The twist goes beyond the typical country word play. In this instance, it’s a 180-degree shift in the plot, a “gotcha” moment that’s difficult to write. It’s one thing to catch a fan off guard on first listen; it’s another to create a jolt that’s worth coming back to even after you know the ending. That’s the level reached with the Southern murder in Reba McEntire’s “The Night the Lights Went Out on Georgia”; the familial fraud in Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan”; and the estate giveaway in Billy Currington’s “People Are Crazy.” Likewise, “I Hope” rewards beyond the first exposure.
“The payoff was so good,” says co-writer Jon Nite (“Living,” “Knockin’ Boots”). “You have this release of, like, ‘Oh, man. I didn’t see that coming.’ It reminds me of a mystery movie or something where at the end you’re just like, ‘Wow, that is country music. That’s how a hook should hit.’”
“I Hope” was the kind of surprise Barrett had been working to create. She finished third on ABC’s American Idol in May 2018, then joined the American Idol Live! Tour from July to September. Through it all Barrett set her sights on a country career, but placing in the top three in a TV music competition hadn’t given her much of a step up in Nashville.
“Actually, zero labels were jumping toward me, and I couldn’t get to anybody,” she recalls. “Nobody was paying any attention. And I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to put my nose to the ground and really work on writing and creating some good songs that people could gravitate to.’”
An afternoon writing session on Oct. 31 provided a plot twist to her professional life -- appropriate on Halloween, were things are never quite what they first appear. Songwriter-producer Zachary Kale had met Barrett shortly after her Idol run, and he enlisted Nite for the appointment in Room 5 at the Sony/ATV Firehall, “one of the cigar-smelly, awesome, 1970s-decor rooms they have there,” says Nite. Barrett was famously dating fellow Idol contestant Cade Foehner, and even before she arrived, Nite and Kale started working on something upbeat that might fit their relationship.
“They’re like super in love,” says Nite. “My gut is always just to write what [the artists’] lives are and my life is. So we started going down that road.”
But it evolved from there. The first change came when they adjusted the topic to reflect a woman extending good wishes to her ex as he starts a new relationship: “I hope you both feel the sparks by the end of the drive/ I hope you know she’s the one by the end of the night.” But it started to feel a little too sweet for someone who has been dumped.
“Gabby’s like, ‘Yeah, a girl wouldn’t say that,’” recalls Kale. “We landed on an ‘e’ rhyme -- they were trying to land the hook, and I just spun around in the chair jokingly and [said], ‘Yeah, and I hope she cheats.’”
That bombshell altered the meaning of every line in the first verse, and it made “I Hope” a particularly enticing endeavor.
“Jon goes, ‘OK, Gabby, I don’t care if we write this for you, but we have to write that now. That has to be the hook,’” says Kale. “At that point, it became a lot of fun.”
As a result, they made some minor changes in the chord structure to darken the mood a bit, and edited a few phrases to better fit the surprise. The hook became a spitfire attack -- “And then I hope she cheats/ Like you did on me” -- extended with a catchy, revolving melodic phrase.
“I felt it almost like a horn line,” says Kale. “It had a little sass to it, and it just kind of stuck.”
They agreed that “I Hope” was less than an ideal title, but they didn’t have a better option.
“There was a conversation about that at the end of the write,” says Nite. “ ‘I Hope She Cheats’ is a better title technically, but then you don’t get the stomach punch of the hook.”
Nite departed for an evening appointment before the song was done, but a short while later came up with the bridge that was still missing. He recorded a quick voice memo on his phone and texted them with the solution: “I hope she makes you feel the same way about her/ That I feel about you right now.”
Kale and Barrett worked steadily on the demo. Kale added a synthesizer part with a Native American recorder vibe, and Barrett took three passes at the vocal. They were enough.
“I handed her [a Shure] SM7 mic,” says Kale. “She was like, ‘I’ve got to go to the pharmacy,’ and I was like, ‘Alright, how about you just sing this vocal down real quick?’ I think the vocal that’s on the radio is her first or second take out of three. She does not play around.”
They brought in producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Brett Eldredge) to finish. Most of his work was simply building on top of Kale’s original demo.
“I got this thing hand-delivered on a silver platter,” says Copperman, who stacked a dozen versions of Barrett’s vocal on the chorus to give it extra power, with Kale adding a male unison voice in back. Copperman also brought in Derek Wells to play additional guitars, including a short solo with a burning tone. Barrett persuaded him to rework Wells’ part a bit so that the solo ended on an upswing.
“That was impressive to me,” says Copperman. “She’s so young to have that producer hat already. Every great artist has that.”
Assisted by Red Light, Barrett released “I Hope” independently as a single. It earned early attention on SiriusXM, Radio Disney Country and Spotify, and she performed it live during a return engagement on Idol in May. The attention created interest among Nashville labels, and Warner Music Nashville won out, formally releasing “I Hope” to country radio via PlayMPE on June 27.
As a big-voiced song about karmic revenge on a cheater from an Idol -graduate, “I Hope” bears a striking similarity in its storyline to Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” Nite, who is not given to hyperbole, believes it could become a career song for everyone involved.
“If you’re going to compare me to somebody and it’s going to be Carrie Underwood, I will absolutely take that as a compliment,” says Barrett.
Should her Halloween creation perform at that level, it would provide “I Hope” one final surprise ending.
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.