One of the strongest visuals that Eric Church still carries from recording The Outsiders is that of producer Jay Joyce, dressed in a hoodie with a cigarette dangling from his lips as he hunched over a keyboard.
With that as a background, noted health aficionado Carrie Underwood faced a dilemma when she started recording in Joyce’s East Nashville studio. She was on his home turf, and she brought in a song called “Smoke Break.” That sort of gave him the OK to light one up as he worked, right?
Not exactly. In fact, the idea of Joyce taking a puff in the studio was never discussed.
“He smokes, but he would step outside,” says Underwood. “I don’t want to mess with my voice, and I don’t think he would either. He was always very respectful. He would need a smoke break. And he was like, ‘I really get this song.’ ”
More importantly, Underwood is cautiously optimistic that fans will get it. Released to radio via Play MPE on Aug. 20 as the first single from a new album — Storyteller, due Oct. 23 — it’s not actually advocating nicotine as an escape, though it acknowledges it as one of many devices (or actual vices) that people use to cope with stress.
“It’s more about having a moment for yourself and being able to walk away from whatever is stressing you out,” she says. “We all these days are spread really thin. You have to have those things that allow you to have a moment of peace.”
That’s exactly what Underwood and her co-writers, Chris DeStefano (“Little Toy Guns,” “Just Gettin’ Started”) and Hillary Lindsey (“Two Black Cadillacs,” “Girl Crush”), had in mind when “Smoke Break” was conceived during a songwriting session on June 3, 2014 at Underwood’s cabin in suburban Nashville. They had started working on a different song, based on some tracks that DeStefano had built on his laptop, but they were stuck. And that made songwriting feel like work.
Meanwhile, the temperature outside was maybe 75 degrees, and Underwood has a relaxing fountain on the lawn. The yard was practically calling them, so they all grabbed their coffee cups and headed for the sunshine.
“It was good just to step outside,” recalls Lindsey. “And it cleared our head for a minute. We weren’t even talking about that song anymore. It was, ‘Wow, what a beautiful day.’ ”
That apparently happened more than once. And when they got stuck again, they’d pick up and go back out, jokingly referring to it as a smoke break. It wasn’t long before Underwood suggested that maybe “Smoke Break” might be the basis for a song.
“That’s a really cool title, and that sounds all kinds of country,” assesses Underwood. “So Chris went inside and got his guitar, and we wrote it.”
The thing tumbled into place in about 45 minutes, with two different characters in the song -- one woman, one man -- grappling with their unique stresses. She’s working three jobs to raise four kids -- and she’s married, which raises a lot of questions about her husband.
“I didn’t even really realize that, to be honest with you,” says Lindsey with a laugh.
The man, meanwhile, is a small-town guy who’s fighting his way up the corporate ladder in a big city, struggling to maintain his integrity for a boss who may not value it.
“As a son, I’ve always wanted to do good by my parents, make them proud, and there was definitely a lot of that in that second verse,” recalls DeStefano. “That really struck a chord.”
Once they had “Smoke Break” written, he used his mobile rig to find an appropriate synthetic drum beat and played acoustic guitar chords on top of it, giving Underwood a framework to lay down a scratch vocal. Later, he would build in more parts, creating what Underwood describes as a “Southern-rock kind of country thing.”
But before they ended the day, they returned to the original song. Apparently, their “smoke break” worked as intended, because they knocked that first song out, too.
Recording “Smoke Break” was a new experience for Underwood, whose previous hits have all been a collaboration with producer Mark Bright (Sara Evans, The Swon Brothers). Instead of cloistering singers in a cramped vocal booth, Joyce put Underwood in his studio’s big room -- a converted sanctuary with a cross, backlit in green, behind the podium where the pulpit once stood -- with a baffle, a music stand and a microphone.
Drummer Fred Eltringham and bass player Dave Roe gave the backbeat a trashier feel than Underwood has had in her past recordings, and Joyce built the foundation, using her demo as a road map, before she ever arrived at the studio.
“It wasn’t like this tracking session where I had all these studio musicians and they were all just waiting and they had their charts,” she says. “Jay did a little work on his end first, and he plays a lot of stuff himself. So when I came in, it was like, ‘OK, here are the basic bones to the track,’ and I sang to it. Then we talked about what we liked and I was like, ‘Yeah, I love where this is headed. What else are you planning on doing with this?’ ”
Joyce added a twin-guitar solo to the mix along with a few other effects, including a wafting guitar line at the end that sounds like a sonic representation of smoke.
Underwood’s lead vocal part was comparatively uncomplicated.
“This song is not difficult for me, which is really nice,” she observes. “Whenever I start rehearsing for tours, I’m like, ‘Why do I write and pick the hardest songs ever?’ I mean, I love a challenge, but it makes for really tough tours. So it’s nice to have a song that’s a little more laid-back.”
As is her habit, Underwood brought her co-writers back in during the spring to do the background vocals with her one night -- again, in the former sanctuary.
“It was old school, kind of fun, and it was really cool having both Carrie and Chris there,” says Lindsey.
DeStefano was a necessity. He had built the harmonies on the demo, and they wanted to re-create them. But they were difficult to pick up off the original recording. He isolated them so they could hear their parts a cappella, and they cruised through the process without a lot of trouble.
“I like to go a little out of the box and not do straight thirds or straight-up harmonies, just do something a bit different,” he says. “We’d listen to [the originals] and keep rockin’ it till it was right.”
“Smoke Break” – which leaped from a No. 36 debut on Hot Country Songs to No. 5 on the chart dated Sept. 12 -- was a “no-brainer” for Storyteller’s first single, says Underwood, in part because it’s fairly representative of the new album’s tone. The only potential negative the team could find was the possibility that some fans might misinterpret it as an endorsement of cigarettes. But she has a history of slashing tires in “Before He Cheats,” getting hitched in a drunken stupor in “Last Name” and plotting a murder in “Two Black Cadillacs.” She’s confident that the fan base will see through the surface smoke.
“I kill people in my songs,” she muses. “This is nothing. This is fine.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's weekly Country Update newsletter -- subscribe here.