Three months ago, Cady Groves was on Rock Road in Wichita, driving down the main drag in a crappy Ford Taurus, when it suddenly hit her. She pulled over to get an ice cream cone at a Braum’s store, hoping that would make her feel better, but it didn’t. As she started to cry while sitting alone in the parking lot, she grabbed her phone and called Rani Hancock, her A&R representative at RCA Records, whom she considered a dear friend. Groves told her that she couldn’t do it anymore — that is, be a part of RCA, the label she had dreamt of joining since she was a child. She wanted to be dropped.
The response she received was a heartfelt apology for her tumultuous stint on the label, but no concrete answers as to why it had happened. “They wanted me to know that this was in no way my fault, or due to my performance on anything,” Groves tells Billboard. “I kept every promise, so why am I in a Kansas parking lot, afraid that my gas is gonna hit E? Why am I not good enough?”
Groves had moved to Wichita a year before that parking-lot epiphany, after spending the majority of the three prior years in Los Angeles, waiting for her phone to ring. She had signed to RCA in 2010 and moved out to L.A. months later, but with bills to pay and no source of income, decided to move into a house that her brother had renovated in Kansas, and search for a 40-hour work week in late 2012. The only stipulation: the job couldn’t be somewhere that would risk her being recognized. “I almost got hired at a Starbucks,” she says, “and I just couldn’t do it, because everyone I know in this town goes to Starbucks, and the second they’d see me, they’d know I failed.”
Groves, who is 24 years old, was once a prize courted by every major label. She has a collection of unique, expertly written pop songs; thousands of dedicated fans who appreciate her biting humor and Midwest sensibility; and a relentless work ethic that has beguiled some of the most celebrated producers and songwriters in modern pop music, including Savan Kotecha (One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” Britney Spears’ “I Wanna Go”) and Kristian Lundin (Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” *N SYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”).
“During our first session, both I and Savan [Kotecha] instantly felt she had a great, recognizable voice and personality,” says Lundin, the Swedish legend who recently co-wrote One Direction’s single “Kiss You.” Lundin has not done much mainstream production work in the past decade, but for Groves, he willingly became a mentor. For those who discovered her, Groves’ star potential was obvious and real.
But a few months ago, when she and her manager officially cut the cord with RCA after three years and one EP release, she was done with her recording career. With the permission of her past collaborators, Groves started posting a steady stream of years-old demos online. They weren’t demos of songs from her enthralling RCA debut album, because she had already resigned herself to never having that released commercially or even non-commercially; instead, they were outtakes, songs that she had roughly finished and enjoyed but were deemed not strong enough to make the full-length. Scraps, the best she could offer for nearly 74,000 Twitter followers, several of whom have tweeted her, asking about the mysterious delay of her debut album. At that point, Groves didn’t think she would ever make music again.
“I did the work, and that’s what I don’t understand,” says Groves. “And when you don’t get to see that payoff for the work you’ve done for years, it’s really frustrating.”
After momentarily relinquishing her desire to become a pop star, Groves is back to believing in her abilities, and is looking for a new chance. Manager Stirling McIlwaine talks about meeting with new labels in the coming weeks, and repeats the phrase “Cady 2.0” when describing the next phase of the singer-songwriter’s career. She’s nervous about diving back in, but is confident, even cocky, about what she can do. To get it right the second time, however, she still has to figure out what went wrong the first time.
Growing up in Oklahoma cities like Marlow and Lawton after her parents divorced, Groves would turn on Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle” in her room and sing along from the inside of her closet, because she didn’t want any of her family members hear her attempts to match the melismas. One day, when her mother was outside cleaning the family’s pool in the backyard, Cady marched outside and declared that she was going to be the next Britney Spears. Her mother responded, “No, you’re not.”
“I didn’t want to be mean,” says Groves’ mother, Carol Petitt. “We all want as parents for our kids to have their heart’s desires. But I didn’t want to see hers crushed… you’re gonna have to be able to provide for yourself. But she was tenacious.”
Groves’ childhood was largely unhappy. A rotating cast of stepfathers distanced her from her mother, and most of her older siblings — Cady is the youngest of seven children — told her that her voice was terrible, and that she shouldn’t pursue music. Wanting to become a songwriter but flirting with an interest in cooking, she graduated from high school at 16 and attended the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz.; from there, she bundled up all of her possessions in a Ford Contour and bounced around the Southwest, residing in Phoenix, Nevada and Oklahoma at varying lengths of time, feeling lost in every city and state.
While staying in Oklahoma in the fall of 2007, Groves got a call from her favorite brother, Casey, inviting her to stay with him for a week at his house in Kansas. Groves, then 18, spent an incredible few days with her 28-year-old brother, watching “The Godfather” and eating miniature chocolates and going food shopping. At the end of the week, she confessed that she still harbored the musical aspirations that she had had since she was little.
“He said, ‘If you want to do something, you’re wasting time right now talking about being scared to do it,'” Groves recalls. “He gave me confidence. We went out to eat that night, and we took a picture together, and I didn’t know that that would be the last picture he ever took.”
Two days later, Casey was dead — the victim of a still-unresolved murder. Groves sank into a deep depression, spending most of her days locked in an apartment in Oklahoma, writing the bleakest songs of her life. When she pulled herself out of that stupor six months later, Groves did so quickly — leaving her apartment in the middle of the night, driving to Kansas City to live with her brother Kyle for the summer of 2008, and setting up a makeshift studio in his basement, where she could write lyrics and tinker with recording her vocals. Three months later, Cady went to live with another brother, Cody, back in Oklahoma, where she mowed lawns all day and worked on her MySpace page all night.
Eventually, Groves wrote a full EP of songs, titled “A Month of Sundays” — and, still believing she couldn’t sing, went onto Craigslist to find a vocalist who could prop up her words. She found a girl online who was willing to record her songs and used her lawn-mowing money to book some time at a studio in Springfield, Missouri… but the Craigslist girl never showed up. “I felt like I had wasted so much money, and the [studio] bookers were like, ‘You don’t have a bad voice, just go sing the songs,'” she says. Groves did the best she could in the Missouri studio, traveled back to Oklahoma, and got sent the finished songs back in three weeks. “I posted the first one,” says Groves, “and the next day, every major record label had contacted me on my MySpace.”
Groves had reconnected with her family following Casey’s death, but when her mother and brothers told her that the various label messages were hoaxes, she stopped communicating with them about her career. Instead, she found a friend and backer in Hancock, the senior VP of A&R at RCA, who had worked with Clive Davis for over a decade at Arista and J Records, and been courting Groves to sign with the label while the burgeoning singer had been taking meetings in New York City [Hancock could not be reached for comment for this story]. Groves went with her gut, inked with Hancock and RCA in early spring 2010, and in May, embarked on her first national tour, on the 2010 Bamboozle Road Show alongside artists like Third Eye Blind, Good Charlotte and All Time Low.
“I’ve never seen someone stand in front of a crowd of people and be able to capture them so instantly,” says guitarist Ryan Williams, who began playing shows with Groves in early 2011. Everything was moving quickly for Groves when the Bamboozle trek wrapped in late June 2010: while her family was Googling her name to find out that her spot on a national tour wasn’t a practical joke, Groves had moved to Los Angeles, determined to quickly write and record her first album.
Standing on the Santa Monica pier, Groves gazed out at the Pacific for the first time. “You look at the ocean, and you can’t control anything out there — it’s so much bigger than all of us,” she says. “It made me think, if I want to make an impact on the world… I have to have my songs be as big as this ocean to really move someone.”
The first songwriting attempts in Los Angeles were unsuccessful — Groves says that she would send in songs and be told to keep writing, a polite rebuff of the material she had already written. Groves was soon paired with some of the biggest Swedish producers and songwriters in mainstream music to help extract her inner pop star: Kotecha, Carl Falk (Nicki Minaj’s “Starships,” One Direction’s “Live While We’re Young”) and Lundin, the latter of whom she worked with most closely. All the while, Groves was ecstatic, now writing with the collaborators of her childhood idols as an artist on the label of her childhood idols.
“I remember telling my mom, ‘You don’t understand — when I was a kid, I had the Christina Aguilera single, and it said she was on RCA Records. And now my singles are gonna say that!'” says Groves.
At 21, she also fell deeply in love with a collaborator, a 35-year-old producer she had met at one of her first writing sessions in Los Angeles, and began an intense, months-long relationship. “We had talked about moving in together, and even getting married,” she says. One day, the producer was running late to a writing session, and another producer at the studio casually mentioned that her secret boyfriend was married. After one final interaction in which Groves confronted the producer, the two never spoke again.
Feeling duped and heartbroken, Groves proceeded to re-write all of the songs she and the unnamed producer had worked on together. Groves and Lundin crafted an uptempo breakup single, “This Little Girl,” that was at once darkly sardonic and addictive, punctuated by the line “This little girl is capable of murder/’Cause you hurt her.” The song premiered in August 2011, and previewed the “This Little Girl” EP, released in February 2012.
Sam Lansky, TIME’s deputy culture editor, heard Groves’ debut EP at a Manhattan listening session in October 2011 while serving as a blogger for MuuMuse.com, and was unexpectedly intrigued. “I was really startled by how great the music was… and also, by her transparency and what a compelling figure she was,” says Lansky. “It was a lot more than what you got from hearing ‘This Little Girl’ — there was a depth to her and her story, and her willingness to share her story.”
“This Little Girl” earned praise from pop blogs like PopCrush, JustJared and Idolator upon its release, but the EP was actually supposed to be an album. “I had a finished album, and I was going on tour with Hot Chelle Rae [in early 2012]… an EP is not the way I wanted to present these songs,” says Groves. According to the singer, however, RCA thought it would be better to release “This Little Girl” as a single on a four-song EP, and gauge interest before setting an album release date [RCA declined a request to comment for this story]. A year and a half after signing with the label, Groves was ready to put something, anything, out for the fans she had started gathering online and on tour, and begrudgingly backed the decision to release an EP led by her “This Little Girl” single.
But “This Little Girl” fizzled. Despite receiving a proper press push from RCA and a music video that featured a cameo from Blake Shelton, whom Groves met on Twitter, the song did not chart, and has sold only 89,000 downloads to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The EP did even worse, selling only 3,000 copies to date. The Hot Chelle Rae tour came and went, and without a hit single to give her first major label project some momentum, Groves went back to waiting for word on her debut album.
“In pop, you have to come out of the gate swinging,” says McIlwaine, who started working with Groves in late summer 2012 and also manages Daughtry and Kris Allen. “You have to have a song that cuts through and doesn’t just barely get into the Top 40. You got to have some horsepower — in today’s world, you almost have to think about having a second single be successful after a first single does well, in order to release an album.”
Groves was building a fan base on Twitter, passing the time by tweeting jokes that bordered on crude and that resulted in admonishments from her then-management. But she also had to shrug off questions about her album release, and started to slip back into depression. After settling into Los Angeles upon signing with RCA, Groves became restless when her calls started going unanswered, and began bouncing around the country again — returning to Oklahoma, then back to L.A., then in Nevada with her mother, before finally landing back in Kansas. “I had nothing to do all day,” she says.
The glimmers of hope were few and far between in the two years after the “This Little Girl” debacle. Her next single, “Love Actually,” was released nearly a year after “This Little Girl” in June 2012, but featured Groves’ biggest chorus yet and another Lundin arrangement that revealed its details with repeated listens. “Love Actually” was included on the track list to the “Now That’s What I Call Music! 43” album, as one of four “Now What’s Next” bonus tracks in August 2012, around the time she decided to change management. But without any radio play, the single was quickly dismissed; its current sales stand at 11,000 downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
In early 2013, Groves was brought out to Los Angeles to shoot a music video for “Forget You,” another new single that was more mature and evocative than “Love Actually.” Groves was told that “Forget You” was going to be included on RCA’s upcoming soundtrack to “The Smurfs 2” and supported with a radio tour; although her optimism had been waning, the singer sensed that there was some enthusiasm for “Forget You” from the label. Unfortunately, the “Smurfs 2” soundtrack, led by the little-played Britney Spears single “Ooh La La,” has sold 14,000 copies since its release last July, according to Nielsen SoundScan. “I think it’s fair to say that the ‘Smurfs 2’ soundtrack totally underperformed,” says McIlwaine.
At that point, the writing was on the wall for Groves. The radio tour for “Forget You” had boiled down to a single performance, at a water park named Rock River Rapids in Derby, Kansas last July. Four more months of inaction followed, with Groves describing a scene in which her management was feverishly pushing for a renewed radio tour for a single, “Forget You,” that had already fulfilled its titular promise. Out of options and patience, Groves called Hancock in a parking lot and begged to cut ties while choking back sobs. McIlwaine understood Groves’ choice, and finalized her departure from RCA before the end of the year (the singer is still attached to RCA’s parent company, Sony Music Entertainment, through her Sony/ATV publishing deal).
“I called up [RCA president/COO] Tom Corson,” says McIlwaine, “and said, ‘Hey, let’s all be grown-ups here, and realize that this probably isn’t going to become a priority for RCA, and that you guys just have too many big records coming out. Can Cady and I just go on our way and find her a new home?’ And Tom was a total gentleman about it. He totally understood. He felt bad about it, but he was completely supportive of our decision to want to move on.”
Of course, Groves didn’t think she wanted to move on after such an experience; in mid-November, she told her manager that her career was over. McIlwaine advised the singer to take the Thanksgiving and Christmas break to think about her future, and make sure her choice was final. Groves came back to him two days later with a changed mind. “I couldn’t believe it when she said she was going to quit,” says Petitt, her mother. “But her heart wasn’t ready to stop.”
In October 2011, just months before Groves issued her only major label release to date, RCA Records folded J Records, Arista Records and Jive into one label. It was only natural for some of the roster’s smaller artists, like Groves, to get somewhat lost in the shuffle during that time of on-the-fly transition.
But even some of the superstars on RCA — including Miley Cyrus, Ke$ha and Miguel — have had to endure periods of reinvention, often on different labels, to achieve their current feats of fame over the courses of their careers. The phenomenon of the clumsily executed first encounter with major-label life isn’t really a phenomenon at all.
“Having, and losing, a major label deal in your early 20s is practically a rite of passage for most of the big artists who have broken out over the last few years — Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry,” says Lansky. “It’s sort of standard fare. And I do think that that level of stardom could be in Cady’s future.”
Groves doesn’t know what will happen to the album she recorded during her first year as an RCA artist, but grimly believes that it will never see the light of day, even if she secures the rights from her former label. “I know that everyone around me doesn’t want me to use [the old album], because they want me to make a new album,” she says. And although those old songs sound slightly outdated, they also possess the blistering songwriting style that “This Little Girl” and “Love Actually” hinted at without fully embracing. Songs like “Red Handed,” “Revenge” and “Same” are more polished than any of Groves’ properly released singles, and a previously unheard enthusiasm for country music is flashed effortlessly in a majority of the tracks.
“The collection of songs represents Cady’s own journey and expansion as a writer,” says Lundin. “Her country roots initially gave way to her born-again love of pop (she had been a closeted pop-o-holic for years) but progressed back towards country, once enough pop was out of her system.”
Groves hasn’t made peace with the fact that her album might be gone for good, but she says she’s happier than she has been in a long time. The singer did find a job out of the public eye in Wichita last August, at the Cocoa Dolce Artisan Chocolate shop, where she could utilize her culinary degree and make truffles for 40 hours a week in an unseen kitchen. “There were like eight people [working] in there,” says Groves, “and they were all interested in what I did, and we’d listen to my songs as we worked. Everyone who hears those songs, even strangers, gets excited for me.”
Every day in Wichita, Groves runs errands, stops by the Starbucks she declined to work at, reads online articles and makes dinner. She goes to church every Sunday, watches HDTV and live-tweets new episodes of “Teen Mom.” She has recently gone through a breakup, and has leaned on family and friends while remaining candid about her feelings with her fans on Twitter. For Groves, social media remains a forum for both frank discussion about her past bouts of depression and an endless stream of Taco Bell jokes.
She’s eager to write the next chapter of her music career with a new label home, but Groves hasn’t written a new song in over a year. Groves admits that she’s scared of losing them again, of losing more pieces of herself, in a way she still can’t understand.
“There’s a huge fear [of repeating the process],” she says. “But if I don’t do this, what else am I good at? I don’t want to do anything else. If I don’t do this now, when I have an opportunity, I’ll never do this again. If I end up sitting around for another four years, at least I’ll be able to write and record a little bit longer. At least it’s taking another step toward what I want instead of giving up. I’m trying again.”