When the time came to follow-up on her breakthrough 2007 album Nothing Fancy, Canadian country bombshell Jessie Farrell’s pursuit of authenticity was so painstaking that she actually put her health at risk.
“When I'm giving something every bit of energy I have, I find myself getting short of breath,” she reveals, with a giggle (and a slight wheeze that’s a little hard to ignore). “I’ve done it since I was 12 years old. It’s anxiety. At the end of this record, I feel like I learned how to breathe better, and I learned how to sing better, and then on the last day of recording, I went and got ‘Breathe’ tattooed on my wrist.”
We can probably assume from her comments that Farrell is satisfied with the results. The flame-haired Vancouverite had wrapped-up her debut on the Canadian Country scene with three 2008 CCMAs when she lit out to Nashville on a writing expedition in mid-2008, winning for Female Artist of the Year, Rising Star, and Top New Female Talent of the Year, not to mention scoring a 2009 Juno nomination for New Artist of the Year.
The 2007 album Nothing Fancy had elevated Farrell into Canada’s country A-list, yielding a top 10 single with “Let’s Talk About Love”, a top 5 video for “I Guess”, and putting the rising artist on the road with Emerson Drive, Johnny Reid, Aaron Pritchett, Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Gord Bamford, and Toby Keith, among others. With so much buzz at her heels, and facing her sophomore effort, Farrell readily admits she needed to come up with a slam-dunk
“That was in my head the whole time,” she says, describing the meticulous lengths she took to find a producer who, in Farrell’s words, “would be willing to basically lay down on the railroad tracks with me.”
“I’m not one of those people that can get by knowing it’s just another record for them,” she elaborates. “I want them to be my friend, and I want it to expand far beyond just being my producer.”
A raft of industry giants were, at this point, clamoring to hitch up with the hyperventilating songbird. After interviewing a good number of them, Farrell was still producer-less, but wiser.
“What I really learned in this process is that it’s all about human connection,” she asserts. “How are you going to make sure they hear you, and that they’re putting their heart and souls into it? You can say, ‘Here’s a certain amount of money, please make me a record.’ But I knew that that would not be a successful record, and that I would not thrive inside that environment.”
Enter Victoria Shaw – one of Music City’s insurgent major-players; a singing-songwriting-producing tyro with auspicious credits like Garth Brooks’ “The River” under her belt, and no small amount of heat from a recent co-production job on Lady Antebellum's smash debut. Shaw met Farrell at an industry party and abruptly turned the tables on her.
“She said to me, ‘Why don’t we date before we sleep together’,” Farrell recalls with a laugh. “She said, ‘I gotta see what you’re like writing, I gotta see what you’re like in the studio, to work with, to collaborate with - then I’ll see if I wanna do this record with you.’”
Shaw subsequently roped songwriter Gary Burr into the scene, adding another hit-making heavyweight to an already formidable duo, and the team swiftly drummed up three of the tracks that would end up on Good, Bad & Pretty Things. At the end of it all, Farrell was calmly informed that she’d aced her “week long interview”. And the real work began.
Significantly, among those initial three songs was Farrell’s first single from Good, Bad & Pretty Things, “You Make Me Feel” – a country-pop confection every bit as bright, crafty, and insidious as “Let’s Talk About Love”, built not only on a gigantic hook, but on the striking emotional logic of the line, “You make me feel like that each time you kiss me, my heart starts racing like a car just missed me…”
“I think it’s fun, summery, an earworm,” Farrell says, with touching modesty. “It’s not a complicated song, but I think it’s a good one to ease people in with. And it’s a love song.” Farrell hopes the effect is like “little soap bubbles, with hearts in them, that will pop in people’s laps.”
At the other end of the scale, her first week with Shaw and Burr also produced “Burn So Bright”, which began as a tribute to Farrell’s brother (who passed away in 2001), before morphing into a broader hymn to affirmation. ”I’m hoping it’ll be an anthemic songs for people moving on to the next stage of their life, or about to attempt something new,” she offers.
Shaw’s crisp and restrained production keeps “Burn So Bright” on the correct side of sentimental, while leaving plenty of room for Farrell’s keening vocal (not to mention a sizzling fiddle-pedal steel showdown). Indeed, across the whole of Good, Bad & Pretty Things, Farrell and Shaw raise the stakes on Nothing Fancy’s slick grooves and unimpeachable craft. The snap that runs like a current throughout the previous record is still there, but sharper, gutsier, and all-together truer to Farrell’s voice - the result, she says, of her various collaborators “getting to know me. I became more natural and trusting in the writing process, and you can really hear that in the songs.”
Take “Fried”, for instance - a galvanizing two-step with Ricky Skaggs-calibre picking providing ironic counterpoint to Farrell’s exhausted dispatch from the mid-tour interzone. Or the note-perfect country chanteuse balladry of “Kansas”. Or “Nobody Says No”, a bratty autobiographical number with fiery organ draped across a pounding backbeat.
“I wanted to make sure there were a lot of up songs,” Farrell says of “Cha Ching”, which is the kind of quasi-novelty insta-hit that Nashville’s backroom tunesmiths regularly tie themselves in knots to produce. “I do not want people standing there bored, even for a millisecond. I want them kissing, holding hands, dancing, smiling, laughing, singing along, and I want them feeling. I do not want to give them three songs and a bunch of filler – my job is to make sure it’s worth buying the whole record. “
As Farrell and Shaw went along, the making of Good, Bad & Pretty Things eventually became something of a cause-célèbre, with other luminaries like Sarah Buxton, Richard Marx, Mark Hudson, and Trey Bruce climbing on board for a co-write here or some backing vocals there. With so much excitement generated behind the scenes, it’s not surprising that the results should feel so much like the epi-phenomena of a star on the cusp of supernova. What’s most remarkable is that Farrell kept such a tight bead on the vision she took with her when she first headed south.
“The key word is ‘authentic’,” she says. “As a writer and a performer you just want to get that much closer to expressing yourself in a natural and authentic way. That’s what I really wanted to do.”
Mission accomplished. If Farrell is genuinely concerned that her rise to stardom has been too precipitous, or that the awards, plaudits, and success has all been “premature” (her word), well, Good, Bad & Pretty Things should give her some peace of mind.
In other words – time to breathe easy, Jessie Farrell.