One of the most difficult challenges for an act with an established sound and fan base is balancing change and continuity. If it fails to move its music forward, the audience and the performer are bound to grow bored. But if the change is too radical, the act’s distinguishing characteristics can be muddied and its identity lost.
As Florida Georgia Line moves from its second album, Anything Goes, to its third, Dig Your Roots, the duo navigated that issue quite well with the new project’s first single. “H.O.L.Y.,” released to radio via Play MPE on April 29, is the first piano-based title that has been pushed to programmers, presenting a softer version of a duo that’s widely regarded as one of the genre’s party staples.
But there’s plenty of continuity present, too. “H.O.L.Y.” maintains the core harmonies that set Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley apart from every other artist on country radio, even if those harmonies are used a little more sparingly than is typical for them.
Even better, there’s a continuity in the narrative. The last single from Anything Goes — “Confession” (No. 1, Country Airplay), released through Play MPE on Nov. 3, 2015 — found its protagonist at a crossroads moment, questioning where he’s headed. With “H.O.L.Y.,” the lead voice seems to have found an answer. The woman in his life arrived when he was at his lowest, “broke through and saved me.” In a format known for its storytelling, the path from “Confession” to “H.O.L.Y.” is a nifty, ethereal one. It was also unexpected, since FGL had never heard “H.O.L.Y.” when “Confession” went to radio.
“We knew we were going to set something up,” says Kelley. “I don’t think we knew exactly how big it was going to be — or what we were setting up — but, man, it’s really cool how it’s happened.”
The seeds for “H.O.L.Y.” were actually planted when FGL was up to its ears in “Dirt.” The first single from Anything Goes (which also represented a sonic and thematic change of pace from the pair’s previous album) was at No. 2 on Hot Country Songs on Aug. 7, 2014, the day three songwriters signed with the Los Angeles branch of BMG Chrysalis created “H.O.L.Y.” in their first writing session together.
Nate Cyphert, formerly the frontman for Long Island pop-rock band This Condition, had been living in Southern California for roughly a year at the time, and as he headed to the appointment at the Glassell Park studio of busbee (“My Church,” “Storm Warning”), he was inspired by the scenery.
“I was driving through the hills and was in awe of all the mountains and all of that,” remembers Cyphert. “I don’t know exactly where it came from, but I just had this idea for ‘high on loving you.’ I was thinking of all the things that associate with love in the highest form, and I came up with ‘H.O.L.Y.’ as an acronym. I walked into the session, and it was the first thing I proposed to them as an idea.”
The back story was important when he presented “H.O.L.Y.” as a title to busbee and Norwegian-born William Wiik Larsen (producer and co-writer of Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong,” which peaked at No.4 on the Billboard Hot 100).
“It just seemed like a weird title for a pop song,” notes busbee. “But I’ve learned that every title is innocent until proven guilty, so I just listened. He said it was an acronym for ‘high on loving you.’ That’s dope. As soon as he said that, I was super-in, and I literally just sat down on the piano and started playing.”
Busbee instinctively sang an ascending melody over a descending, gospel-flavored chord progression: “Holy, holy, holy, holy/I’m high on loving you,” repeated twice. It was simple, hooky and — thanks to the piano texture — rich and natural. The chorus was completed in merely seconds.
“Most studios that I work in don’t have an actual piano — especially not like his,” says Cyphert. “I think he has a baby grand. Even if you can’t play piano, you play a few notes and there’s this magic to it, this vibe. If we didn’t have a real piano, I don’t know if that song would be written.”
They used the same chords to build the verses, which held their own form of continuity. The first verse is mostly about darkness — winter, rain, tears, a loss of hope — setting up the woman’s restorative powers in the chorus and in the second verse, which is bathed in baptism, sunshine and sex.
“You get into the chorus and it has that redemptive feel, but you don’t want it to be super-saccharine,” says busbee, acknowledging the weight of the first verse. “It gets a little gritty, but it’s still positive.”
In the ensuing months, they recorded two demos. One was rather adventurous, with a gospel choir and sax, but the version that got pitched was basic: piano, bass, a drum loop and Cyphert’s high-pitched vocals. “It’s like makeup,” says Larsen of the latter version. “If a girl’s pretty, you don’t need to doll her up. She doesn’t need to add [a lot of makeup] just to walk out the door.”
“H.O.L.Y.” found some traction in pop. Justin Bieber flirted with it, but didn’t cut it. Another act recorded it, but the track sat while the overall project floundered. Eventually, it got pitched around again. BMG Music Nashville senior director of creative Sarah Knabe sent it to FGL’s manager, Big Loud Shirt partner Seth England, who forwarded it to Kelley and Hubbard. It wasn’t a slam-dunk on their end: Neither was convinced it was right for them, but after a few weeks, both of them — and their wives — kept coming back to “H.O.L.Y.”
“It took us a couple of days to really realize how much it actually did fit this album and the direction we wanted to go,” says Kelley.
The version they first saw had no dots in the title, so the acronym wasn’t obvious. (“I actually thought it was, ‘Hi, I’m loving you,’ so I was way off,” says Kelley with a laugh.) But they turned it over to producer Joey Moi (Chris Lane, Jake Owen), who stayed fairly true to the demo. Guitarist Ilya Toshinsky added an acoustic lick to the opening, keyboardist Charlie Judge slipped in some faint organ textures, and steel guitarist Russ Pahl layered nearly imperceptible heartache on top.
Kelley is a bit of a stealth vocalist in parts of the verses, adding atmospheric “oohs” underneath the pre-chorus before breaking into FGL’s trademark harmonies in the chorus and a call-and-answer part in the bridge and finale. “We tried to channel our inner Eagles,” he says.
Hubbard lets it out on the bridge, selling the “fire in my veins” with unbridled urgency, peaking near the top of his range at “ecstasy.” “After you live with the song in your truck and run around with it, you get really comfortable with it,” Hubbard notes. “With this song especially, we just both kind of closed our eyes and went to that place in our head.”
The writers were happily surprised at the treatment. Moi and FGL respected the simplicity of the demo and found a way to make it work within a country framework that they hadn’t really anticipated. “It feels like it could’ve really went anywhere,” says Larsen, “but I’m super stoked that Florida Georgia Line did it. They did a great job.”
“H.O.L.Y.” rises 14-12 in its sixth week on Country Airplay, but heavy sales and streaming have already pushed it to the top on Hot Country Songs, where it has remained for five straight weeks. They have clearly hit buttons with the right balance of change and continuity, and the mix of love and spirituality in “H.O.L.Y.” adds a full-circle element to the duo’s storyline that most listeners probably didn’t know existed.
“We got our start playing guitar and singing in church, and also writing love songs,” says Kelley. “Our album and tour name is Dig Your Roots, and this couldn’t be more digging our roots.”