“He has ways of making vocals and guitars specifically sit in mixes,” she says. “I remember sitting in the car, listening to the radio. I’m just like, ‘Man, that guitar sounds so good. Who produced that?’ And most of the time, Dann Huff would be producing those records.”
Of course, it’s not Huff who delivers the performance. Ell’s take on “I Don’t Love You” stretches from quivering vulnerability to primal pain, and it’s a recording that has a chance to turn a few heads.
“That song is not an easy song to sing, especially in the verse,” says Huff. “It’s a very hip-hop rhythm -- that’s how I describe that -- and then the chorus goes into full on, like Martina McBride power later in the song, but at first you’re doing it in a falsetto. It requires such discipline to have control over the light moment as well as the power moment.”
“I Don’t Love You” was written in June 2017 at the Red Creative publishing house in Nashville. Capitol Nashville/Buena Vista singer-songwriter Adam Hambrick (“How Not To,” “Somebody Else Will”) played host for co-writers Melissa Fuller and Neil Medley, and Hambrick also provided the hook that occupied most of their day.
“We started writing this song around the premise of, ‘If I would’ve had a better bottle of wine, maybe you would have stayed with me’ or ‘Then the day wouldn’t have gone so bad,’ ” remembers Fuller.
But it didn’t go all that well, and the three eventually decided to abandon that idea. Instead, Fuller started toying with an alternate melody in 6/8 time, and that sent them down a different path.
“Because we were on that wine thing, it was on my mind, so I just started with that first verse, ‘I don’t open up a bottle with my dinner,’ ” she says. “It was just kind of this awesome, rambling, free-flow thing, and we all looked at each other like, ‘Yeah, this is it.’”
It stretched into images of leftovers and restaurants and takeout boxes in what turns into a long, run-on sentence where all the emphasis seems to fall on the wrong word. And at the end of that verse, Hambrick changed course.
“I kind of just started singing, ‘I don’t love you,’” he says, reprising the key phrase and holding each of the first three words out for three beats. “That chorus fell out so easily and so effortlessly. It didn’t exist, and then it did.”
They repeated the hook three times before adding a fourth line, “But I still miss you, still miss you sometimes,” and the song’s meaning was suddenly clear. It was a piece about the internal back-and-forths in the aftermath of a breakup. That gave them a road map for the second verse, which likewise needed to work as a run-on sentence that placed key words in off-kilter moments. That verse took an entertainment twist, starting with Stevie Wonder albums and moving on to shared movies, and a sudden recognition that the singer has more free time to fill and no motivation to do it.
“We definitely knew that we had to follow that same cadence and decided how to build it out,” reflects Fuller. “The Stevie Wonder part, all of that came pretty easy, and then the back half was a little tricky.”
Before the writing session was over, they decided it needed a bridge to deliver the ultimate emotional punch. The words make their own statement, but the musical change of pace is just as important.
“We go minor there,” says Hambrick. “The idea is just to cast a little doubt on everything that’s been said. What you’re coming to is, ‘I fight to convince myself that I don’t love you,’ because you don’t want to. Most days you think you don’t, but some days you’re not quite sure. And I thought that was a great twist.”
They were happy with the song though doubtful of its commercial potential. But their respective publishers thought it deserved a shot and asked for a demo. They came up with a piano-leaning track that has Hambrick belting a master-quality vocal.
Ell first heard “I Don’t Love You” when Hambrick sang it during a sound check. She related to much of the song’s detail-- particularly the Wonder records and an ex-boyfriend’s disdain for leaving restaurants with take-home food -- but she was particularly taken by Hambrick’s recorded performance. “I was set up completely for success with this song, because Adam is such a great vocalist and the demo was so killer,” she says.
Ell and Huff agreed that they should adjust the song’s foundation from a piano-tinged track to a guitar-driven one to better fit her own musical character. Huff played the gentle guitar chording underneath, while Derek Wells threaded arpeggiated guitar fills through a Leslie-style pedal in key moments during the tracking session at Nashville’s Sound Stage on June 25, 2019. Ell played her own blues-filtered fills and a trippy solo during overdubs at Huff’s home studio. She also did the final vocal at his place, visiting three different days until she felt she had wrung every last bit of emotion out of the song.
A key moment came when she swallowed the word “don’t” during one of those takes -- it came out “I … love you.” “You’re screaming at somebody, ‘I don’t love you. I don’t love you,’ and one time you miss the word,” says Huff. “It’s obvious. You still do love that person, right? That gave me chills, and I remember we talked about it and that it should sound like a struggle.”
Ultimately, the tough subject matter is inspiring. “I Don’t Love You” never says it explicitly, but the bridge -- with its recognition of an internal struggle -- likely captures the turning point when the broken-hearted singer is ready to turn the corner. It’s a song that hints at resilience. “That’s completely why the song struck me so much ,and why I think it was the perfect first single off the sophomore album,” says Ell.
Coming on the heels of the Gilbert collaboration, the forthcoming album and “I Don’t Love You” -- which was pegged to a Dec. 9 add date -- may prove over time to be part of a period where Ell turned the corner as an artist, too, finding her public voice by syncing it with her personal transition.
“I’ve been through my first public breakup, and I’ve been through every stage post-breakup of figuring out how to move on from that,” she says. “I’ve written about all different parts of that process, doing the work, going through the tunnel, coming out the other side as somebody who wants to take control of their life.”
This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.