Welcome to Emerging Country Artist Spotlight, a Billboard series where we highlight an up-and-coming act who is making a splash in the genre. This week’s pick is country singer-songwriter Tenille Townes, who credits an early performance with Shania Twain for pushing her to pursue an artist career.
Tenille Townes launched onto the country music scene last year with the release of her stirring debut single “Somebody’s Daughter.” Penned with Barry Dean (“Pontoon,” “Day Drinking”) and Luke Laird (“American Kids,” “Head Over Boots”), the inspiring story about a woman in the throes of homelessness is currently in the top 30 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart.
The Canadian singer-songwriter is on the road as part of Dierks Bentley’s Burning Man Tour: “I love to be on the road,” she tells Billboard. Townes has been a mainstay on the stage for as long as she can remember, performing since she was five years old. “I always loved to sing. I remember asking my mom for singing lessons when I was five,” she recalls. “I watched how happy it made people feel to hear songs, and it’s always been something in me.”
Townes credits an impromptu performance with Shania Twain at the age of nine for lighting a fire in her to perform. She hasn’t looked back since: after making countless trips to Nashville as a teenager, she moved to Music City five years ago with the dream of pursuing an artist career. With plans to release her debut album later this year on Sony Music Nashville, Townes chats with Billboard about her journey to Nashville.
When was the moment you knew you wanted to be an artist?
I grew up singing along to everything in the backseat as a little kid and following along to lyric booklets and dreaming of being able to stand up on stage and play for people some day in Nashville. I was singing around my hometown. I sang the anthem at our local hockey games when the jersey would hang way past my knees. I played all kinds of different local events and fundraisers.
My grandparents bought me my first guitar when I turned 13. That was the moment I started writing songs and really seeing a vision for doing this for real. I made my first trip to Nashville shortly after that and kept coming back as much as my parents would let me skip school. Then I made the 45-hour drive from my hometown to Nashville five years ago.
When was your first public appearance?
I was probably five or six playing at different events. I was 11 when I played my first music festival. I had called up the promoter. I heard his name on the radio and looked up his name in the phone book.
I’m a diehard Shania Twain fan, and I got to go to one of her concerts when I was nine. I had my mom make me this costume like the Miami DVD that I used to obsess over. I made a sign that said, “Shania, can I please sing with you?” She ended up pulling me up on stage. I remember looking at her, my hero, and looking out to 18,000 people going, “Okay, this is it. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I ended up singing the chorus of “Honey, I’m Home.” It lit this fire in me that I can’t even quite put into words what that moment meant. I cannot wait to pay that forward to some kid someday in a sold-out arena. That’s the dream.
Have you seen or spoken to Shania since signing your record deal?
[Last year] actually at a Billboard [2018 Country Power Players] event at the Hutton Hotel. It was an industry event and she was honoring [manager Jason Owen] and giving out an award. Somebody introduced me to her, and I had such a hard time putting any words together. I mustered up a thank-you and she was like, “That’s so crazy that was you all those years ago.” We got a new picture. It was a very surreal, full-circle moment I was very grateful for.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
I had been studying a political cartoon in our social studies class and then I came home from school and pulled out my journal and just started to write about how it made me feel. I think it was called “Home Now.”
Whose career do you admire most, and would like to pattern yours after?
I definitely look up to Shania’s path and the way that she completely created her own with such a feel and a sense of music and independence and something different. I looked up to that a lot growing up, and I still do. I’m also a huge fan of the Patty Griffins of the world and Lori McKennas, and the ability to create songs that are vulnerable and real and sometimes talk about hard things. That’s a big part of the career path that I look up to too.
Who is your dream collaborator?
What’s the story behind your debut single “Somebody’s Daughter”?
The idea came from a drive I was taking with my mom. We were going furniture shopping to set up my little apartment in Nashville and we took this exit off the interstate and saw this young girl standing there holding onto a cardboard sign. We couldn’t really look the other way and it drew out this conversation at this red light, just wondering, what happened to her and who she belonged to and what her story was. It made me feel so grateful to get to be sitting there having that conversation with my mom, but also broke my heart at the same time.
A little while later I had a write with Barry Dean and Luke Laird. I’d never written with either of them before, and they’re both songwriting heroes of mine. I had been messing with a couple of the first lines and Luke had been working on this loop and track in exactly the same key and pretty much the same tempo. Then Barry came up the stairs with a folder of newspaper articles that he draws inspiration from and one of them was talking about how street names can coordinate with low income areas and homelessness. We all looked at each other like, “I think we’re supposed to write this today,” and I’m so grateful we did. This is something I believe in so much and it’s very important for me to talk about.
What’s the most autobiographical song you’ve released?
A lot of these songs come from the perspective of being an observer. As a writer, that’s where I feel drawn to the most. There’s a song “Jersey On the Wall” that was inspired by a community that I met on a school tour before moving to Nashville. This town had just been through a really hard car accident, with five kids from the high school. Danielle was killed in this wreck. I had been hanging out with the four other kids who had been in the accident all day and had no idea what they’d been through.
I got to know this community very well in Grand Manan, New Brunswick in Canada, and stayed in touch with them. I got to fly back the following year and surprised the kids for their high school graduation. I watched Danielle’s honorary scholarship be awarded to her best friend, Zoe, who was also in the car. [There] was not a dry eye in the room and on the wall in the gym was Danielle’s jersey hanging there. It made me think about the questions I have for God, and I think it’s okay to have those. That song very much came from sitting in the back of that gym and observing the horrible, hard things that that community was going through.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about the music industry?
I’m constantly journaling and trying to write down a lot of the advice that is collected. There are so many people that have been really encouraging and kind. Getting to be on tour with so many people that I look up to so much. Miranda Lambert especially, she’s been very incredible to me, as has Dierks Bentley. Just watching and learning from the culture that they create on and off the stage is something that will stick with me.
I’ve heard Miranda tell stories about what it was like to be the opener on a tour and how important it is for her to make people feel welcome, and the fact that the art and the songs and the music always comes first with her. I loved watching that. There’s so many people in this Nashville community that have really been encouraging to me, from writers to publishers. Everybody’s been really wonderful.