A excerpt of the Faith Hill cover story that appears in the July 23, 2005, issue of Billboard magazine that has been expanded for Billboard.com with artist quotes exclusive to this version.

With the leadoff track from her upcoming album, "Fireflies," Faith Hill has returned solidly to the country format where her career started and continued even after she became a crossover star, beauty magazine cover girl and Hollywood actress.

That track, the biographical "Mississippi Girl," is in the top 5 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart just 10 weeks after its release. If it reaches the summit, as it is expected to do, it will be Hill's ninth No. 1 country hit. She has also had eight top 10 hits at adult contemporary radio.

"Fireflies" is Hill's sixth album. Each of her previous projects -- all recorded for Warner Bros. -- has a multi-platinum certification from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), so expectations are equally high here. Her last two albums each debuted at No. 1 on The Billboard 200.

The 14-track "Fireflies" was produced by Hill, Byron Gallimore and Dann Huff and recorded intermittently over a two-year span in 2003 and 2004.

Like Hill's last few albums, "Fireflies," contains a mix of musical styles. But it is arguably the strongest collection of songs she's ever put together. Country radio programmers who complained that there was nothing they could play on her last album, 2002's pop-flavored "Cry," will discover a wealth of potential singles for their format on this project. And fans who know Hill from her pop crossover hits are likely to find something to like on this record as well.

Hill is proud of the finished project and says, "I really cannot wait for people to hear this record."

STALKED BY JOHN RICH

Big & Rich's John Rich, one of Nashville's hottest songwriters of the moment, contributed "Mississippi Girl" and two other songs to the album, including likely next single, "Like We Never Loved At All." The latter includes guest vocals from Hill's husband and fellow country star, Tim McGraw.

On tour with McGraw last summer, Rich says he followed Hill around asking her questions until he had enough material to write "Mississippi Girl," which even includes a verse about Hill's first small acting role in the film "The Stepford Wives."

Hill agrees with Rich's version of events, noting with a laugh, "It kind of sounds like a stalking doesn't it?"

But it paid off for Rich, who wrote the song with Big & Rich guitarist Adam Shoenfeld.

"To be able to write a song that gives somebody like Faith Hill an entrance back into where she wanted to [be] -- good Lord," Rich says. "I'm very proud that me and Adam were able to write a song that really gave her a silver bullet back at the target for what she was wanting to get back to with her music. I'm in awe of her talent... And to be able to write something that redirected her a little bit, man, what an awesome thing"

Hill says "Mississippi Girl" expresses just who she is, a "very simple, approachable, nice, good person who just happens to have a big career.

"My career in the last four or five years has been amazing," she continues. "I've had an incredible climb and done things that even I could never dream that I would ever do, but I have remained the same person."

LOST IN THE PROCESS

Once the recording process drew to a close, Hill was startled to realize "Fireflies" had been two years in the making.

"I was just kind of lost in the whole process and I didn't realize that we had been working on this album for that long," she says. "Towards the last six months it all started to fall in place."

Hill says the strength of her albums comes largely from the songs she chooses to cut since she is not a songwriter herself.

"I rely completely on the songs that are brought to me in order to make an album," she says. "It just took this long to figure out what it was I wanted [those songs] to say."

In addition to Rich, "Fireflies" contains songs from many of Nashville's A-list writers including Rivers Rutherford, Darrell Scott, Craig Wiseman and Troy Verges. But Hill's secret weapon on this album is the discovery of Massachusetts-based singer-songwriter Lori McKenna. Until now a largely unknown talent, McKenna is about to become a hot commodity thanks to Hill's inclusion of three of her songs on "Fireflies," including the title track.

It was the discovery of McKenna's songs Hill says, that put the whole album on track. In fact, Hill had once previously declared the album finished. But when she found McKenna's work via publisher Melanie Howard and A&R scout Missi Gallimore, Hill called her co-producers and told them "We're going back in [the studio]."

"I think they all wanted to strangle me at that moment," she admits. "But it was well worth it."

McKenna writes from the perspective of a woman old enough to have seen enough of life to have been both disillusioned and inspired by it.

The first song of McKenna's that Hill heard, "If You Ask," is one of the three she ultimately recorded. "I just fell in love with her writing and said, 'This is the missing part to this puzzle.' And from there the rest of the album was created."

Hill's manager, Gary Borman of Borman Entertainment, says McKenna's songs "Helped Faith to express a side of her that she's not been able to express before."

"I really felt like I could interpret these songs. I feel like I wrote them," says Hill. "It's hard to make that connection sometimes. That's why, as an artist, I have to be really patient and be strong in what it is I want to do. Sometimes I really don't know [what that is]. I just have to experiment with a lot of stuff and figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it."

Hill says her co-producers, Gallimore and Huff, "have the patience and even the gumption to take the time to go in the studio and just experiment... They're unafraid to try something."

HILL'S TOUGHEST CRITIC

In the lengthy process of making this album, Borman says, Hill "really did push herself. She's her toughest critic. As a person who stands for so many things, which she does... she wanted a record that stood for many things [too]."

Hill recorded more than double the 14 songs that ultimately made the album. But she says all the songs she chose for the final cut are "me in some kind of way." Among the cuts scuttled at the last minute was Hill's remake of the Jessi Colter song "I'm Not Lisa."

Hill agrees that she's hard on herself professionally, but says, "I hope it works to my advantage. Sometimes there's a point where you just need to let things go and I don't unless I really believe it's where I think it needs to be.

"I have to be able to sleep at night and feel like I've done the absolute best I can do and I've given everything I could possibly give," she continues. "If I go to bed at night and there's something that's in my stomach that's just not allowing me to rest, I know I've got to listen to that. Sometimes no one else understands it, even people who are closest to me, but there's a reason it's there and I just have to listen to it. I've only learned that with age."

Hill will be highly visible through the end of the year making TV appearances to promote the album including guest stints on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" (Aug. 2) and "Today" (Aug. 5). As previously reported, they will be followed by a prime time NBC special set to air Nov. 23, the night before the U.S. Thanksgiving Day holiday.

She also got some pre-release exposure via the Live 8 show in Rome July 2, where she and McGraw were among the performers.

Asked why she felt it was important to participate in Live 8, Hill says, "When you see the need for help in Africa it's just devastating. It's hard to not want to be part of something that hopefully is going to bring about an immediate change for them.

"We cannot even imagine what these people face on a daily basis," she continues. "It's just incomprehensible for us unless you're there in it, living it. The amount of sickness, the devastation of AIDS in that [continent] is just beyond imagination.

"It's important that there's a change made quickly in so many areas in Africa," she adds "Hopefully Live 8 will be just one of the many ways of making that an actual dream come true."





Excerpted and expanded from the July 23, 2005, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.

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