Started mastering today and, as you can imagine, it was a day of listening, listening and more listening. It’s great, we have a handle on it, and I’m happy with the results so far, but we will spend the weekend listening again and tweaking. It’s so much focus and thinking and making decisions about minutiae that most people will never notice … Is the kick drum too loud? Is there too much reverb on the vocal? Do we need a DIFFERENT reverb on the vocal? Do we need NO reverb on the vocal? Are the background vocals loud enough?
Such is life these days for Martina McBride the producer, artist and writer. Despite racking up 16 million in sales, 22 top 10 singles—including six number ones with crossover success in multiple genres—numerous CMA and ACM awards and a slew of national television appearances in her illustrious 15-year career, Martina continues to scale new artistic heights. Many performers might hesitate to tinker with such success, but not this one.
After self-admittedly “hitting a wall, creatively” upon finishing her eponymous 2003 release, Martina recorded what she calls “a labor of love,” the platinum-selling Timeless. A tribute to the country music she grew up with, the album gave her the space to not think about “what to do next” and just focus on making music simply for the joy of it.
“Recording Timeless allowed me to pause and be inspired musically by looking back without pressure to move forward creatively,” Martina says. “I had always wanted to do an album that would pay tribute to the music that shaped who I am as a country music fan. Even though I’m known as a contemporary country artist, I think it has always been obvious that I have a great reverence for our country music heritage. After making Timeless, I came into this album renewed, refreshed and reenergized. I was excited to get going and make new music.”
The result is Waking Up Laughing, her ninth studio release. Martina produced the record over an eight-month period—a timetable most artists aren’t afforded, she admits, and the luxury she enjoys most about having her own studio. “I’ve never been one of those people who could make a record in two or three weeks. I don’t know why, but I really have to live with things. I like to think about it, listen to it in the car, just sort of let the ideas come to me rather than trying to get it done quickly.”
Wait, the kick drum just isn’t right! Take the percussion loop out of the intro; as a matter of fact, take it out of the whole song! Oh, that note is a little out of tune, let me re-sing it … No, that old vocal performance had more passion, let’s put that back in, but only up to the second verse. Is this good enough? Does it suck? No, everyone says it’s great. Are they lying? They have no reason to lie. Is the kick drum too puffy? I’m not crazy about that snare sound … That’s the best snare sound ever!”
Her biggest decision was that of making herself solo producer on her first album of original material in four years. “It was a gut decision, kind of like I make all my other decisions. It just felt like the right time to do it by myself … It wasn’t like I wanted to work with anybody else, and Paul [Worley] (Martina’s longtime co-producer) was around for me to call and ask questions if needed. We’re still really close friends—he brought me several songs and played on some of the tracks.”
Since she has always co-produced her albums, the only real differences “were just psychologically having it be all mine as well as having the time and freedom to work at my own pace.”
After choosing several songs, Martina headed into the studio with some of the finest studio musicians Nashville has to offer, including drummer Matt Chamberlain; percussionist David Huff; bass player Glenn Worf; Steve Nathan, piano, synth and B-3; guitarists Dan Dugmore (also steel guitar and dobro), Dann Huff, B. James Lowry, Brent Mason, and Bryan Sutton (also mandolin); and several well-known harmony vocalists, including Keith Urban, Brett Warren and Carolyn Dawn Johnson.
“I get three or four songs together, then I go in and cut. The songs really dictate the production as well as the band I put together … The hardest part about this album was finding the right songs. After making eight albums, it was a challenge to find something I hadn’t done before, both musically and lyrically.”
During the process of producing the album, Martina was encouraged by tour mates The Warren Brothers to try her hand at songwriting. “We were out on tour with Martina, and kept asking her to write with us,” Brett Warren recalls. “She kept saying she wasn’t a writer, but with her ear for a good song, we knew she had it in her. We started with what became the debut single (“Anyway”), and then took her the musical idea we had for “Beautiful Again,” which she really turned into something special.” With those two songs wrapped up, the threesome collaborated with top tunesmiths Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo to write the infectious “How I Feel.”
“I’d never considered myself a writer, especially when I’ve come to rely on the incredible talent we have here in Nashville, but Brett and Brad made me realize how fun and satisfying songwriting could be,” Martina says.
The results speak for themselves. “Anyway” is Martina’s fastest-rising single ever, and the rest of the album is just as strong, thanks to Martina’s undeniable talents as a producer and vocalist. In a New York Times concert review, Kelefah Sanneh writes, “She has a rich, elegant voice and an extraordinary knack for controlling it. She hits the big notes without hammering them; when she slowly bends a note up or down you can feel—see, almost—the gentle curve.”
From the opening fiddle-laced rocker “If I Had Your Name,” which Martina calls “one of the most clever kiss-off songs I’ve ever heard,” to the final strains of the gripping “Love Land,” Waking Up Laughing runs the gamut of human emotion.
“For These Times,” a Leslie Satcher-penned tune of social consciousness; “Beautiful Again,” with its dark, haunting lyrics of neglect and abuse; and the passionate single “Anyway” all speak to Martina’s willingness to use her music as a platform for her convictions.
On the lighter side, the guitar-infused “Cry Cry (’Til the Sun Shines), the Beatlesque “How I Feel” and the hook-laden “Everybody Does” explore the highs and lows of love with humor, honesty and compassion.
In “House of a Thousand Dreams” and “Love Land,” Martina takes listeners on life’s journeys as viewed by a struggling middle-class family and by a young woman who travels an unexpected path to find true love despite heartache and tragedy.
Rounding out the record are two beautiful ballads, the exquisitely wistful “Tryin’ to Find a Reason” and the reassuring “I’ll Still Be Me,” which offer two tales of love from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Waking Up Laughing is an 11-song journey of love, loss, redemption and, ultimately, happiness. Martina took the title of the record from a line in “How I Feel,” which describes some of the things that make her happy. “If you have ever woken yourself up laughing, you know it’s the most incredible feeling. As a title, I thought it fit the music; it’s positive and it’s a great message to send out to the world.”
We need to add an accordion! We need to make this mix more “alive”. It’s awesome. It’s awesome, right?
One thing is clear. While all this second-guessing might be part of her creative process, Martina can rest assured there is no reason to worry. It IS awesome.
The self-produced album marks Martina’s evolution as an artist: from a small-town singer with a big voice to a country music icon who commands not only the stage but every facet of her career.