Following her instincts
Deana Carter has always been the most successful when she was given the most freedom. And she’s never had as much room to be herself and to do things as she wished as on The Story of My Life, her first album since moving to Los Angeles and signing with Vanguard Records. “I got tears in my eyes the first time I listened back to the final version of this record,” Carter says. “All I could think was, finally I got to make a record exactly the way I would if it was left totally up to me. There was no input from record companies or producers or anyone. Frankly, it’s what I wanted to do from the start. I followed my instincts this time 100 percent, and it was an awesome experience.”
Sounds like it, too. Open-hearted and vulnerable, yet full of wit and mischief, The Story of My Life is the sound of a true artist - one with a distinct voice, lyrical ideas and musical style. “I like for there to be a couple of moments on an album where someone says, ‘Did she just say what I think she did?’ I love that. If I get to do what I want to do, like I did on this record, then there’s going to be some surprises.” Carter started her career with more freedom than most artists usually receive, and the results made her one of the breakout stars of the late ‘90s. She co-produced (but was not given credit) her debut album, Did I Shave My Legs for This?, which included the award-winning hit “Strawberry Wine” - a teen coming-of-age song unlike anything on the radio before or since. But once she achieved such success, she lost her freedom. Everything she released in subsequent years involved battles with record label executives over direction, production and song selection. “The reaction was, ‘OK, Deana, that was cool and successful, but now let’s reel it back in,’” she says of her past experiences. “I didn’t understand it, because I did my best work when left to myself. But once you become successful, everyone has an idea of what you should do. Nashville has a formula, and it works a lot of the time, but it wasn’t right for me. They’re afraid to step outside the box - even though, with me, my success came because I was outside of the box to begin with.”
With Vanguard Records, Carter found a record label that understood her creative desires. “No one at the record label heard a note until the album was finished,” Carter explains. “I’ve never had that happen - never even close. It says so much about their faith in the artist. So this album is a leap of faith in a lot of ways, most of all for me.” The Story of My Life stands apart from previous Carter albums for other reasons, too. She went through a divorce and moved to Los Angeles before making the album; after arriving in L.A., she became involved in another serious relationship that ended just as she was writing songs for this album; and, after starting to date a new beau, Chris Hicky, she became pregnant. She made the discovery just as she began recording songs for her new album.
“Everything in my life turned upside down,” she says. “Everything changed - and, obviously, with a baby on the way, I knew my life was going to change even more. I think what it did was make me feel like it was time to go for it - to reach for the stars, to make the best possible album I could make right now. Chapters were ending, and a new chapter had started. And I didn’t know if I’d ever be the same again.”
It all began when she decided to leave Nashville, where she was born, and where she grew up immersed in the city’s music scene, thanks to her father, renowned guitarist Fred Carter Jr., who had played on recordings by Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Tony Bennett and Marty Robbins, among thousands of others. “I love Nashville, and I love the South, but on a professional level, I had started feeling smothered by the Nashville way of doing things,” Carter notes. “I knew I needed to leave in order to do what I wanted to do. As soon as I moved, I started feeling renewed. There’s a lot of freedom for me living in L.A. With all the mayhem and traffic, you can feel choked here too, but for me it was very liberating. There’s a lot of creative acceptance, and the sky’s the limit on your options.” While she escaped the formulas and the corporate meddling, leaving Nashville also gave her a renewed appreciation of her roots. “I think this is a very Southern record, even if it’s not a traditional country record,” she says. “Once you get away from where you’re from, you look at it in a different way. I really miss the South, and I really find myself clinging to that part of who I am.”
Relationships certainly worked their way into her creative process, too, something that’s obvious on “Not Another Love Song,” “Getting Over You,” Atlanta to Birmingham” and the wickedly witty “She’s Good for You.” “There’s a lot of vulnerable moments on this record - more than I’ve ever had before,” she says. “I hate to say that I’ve had my heart broken again, but it’s true. I didn’t see it coming, and it really twisted me up in knots. So I had to write about it.” Even for an artist known for her tenderness, her boldness and her rambunctiousness, The Story of My Life nonetheless found her going to places inside herself she hadn’t ventured in the past. “These songs are so personal - I felt very exposed through the making of the whole record,” she says. “I felt so alive. The songs come from a vulnerable place, but expressing that part of yourself can also make you feel fearless. I love those songs.”
She feels the same about her the playful songs and the one-of-a-kind character sketches that fill out The Story of My Life, too. “I mean, there wasn’t any box to fit,” she says, “so I took things wherever I felt they should go. I felt blessed, but I also felt the responsibility to be bold, and not compromise myself. We were free to experiment, and we did.” The “we” Carter references is her engineer James Michael, her only collaborator on the album’s basic tracks. Carter plays acoustic and electric guitar, bass, keyboards, and gave input on the string arrangements, while Michael contributed on a variety of instruments. The goal was to be fresh yet intimate, and to not worry about definitions or borders. “I’m a big fan of ‘70s records where artists could draw on whatever influences they wanted,” she says. “I wanted this album to sound like a big crocheted blanket - to be warm yet to have a lot of space.”
In other words, the sound is just as personal and distinctive as Carter’s songs and her singular voice. “I hope that when people hear this record, they get a sense of who I am, of my personality, of the dichotomy between my serious side and my lighter side,” she says. “I hope some of my longtime fans hear it and say, ‘There she is!’ But I also hope I reach some new people who might not have heard me in the past.” Oh, and by the way, she gave birth to her son, Gray Hayes Hicky, two weeks after finishing the album. “I feel like there was a birth and re-birth all at the same time,” she says. “The new chapter has begun, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Did I Shave My Legs for This?
We Danced Away
Once Upon a December