Candi Carpenter is truly a country music legend in the making. Her musical roots are buried deep in memories of stained glass windows and dog eared hymnals, as she toured the midwest with her family’s gospel band. At age 11, she crashed a Vince Gill concert by writing “Can I yodel for you?” on the back of a ticket stub. Later that year, she signed her first production deal in Nashville. She traded high school for a small room at The Shoney’s Inn downtown, and the stages of honky tonk dives like Tootsies and The Broken Spoke Saloon became her classroom. She performed every night until the bars closed down, hiding from the police in the bathrooms.
When Candi was 16 years old, country music legend Jack Greene heard the raw honesty in Candi’s music and took her under his wing as his duet partner. She spent her weekends backstage at The Grand Ole Opry, or writing and touring the country with the likes of Bill Anderson, Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, and Loretta Lynn.
As time went on, Candi had very little say over her career or the music she recorded, and found herself being shepherded in a direction that wasn’t true to who she was as an artist. “I was told that I needed to tone it down. I wasn’t able to grow, and I wasn’t allowed to find myself musically.” Immediately after extricating herself from the management deal that robbed her of her childhood, she was pulled into a disastrous marriage. With the support of her loved ones, she rallied the strength and courage to move out, move on, and take control of her life.
She cleaned houses, and worked three jobs to pay for demos and groceries, until signing with CTK Management in 2014. That relationship ultimately resulted in a recording contract with Sony Music Worldwide. “If her future is as bright as her talent, she is going to be a very big star,” said the late Phil Everly, a close friend and collaborator. Look for “Burn The Bed,” now on country radio. In 2018, her future is as bright as ever as she remains laser-focused on bringing her heartfelt songwriting to the masses.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Candi Carpenter to discuss her musical roots, the unique path she has taken as an artist, her passion for songwriting and much more!
Going all the way back to the beginning, how did music first come into your life?
I was born into a family of touring gospel musicians. My parents, uncles, and grandfather had a family band called “Heaven Sent” that played gigs at churches and county fairs all over the midwest. My father was the pastor of the Bethel Alliance Church in Lansing, Michigan, and the upright piano in the sanctuary was my favorite toy. I wrote my first song sitting at that piano when I was three years old. It was terrible. By the time I turned eight, I was a full fledged member of the band.
At what point did you realize music was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
As a very little girl, around 5 or 6, I wanted to be a professional basketball player in the WNBA when I grew up. I think I started realizing that just because I was tall for my age, didn’t mean I had the talent of an athlete. When LeAnn Rimes hit the scene in 1996, I understood for the first time that a career in music was a possibility. After buying the album “Blue,” I started teaching myself to yodel, and listening to Ranger Doug from Riders in the Sky. I became obsessed with country radio, learning the words to every single song I could. My Mom started driving me to singing competitions wherever we could find them, and we began traveling to Nashville once every couple of months. I signed with my first producer at the age of eleven.
Dedicating yourself fully to your art is a big step. Did you ever have any reservations about taking the plunge?
I think I was too young to have any reservations. I often wish I could send a message back in time, telling the little girl I used to be who to watch out for. By fifteen, I’d dropped out of high school and I was living in a seedy hotel room in downtown Nashville, playing the honky tonks every night. At sixteen I was touring with Grand Ole Opry legend Jack Greene and his contemporaries. I spent my teen years growing up backstage at the Opry, and I learned so much from that experience, but I was also being abused and mistreated by the person who “managing” me. Jack was suffering from dementia and needed constant care, and this person also took advantage of his legacy and career. We all lived together under one roof, and I did my best to look after him, but I was just a teenager. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was remove myself from that sad situation. I miss Jack with all of my heart, and think about him daily. He was like a grandfather to me, and one of the greatest vocalists who ever lived.
You’ve come a long way since you toured the Midwest with your family’s gospel band. What can you tell us about the process of finding your creative voice as a young artist and finding your current creative direction?
I’ve gone through many phases creatively. My biggest mistake, and I think it’s a common one, was trying to chase what’s already popular instead of embracing my own unique voice and perspective. Lately, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and just done what comes naturally. I think that learning to be okay with being yourself is one of the hardest obstacles any artist faces. Allowing yourself be authentic and vulnerable can be scary.
Who were some of the performers and people behind the scenes who helped to shape the artist we see today?
My manager, Danny Nozell, signed me when I didn’t have a penny to my name, and I thought my career in music was finished. I was going through a terrible divorce, and starting over with nothing. He believed in me, and got me my record deal with Doug Morris at Sony Music Entertainment. Truly Alvarenga has been my head of creative, stylist, and wardrobe designer for the last ten years, and Justine Feldt has been by my side working on EPK’s, music videos, and all things creative for almost a decade as well. Jenny Garner came on board several years ago as lead makeup artist, and jack of all trades. I’m nothing without my team, and I love them with all of my heart. I’ve been fortunate to work with some phenomenal, established co-writers like Leslie Satcher, Blair Daly, and the late Phil Everly of The Everly Brothers, as well as talented new writers and artists like Kalie Shorr and Alden Witt, who have really helped me shape my sound and re-discover the joy of writing.
You are clearly very driven when it comes to your career. Your passion is truly inspiring. What has kept you inspired throughout the years as an artist and fueled your creative fire?
I’m on a mission to bring my music and my message to the world, and I won’t stop until I do. I want to be a force for good in this industry, by helping and encouraging others.
You recently released a new single titled “Nights and Weekends.” Tell us a little about what inspired this song and what it means to you?
Believe it or not, “Nights and Weekends” isn’t a single… yet! Over the next few months, I’ll be releasing several acoustic performances to show my fans what I’ve been working on. I’m excited about all of the new music, and looking forward to getting feedback. I worked as a barista at Starbucks for three years, as a waitress and a restaurant host, among a lot of other jobs including cleaning houses. Sometimes I was working as many as three places at once to pay the bills and fund my music career. I often felt like giving up, but I never allowed myself to have a plan B. “Nights and Weekends” was born late one night after my cowriter and roommate Jess Adams came home from working a double shift at an East Nashville restaurant. I thought a lot about my father when we were writing the second verse. He works the third shift, and only gets to hang out with my mom on the weekends.
From what I read, you gathered friends and fellow artists for the acoustic video for the song which sounds awesome! What was that experience like for you and what memories spring to mind when you think of being on set that day?
What I remember most about the day we filmed is Jenny Garner laughing hysterically every time we finished a take, and Aaron Kessler doing his best to encourage it. I had to make an uncomfortable amount of eye contact with Hannah Bethel and Melanie Bresnan, which didn’t help. At the end of the video, you can actually see a shot of all of us losing it. We had a blast.
Your previous single, “Burn The Bed,” is a powerful tune and even drew comparisons to legendary songwriter Loretta Lynn. What can you tell us about the songwriting process for your music?
I’m always writing. Even in my sleep. My phone crashed a few months ago because I have too many voice notes. I try to keep everything organized in Evernote, but my creative process is messy. I started writing “Burn the Bed” several years ago, and it didn’t come together until I was out of the relationship that it was written about. Sometimes a song will come together on the same day I get the idea, but that’s uncommon. I think the key for me is to keep editing, and not rush the process.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
It’s the single worst song ever written. It’s called “Jesus Cares For Me,” and I wrote it when I was three. Every line ends with the word “me.” Please never ask me to play it for you.
Your songs can be intense and very personal. Was it a difficult process to get to a point where you were able to bare your soul?
I once had a boyfriend who called me “The Queen of Useless Information.” That was very offensive to me at the time, but he was probably on to something. Sharing personal information comes a little TOO easy to me, much to the horror of my friends and family.
You brushed elbows and worked with some amazing artists along the way. Who has had the biggest impact on you artistically?
Of course, Jack Greene taught me so much about performing and entertaining, and so did Loretta Lynn, Vince Gill, Little Jimmy Dickens, Porter Wagoner, and the numerous other artists I had the opportunity to work with as a teenager. Because of them, I’m comfortable on any stage. Dolly Parton has also been a huge supporter, and I’m truly humbled by that. She’s one of my greatest influences, as a songwriter, entertainer, and business woman. These are just a few of the wonderful people who have helped me along the way, and I’m extremely grateful to them.
The majority of music fans don’t give much thought to the business side of the music industry. What are some of the major challenges you find yourself facing as a working musician?
When I was in the seventh grade, my math teacher told my mother, “I hope that Candi becomes a big star, so that she can hire an accountant.”
As an artist, so many things can be said about the current state of country music. What excites about the industry in this day and age?
We’re on a new frontier! Female artists are about to change the face of country music, and I think the audience is ready for that. I can’t wait to hear what’s coming from some of these new ladies next year!
How do you feel you have most evolved as an artist since you first started professionally?
It’s funny. I’m kind of back to where I started when I was a little girl. After years of searching, I found myself buried under layers of other versions of myself, that had all been created and decided by others. A few weeks ago, I wrote a modern yodeling song. Nine year old me would be so happy!
What do you consider your biggest milestones along the way?
Getting signed to Sony was probably the biggest milestone so far. Seeing my first single chart in Billboard Magazine was right up there too.
You have a lot of productive years ahead of you. Where do you see yourself headed musically in the future — with short and long term?
This first record is going to be infused with elements of my gospel, and traditional country roots. As I move forward, I think you’ll start hearing more elements of rock seeping in. No matter what happens, rich storytelling, and a flair for drama will always be recurring themes.
What is the best way for fans to help support you at this stage in your career?
First of all, I want to thank my fans for being there for me. It means more than I can say. Word of mouth is a great way to help, so please share the songs and tell your friends!
We would love to help spread the word on any causes or organizes you support. What is closest to your heart at this point in time that we can help shine a light on?
Suicide prevention and awareness is very close to my heart. I wrote “Ghost on a Bridge,” about one of my best friends who took her own life several years ago. SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) is an organization that’s helped save a lot of lives. For more information, please visit www.save.org.
You can listen to “Ghost on a Bridge” at this location >
You can serve as a great inspiration for so many aspiring artists and young people. What is the best lesson we can take away from your journey so far?
That is very kind of you to say. Never, ever, ever, give up. You never know what would have happened the day after you do.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.