Makin' Tracks: Runaway June Take a Confident 'Next Step' With 'Head Over Heels'

Runaway June
Kristin Barlowe

Runaway June

When Runaway June’s “Buy My Own Drinks” peaked at No. 8 on the Country Airplay chart dated Sept. 21, it ended a lengthy dry spell for girl groups in the genre, as the trio became the first all-female ensemble to reach the chart’s top 10 since Dixie Chicks’ “Travelin’ Soldier” in 2003.

In the process, Runaway June’s story transitioned. Where analysts might previously have considered the act’s makeup an outside proposition, a hit turned the threesome into a band that owns its own lane within mainstream country.

“It’s hard for all new artists -- especially females -- and it was just really a struggle,” low-harmony singer Hannah Mulholland concedes. “Now, since we’ve put out a few singles and kind of shown people that we’re really in the game and we’re not giving up, we’ve got more people in our corner.”

With their scintillating vocal blend selling the self-sufficient message in “Drinks,” Runaway June puts an exclamation mark on its identity in follow-up single “Head Over Heels,” as its knife-like harmonies bolster a hooky chorus that reaffirms female empowerment. But where the former title took a slinky, sly approach to the topic, “Heels” is resolutely anthemic, celebrating the moment when a woman sheds a codependent reliance on a romantic dalliance that has run its course.

“It’s like a continuation of a certain feeling that we carry around, you know -- breaking the pattern and taking care of yourself, figuring it out and finding your own strength,” lead vocalist Naomi Cooke says. “We wrote a lot of songs like that for this record.”

As the lead track on Runaway June’s debut album, Blue Roses, “Head Over Heels” might ooze girl power, but its genesis resided in the mind of a guy. It occurred when songwriter Jared Mullins (“Found You”) mistook a conversational phrase, but was able to reframe that mistake as inspiration.

“I have always kind of heard words wrong,” he explains. “It kind of got me in trouble until I started writing. ‘Head over’ just sounded like ‘Come over’ at the time. I heard it one day, and then I’m like, ‘Well, next time I write with a girl, guess what’s happening? I’m going to put this one out.’”

The “Head Over Heels” title was not well-received at first.

“All three of us kind of rolled our eyes like, ‘Oh God. Is that just because you’re writing with girls?’” recalls Cooke.

But Mullins clarified that the title came with a twist: “These ain’t my head-over heels.”

“We hadn’t heard that before,” says Cooke. “We dove right in.”

Knowing that the “head over heels” line was the destination, they worked with Mullins and Tommy Cecil -- co-author of “Home Alone Tonight” and “I Was Jack (You Were Diane)” -- first on the ultimate hook, setting up the protagonist’s footwear as dancing shoes instead of an accessory for a booty call. They added the setup line (maybe a little more), creating a payoff for the storyline: “These ain’t my ‘You-get-drunk, call-me-up/ And-head-over’ heels.” From there, they scooted back to the song’s opening lines to launch the woman’s path.

That meant providing a little history, introducing the singer as a dissatisfied half of a couple who had established a “drunk-dial game.” By the end of the opening stanza, she swears off a habit that always leads to morning-after regret: “Walk of shame out your front door/ Not no more.”

In verse two, her resolve gets challenged. As she’s dancing the night away, a call comes in at 2 a.m. -- “That’s when the bars close,” high-harmony singer Jennifer Wayne notes -- but this time, she refuses to answer.

“We purposely cut straight into a moment of realization where you feel really empowered and free,” observes Cooke.

They slapped together a demo before the day was over, but they thought so highly of the track that they readdressed it, cutting new vocals and adding a fiddle to slide more country feel into the song, which they thought was too pop. But once that demo was done, Cooke and Mulholland decided it wasn’t quite right for Runaway June. As a result, “Head Over Heels” languished a bit until the group started working with producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum). “Buy My Own Drinks” emerged as a winner from their first round of tracking, and as they looked for songs to fill out the Blue Roses album, “Head” came back up in conversation. Huff and the band’s manager, F2 Entertainment president/CEO Fletcher Foster, lobbied hard until their clients finally agreed to give it a shot.

“I couldn’t get over the way the demo sounded,” admits Cooke. “It didn’t sound like Runaway June. Dann said, ‘You’re right, but it’s going to.’”

Removing the fiddle from the arrangement was just one of the remedies that Huff applied when they recorded the song at Starstruck Studios. They also created some texture by having their voices arrive one at a time, with Cooke singing solo at the start, Mulholland adding her voice by the end of the first verse and all three women going full throttle at the chorus. Chunky guitar chords and a percolating undercurrent set the tone in the verses. That sound gives way to block instrumentation in the chorus, where each new chord is announced by bassist Tony Lucido and steel guitarist Dan Dugmore on the preceding beat. That change in arrangement allows the women’s crisp blend to dominate the chorus.

“Something’s got to give when you’re trying to facilitate that kind of harmony,” says Huff. “And I’ve always been attracted to songs that get simpler in the chorus. Usually, it’s the other way around.”

“Head Over Heels” did not have a bridge -- and didn’t really need to say anything more from a lyrical standpoint -- but Huff believed it could use some sonic relief. So after the second chorus, the band set off on a side journey through some minor chords, led by Dugmore’s tart steel into a Tom Bukovac guitar solo that gives the song a little classic-rock construction.

“Those solos were live on the tracking date, which is pretty exciting, ’cause usually you overdub that stuff and spend more time,” says Huff. “That was one of those kind of magical sessions where those guys just ripped it.”

That instrumental section gave Runaway June a chance to explore additional countermelodies and shiny vocal blends before Cooke shifted into a soulful vamp for most of the last 50 seconds.

“We really had fun with the harmonies and the answering parts and finding different ‘oohs’ with harmonies,” says Wayne. “We just really had fun being a trio.”

“Head Over Heels” became a regular part of the Runaway June setlist, introduced to many fans in their opening slot on Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty Tour. Wheelhouse released it to terrestrial radio on Oct. 7, intent on cementing the reintroduction of the female group into country’s mainstream.

“It just feels so good to sing a song every night that is kind of empowering people and has a really good, strong message that we’re proud of,” says Mulholland. “This song just felt like that natural next step in our story.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.