Songs for Screens: Country Superstar Songwriter Natalie Hemby Steps Out; Sia Brings Holiday Cheer to JCPenney

“Songs for Screens” (formerly known as “Synch This”) is a Variety column written by Andrew Hampp, a VP at New York-based music sponsorship and experiential agency MAC Presents and former branding correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column will highlight noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as new and catalog songs that we deem ripe for synch use.

Natalie Hemby has written for many of country music’s biggest stars – including hits for Little Big TownLady Antebellum, and Miranda Lambert’s 2015 ACM Song of the Year award-winning “Automatic.” But for her long-awaited solo-artist debut “Puxico,” which is already ranking high on 2017 year-end lists, Hemby took a low-key approach.

The project began as the score to a documentary Hemby created on the album’s titular town, a tribute to her grandparents’ hometown in Southeast Missouri. After showcasing the film in Nashville, Hemby hadn’t intended for “Puxico” to have a life of its own. In fact, it took requests from artists like breakout star Maren Morris to convince Hemby to even release it.

“I tried to pass it off as a soundtrack, but really it’s my story. It’s like the deepest part of who I am,” Hemby says. “I always thought I would do my first record guns a-blazin’, because I do love a Sheryl Crow-type rock ‘n roll rebelliousness. I’m 40 years old, and I just found myself looking back on the past and I really loved it and didn’t want it to change in some sort of way, it was just where I was at the time. I literally was like, ‘I think this is my first record.’”

The album tells the all-too-familiar story of a small town built on traditions and county fairs and square dancing adjusting to change amid economic crises. But as written through the perspective of her grandfather, “Puxico” is also imbued with rich, calloused details and metaphors about ambition (“Ferris Wheel”), the durability of love (“Worn”) and family bonds (“Cairo, IL”), all sung in a honeyed, hopeful tone that recalls peak Patty Griffin, the Grammy-winning era of Shelby Lynne or latter-period Dixie Chicks.

Though “Puxico” has origins in synch, albeit to Hemby’s own project, many of the songs could easily be re-purposed in film and TV, while the melodies and instrumentation of upbeat standouts “Lovers On Display” and “Time Honored Tradition” have strong commercial appeal for campaigns built around community development or investing in a new home.

Hemby is particularly proud of album-closer “Return,” which sums up both the album and film’s theme of re-investing in family and the communities that raised you. “I’ve always heard that at the end of a film, or in a television show like “This Is Us.” I love regional things like Johnny Cash, the Midwest region and the songs and the people. I don’t know…I think it lends itself to a more organic movie is what I’m trying to say. Almost like a “Dead Man Walking” type of deal.”

Though Hemby seen first-hand the accolades (and royalties) that scoring a number-one hit on country radio or a synch on “Nashville” or a Reese Witherspoon vehicle can bring as a songwriter, finding acclaim and commercial success on her own merits as an artist has always been a secondary goal.

“I don’t know if I want to be that kind of artist who has to go and do massive radio touring and all that,” she says. “Artists like Ryan Adams and Feist and those types got it right. They go out and play theaters, they’re not trying to fight for radio…I think people are craving authenticity. And in different ways, authenticity is winning right now.”

Like many holiday albums, Sia’s newly released “Everyday Is Christmas” was turned in to her management team at Crush Management in July, when the subjects of songs like “Snowflake” and “Candy Cane Lane” seemed far away.

But the album, which includes 10 all-new holiday originals co-written and produced by longtime collaborator Greg Kurstin (“Chandelier,” Adele’s “Hello”), is also a rare attempt to add a full album’s worth of songs to the contemporary Christmas canon in the vein of Mariah Carey and Wham! Add to that an artist notorious for keeping press to a bare minimum, save for the occasional “Ellen” performance or interview, and Crush had a unique marketing challenge on their hands.

“With Christmas records, you only have a few weeks in which it’s part of the culture, so however you can make the music part of the culture is the key,” says Jonathan Daniel, co-president and founder of Crush.

Enter JCPenney, whose ad agency mcgarrybowen was the first to respond to Crush’s Head of Synch Patricia Joseph’s July email to music supervisors under the subject, “Is it too early for Christmas?”

“I like to start early because you never know – some brands like to start searches in July, some start in November,” says Joseph.

Vlad Bar, a music producer at mcgarrybowen, had already been testing approaches to a campaign that could drive strong social-media buzz from “a brand new holiday song and not a tried and true standard” when he “serendipitously” received Joseph’s note. “While it’s always fortunate to be able to land on an artist as culturally relevant as Sia for a campaign, it’s even more fortunate when that artist happens to have a song that seems as if it was tailor-made for the spot,” Bar says.

The Sia spots began airing in November and will continue through January, due to consumer feedback that Bar says has been “nothing short of wildly enthusiastic.”

Though the full-length version of “Ho Ho Ho” invites “all the misfits” to “bring a bottle of rum,” the JCPenney ads only utilize the title for their refrain. That’s as close as many major brands come to using the word “Christmas” in their ads these days, in favor of a more non-denominational approach to holiday advertising.

Some even avoid the holiday genre entirely, like when Mercedes-Benz opted for a moody cover of Bob Dylan’s “To Make You Feel My Love” for a seasonal campaign last year. “It’s another example of brands reaching outside those typical Christmas songs and putting a new spin on it,” says Brian Monaco, president and chief marketing officer at Sia’s publisher Sony/ATV.


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