Gabby Barrett won the hearts of country fans and beyond on Season 16 of American Idol in 2018. But as soon as the show was over (she placed third behind winner Maddie Poppe and runner-up Caleb Lee Hutchinson), she quickly realized that TV success didn’t necessarily translate to the real world.
“It was actually really hard to get a record deal after American Idol,” Barrett admits to Billboard. “I thought it might be easier, [being] on a platform that clearly people in the music industry are looking at, [but] nobody was wanting to sign.”
Luckily she had already been on the music industry grind for years, as the now 19-year-old started performing at 11 years old. But come January 2019, Barrett had a catchy song called “I Hope” — about a girl who doesn’t wish her ex well after he cheats — that instantly connected and even topped SiriusXM The Highway’s Hot 30 Countdown a few months after its release, despite not being backed by a label. Now, Barrett is signed to Warner Music Nashville, and “I Hope” is sitting at No. 10 on Hot Country Songs chart, No. 19 on Country Airplay, and No. 56 on the Billboard Hot 100 (all charts dated Feb. 8).
Barrett chatted with Billboard about her breakout hit, how she landed a deal with Warner Music Nashville, and what’s next.
You signed with Warner Music Nashville last May. Why did that feel like the right label home?
We released “I Hope” independently in January 2019, and [I’d heard] from people in the industry and my team about how it [had] been reacting and how the numbers [were] crazy. I got a few calls in April, but Warner Music Nashville and I were on the same goal path. There weren’t a lot of females on the label, and John Esposito [WMN’s chairman/CEO] is a Pittsburgh fan, and I’m from Pittsburgh — so I thought I could fit in there perfectly. They saw how “I Hope” was affecting people and streaming. They instantly sent me out to meet with radio [stations] and get the song on the radio. They acted fast while the song was rolling.
Why did you want your debut single to be about a bad breakup, especially when you were in a happy relationship with your fellow Idol alum, Cade Foehner, who you married in October 2019?
“I Hope” came from a high school relationship I had, and I remember what it’s like to feel done wrong. We had about five songs written at the time, and [me and co-writer Zach Kale] were trying to figure out which song to release [to present me] as an artist separate from Idol, I thought it’d be cool to have my first song go back to the past. I wanted people to get an idea of who I am and what I’ve been through; how I was as a person before.
It’s been cool to see guys really like the song too, because come to find out, girls cheat too! [Laughs] But it’s nice to see people connect to the song, and if it can help them move past and grow from a relationship that they may be holding a grudge against, that’s all I’m hoping for.
So now that you’ve got a hit single on country radio, what’s next?
You can expect an album sometime this year. I’ve been working on music for a year and a half now. I’ve written a few songs with [Nashville superproducer] Ross Copperman that will potentially be on the album, and he’s co-produced and produced “I Hope.” I don’t want to give anything away yet, but it’s not one genre. We’ve got some cool collaborations coming up. This album’s going to be something worth listening to.
What advice would you give to aspiring country artists?
I would be straightforward and say it’s very hard. You have to sacrifice a lot, and you’re going to be tired. There are going to be 4 a.m. calls you don’t want to do. But you have to keep knocking on doors, and eventually one’s going to open. Be in Nashville if you want to be in country music, because everybody that can help you is here.
You’re living proof of all of that!
A lot of people say, “How old are you?” and I say, “19,” and they go, “Oh you have a lot of time.” And I’m just thankful that I got a head start this early, with my debut single being on the radio at the age of 19. That makes me excited for 30!