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Makin' Tracks: Morgan Evans' 'Diamonds' Mines Four Short Chords For a Long-Term Goal

Morgan Evans
Gus Black

Morgan Evans

“Diamonds are a funny thing,” says Morgan Evans, noting their symbolism in a marriage. “You don’t really know anything about them, and then you have to go buy one, and then it has to sit on her finger for a long time.”

In that way, a diamond’s qualities aptly reflect the characteristics of a long-lasting relationship or a classic song. The partner or the music is seemingly nonexistent until they enter someone’s awareness. In a short period -- sometimes instantly -- they transform into an essential, permanent part of that person’s life. Evans is optimistic that his wife, fellow artist Kelsea Ballerini, will have that always-and-forever role in his world, and is likewise hopeful that his latest single, “Diamonds” -- which was inspired by her presence -- has an undeniable, long-term relationship with the country audience.

“You can sweat over a chorus for like four hours, or you can write it in five minutes,” says Evans. “It’s funny -- the five-minute ones are usually better than the four-hour ones, and that was the perfect example.”

“Diamonds” is loaded with shiny facets: a twisty Dobro-and-vocal signature riff, a syncopated chord progression, plenty of counter-melodies and a lyrical hook (“I love you like a diamond/ And diamonds are forever”) that film buffs will link to a James Bond movie. And while its genesis mostly came in a burst, there was a slow lead-up to its creation in Nashville and some last-minute polishing in Australia before it became a finished jewel.

Evans actually had been toying with the signature riff for quite some time, but didn’t really have a place to use it. Last Valentine’s Day, his work calendar fell apart, and he reached out to songwriter-producer Chris DeStefano (“Something in the Water,” “Kick the Dust Up”) to see if he could slide into a co-writing session. As it turned out, Los Angeles-based writer Evan Bogart (“Halo,” “Tonight Tonight”) was on DeStefano’s schedule; Evans and DeStefano started building around that riff before Bogart arrived, and Evans mumbled the “I love you like a diamond” hook, which had popped into his brain during the commute.

DeStefano greenlighted that lyrical idea and started building a track in the key of D, using a progression — E-minor, D, A, D, A, G — that could, like a diamond, go on forever.

“The second chord in the progression is the one chord, but it’s weird because it never really lands on the one, I think because of where the phrase falls,” notes DeStefano. “I always think back to the incredible [Katy Perry] song ‘Teenage Dream,’ where it just never hits the one. I mean, it’s basically just tension the entire song. We certainly weren’t thinking that in this scenario, but we were thinking it just felt right.”

When Bogart arrived, they all chatted for about 20 minutes, and then the other two unveiled what they already had started. Bogart felt like he had hit the jackpot, and they wrapped the chorus first.

“We wanted it to feel really fresh and really catchy, something that felt like it could be timeless but also nothing that you’ve heard before,” he says. “We wanted to approach the lyric and the melody in a way that felt like it was both progressive and timeless at the same time.”

When they turned their attention to the verses, Bogart threw out the opening line -- “I was under pressure” -- subtly pulling together the science of diamonds with the humanity of the relationship at the heart of the song. “[It was] figuring out ways to relate everything about diamonds, from the pressure that creates them to the shine of it all, and then make that personal,” he explains.

Complicating matters, that core descending chord progression was busy. The melody, they intuited, needed to come in small chunks, fitting neatly between the chords’ short bursts. “The chord movement is a hook in itself, so it was like, ‘How do we support that but then also create a melody and a pocket that’s completely complementary?’” reflects Bogart. And, he adds, it was imperative to “keep within the wheelhouse of being country.”

Before it was over, they fashioned a bridge by stopping the chordal flow and emphasizing the “unbreakable” nature of a diamond and of a great relationship. DeStefano turned it all into a convincing demo. Contrary to Evans’ first album, where he and his producer played all the instruments, they put together a studio band to work on “Diamonds” during a session at Southern Ground.

“It was important for me to just start from scratch on this one,” says Evans. “We certainly sat in the control room and played them the demo, and I remember a couple of the guys are like, ‘Well, that sounds like you’ve got a record there. What do you want us to do?’ That kind of set the challenge maybe for them, and they just killed it.”

Guitarist Tom Bukovac developed a counter-melody in the chorus (it’s mixed with vocals to create a shiny effect in the final version), and Jedd Hughes fitted faint, gurgling baritone guitar lines into spaces in the pre-chorus and chorus. And the whole crew re-addressed the bridge, slicing it to focus specifically on the “unbreakable” motif at the heart of it all.

Evans finished the lead vocal later, with the range of “Diamonds” showing off different features in his resonance. The verses have a raspy conversational tone, while the chorus reaches a brighter segment of his sound and a brief falsetto section lends additional vulnerability. “You never want to hear a vocalist sound like they’re struggling,” says DeStefano. “He just makes it sound easy.”

Warner Music Nashville was enthusiastic about “Diamonds,” but when Evans and DeStefano went to Australia for a tour in late October, the two decided they could make the production a little more country. DeStefano reached out to steel guitarist Russ Pahl and multi-instrumentalist Ilya Toshinsky back in Nashville, using Skype to craft a few changes. Toshinsky, in particular, threaded the Dobro element into the intro, working in tandem with a banjo part he had contributed during the tracking session. All of that occurred during the final 24 hours of a production deadline, with DeStefano catching a brief two-hour rest around 3 a.m. in Melbourne before finishing the version he sent to the mixing engineer.

“I woke up at 5 a.m., timing parts out to get it to Jeff Juliano, who mixed it, to get this country version out,” recalls DeStefano. “I was wide awake, just ’cause I was super amped up about it.”

WMN sent it to country radio via PlayMPE on Nov. 8, just before the Country Music Association Awards and the holiday season. Evans already had fans singing along when he played it live for the first time at The Troubadour in Los Angeles on Nov. 21, and it debuts at No. 60 on the Jan. 11 Country Airplay chart.

Time alone will tell if “Diamonds” has the same sort of longevity as the gem it references. It certainly stands out. “There’s only four chords, but it is a six-chord progression, and the order that they’re in, it makes a huge difference,” says Evans. “It just doesn’t sound like anything that I’ve done before.”

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

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