When Dan + Shay peeked out from a lengthy period of coronavirus-induced self-isolation, the duo turned plenty of heads.
“I Should Probably Go to Bed,” a song they completed after a tour postponement provided weeks of downtime, defies the norms of their core genre. It uses an unusual-for-country chord to bend the melody just before the chorus, it stacks at least 20 — maybe more than 30 — tracks of voices to create a Queen-like harmonic structure, it closes with the bridge instead of a third chorus, and it waits over two minutes before it finally introduces a full band, including bass and drums, for a mere 26 seconds.
“We’ve obviously never written a song like that, and I’ve never really heard a song like that, especially in country music,” says lead singer Shay Mooney. “We definitely took a lot of liberties.”
The song pushes boundaries in part because Warner Chappell Music dropped some corporate borders. Beginning in summer 2019, the publishing company made an effort to increase collaborations between writers in Nashville and Los Angeles. When Dan + Shay headed to California for the Grammy Awards in January, two publishing executives — Los Angeles-based vp A&R Katy Wolaver and Warner Chappell Nashville vp A&R B.J. Hill — conspired to fill a four-hour hole in the duo’s schedule with a last-minute cowrite three days before the ceremony. The booking was on-again, off-again as Dan + Shay wobbled about adding an extra appointment in a city with notorious traffic issues, and two of the four pop writers that Warner had targeted were unavailable. The cowriting location became a decisive factor.
“We were on the hunt for a studio that was very close to the Four Seasons, something that [they] could get to within five minutes,” notes Wolaver. “That was a huge feat in itself.”
She cajoled a booking for a small overdub room less than 4 miles away at the historic Westlake Studios (Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake) and got two of the writers — Sean Douglas (“Die a Happy Man,” “Sorry Not Sorry”) and Jason Evigan (“Girls Like You,” “Talk Dirty”) — to head over even before Dan + Shay had signed off.
“I just drove thinking it was a 50/50 chance that anyone was going to be there,” recalls Douglas. “And then, you know, five minutes away, they were confirmed.”
After some introductory conversation, they started working on an uptempo song, though Dan Smyers decided it was a dead end.
“What I love about Dan is that he’ll pull the plug right when he doesn’t think [it works] — he’s like, ‘This isn’t it, let’s stop,’ ” notes Evigan. “We started a second idea, and we were kind of going around for a while. I remember looking at Dan’s face. I knew it was coming. He was like, ‘It’s not a hit. It’s not a hit.’ “
With no more than 45 minutes left, Smyers brought out a title he had spoken numerous times in his own life, “I Should Probably Go to Bed.”
“I got on the piano and played this progression,” says Douglas. “He sang the opening line, and then we all just wrote it together. It was awesome. We just knocked it out in, honestly, the last 35 minutes.”
The song was a little faster than the final version and built over a percussive track, but it was incomplete, with just two verses and a chorus. Dan + Shay went back to Grammy duties, and Evigan stayed in touch about “I Should Just Go to Bed” and one other title, but he suspected it had hit the proverbial dead end, too.
“I didn’t think it was going to have a chance because I wasn’t getting the excitement from Dan like I was getting from the other song,” says Evigan. “I [thought] maybe one day we could pitch it to someone else because I definitely knew the song was good.”
Over the coming weeks, as Dan + Shay rehearsed for a tour and played the first two dates prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Smyers saw it as a potential song for them to perform in an acoustic section on a satellite stage shaped like the plus sign from the duo’s name. Bandmembers seemed to respond as they toyed with it, but they could never figure out how to finish it.
Weeks after entering self-isolation, Dan + Shay felt safe to reconnect with social distancing at Smyers’ home studio. Working on yet another song, they drifted back to “I Should Probably Go to Bed.” Mooney riffed what became the bridge melody, and they finished writing it in about 15 minutes.
Smyers went to work for weeks producing the end version, playing all the instruments one at a time and creating the Queen-style vocal stack with multiple parts from both members of the duo, plus Smyers’ wife, Abby Smyers, and a tinge of vocoder.
“You can’t really hear it,” concedes Smyers. “But it gives it that sort of Queen ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or ‘Fat Bottom Girls’ sort of thing. I love the vocoder. I try not to overuse it, but it’s a classic trick, especially when you blend it with tons of live voices. I think that’s the magic to it.”
The arrangement was originally more standard — the full band arrived at the start of the second verse — but Smyers whittled away at it.
“It just, from there, didn’t leave the song anywhere to go,” he explains.
Smyers changed the scene at the start of that bridge, employing pizzicato strings inspired by The Beatles‘ “Eleanor Rigby,” and stacked the harmonies atop a repetitive “all up in my head” lyric to create a sense of inner frenzy in the song’s protagonist before the full band finally converges at 2:05.
“That was a brave, bold move, and I really think it’s what makes the song have its own identity,” says Evigan.
Neither Warner Chappell nor Warner Music Nashville knew “I Should Probably Go to Bed” was brewing until Smyers completed the production.
“They were keeping it really close,” says Wolaver. “I know that they felt like it was really special and did not want it to get out.”
The label originally had another song in mind as a single, but “I Should Probably Go to Bed” changed the internal conversation, and it was officially released on July 28. By its second chart week, the song had jumped into the top 10 on Hot Country Songs, and it charted on multiple non-country lists as well.
Both Smyers and Mooney believe the track would not have been completed in this form if the pandemic had not pulled them off the road and given them unexpected free time to create without deadlines. And the response has buoyed their tendency to take creative chances with country.
“If this were the last song we would ever make — it’s clearly not — I would be OK going out on this because I feel like this is just our most impressive piece of work to date,” says Smyers. “It showcases Shay’s voice. It showcases my production. ‘Tequila,’ up to this point, was the thing that I would hang my hat on — like, that was my masterpiece in my head. I feel like this is that as well.”
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