There’s been a lot of collective good news to go around for serious fans of country music this year, with an airplay chart that had three solo women in the top 10 for the first time since the early 2010s, and now, two female freshmen in the top 5. But to narrow it down: Positive trending notwithstanding, Ingrid Andress, all by herself, would be reason enough for a celebrative headline.
All the critical acclaim for Andress and her “Lady Like” album isn’t because she represents a return to traditional country — far from it — but because, if she marks a return to anything, it’s to that period in the ’80s and ’90s when strong female singer/songwriters who weren’t necessarily strictly defined by genre found their place in this one, a la Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Rosanne Cash. Her pop crossover potential is tremendous, and it’s likely not just a whim that she’s signed to a pop as well as country imprint within the Warner Music ecostructure. But that someone with her co-writing and self-production chops has chosen country as her base, and been wildly and shockingly embraced by radio, is nothing but a sign of health for the genre.
Andress has just set a record for the all-time highest streaming debut album from a female country artist with her “Lady Like” release, which came out in late March. That’s based largely on “More Hearts Than Mine,” a ballad that’s currently Top 5 with a strong shot at reaching No. 1. It’s the kind of song that addresses that probably everybody in a romantic relationship has thought about at one point or another, but seemingly no one has thought to write a hit song about: the worry about how a breakup might affect family members who’ve fallen for a significant other as much as oneself.
There are more where that song came from — including the title song of “Lady Like,” the aggressive qualities of which suggest that Andress is more naturally inclined to be heartbreaker than heartbreakee. Variety caught up with the Colorado native over the phone to discuss how she’s successfully busting stereotypes and the challenges of capitalizing on her radio success during a pandemic.
VARIETY: Are you throwing yourself a one-woman party to celebrate your chart successes?
ANDRESS: I have a few bottles of champagne, so I’ll probably crack those open sooner than later.
When you were discussing singles with your label, were you thinking, “’More Hearts Than Mine’ — that’s the song, the one that’s going to break me”?
Oh, for sure. I felt very strongly that that needed to be the first single, just because obviously it doesn’t sound like the typical up-tempo dream No. 1 song that every label is looking for. So I’m really glad that they agreed with me. You know, the country genre seemed to be lacking the story-songs that I really grew up loving. So I really wanted to raise the bar for songs that were singles as far as lyrical content and just being meaningful. And I felt if that song didn’t get its chance, I would regret it forever.
You’ve said that you were initially reluctant to write it the way you did, because you prefer to be the person that’s the position of doing the breaking up, not potentially being broken up with. And you do have this kind of tough persona. [She laughs.] So did you have any reluctance to have your first exposure to people be a song that might register as worrying about being hurt in a relationship?
Yeah, I definitely was not excited about being vulnerable. But the concept first came to me the way that the song is now. I think I was just nervous because I had also just written “Lady Like,” and I was like, “Can the same artist release these two kinds of songs?” And it just made me realize that there is something empowered about being vulnerable and being honest. So it was a big step for me as a songwriter to be more open with how I’m actually feeling. And I feel like once that gate opened, it actually allowed me to write more honestly than I had before. It was a crucial moment for me as a songwriter.
“Lady Like” was out there first as a promotional song, if not official single. The two songs in tandem set you up in a lot of ways. If you had your choice, would “Lady Like” be your introduction to people, since there’s so much of you in that song?
Yeah, that’s why it was the first one that I ever put out, because it really does describe who I am, and that’s why I wanted the album to be called “Lady Like.” And I think that the message of that song is something that people need to hear at this point in where we are as a society. But it’s also just more of a personal statement as well, for a debut album — if people don’t know who I am, you’ll know after listening to it one time.
The collection is eight songs. Knowing that most people are streaming individual songs anyway anymore, are you thinking of eight songs as an album or EP?
It technically still counts as an album. I didn’t really want to bombard people with too many songs, because I feel like when I discover new artists, I only want a handful for starters — I’m not going to listen to all 14 of their songs. I also didn’t want any filler songs on the album. I wanted every song to be somebody’s favorite. So that was very intentional, because I feel like more people would buy albums if all the songs on the album were meaningful.
Being signed jointly to Warner Nashville and Atlantic, does that represent a desire for a multi-genre push desire?
I mean… maybe? At the moment, I am more drawn to country because of the storytelling ability the genre has. I feel like it has a bigger canvas to be able to paint a vivid picture for people, instead of having to cram lyrics into a quick, syncopated, catchy melody. And I tend to not try to put limits on what I do creatively. So if it does resonate more outside the country genre, great. If it doesn’t, great. It’s really more about the songs and how I want them to be portrayed. So hopefully genres won’t matter as much soon, but…
When I first saw you perform in L.A. at the Hotel Café, you seemed to be in a classic singer-songwriter mode — no one would have walked in off the street in Hollywood and considered it too twangy. And you’re from Colorado, originally, not one of the Southern states that produce most country artists. So I worried that maybe you didn’t have enough of the cultural or musical signifiers that the country mainstream sometimes demands to be immediately accepted there. But obviously I needn’t have.
Thank you for being worried. [Laughs.] I appreciate it.
When you performed at Country Radio Seminar’s New Faces show recently, you talked about how you didn’t feel like a perfect fit moving to the South, and how there were some stereotypes about femininity that threw you when you made the move. That seemed pretty candid, where someone else might be looking to sell how much they’re exactly like the core audience.
I feel like that can only last for so long, and I’m really bad at lying. I know myself enough to know that the whole goal was never to convince people that I’m like a certain thing or that I really belong here. It’s really more of a “I’m here and you can either like it or not.” It would be really hard for me to try to play a role of what people would typically expect from a female country artist. That is not what I’m here to do.
Do the programmers you meet on radio tours give you feedback on what they might consider refreshing about you?
I think they appreciate the honesty and the craft of the storytelling in the songs. I feel like country has that reputation, or used to have it, and so I’m sure they’re relieved that I’m not in there talking about how angry I am at somebody for cheating, or, you know, beer in trucks. I don’t drink beer, and don’t drive a truck.
It made headlines recently that there were three women in the country airplay top 10 for the first time since 2013.
Yes, it’s amazing!
And two of you three women are doing it with debut singles, which is an even rarer achievement. You want to be considered as an individual, of course, but is it fun for you to be part of this wave that people are excited about?
Yeah. I feel like it is exciting. And I really feel like it’s showcasing that yes, we’re all women, but listen how different we are. In like a great way. It almost gives me hope that people are accepting artists for what they actually are instead of what they represent. And yeah, the timing could not be better. I guess I was never really afraid of not doing well, because to me, I was just doing what I was doing. I didn’t really know going into it that radio didn’t play that many women, because I wasn’t really involved, really, in the country radio scene. But it’s really worked out, because I never thought that I’d be at a disadvantage, and I’m glad that I’m not.
It’s probably a good thing you weren’t reading all the discouraging stories we were writing over the years.
[Laughs] I mean, I knew about it. I just didn’t really know the actual numbers of it and the whole political side that came with it. I just assumed that there weren’t many great songs [by women that were not becoming hits], but then you listen on your own and you find them and you’re like, “Holy s—. Why is this not more well known?”
You represent a combination of qualities that’s hard to peg. You talk about not wearing dresses in one of your songs, and mention smoking and drinking, and maybe have some aggressive attitudes some people are going to associate more with the masculine. But then some of the songs are less tough and more romantic, with the people associate more readily with femininity. You kind of represent a spectrum within yourself of types. Is that something you’re able to be self-conscious about?
I mean, it is called being the modern woman. We have those wide range of emotions because that’s just the society we live in now. I want to embody all the emotions I have, because that is I feel part of being a female. But also, you know, in my life, I pretty much am used to doing things on my own and getting things done. So it’s just the personality clash of being tough, but also not afraid to tell you that I’m upset about something or that my heart got broken. It’s opening the spectrum for people to be able to hopefully feel like they can be more than just one thing. That’s just being a human, is having multiple facets to your personality.
You’ve written with people like Charli XCX. You mentioned earlier that you like writing for country because you don’t have to necessarily have to fit a beat, or the way you might in pop. But are there valuable things you took out of all those pop co-writing experiences?
I think just melody in general is something that I like taking from pop because there aren’t really any limits on what you can do. And I like the idea of how crazy and out there you can get. It stretched my mind into thinking of interesting ways of being creative, and writing about things and saying it how they really are, since there aren’t any like filters that you have to put on it per se, like you do in country. So I feel like that was a cool experience to start with the broad and then being able to hone it into another genre that has a few more limits in it. I found that a fun challenge.
There have to be some mixed feelings for you with things going so well, but so much uncertainty in the air. Is it an odd time to put the record out?
It is an odd time, but I feel like now more than ever, people will actually have time to really listen to music. And my lyrics are very storyteller in general. So feel like it’s a great time, because you can still listen to music while you’re quarantined in your house. And it also gives me time to write more. So I think I just take every day as it comes. Sure, it’s not the ideal time to put out an album, but I’m just happy the music will finally be out there and people can listen to it whenever they want to.
When we try to think what people will gravitate toward as this goes on, we might like to think that this’ll be a time where maybe they want to hear something that feels real, like your songs. But maybe we should never discount that people will want to hear even more truck songs, as escapism.
Totally. Yeah, it could go either way, really, for me. People could be like, “No, I don’t want to be reminded about how I feel!” [Laughs.]