started this event when I was 15, supporting our local youth shelter with a little concert and I’d drive around after school with my mum and invite people to come and get a table or buy a raffle ticket or donate a silent auction item. I was blown away with how many people said yes, all the way back then. Then the night of our first event, the shelter door had to close due to a lack of funding. It was one of those moments where we looked around and we were like, we’re supposed to do this.” The event has come a long way since then, as has Sunrise House and those who benefit from it due to the money Townes has raised. “We’ve raised over $2.4 million in the past 12 years of this event. It’s amazing seeing everybody come together with such generosity and immense support for the youth in our community.” 

Now, Townes plans to take Big Hearts For Big Kids on the road. “That was always a part of our mission,” Townes says as she smiles, thinking about the shows and fundraisers ahead of her. “Music is this unifying, magical thing that brings people together. How can we combine my love for music and community spirit and help others in their local communities. That’s what I love about Big Hearts is that everybody’s wrapping their arms around Sunrise House, which is our youth shelter in our hometown, I would love to be able to do that to other people’s hometowns. So we’re going to start a little Big Hearts mini tour and try it out with a few incredible fans that I’ve met over the years and I’ll bring my guitar and the music and they can invite their friends and bring a cause that’s close to their heart, and we will see what we can do together.” 

 As she releases her next record, she also prepares to hit the road once again with trips to Australia and Europe in the diary later this year. Townes has achieved a lot over the last few years and this latest record is bound to bring more applause to her door but headlining her own shows have brought her the most joy and pride so far. “There’s been so many special moments that really mean a lot to me,” she reflects. “I think these headline shows… it’s really hard to put into words how crazy it is to see people singing these songs and to see them coming together through the music I’ve created. It’s just incredible to me; London was the very first place I ever did that. This past December getting to do our first tour through Canada, that was really special and I cannot wait for the next tour in the UK in October. So my heart is ready to come back and see you guys.” 

‘Masquerades’ came out on April 22nd and Townes shall return to these shores from October 17th. Make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to see these songs come to life in a live setting. 

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