Chris Young’s “Looking for You” — which RCA Nashville released to country radio via PlayMPE on Jan. 12 — traverses familiar subject matter for the singer, set in the same sort of nightclub that has provided the focal point for “Lonely Eyes,” “Neon” and the Mitchell Tenpenny duet “At the End of a Bar.” But the results are not what one would expect.
For starters, despite a widespread belief that lasting relationships can’t be found in a bar, “Looking” celebrates a guy who discovered a longtime love when he wasn’t actually seeking one in a night spot. Additionally, the song takes a surprising turn at the end of the chorus, injecting a chord that normally wouldn’t work and stamping it with a decidedly unusual melodic twist.
“It feels unexpected,” Young says. “And it’s one of the reasons I love the song so much.”
“Looking for You” got started while his co-writers were waiting for Young on May 22, 2022, at the Middle Tennessee home studio of songwriter-producer Chris DeStefano (“From the Ground Up,” “Something in the Water”). James McNair (“Lovin’ On You,” “Going, Going, Gone”) had the “Looking for You” title, accompanied by a plot that contrasts with the similar-sounding title of Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love.” Where the guy in Lee’s Urban Cowboy classic had spent much of his life searching for romance “in all the wrong places,” the protagonist in McNair’s idea wasn’t looking at all.
“I remember him kind of disclaiming it,” says Emily Weisband (“Jealous of Myself,” “All for You”). “’It’s not going to blow your mind,’” she recalls McNair saying. “’But it could be a great, uptempo country vibe. I think it might be something.’”
They fashioned it primarily as a two-chord country song, building off the “Looking for You” title with a series of single-guy pursuits, including “looking for a feeling,” “looking for an up-all-night-long” and “looking for a sunrise leading to a sunset.”
The chorus was half finished when Young arrived. That part of the melody relied on syncopated waterfall intervals to cast a sense of adventure, but it needed a change in direction to bring it home. After mostly alternating between the tonic chord and the four chord up to that point, DeStefano took a risk. He lobbed a hit-or-miss four-minor chord, one that would either be a musical goldmine or a sonic train wreck.
“It’s a little bit of a one-bullet gun,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll just kind of throw it out there and see if it feels right, if everybody in the room is digging it, because it’s a commitment. In that situation, everybody was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do that.’ So it was like, ‘OK, I trust y’all. Let’s do it.’ ”
The minor chord changed what would typically be an E note to an E-flat — only a half-step difference, but that small alteration created a significant misdirection. Young fitted a melody to the new section, landing directly on that E-flat, the very note that changed the song’s course. It created an enormous amount of musical tension.
But it also arrived at the perfect time for the song’s message, following a “right out of the blue” lyric with an out-of-the-blue sonic flow.
“A lot of songs will end on a ‘ta-da,’ you know — a major chord, and you’re like, ‘Oh, there’s the hook. There it is,’ ” says McNair. “But this one ends on kind of a half ‘ta-da,’ where you’re kind of hanging on the edge.”
They had said pretty much everything that needed to be said with that maneuver — the words and the music both yelled “surprise!” — so they kept the song’s lyrics to a minimum. When they reached the bridge, instead of introducing any new vocabulary, they borrowed two lines from the pre-chorus near the beginning of the song and paired them with one more four-minor chord, repeating the tension caused by that simple E-flat.
“You do something once, it could be an accident,” DeStefano says. “You do it twice, it’s intentional.”
The song was mostly written before DeStefano started building a track to support it, but that happened quickly. He didn’t just develop a demo: He created almost the entire final master before his co-writers left.
“People don’t realize just how good he is unless you’ve been in a room with him,” says Young. “He’s probably top five — one of the fastest editors on ProTools that I’ve ever seen. Just on the fly, he’s laying stuff down, so by the time that we’re done writing it, it is done. And that’s not to say that he’s just sitting there building the track. He’s coming up with melodies, coming up with guitar parts, interjecting lyrics. He’s an all-around [talent].”
DeStefano established a pulsing foundation, alternating — sometimes combining — guitar, programmed keyboards and/or banjo to evolve the sound underneath the melody even as the beat moved forward. He also played a short guitar solo that used a series of flatted notes, complementing the attitude from the four-minor chord.
Weisband tossed in harmonies and some ad-libs to support Young’s lead vocal, with one of those off-the-cuff ideas forming what became a key musical hook. DeStefano pitch-shifted that phrase into a higher octave, generating a sort of electronic Mariah Carey sound. “I sound like a little alien on there,” Weisband jokes.
Juxtaposed with Young’s lead vocal, the effect brings contrasting elements together in a unique way. “She’s got an amazing voice, and she has a lot of pop sensibility,” says McNair. “His tone is such a rich, country, smooth tone. Mixed with her, the blend of those was really cool.”
The waterfall chorus melody and the tense E-flat in the four-minor chord are unusual enough that they’ll likely challenge fans who sing along with “Looking for You” — though in Young’s experience, repetition solves that issue. “I ended up singing the song the entire day of the video shoot over and over and over,” he says. “So it’s just ingrained in my head.”
The song’s inherent surprises invariably won over Young and his associates, and RCA Nashville made it the lead single from his forthcoming project. “Looking for You” will go for adds on Jan. 23.
“I loved it, and then the label loved it and other songwriter friends of mine that I played it for loved it,” says Young. “It was like the same response every time because when they got to the end of that chorus, everybody was like, ‘Ah, that’s cool.’ ”
Not a shock, since most people like surprises. But it confirmed for Young that the risks in “Looking for You” were likely to pay off: “That’s what I needed to hear.”