Robert Palmer was neither the first nor the last artist to view personal relationships as a narcotic. Dan Seals’ "Addicted," Roxy Music’s "Love Is the Drug," Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter’s "You and Tequila," B.J. Thomas’ "Hooked On a Feeling" and Hank Williams Jr.’s "Old Habits" all viewed love as a force that could take unreasonable control over a life. A Thousand Horses just rode the similarly themed "Smoke" to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart dated June 13.
Those kinds of comparisons raised a question for songwriter Josh Kear ("Drunk on a Plane," "Drinking Class"): If love is addictive, what happens when the object of your affection vanishes?
The result is "Withdrawals," a new Tyler Farr single doused with scraping guitars, start-and-stop drum rhythms and impassioned vocals.
"The song has so much tension and angst," says Farr. "It’s like the guy is going through withdrawals over a woman, and there’s nothing he can do about it."
Psychological dependence occurs when a person develops repeated, uncontrollable cravings for something that brings short-term pleasure but creates long-term damage. "Even the idea of not using the substance, or engaging in the behavior, will cause them discomfort," according to AlcoholRehab.com.
So it’s appropriate that the creation of "Withdrawals" was uncomfortable. Kear had the title when he started writing it at his Music Row office with Hillary Lindsey ("Wasted," "Girl Crush") and Gordie Sampson ("Jesus, Take the Wheel," "Song About a Girl"). Kear also brought the first line, "You were like whiskey running through my veins," and maybe even the second, "You were that first sweet taste of Mary Jane." But where those phrases belonged in the song were unclear.
"That piece could have been a proper verse, that could have been the chorus, that could’ve been anything," recalls Lindsey. "It was just like a little nugget that he had. And he knew those lyrics were leading toward, you know, withdrawals."
Kear sang the parts passionately in the office that day, and his co-writers were "truly mesmerized with it," says Lindsey. "And then we just kept rolling."
The whiskey/Mary Jane coupling developed into a four-line section to kick off the song. Another section followed, and they ended up at a chorus that starts off with a line that -- like addiction -- isn’t quite right: "I bang my head against the moon." Not wall. Moon.
"It’s an unusual graphic, if you think about it literally," says Sampson. "You kind of get this hammer effect of somebody truly going through withdrawals."
Three of the last four lines in the chorus repeated the phrase "I’m going through withdrawals" over and over. It’s an atypical approach for a country song. "We hit on that ending, and it just felt right," says Kear. "I think that was one of the few things about the song that just happened, and we were all good with it right away."
They didn’t bother with a second verse the first day, but they returned to "Withdrawals" during a second writing session, where they added a new stanza. The structure was weird. Since the melody of that opening section was never repeated, it felt like it should be a bridge. But the words were out of place if they came later in the song, and Lindsey insisted that it stay at the opening, where it basically serves as a 38-second vocal intro, or prologue. They also added a two-line bridge -- "I’m going through withdrawals," repeated twice -- which isn’t as much of a departure from the song as most bridges. But it didn’t need to be.
"Our intro essentially is our bridge, so adding yet another new melody section felt like too much," explains Kear. "So we tried to do the simplest thing that worked."
Kear put together a piano-driven demo with programmed drums. An unidentified artist put "Withdrawals" on hold, but after they officially passed, the demo was emailed to Farr. He was intrigued by the title and gave it a listen during the first session for his Suffer in Peace album at Loud Recording Studio on Music Row.
Farr had covered Awolnation’s "Sail" on his 2014 concert tour and hoped to find something similarly tormented for the album. "Withdrawals" had the right attitude, though Farr -- who doesn’t have a keyboard player in his live band -- needed a different arrangement. Working with producers Jim Catino and Julian King, they converted it into a rock-edged power ballad in the vein of Linkin Park’s "In the End" or 3 Doors Down’s "When I’m Gone" and recorded it at that same session.
"The track is even more aggressive than the track in ‘Redneck Crazy,’ " observes Catino, "but Tyler’s country voice always kind of finds a way to bring it back to normal and bring it back to the format, where it doesn’t feel like we’re straying from country music."
Guitarist Adam Shoenfeld plugged in a scorching solo, and drummer Miles McPherson added intentionally jerky, syncopated pops that match the anxiety and irritability that accompany withdrawals.
"Miles played a huge role," says King. "Some of the transition fills in this record are over the top. They’re probably more than most [country] drummers would let themselves play, but we were stressing that we were going for the angst on this."
Catino and King encouraged Farr to get plenty of sleep the night before he cut the final vocals, which were pitched in a challenging key. "By the end of the song I’m practically screaming," says Farr, who got most of the vocal on his second pass. "Our job as artists is to sell the song, to make people feel something. You try to sing with as much passion as you can, and that’s kind of what it took at the end."
Live audiences tried to sing along with "Withdrawals" as they were hearing it for the first time, and Sony released it as a single on May 19. And there’s a deft storyline in the order of singles for Farr, whose last release reached No. 1 on Country Airplay: "A Guy Walks Into a Bar" leads to "Withdrawals."
"That kind of wasn’t an accident," Sony Music Nashville vp A&R Catino says. "It’s hilarious how we overthink the stuff that we do."
The label asked for first-week adds on "Withdrawals" on June 15. Meanwhile, all the song’s unsettling angst and uncertainty is physically represented in the video, which premieres June 15 on Vevo.
"I would almost compare it to like a Nine Inch Nails [video]," says Farr. "I don’t want to give it away, but I’ll just say I had to change shirts and jeans about five times because there’s water in it, smoke. It was the most physically draining, emotionally draining video I’ve ever done."
He’s hoping the video, and the song, will be as addictive as love.
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.