It’s like audio caffeine.
Repeated listens to Kassi Ashton’s new single, “Drive You out of My Mind,” can create the same effect as too much coffee: elevating heart rates, rhythmically overstimulating the brain and infusing a general sense of urgency, all in the best way. It’s a relentless piece of work, an intense ball of focused energy.
“It is,” Ashton agrees, “a speeding ticket waiting to happen.”
It’s also the result of a concentrated period in which the singer-songwriter tried to satisfy MCA Nashville/Interscope executives by writing an obvious single. Her recordings to that point were cohesive and agreeable, but she still needed to crack the commercial code. They gave her two and a half months.
“Panic ensues,” remembers Ashton. “I wrote six or seven days a week for 10 weeks trying to write singles, and I remember writing this one and going, ‘This is it. There’s no way that this is not.’ I remember being so excited and giddy because you feel released from the tension and the nerves trying to write to a specific spot.”
“Drive You out of My Mind” was composed across two appointments, the first taking place at the home studio of songwriter-producer Todd Clark, a New Zealand-born creative whose résumé spans both pop music (Dua Lipa, Gavin DeGraw) and country (Little Big Town, Tucker Beathard). Ashton arrived at that first session with a major piece of the musical foundation solved.
“I had almost the entire chorus melody,” Ashton says. “I think I had some sparse words about neon lights, you know, generic filler things. But I find sometimes the chorus melodies can be difficult for me. So when I had a whole melody, I was just so stoked.”
Songwriter Travis Wood, who has landed cuts with Jordan Davis and Jake Owen, contributed a title that fit the propulsive nature of her melody, though it took a bit to get there.
“We probably spent, Kassi and I, the first half of the day arguing about what to write,” recalls Wood. “Kassi and I are a little bit in opposition with each other creatively. But we also get along really well at the same time, so we were able to be very honest with each other about what we didn’t want to do. She’s a bit of a bulldozer. And I might be guilty of that sometimes.”
Wood had been carrying the title “Drive You out of My Mind” for two or three years, but he felt as if its word play — a twist on a common phrase, “You’re driving me out of my mind” — was out of step in many co-writes. It suited all three writers on this occasion, and they attacked the chorus first.
Clark placed it in a minor key and developed a descending chord progression. But where most repeating progressions in modern country use a four-chord pattern, this one covered six. Thus, when the chorus ran through that sequence twice, the section took a while to reach its finale.
“Part of the reason why the chorus is probably so long is because that chord progression is a long progression,” Clark says. “You felt like one round of the chorus wasn’t going to be enough.”
That also meant the verses would have to stay comparatively short. Spurred by her co-writers to name an uptempo country song by a female that influenced her in the last 10 years, Ashton mentioned the Miranda Lambert single “Mama’s Broken Heart.” They referenced it in the first verse and ended up creating a melodic structure with a similar vibe: a bouncy verse melody that contrasts with the straight-ahead flow of the chorus.
The text of “Drive” would include numerous images of a physical escape route experienced while trying to outrun a memory: a cloud of dust, “Chevy wild horses,” a ghost town, flashing blue lights and a “needle hittin’ 90.”
Ashton and Wood clashed particularly over the hook’s setup line, in which she contemplates what might happen if “this heart forgets to break.” They decided to keep it in place and readdress it in the second writing session. Wood ultimately agreed on their return that it was the right line.
“That’s the last line before the hook,” he says. “That’s generally the line that you spend the most time debating with any co-writer.”
Clark mapped out the demo, fitting it with indie-sounding guitars, then handing it off to producer Luke Laird (Kacey Musgraves, Sam Hunt). He cut the first master version of “Drive” on Feb. 26, 2021, at Nashville’s Sound Emporium, employing drummer Jerry Roe to insert some humanity into its tenacious percussion track alongside the rock guitar tones.
“It almost has like this disco feel,” says Laird, “but how do you do that and keep it not sounding just like an electronic drum track but bring the live thing? We were just, the whole time, trying to marry the two parts.”
Ashton was surprised when the label bypassed “Drive,” picking “Boys in Pickup Trucks” as her first radio-targeted single in 2021. But as she launched her radio promotion tour, programmers’ ears typically perked up when she played “Drive” acoustically. Their feedback validated her belief in it, and she had Clark take another crack at producing it. He called on guitarist Derek Wells to downplay the indie feel and imprint a hint of western sound with slide guitar parts. And Ashton, having grown more familiar with it, rerecorded her lead vocal, emphasizing different words and finding the most ideal places to breathe in those persistent choruses. She broke each chorus into smaller sections to accomplish that.
“She definitely leveled it up,” Clark says. “There’s just a different energy to it because it’s a lot of words. It’s a lot of fast singing, and you’re looking for moments in those vocals where you can put some juice into all the words. I think it definitely got better.”
The label “freaked out,” she says, over the most recent version and released it to country radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 23. Its caffeine-level energy, coupled with its inherent bite, gives “Drive” a lot of potential. “It’s got kind of that minory thing, but then it’s uptempo,” says Laird. “It’s kind of like when songs have a sad lyric, but it’s fun music. I like that juxtaposition. This song… it’s not sad, but it has that minor-y thing against the super-uptempo, which I think is just always a cool combo.”
Ashton believes “Drive You out of My Mind,” which she performed for Country Radio Seminar during a March 14 label showcase at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, will connect her with the audience more authentically than any of her previous releases.
“It’s not a new me,” she notes. “It’s the me that was under a bunch of shit that I had to dig up. It’s the me [from] where I started a long time ago, before I let trends or opinions [interfere]. And so that makes me really excited because that also makes it feel timeless.”