If you tried to guess which judges for The Voice you were likeliest to find in Nashville this year, Pharrell Williams probably would have placed, oh, third. But it turns out the producer did a pretty good job of keeping undercover during a stealth visit he made to collaborate with country quartet Little Big Town, resulting in a just-announced eight-song album, Wanderlust, due out June 10.
“We’ve kept a pretty good secret,” bragged Kimberly Schlapman, backstage Monday night in Studio City as the group prepared to tape an episode of ABC’s summer series Greatest Hits. As for how to describe the fairly spontaneous project, Schlapman admitted, “We don’t know what it is! We don’t know what’s gonna happen with it, really. We’re going to put it out there Tuesday night and see what happens,” she said, referring to their planned performance on the Voice season finale of the newly available leadoff track, “One of Those Days.”
They do know what it’s not. “It’s not a country record,” Karen Fairchild told Billboard. “And it’s not like anything we’ve ever done. It’s fun to be spontaneous and put it out there to the fans, because we want to, and not to overthink it, but just because it has brought us a lot of joy, and we think it will for them as well. So why not? We’re going with our gut and putting it out there. It’s just music, you know?”
The band tells Billboard that the project got underway in Nashville in January as a sort of blind date, when Williams flew into town to try writing with the group for a couple of days. “And it was when we got a big snowstorm in Nashville, so we were really just stuck in the studio. I think we ordered Waffle House in,” Fairchild laughed. “We kept writing songs and playing ‘em, and our band was there. It felt like something we had never done before — and for being a band as long as we have, that’s a hard thing to say, that it’s something that’s new. We were so intrigued that we flew to L.A. and wrote some more songs, and then after the ACM Awards [in April, where they won Vocal Group of the Year for the third time], we were like, well, we’re coming back to write more songs. And it just kept going and going, until we felt it was too special not to share.”
Fairchild acknowledged being “a little nervous” at that first writing date with Williams, all of four months ago. “We respect him so much that we wanted something fantastic to come out of it, but that doesn’t always happen when you put so much pressure on a writing situation. But luckily it did happen. He loves southern harmonies — he’s from Virginia — and is a big fan of country music. He’s good at anything, and such a joy to be around. This music is fun and inspiring, and very hopeful for what’s going on in our crazy world these days. Hopefully it’ll bring a lot of smiles and dancing to people.”
They maintain that Wanderlust isn’t necessarily indicative of any fierce determination to go — or stay — pop. “At the same time, we’ve been back in the studio with Jay Joyce, making another Little Big Town country record,” Fairchild points out, talking about the slightly less ubiquitous producer who helmed their platinum Tornado (2012) and gold Pain Killer (2014). “It’s fun to go back and forth between these two insanely great creative people, Jay and Pharrell.”
How will they promote the rush release? The band members still seem almost as startled by the project as their fans will be, but “we’ve got some things in the works,” said Fairchild. “We’re lucky to be Grand Ole Opry members, and I don’t know if we can talk him into that, but wouldn’t that be fun, to invite Pharrell to the Opry and introduce him to Nashville? He’s gonna love everybody there.”