Faux smoke is billowing and Beyonce music is pumping as siblings Kimberly, Reid and Neil Perry, collectively known as the Band Perry, glam it up for the camera inside a Nashville-area photography studio. Despite the fact that it's almost 5 p.m. and their day started hours earlier in Orlando, Fla., at a private concert and won't be done for six or more hours when their bus delivers them to the family home in Greeneville, Tenn., the trio is upbeat.
They're eager to chat about their new album, "Pioneer," which has been 18 months in the making and is due April 2 on Republic Nashville (under the Big Machine Label Group umbrella).
That the Band Perry's new album is called "Pioneer" is not by chance. "We see it as a journey," older sister Kimberly says. "It's us going from point A to point B and every step along the way. That journey led us to a new horizon and a new place."
Not that anything Kimberly, Neil and Reid do is by chance. The siblings are deliberate, dedicated and determined. Neil estimates that every song on "Pioneer" was written and then rewritten four times, until the Perrys were sure it was exactly right (part of a process that had them mentored by famed songwriting perfectionist Rick Rubin, with whom they began work on the album). And the work doesn't stop when the songs are finished. "Literally after every single show, we watch the video of that show like a game tape to see what we can do better," Neil says.
The Band Perry's sel-titled debut album, released in April 2010 and produced by Paul Worley (Lady Antebellum, Martina McBride) and Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), was successful on all counts. It has sold 1.5 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spawned the third-best-selling country digital single of all time, "If I Die Young," which has tallied 4.5 million sold.
The "Ann of Green Gables"-inspired "If I Die Young" was a country and crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs and Adult Contemporary charts. Johnny Chiang, operations manager for country KKBQ Houston, says the Band Perry has the rare ability to straddle listeners young and old. "In other words, they're probably the only act that can currently cross over to pop radio and still sound 'country' for our format," Chiang says. "Most other country acts that cross over to pop really just sound pop."
In all, the album produced two country No. 1s ("If I Die Young," "All Your Life"), a top five ("You Lie") and a top 10 ("Postcard From Paris").
Along with a few headlining shows, there were major tours with the likes of Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Reba McEntire. Awards and nominations, including song and single of the year at the 2011 Country Music Assn. Awards for "If I Die Young," were heaped on the threesome.
The trio's journey--which began in Mobile, Ala., when a 15-year-old Kimberly was joined on the road by then 8-year-old Neil and 10-year-old Reid, then continued to East Tennessee, where the family settled to be closer to Nashville--was finally paying off.
It's well-documented that sophomore albums are difficult to do right for a number of reasons, the least of which is trying to match the success of the freshman effort, but Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta says the siblings were up for the challenge. "They felt and expected the pressure," he says. "They completely delivered."
"They've taken it to another level in a lot of ways," Republic Nashville president Jimmy Harnen says. "They've upped their game in songwriting, they've upped their game in musicality, they've upped it in song selection. You've got your whole life to write your first album and you've got 12 months to write your second one. That's a challenge that can be very daunting."
"Even more than pressure, we felt responsibility to even have the opportunity to record a second album," Kimberly says, "because the fans making the first record such a success was in itself such a gift. The three of us felt the responsibility to dig as deep as we could, and we definitely dug deep."
The trio decided that Rubin--whose varied track record runs from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the Dixie Chicks--would be the right man to produce "Pioneer." At least that's what the Perrys thought they had decided. "To begin the recording process, we took a road trip out to Malibu, Calif.," Reid says, "and during that time we wrote a lot of the music along the way, including at the Grand Canyon. We wrote the song 'Pioneer' in Santa Fe, N.M."
They eventually made it to Malibu and met with Rubin. "Rick helped us refine the songs," Reid says.
"We call him 'the song doctor,'" brother Neil chimes in.
"He was kind of like an editor," Reid continues. "He helped us with rhyming words, for example. We rhymed a lot of words that he doesn't find good enough. He really pushed us in that aspect."
"Words like 'free' and 'easy' don't rhyme," Kimberly adds. "In the South they do, but in Malibu they don't.
"Rick also opened up our minds to the spirit behind music," she says. "He was a teacher in that area. There were times where we walked into the control room that he had tears in his eyes because the music so moved him."
All that said, the trio realized that the sound it had in mind wasn't what Rubin would deliver. "Rick in his current incarnation is such a minimalist--it's what we love about him," Kimberly says. "But we also knew that to accommodate all of the goals that we had, the best producer was Dann Huff."
That doesn't mean the Malibu trip was a waste. "Even though you don't see Rick's name in the credits, you'll see it in the 'thank yous' because he gave us the boost of confidence to make 'Pioneer' happen," Kimberly says.
The trio returned to Nashville and turned to Huff to helm the project, in part because he understood that the Perrys wanted an album that reflected their live show. Those who work with Huff, including Rascal Flatts and Urban, are always struck by his willingness to attend their shows so that he can better understand their live vibe and work to capture it on record.
"He was the first producer to come see us live," Kimberly says, "and we do feel like us live is us in our most natural element. It's what we've done since the very beginning--even before we wrote songs or were doing interviews, we were doing live shows. Dann took the elements that he saw live and put it into his recordings.
"Everything for us is a means to a live end," she adds.
Huff was the right man for the job, Republic Nashville's Harnen says. "Dann is a great person, he's a great leader, he's a great father, and he's a great musician. All of those things make a great producer. He brought calmness and comfort to the project."
Big Machine's Borchetta contends that "Pioneer" is Huff at the top of his game. "It's one of the best records Dann has ever made," he says. "Dann was this fantastic energy source that was able to bookend the music in an extraordinary way."
The result of Huff and the Band Perry's collaboration is an album that takes the next logical, albeit not always predictable, step in the budding superstars' career.
First single "Better Dig Two," which reached No. 1 on Billboard's Country Airplay and Hot Country Songs charts, is a dark tale of dedicated love penned by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Trevor Rosen. The song, Kimberly says, fits the album's theme of opposing forces. "It's a vulnerable lyric, but it's over an aggressive music bed," she says.
The album's second single, the I'm-over-your-BS anthem "Done," is rapidly climbing Country Airplay, currently sitting at No. 31. It was written from real-life experiences of Neil and Reid, along with John Davidson and Jacob Bryant. "It's not just an angry breakup song," Kimberly says. "The three of us are people-pleasers, but at some point you've done all that you can do to make somebody happy and then you have to say, 'Enough!'"
The making of the album also contained opposing forces, according to Kimberly. "Sometimes the creative process was our best friend and sometimes it was our enemy, but all of these different moments were teachers."
She says the album is "truly a snapshot of everything that we were thinking about and living out over the last two years."
"We always leave our hearts up onstage, and that's an element that we brought to 'Pioneer,'" Neil says. "We left it all in the recordings. We didn't want to listen to it years later and say, 'We could have been more convicted about this or that.' We sang each line with conviction."
WUSY Chattanooga, Tenn., PD Gator Harrison has seen growth in the Band Perry's music. "The great thing with these guys is they're comfortable with who they are and they went in the studio not with the attitude of, 'Well, that worked. Let's keep doing that.' But they went into their second album with, 'That was great, but we can be better. What walls can we push down?'"
For example, "Forever Mine Nevermind," written with Paisley while on tour, has a distinctly Queen feel, which isn't a surprise since the band is known to cover "Fat Bottomed Girls" in its shows. "We did listen to a heck of lot of Queen when we were making 'Pioneer,'" Kimberly says with a laugh.
"'Forever Mine Nevermind' has a 'Bohemian Rhapsody'-like quimsy," Neil says, chuckling at his invention of a word. "Did I say 'quimsy'?"
"It's 'Queen' and 'whimsy' combined," Kimberly explains. "We kind of went there on purpose. I remember high-fiving each other as we walked out of the studio into the control room."
Republic Nashville partnered with Target for a deluxe edition of "Pioneer," which will be available starting April 2 in Target stores, and a Target ad featuring "Done" begins airing at the end of March. The 16-song Target version, with a special red cover, features four originals as bonus tracks: "Gonna Be OK," "Once Upon a Time," "Lucky Ones" and "Peaches and Caroline." The tracks were written and recorded by the Perrys prior to their first album.
In addition, "Pioneer" should benefit from a massive media push.
The siblings will kick off release week by previewing new music to family, friends and fans in Greeneville, Tenn., on March 30. A free concert and signing will not only introduce the album, but also raise awareness for Outnumber Hunger, an initiative the trio supports. (The Band Perry will also headline Outnumber Hunger Live on April 5 at the Orleans Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas as part of the Academy of Country Music's ACM Experience, a three-day music event leading up to the 48th annual ACM Awards.)
Kimberly, Reid and Neil will also appear on ABC's "Good Morning America" and "Dancing With the Stars," CBS' "Late Night With David Letterman," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and the ACM Awards telecast on April 7.
During release week, they'll participate in "AOL Sessions," a "Live on Letterman" webcast, Clear Channel's "iHeartRadio Live," a Yahoo "RAM Country" performance and an appearance on "GAC Origins."
The group will spend the remainder of the year as the opening act on Rascal Flatts' Changed tour. "Our audience loves them," WUSN Chicago music director Marci Braun says of the Band Perry. "They're still the opener on tours, but I've noticed that butts are in seats so they don't miss TBP's performance."
In 2014, the Band Perry intends to headline its own tour, something it's already planning. "We can't wait," Kimberly says. "We're already thinking about set lists and stages and lighting."