Twenty years since she first edged her way into the national spotlight, Sara Evans‘ name has appeared on hundreds of marquee signs.
Now she shares billing with the platform itself as “Marquee Sign,” released June 1 to country radio through PlayMPE, becomes the first single for her new label, Born to Fly Records.
Despite the title, “Marquee Sign” is not a song about stardom. Instead, it’s a recognition of the dark corners of personality that people tend to keep to themselves. Thus, “Marquee Sign” appropriately vacillates between shiny hooks and shadowy effects that help illuminate the danger in interpersonal relationships of every sort.
“People hide what they’re made of,” says Evans, recounting a key lyric from the end of every verse. “That is true for everyone. You don’t have to be a bad person to admit that you hide certain aspects of who you are. You know, you never truly, truly know someone, because there’s no way to know the thoughts of another human being.”
The difference between the surface persona and the hidden reality is often at the heart of conflict, and the idea was practically waiting for Evans when she travelled from her home in Birmingham, Ala., to Nashville for a writing appointment on Oct. 12, 2016. Songwriter Heather Morgan (“Beat of the Music,” “Lose My Mind”) was heavily influenced by Evans, and she showed up early at the Music Row office of Jimmy Robbins (“Think a Little Less,” “Lights Come On”) to go over potential ideas.
“Sara’s a big deal,” he says, “so we wanted to at least have something prepared.”
Their advance work paid off. They wrote two songs that day, a ballad called “Put Your Boots Under My Bed” and “Marquee Sign,” a title they had to search to find. Morgan brought what proved to be the opening line — “I wish you were a pack of cigarettes/’Cause you would’ve come with a warning” — and -Robbins had fashioned a few 20-second musical ideas, the most upbeat of which seemed to fit that line.
Evans showed up in a new pair of black overalls — the outfit is a strong memory for both Evans and Morgan (“Such a girl thing to remember,” says Morgan with a laugh) — and she saw the implied danger in that “warning sign” idea as a universal concept.
“We’ve all been there to some degree, where we’ve been screwed in romantic relationships or business relationships or friendships,” says Evans. “Or all of the above.”
Morgan had recently returned from a visit to New York, where she had snapped a photo of broken-heart graffiti. Somehow, that introduced a thread of conversation that eventually led Evans to the “Marquee Sign” title.
“It’s that kind of snowball thing that happens when you write a song where somebody says something that makes somebody else say something that makes somebody else say something, and this one was really that,” says Robbins. “Some songs, I feel like one person maybe steers the ship more than another person, and this one didn’t feel that way. It felt like we were all kind of holding the wheel.”
Guided by the “Marquee Sign” title — “It took me forever to figure out how to even spell it,” quips Morgan — they whipped through the chorus rather easily, reaching an obvious conclusion: “I should’ve known from the start/You were only there to break my heart.”
Knowing where it was headed, they returned to the opening “cigarettes” line, made a clever reference to breath, then changed things up with a haunting pre-chorus that contemplates the fluid use of truth and trust at the heart of the song. The chords didn’t change, but the writers used smaller phrases and left lots of space to create extra tension leading into the chorus.
For verse two, they needed another vice to match the cigs in the opening stanza. Alcohol was the obvious choice, though Evans balked at their first attempt.
“There was a version we went down with whiskey,” says Robbins, “and I just remember Sara saying, ‘I’m so sick of people talking about whiskey.’ That was a very good point.”
Tequila did the trick, and with “Marquee Sign” cruising toward a finale, Evans uncharacteristically suggested that they should consider writing a bridge to change the mood once more.
“I hate bridges,” she says. “I’m a neat and orderly person — I’m really OCD — and I feel like when you go to write the bridge, you’re completely getting off track.”
But Morgan found a way to change the chords and melody with a succinct, two-line section: “If I could’ve seen right through ya/Known ya before I knew ya.”
Evans approved. “It’s exactly what it needs to be,” she says. “No more needs to be said. It’s a nice pause for dramatic effect.”
Morgan sang the demo, allowing Evans to hear how someone else might tackle the song, and when she started on what became her album Words (due July 21) with producer Mark Bright (Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts), he recognized “Marquee Sign” as a winner.
“It’s a cool hook, and it’s uptempo and, frankly, you’re always going to have a hard time trying to find real uptempo songs,” he says. “I really loved the song from the very beginning.”
The Robbins-produced demo provided a strong road map for the end product, recorded at Starstruck Studios in February. Drummer Matt Chamberlain drove the track, humanizing the programmed sounds that informed the demo. Bright spotlighted Chamberlain in the mix, his rhythms hiding the simplicity of the arrangement.
“They are not complex parts on their own,” says Bright, “but when you add them together, it sounds like they are complex.”
Guitarist Ilya Toshinsky gave it an unexpected signature sound, playing a few staccato, spiky notes behind the opening line of the chorus, “If you would’ve been lit up like a marquee sign. Engineer Ben Fowler identified it as a great hook and ran it through what he calls “an abundance of crazy delay effects” to create a glassy tone.
Evans scheduled two days to work on final vocals for the album, but she didn’t feel good the first day and was convinced she was coming down with the flu. Fearing she would be unproductive the next day, she powered through the final vocals for the entire album in one day.
“It was just astounding,” says Bright. “Usually, by about seven, eight, nine hours into it, a vocalist is just wasted by that time. But if you listen to the album, you couldn’t tell me which one was the 11th song that we sang versus the first song. I’ve never had that happen.”
Evans often approaches her material with little or no vibrato, but she applied a speedy quiver to “Marquee Sign,” which is appropriate, since being lied to puts many people on edge. She sang some of her own background vocals, while sister Lesley Evans Lyons and singer-songwriter Shane Stevens (“American Honey”) added a second set of backgrounds. (Stevens sings an octave below her in unison throughout the chorus.) Evans did indeed come down with the flu for several months, and she enlisted daughter Olivia Evans to overdub a few fluttery lines in the closing vamp.
After much debate on the team, Evans eventually tabbed “Marquee Sign” as the first single, hiring Star Farm to work it to radio. It’s catchy, it’s uptempo, and there’s a subtle maturity to the lyrics. That attitude is reflected in her outlook as the song goes out into the world.
“I’m a better writer,” says Evans. “I know more because I’ve grown, and at the end of the day, I’m super proud of this record. What will be, will be.”