"I wish that I kind of had a song like this to listen to at the time when I was going through that stage," says Barrett, recognizing "Footprints" as a song addressed to both her former self and her current fans.
Humans didn't make it to the moon in a day, and Barrett didn't arrive on a national stage overnight either. But every day, every step forward, along the way was crucial as she battled the negative internal voices that are part of everyone's existence.
"It's like a whole flashback for me," says Barrett. "When you finally just find yourself at this low point of feeling like you want to give up, or you've been putting a lot into it and you're just reflecting on yourself in the mirror, you've got to look at yourself, give yourself a pep talk, like, 'No, you are able to do this, and you need to keep going and persevering.' Of course, that's something that I did when I was younger."
"Footprints" is, appropriately, an example of perseverance. Songwriter Jon Nite ("Break Up in the End," "Living") brought up the title periodically during co-writing sessions for at least a year -- more likely two or three -- but it never quite connected with everyone in the room.
"It's such an odd concept, but I think that every country boy who was sitting in the truck looking up and staring up at the stars and seeing the moon at night -- I mean, it's crazy to think that some human in 1969 walked on the moon," he says. "If we can do that with the limited technology we had back in the '60s and no microprocessors, I feel like we can kind of do anything."
Nite did have one believer in "Footprints": Zach Kale ("I Hope," "The Good Ones"), who asked to be part of the writing team whenever Nite found another willing participant. When Barrett bit on the idea during a writing session at Kale's East Nashville home in February 2020, the conditions were perfect. Nite thought it was a song that might take six or seven full writing sessions to complete, and Barrett has such a strong work ethic they knew they had found a third writing partner who would stick with it.
"That's a group that doesn't mind digging for the best idea at all," says Kale.
Nite had only the title and a couple of other lines from the chorus, and finishing that anthemic section was the first priority. They focused in on the personal level at the opening part of that stanza -- the negative feedback from the outside world and the inner demons -- before zooming out on that "footprints on the moon" hook.
Backing up to the beginning of the song, they started at Mount Everest --another hill that few are able to climb -- and spelled out the pessimistic messages that hold people down: "It's impossible," "You're too young," "You're too old." That negativity provided the tension in the song, which the "Footprints" chorus ultimately overcomes, but they tabled it for a few weeks to give it extra time to marinate.
"We didn't need to rush it," says Barrett.
When they reconvened, verse two became a personal reflection of Barrett's work ethic -- "You're gonna wanna stay home, don't stay" -- and the bridge encouraged the listener to push through the fear of losing.
"John Maxwell is a leadership guru, and he wrote a book called Sometimes You Win, Sometimes You Learn," says Kale. "That's probably where that bridge kind of came from because that's the way I live my life. Some days, you're going to win; some days, you're going to be just close enough and you're going to want to give up. But just hold on."
At the end of that second session, Barrett sang a lead vocal for Kale's demo that was so strong it became the final performance on the master version of "Footprints."
"I can't leave with it sounding like a rough vocal," she says. "It has to sound pretty well executed for my mind to be able to leave the room."
The pandemic was just beginning to rear its head as "Footprints" came into existence. For the master, Kale remotely piled musicians on top of his original work, including drummer Nir Z, keyboardist Alex Wright and banjoist-guitarist Jonny Fung. Kale gave the track an ominous texture that intentionally sounded similar to "I Hope."
"I was a graphic designer, and we had a branding identity business for a long time," he reasons. "So there's something to me about -- especially a new artist -- [creating] a brand for them to have. I wanted when that project came on for you to, without them even singing, know who this is for sure."
Before it was over, Kale reached out to Los Angeles-based singer Rozes, whose layered harmony parts provide additional atmospherics. And Barrett tapped husband Cade Foehner for a guttural, compact guitar solo that ends with flash and flurry.
"The last piece of the puzzle was working on Cade's solo, which absolutely blew my mind," says co-producer Ross Copperman (Dierks Bentley, Brett Eldredge). "He is such a great guitar player."
"If I'm being very candid, I was like, 'I don't really know if it needs that,' " recalls Kale. "And now I don't know if I would hear it without it."
Because the moon has no atmosphere, the footprints Armstrong left in 1969 will reportedly remain there -- perhaps as long as the moon exists -- unless they are disturbed by an asteroid or space junk. But the creative footprints Barrett is leaving don't have to last as long; the message is meant for her fans today.
"That's fantastic to think about only right now, accomplish it just for the sake of saying that you did," says Nite. "Whether they remember you or not, it doesn't matter, you know. It's kind of like all the people who've climbed Everest. Who knows that you've climbed Everest? You do. There's a lot of people who have climbed it at this point, but you know you did it, and deep down inside you, you can look in the mirror and say, 'I somehow did the hardest thing in my life.' Pretty awesome."
Warner released "Footprints" to country radio via PlayMPE on June 14, and it appears for a second straight week on the New & Active chart.
Barrett sees it as the completion of a trilogy. Her first single, "I Hope," mined her past; "The Good Ones" celebrates her current life through her relationship with Foehner; and "Footprints" is about creating her own future.
"Chasing after journeys is very, very important for me to talk about," she says, "and to push to whoever wants to listen."
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