Carly Pearce has lived a lot of life since the release of her debut album, Every Little Thing, in 2017. She met, fell in love, and married fellow country artist Michael Ray, and many of the songs on her self-titled Valentine’s Day release encapsulate the stages of a relationship.
While Pearce is quick to point out that not every song on the 13-track project is a love song, she says the stages of love are the “heartbeat” of the project. “What brought the whole record to life was love,” Pearce tells Billboard over the phone. “I think this theme is just really, truly finding myself. I got married [and] through this [album] process I met and fell in love with my now husband — and think that as a whole is centered around what makes this album so special.”
Pearce and Ray married in October 2019, and the beginning stages of their relationship can be heard on hopeful tracks such as “Heart’s Going Out of Its Mind,” which she co-wrote with Laura Veltz (“The Bones,” “What If I Never Get Over You”) and Joe Ginsberg (“Little Red Wagon,” “Dare Ya”). At an album release show at Nashville’s Analog at the Hutton Hotel on Feb. 11, Pearce recalled going in to the co-write session with her frequent collaborators and confessing that she may have found her future husband.
“I went in and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I kind of feel crazy. I feel like I just met my husband and we just had our first date. I don’t know,’” she tells the audience mid-set with a laugh. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God! Who is it?’
“‘Here’s where it gets awkward: You know him. It’s Michael Ray.’ Not what anybody was expecting. This was such a fun day for me, and I will always mark this song as the beginning of my relationship with my now-husband.”
After she performed the feel-good track, Ray joined her onstage for their duet “Finish Your Sentences.” Pearce, recalling the origins of the tune — written by Kelsea Ballerini, Thomas Rhett, Jesse Frasure and Ashley Gorley — that she on tour with Rascal Flatts when she got a call from Big Machine Label Group president and CEO Scott Borchetta saying he was about to send her a song that he wanted her to sing with her “new boyfriend.”
“Immediately I was like, ‘I hope we stay together because I really want to sing this song with him,’” she says. “Once Michael and I were engaged, I felt good enough about the idea of putting him on the record, and I wanted to have a moment that really symbolized what we were doing when this album was being made, which was dating and falling in love. I wanted it to feel very real, which was exactly this emotion that we had with ‘Finish Your Sentences.’”
While love songs anchor the project, the album also details female empowerment and heartache. A huge fan of ’90s country, Pearce included powerful songs of strength and determination with “Dashboard Jesus” and “Woman Down” that recall early Shania Twain. “Dashboard Jesus” is a song Pearce remembered hearing in 2013 and planned to record for her first record deal with Sony before she was dropped from the label. Seven years later, it made its way to her sophomore album with Big Machine.
“It is a testament of what that song says: I never gave up and I never lost faith in myself,” Pearce explains. “‘Woman Down,’ I feel like Shania had a way [with] those empowering female songs — and as soon as I heard that song, I wanted to sing it for my mom. I wanted to sing it for my grandmother. I wanted to sing it for myself.”
Pearce says the success of her debut single, “Every Little Thing,” which she penned with producer busbee and Emily Shackelton, showed her that “vulnerability trumps everything.” She took this realization into another co-write with Veltz and Jimmy Robbins when she knew she was in the wrong relationship.
Ahead of playing the heart-wrenching breakup song “Halfway Home,” Pearce explained that her current single with Lee Brice, “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” is about someone that she decided to let go of because she knew “it just wasn’t forever.”
“Before I could get to a place to write ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now,’ I felt really guilty. If you’ve ever been on the other side of a heartbreak where you caused it, and you know that that pain was real for somebody, it takes on a whole other thing,” she says. “Just because you break a heart doesn’t mean that it doesn’t hurt you… I don’t know that I could do something more vulnerable. This is probably the most naked I will ever feel in front of you, Nashville.”
The final song Pearce wrote for her sophomore album is the deeply personal “It Won’t Always Be Like This,” with Sam Ellis and Natalie Hemby. A song that was inspired in part by her love for her grandfather and her hometown, “It Won’t Always Be Like This” has taken on new meaning since the untimely death of her producer last year. Pearce explained how she found out eight weeks before busbee’s death that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer.
“I remember busbee saying to me, ‘This song is so special,’ and he had shared with all of us that he had been going through some things with his brother, and they were rekindling their relationship, and he started crying. He was like, ‘This song is so powerful,’” she says, before tearing up. “Little did I know that this song would take on another meaning for me, that I wouldn’t get to record with him again. I hope that you can all answer your own stories in this song.”
On the song’s chorus, Pearce sings, “I know nothing lasts forever/ But sometimes I still forget.” She says it’s this line that makes her think of her late producer. “That song and that lyric, and just understanding that life is so precious.”
busbee was an early champion of Pearce and signed her to a publishing deal when she was 25. “He’s responsible for breaking me as an artist,” Pearce adds over the phone. “He was really in the trenches with me for two years before ‘Every Little Thing’ happened.” At her album release party, she explained that busbee turned the record in 10 days before she found out he was sick.
“I can’t really put into words the amount of emotions that I feel putting this record out. To be quite honest with you, I had a moment where I didn’t want to put it out ’cause I really didn’t know what music would look like without him,” she says. “He taught me so much about confidence. He taught me so much about owning who I am as a songwriter, as an artist. He pushed me to the point to where I hated him at times, but he really felt like this record was going to take me to another level.
“I just feel grateful for the time that I got with him and I feel like it’s my duty to carry on his legacy and be a small part that gets to keep these songs going and cherish these little moments of music that he created,” Pearce continues. “busbee changed our lives. His heart was all over this and I will forever be grateful to busbee.”