It’s a chilly, gray morning in early November 2019, the first day of the season that Nashville woke up to frost on the ground. Carly Pearce isn’t in town: She’s already on her tour bus in Missouri, getting ready for the evening’s show. She was supposed to be making a quick pre-show detour to visit her brand-new husband, Michael Ray, but inclement weather conspired against that trip.
“The joys of winter snow, and all that stuff,” she sighs in explanation, on the phone with Country Now. Pearce and Ray got married a month ago, on Oct. 6. Just a couple days after their wedding, the two artists were both back out on the road again, headed in separate directions for their next stretch of tour dates.
Despite the weather and her canceled plans, Pearce can’t help but stay in a pretty good mood. It’s been a fruitful couple of months. Not only did the singer get married, but she also netted a nomination for 2019’s CMA Awards for New Artist of the Year, put out a new single and — most recently — announced her self-titled sophomore album.
Due out Feb. 14, Carly Pearce sees the singer delving deep into the kind of music that, as she’s learned from her career to date, is closest to her heart. In a lot of instances, that means a strong emphasis on balladry and a traditional country style. “I mean, I have ‘Closer to You,’ I released that song, and there’s a few other songs on there that maybe lean a little bit more pop. But there’s a lot of very raw, genuine, sad, traditional-sounding stuff, which is where I wanna live,” she explains.
“I think some of my most honest, real and raw songs are on this record. Just things that are extremely personal,” Pearce adds. “But that do have that [vibe of] ‘If My Name Was Whiskey,’ or songs like that from the first record. I’m just really trying to hone in on that.”
To that end, she dropped “I Hope You’re Happy Now” as the project’s latest single. A duet with Lee Brice, the song leans squarely towards traditional country, both in aesthetic and in heartbroken, story-driven subject matter. In October, Pearce and Brice doubled down on the single’s country inflections by debuting it live at the Grand Ole Opry. “It was [the first time we played it live together.] So, you know, nothing like just going to the mother church of country music, the holy grail, to debut a song!” she notes, laughing.
“I have been excited to put this song out — honestly, since I wrote it, which was almost a year ago now,” Pearce continues. “Certain songs you just know are special, and you feel it. My whole team and I really believed this was gonna be a special song. Now it’s out, it’s kind of proving to be true, which is exciting.”
Pearce co-wrote “I Hope You’re Happy Now” with Randy Montana, Jonathan Singleton, and another artist known for staunch traditionalism in his country music: Luke Combs. That co-write is one of multiple team-ups with fellow performers for Pearce on her new record (Brice lent his voice to “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” for example, and Ray makes an appearance in another duet on the project.) The singer says that over the course of making the album, she deliberately immersed herself in the Nashville community, and made a point of joining forces with other artists she admires.
“I looked around at the people I respect, and was kind of like, ‘Alright, let’s see’,” she relates. “And I’m such a fan of Luke Combs. I’m such a fan of so many different people in town. I felt like I was able to collaborate with Lee, collaborate with Michael and just have [their talents] in addition to everything else that I did on my own.”
One important collaborator won’t be here to celebrate the album’s release with the singer, however. Carly Pearce was produced by industry mainstay and songwriter busbee, who died unexpectedly earlier in the year after a short battle with brain cancer. Many of Nashville’s brightest stars knew busbee as a collaborator and a close friend; Pearce says that without his help, her career might never have gotten off the ground.
“He changed everything for me. He’s the reason that I even got to make music,” she says. Busbee produced Pearce’s studio debut, Every Little Thing, and co-wrote eight of its tracks, including the eponymous single that became her first No. 1 radio hit. A taskmaster in the studio who continuously pushed Pearce to grow as a vocalist, he taught her lifelong lessons about both music, friendship, and even the gravity behind some of her new project’s songs.
“There’s a sweet memory, a song on the record called ‘It Won’t Always Be Like This.’ It’s kind of about not taking life for granted, and understanding that life is short,” she recalls. “He was really moved by it. He didn’t write that one with me, but he was super moved by that song, and cried in the studio while we were recording it. Now, just to think, like, he had brain cancer while that was going on. And we didn’t even know it.
“That’s a memory I’ll remember forever,” Pearce adds. “…[My album] was the last record he finished before he passed. He had such a positive influence on giving me confidence. I look at this record as, like — in two records, he set me up, really, to be able to be okay and to fly, no matter what I do.”
That confidence that Pearce cultivated in herself, with help from busbee and the other members of her support system, is a critical piece of her new record. It allows her to write about the hardest and most intimate parts of her life, inviting listeners to see more than just her successes and happy moments.
“Like, I think that a lot of people were shocked by the story of ‘I Hope You’re Happy Now,’ that I went through that. I feel like there’s more things like that on the record,” she points out. “You see the highlights reel on Instagram, but you don’t really know what’s going on, and I feel like that’s kind of fun: To be like, ‘Hey, here you go. Here’s what’s been going on.’”
Pearce makes it a point to be transparent with listeners. Even “Closer to You,” her bubbly ode to finding love, doesn’t gloss over how difficult it is for two busy touring artists to find time in their schedules to spend together. “It’s really hard to be so separate, and I’m thankful to have somebody that, we both just understand what we have to do right now,” she explains.
“It’s a busy time, but we’re rooting each other on and just are really good at talking on the phone and counting down until that honeymoon,” she adds. After the touring season ends, around the holidays, Pearce and Ray will leave both their calendars and the cold weather behind. The couple will celebrate the end of the year with a beach vacation.
More than anything, Pearce says that she feels more secure in herself as an artist than she did when she made her first album. “I know what people want to hear from me, and it’s actually what I want to do,” she relates. “And I think on my first record, I was like, ‘Oh Lord. Is anybody going to listen?’ I feel like I approached the record that way. [This time, I approached recording like,] ‘People do wanna hear what you’re doing, so just be confident in that.’”
In large part, that’s why her project is self-titled. “This is the most transformative couple of years of my life. I’m more centered and grounded and more myself than ever before,” she says. “So I really just wanted to say, ‘This is Carly Pearce. These songs are more me than anything I’ve ever put out.”