She has one of the most powerful voices in the business, so Carrie Underwood has a unique challenge with ballads: She admits that dialing back and capturing intimacy is difficult. That’s true not only in performances, but even when she’s creating new music.
“I do it to myself,” she confesses. “Even in writing I’m like, ‘Where’s the money note? Where’s the money note? We need something in there.’ But I started realizing I need songs to give myself a break. I have some really difficult songs, and I have way too much pride to drop the key. So if I want to stop killing myself, in the beginning of the tour at least, I need to stop trying to do [so much].”
Enter “Heartbeat,” a ballad that still has a dynamic arc but operates with comparative restraint. Released to radio via Play MPE on Nov. 23, 2015, the morning after she performed it publicly for the first time on ABC’s American Music Awards, the single is a change of pace in multiple ways. It’s relatively quiet, it’s the first Underwood single produced by Zach Crowell (Sam Hunt, Keith Urban), and it’s a love song with a lot of romantic sentiment. The bulk of Underwood’s relationship material has taken a more cynical view of love, such as the vengeful “Two Black Cadillacs,” the cautionary “Good Girl” and the blurry-eyed “Last Name.”
“My brain doesn’t even really think in terms of love songs,” she says. “Most are so fairy tale, unrealistic. Real life is imperfect. I refuse to sing unrealistic love songs.”
But Underwood is also willing to test the limits of her comfort zone. That’s a major tenet of Storyteller, as she expanded her production team with tracks overseen by Crowell and Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town) in addition to her longtime producer Mark Bright (Sara Evans, Swon Brothers).
However, Crowell didn’t get tabbed for that role until he had already established a good working relationship with Underwood in the writing room. Co-writer Ashley Gorley (“All-American Girl,” “Young & Crazy”) got Underwood’s consent to bring Crowell (“Hell of a Night,” “Break Up in a Small Town”) along to a writing appointment, and the three of them hit it off.
Crowell did his homework — “I definitely wanted to go out overprepared as opposed to underprepared, because you kind of get one shot at those things,” he reasons — and he found seven or eight different instrumental tracks that he had previously created on his laptop. One of them was a ProTools session that he had forgotten about from roughly two years before. He freshened it up a bit and played it along with the others for Gorley as they rode to the appointment at Underwood’s cabin in Leiper’s Fork, Tenn.
“I was really wanting to find stuff he played that didn’t sound like her, and so that was one that stood out,” says Gorley. “I didn’t know that was going to be the one that day.”
Actually, it was one of two. They also created a more aggressive song. The slow track, meanwhile, took a little coaxing because it seemed to go down that love-song road that Underwood typically avoids. Gorley had a one-word title, “Heartbeat,” that matched the sound of the kick drum in Crowell’s track. He acknowledged that it wasn’t the most original name for a song, but she liked the R&B undercurrent in the track, and they chased the idea a bit.
Underwood talked in general terms that day about how difficult it is for married couples to find time alone together. She and her husband, Nashville Predators hockey player Mike Fisher, haven’t had a vacation alone together since a five-day break for the NHL’s all-star game two years ago. So they set up the song with real-life circumstances as the couple in “Heartbeat” looks for time away from the party crowd.
“We are always dressing up and going places, but never for ourselves,” she says. “We have this charity event or fundraiser. Obviously those words don’t sing well in a song — ‘I love it when we’re at a fundraiser’ — but for us, that’s our life.”
Gorley suggested rhyming “Heartbeat” with “bare feet,” but Underwood was hesitant. She didn’t want anything that would imply barefoot in bed, and she was ultimately the one who came up with the signature image, “standing on your shoes in my bare feet,” which set up the chorus’ conclusion, “dancing to the rhythm of your heartbeat.” It’s sexy without being sexual.
“That’s not a song that you mind your kid listening to,” says Gorley. “It’s more of an in-love relationship thing where you love to be with this person. It’s not a random, pick-up-a-person-in-a-bar, hookup song at all.”
They did a work tape that day, with Underwood singing the melody in one take and Crowell adding background harmonies. He turned it into a more elaborate demo within 48 hours and heard back through Gorley that Underwood’s team liked it. Months later, Underwood’s manager, The HQ owner/manager Ann Edelblute, engaged Crowell to produce two tracks, including “Heartbeat,” which needed very little work. He booked six hours of studio time for a tracking date and devoted just one of those hours to “Heartbeat,” adding some live musicians to the demo. Underwood sang her final vocal later with little or no direction from Crowell.
“We always joke that somebody’s getting paid too much to produce vocals on Carrie,” says Gorley. “You know, you push ‘record’ like two times and ‘Alright, there it is.’ ”
Everyone thought a male background singer was required, and both Underwood and Crowell had Hunt in mind, though neither wanted to mention it.
“We didn’t want to be like, ‘Hey, Zach, we know you know Sam really well’ — wink, wink, nudge, nudge, ‘Ask him please’ — and put him in a weird position,” says Underwood.
“I didn’t want it to come off like I get a cool gig and immediately try to bring my boys to the show,” notes Crowell.
But he asked if Hunt was open to it, and when Hunt called her “royalty,” Crowell brought the idea into the open. Instead of matching her phrasing verbatim, Crowell got Hunt to shade her a bit, his voice peeking out here and there just enough to make him identifiable in the mix.
“He’s very present in it but not dominating at all, which is kind of the guy’s role in the song,” observes Gorley.
“Heartbeat” was the highest-debuting single on Country Airplay when it entered the chart dated Dec. 12, 2015, at No. 41. It’s now at No. 14 in its eighth week on the list and at No. 12 in its 12th week at Hot Country Songs, where consumer streaming and downloads launched it onto the chart before its official release as a single.
The average person isn’t attending black-tie functions with a hockey player on their arm. But they’re clearly relating to the realism in “Heartbeat.”
“You can substitute a kid’s soccer game,” reasons Underwood. “You can substitute whatever it is in your life that is keeping you from being alone together. I feel like people get it.”