Danika Portz, 2014.

Danika Portz

Sarah Barlow

Danika Portz's debut single "Greatest Show On Earth" definitely qualifies as one of the most unique country singles this summer.

The dramatic, haunting melody is underscored by the fact that the Iowa native simply sounds like nobody else in Nashville these days, especially on a vocal level. The lyrics of the song compare a disastrous love affair to life in the circus, which Portz says she realizes is slightly outside the lines for country.

"It's a little flowery, which scares some people off," she tells Billboard. "I wrote it with Chris Drizen, who is a great writer. We started with a melody, which sounds circus-y. It was very dark. I always loved going to the circus, and I loved that imagery idea. Because of the melody, it felt very angst-y, like someone had been wronged. It was easy to take it in that direction, and there are so many images that come along with that theme."

Portz is glad she took time to develop her skills as a writer once she moved to Music City in the spring of 2011. "The first thing you want to do when you get here is make a record. I had never written a song before I moved here, so I dove right in. By the grace of God alone, I fell in love with some amazing writers, like Steve Mitchell, who also co-produced the album. He's been fabulous, and I learned so much from him.

"Three-and-a-half years ago, the songs I was writing were good, but they weren't this. I'm glad I had the foresight to hang on and build a catalog of great songs that I could pick from."

Her just-released EP, Set This World On Fire, showcases her diverse group of influences, ranging from icons like Dolly Parton and John Denver to more modern voices.

"My generation, our attention span is so short, and we get bored so easily -- myself included. That's where my music comes from: Katy Perry melodies with Mumford & Sons rhythm. It's grabbing from those, making something that is unique and different and represents just me."

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The singer grew up in Remsen, Iowa -- a town of 1,500 -- so aside from singing in the choir at church, there weren't a lot of musical opportunities for her. "In second grade, I did my first competition. It was a jingle for Hy-Vee, a grocery store chain back home. I made it to the finals, so that was my first taste of competitiveness mixed with music. My mom lined up my first 'tour' -- which was to the local nursing homes with my cousin.

"We sang karaoke to Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. We put on a show, and I was in charge. I couldn't have been second or third grade, but I was calling the shots. Even from a young age, I was already in it," she recalls with a laugh. Later on, it was her stirring performance of the National Anthem that led to people outside of nursing homes to notice her talent.

One track that might very well break Portz's career wide-open is the heartfelt ballad "And He's Waiting." A song about heartbreak, the songstress says it's indeed personal. "That song is based on a true story. I've noticed in my writing that the more personal and specific that I get, the more universal that people are able to connect with it."

As a writer, Portz admits that she always has her radar on -- whether it's her life or conversations she might overhear at the airport, mall, or grocery store. "I have a whole list of notes on my iPhone. You would be surprised at what they can turn into. They can light a spark that leads the discussion to something else. I'm always listening."