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Tenille Townes on her most personal EP yet: “I'm grateful that the music will prevail”

Canadian-born and Nashville-based, Tenille Townes is back with her most personal music yet. The singer-songwriter with a heart of gold explains why Masquerades sees her pull down her mask and shine a light on the emotions that we get used to hiding.

After missing performing at the UK’s C2C festival in 2020 due to the pandemic, you finally took to the stage at the 2022 event. How did it feel to be back performing live again, and how much did you miss it?

That seems like it was forever ago and yesterday at the same time! It's been so incredible to get back out on the road. I missed it so much and I feel like it’s a return to self in a lot of ways – being back doing that thing that I love and getting to see people and share that sacred live music experience again. 

I had such a wonderful time getting to play C2C and getting to visit everybody on that side of the world. It feels good to be back in motion.

How did the lockdown affect your songwriting and your new EP, Masquerades?

We got creative during the shutdown with different live streams or writing a song through zoom on a computer, which is crazy that that's possible. I wrote the entire new EP through Zoom! I'm grateful that the music will prevail. 

Music is a sacred coming together: shared joy, shared sorrow. There's a magic element of music that takes the walls down around all of us and I think that that's something that you can't really replicate until you're all standing in the same room listening to the same song. That's some special stuff.

What did you learn about yourself during the time period when you couldn't perform live or see anyone in person?

Personally, it's been this adventure of learning a lot about myself through being forced to be at home and stuck with those more vulnerable and uncomfortable thoughts. I think it was a good point of growth to be forced to sit in that quiet space for a while. 

What came out of that for me was realising that so much of the expression of the more confident side of myself really happens on stage. It's kind of like a light switch. I like to be the reflective, quiet, introverted sort of songwriter – I overthink everything and get stuck in my thoughts and then something happens when I walk up there. 

It's like a light switch and I get to step into that other side of myself that's fierce and doesn't hesitate. I love that combination of both of those sides and I don't think I realised how much I missed that part of it until it was gone.

So much of the expression of the more confident side of myself really happens on stage.

Masquerades sees you get more personal and vulnerable than you have ever been; was that your aim when setting out to write these songs, or a natural theme that evolved?

It definitely started as something that just naturally was happening. To me songwriting is always a safe place to talk about anything and everything. 

In my life, it's often easier to write about something in a song than it is to have a conversation about, and I trust the music and what it's pulling out of me in that way. But my favourite place to write from is the storyteller perspective. Most of the songs on my first album, The Lemonade Stand, were entirely from that third party observer place.

As I started turning to songwriting in the shutdown, I could not help the way that the songs were coming out – more personally. Honestly, one of the very first songs that I wrote in this process was one called Villain in Me. As I was writing it, I was completely terrified and I was thinking, ‘No one will ever hear the song, I'm just writing this to find a little healing, to say this out loud’. 

As the lines were happening, I was like, ‘I really can't believe I'm putting this in a song’. But I did. Then I just felt this song was pulling at me and I revisited it and was like, ‘Maybe I'll just post a clip of it’. 

So I sat on the bathroom floor and just played the song on my guitar and shared it, and hearing from people was the most encouraging thing. It truly inspired me to keep rolling down that path of those more personal songs, and to look at the theme of that and go, ‘This is where I'm at in my life right now, and this is the part that I want to share’.

It was incredibly encouraging to hear people saying, ‘I feel the same way, I have the same doubtful voices in my head, I struggle with hiding those parts of myself too’. 

Hearing that was like, ‘Wow, we definitely are not alone in that’. I think it's important to talk about it, even if it is a little scary. There's a line in the second verse of that song that says, ‘You'll only see me laughing, sunshine and a smiling face, sometimes I wear it like a mask, it's easier that way’. 

That became the jumping off point of the whole entire theme of Masquerades – the idea of being able to really set that aside. I want this music to feel like an invitation for people to really be able to see each other and all the raw and honest parts.

It sounds like you have been much more personal with this EP; are you nervous to share that side of yourself?

Absolutely. I’m completely nervous, terrified, and also ready and excited. It's really been encouraging hearing from people saying, ‘You're putting a voice to the things that I think, and the way that I feel too’. 

That's the most important thing – to stand together. That gives me the courage to do the scary thing of opening up a little bit more in my songs.

Did you learn any new skills during the pandemic?

Sonically, the songs were definitely such an adventure to watch come to life. I literally had a friend FaceTiming me showing me how to set up a console, a microphone and to learn how to operate Logic on my computer so that I could record my vocals and send them to people that I was writing songs with over Zoom – they were producing these tracks from a distance. 

So we literally went back and forth on stems of the things, my guitar parts, my vocals, and then they'd be sending things back and forth. So the creative process was very much made possible through the distance and it opened up this door of working with a lot of different producers on this project – almost all of the songs are produced by someone different. 

I learned so much through that process of navigating all these different sounds. I had a lot of fun being able to go, ‘Wow, we persevered and brought a project forward in the middle of a really difficult time’. This music was definitely a healing thing for me in the middle of all that.

There's this theme of home in the emotion of country music and people around the world are captivated by that.

Your recent song, When’s It Gonna Happen was released in response to an outpouring of fan support on social media. What is the story behind this song?

I was looking at this stack of mail – I'm always terrible at checking my mailbox – but I had this big stack of wedding invitations and ‘save the dates’ from a lot of my friends. It feels like I'm in that season of my life where a lot of people are finding their person, and in a Zoom session we were talking about what we should write that day. 

They were asking me what was going on in my life, and I was like, ‘Honestly, not a lot!’ I was like, ‘We could write a song about the fact that I'm looking at a stack of wedding invitations and feeling entirely alone and single?’ They were like, ‘Let's do it!’

So I'm very grateful they were up for jumping into the heart of that emotion because I do think it's something we all feel at some point or another. The point of loneliness is to make you feel like you are the only person who feels that way. 

And as I was writing it, I was laughing being like, ‘I know that I'm not the only person who's ever felt this way’. So it's balancing the realism and the raw lyrics in the verses that are just basically saying, ‘I'm living in this house by myself and I look forward to sharing this space someday, but right now it’s just me’, and spelling that out in a way was really fun for me to pair with music. 

I wanted it to feel really uplifting and anthemic and something that I envisioned all of us coming together to sing at a show, screaming these words together at the top of our lungs, embracing that feeling of, ‘We're not the only ones who feel this!’ It's been really fun to start playing that song on the road, and hearing people sing along is the coolest thing.

The three-day C2C festival is held at London’s O2 Arena every year; are you surprised by how popular country music is in the UK and outside of the USA? What is it about country music that unites people?

I'm originally from Alberta, Canada, and I grew up very much surrounded by country music. The more that I think about it, it's incredibly cool to me that country music is something that can travel around the world. 

When I really zoom out and think about it, I think there's this theme of home, and in the emotion of country music, the stories and the music land in our spirits as we hear it – there's just something that feels a little like home. 

I think you can hear a Dolly Parton song and hear the way she's talking about the Smoky Mountains, and somehow you're picturing whatever your backyard was growing up, and it feels like the same thing. I love that about country music. 

It's been really cool seeing how people around the whole world are captivated by that feeling and by those stories.

My favourite part about music is the way that it can bring us together.

Alongside your touring schedule, you recently hosted the 12th annual Big Hearts for Big Kids event in Canada, raising over $450,000, and over $2 million in total. How does it feel to have this initiative you started as a teenager go from strength to strength?

I started Big Hearts for Big Kids just over 12 years ago in my hometown in Grand Prairie, Alberta. I heard about The Sunrise House, which is the youth shelter in my hometown that helps kids who are struggling with homelessness or different addictions or family issues, or whatever it might be that leads them to needing a safe place to turn to and have a warm room and a bed to sleep in. 

I was so moved hearing about how many kids there are in my small town that were sleeping in those shelter beds every night, and I wanted to do something to help. So my mum drove me around after school with a sponsor letter and I invited a lot of different local businesses to come and buy a table or donate a silent auction item. 

I was blown away by how many people said yes, but the night of our very first event the shelter doors had to close due to lack of funding and we all looked at each other and were like, ‘We're supposed to do this tonight’, and we carried forward with our plans. The community showed up in the most generous way.

I watched what it looks like when people believe in something, wrap their arms around it and really show up, and I witnessed what music can do. My favourite part about music is the way that it can bring us together like that. 

The first night we raised over $30,000, so we've continued that event every year. We got the shelter back up and running within a year – fully renovated and re-staffed. This event has been a huge part of the fundraising for the operating budget every year for the shelter. 

We just had our 12th event, which is crazy to say out loud! I imagined it would go maybe two or three years before people would be tired of it, but we've done 12 of them. 

In one night, it was over $450,000, which brought us to over 2 million in the last 12 years, and that's something that the 14 year old kid who started it would never have dreamed was possible! This event has honestly made me believe that anything is possible.

Tenille Townes is currently on tour in the US and Europe; check out the dates here.