Most people have probably considered, even in passing, what it would be like to go back to the beginning and do it all over again armed with the knowledge they currently possess. Few realize they have the ability to do just that, and even fewer actually take that chance. Carolyn Dawn Johnson knows why, because that's exactly what she's done with her third album, Love & Negotiation.
Written, produced and financed by Johnson herself, the release punctuates a difficult decision to leave her first record label and strike out in search of the inspiration that brought her to Nashville in the first place. What she found was that seizing that elusive fresh start meant making a clean break with hindsight and stepping away from the comforting structures we all build for ourselves. It was a daunting and at times frightening decision, but it might just rank among her very best.
"I've always wanted to be an artist who writes things that are real to me," Carolyn Dawn says. "I just want to be honest in my music. No one has ever asked me not to be that, but I wasn't always able to do what felt right. It's happened to a lot of people and so you get to the point where the time is right for a change.
"Getting to make this album on my own terms," Johnson continues, "and having the great people at Equity Music Group embrace it and work with me to get it out there, well, it's worked out better than I could have planned."
Change doesn't necessarily come as easily as she makes it sound, however, especially for someone on the kind of high-climbing career track she has enjoyed thus far. The fresh-faced songwriter who drove 60 hours from her then home, Vancouver, BC, Canada to build a career in Nashville seemingly never looked back. She never had to. Arriving in 1995, Johnson developed her skill and reputation as a songwriter while working odd jobs to pay the bills. A publishing deal led to cuts by artists including Jo Dee Messina, Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea and more. Her first No. 1 as a writer came in 1999 with Chely Wright's "Single White Female."
The milestones came quickly. She was named Music Row magazine's Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year in 2000, she toured behind Martina McBride for a year, and eventually signed a recording contract with powerhouse Arista/Nashville. Her first album, Room With A View, bowed in 2001 and launched her first hits as an artist including "Georgia," "I Don't Want You To Go" and the top 5 smash "Complicated." Critical acclaim and the approval of her peers poured in, and Johnson was honored as the Academy of Country Music's Top New Female Vocalist in 2002. The American Music Awards hailed her as Favorite New Country Artist the following year.
High profile tours with Reba McEntire, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Keith Urban had her poised for a major breakthrough with her second album, 2004's Dress Rehearsal. But it never materialized. She had a top 15 hit with the first single, "Simple Life," but she was beginning to realize she'd lost her way. She asked for her release from Arista in 2005.
CDJ realized she needed to reclaim the magic she'd felt when she first arrived in Nashville. "Starting out I was incredibly prolific simply because I was so excited to be writing songs," she says. "Then I went through a period where I felt like I was trying to write certain kinds of songs. When Arista and I parted ways I was really sad, but I decided to just get back out into Nashville. I started going to writers nights again. I started going out to hear bands. And I was asking myself, 'Why did I come here? Why did I move to Nashville? Why was I so drawn to this place that there was nothing that could pull me away?'"
Immersing herself in Music City's inimitable creative community for the second time brought all those feelings back. And it showed her how far off course she'd drifted. "Music had become less important," she admits. "My love of it wasn't strong enough for me to face everything you have to face to make some headway in this business. "It's not that I wanted to quit, but I very much questioned whether it was all worth it," she continues. "It's nobody's fault, it's just a business and you can't help but get caught up in it. Then you try to resist and you create your own unhappiness. That's the trouble between the business and the art. I can handle both, but it got out of whack for a while. It's hard to put on that smiling face when you don't believe in what you're doing. And if you don't believe it, people are going to see it in your face. They'll see it in your body language.
"Getting back out there and listening again brought it all back. It really feels like I've come back around to the beginning. I'm writing things that I love and writing about real things instead of trying to come up with stuff that will make everybody else happy."
Energized and at the same time benefiting from the incredible education of making her first two albums, Johnson took the wildly ambitious step of deciding to make an album without a label deal in place. She wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs, produced eight of them and co-produced the other four with legendary musician and producer Dann Huff.
"I didn't know what was going to happen with this record," she admits. "When we went in the studio I told the musicians, let's just make our own sound. We'll make the songs whatever they need to be. I want to feel the performances and I want every song to be different. Most of the guys have played with me on other records and felt, like I did, that it was a great opportunity. I didn't have a record company. There was nobody offering opinions or suggestions. Let's just have a good time... and we did."
Johnson spent four tireless months crafting the record tracking at top Nashville studios with A-list musicians and engineers. "I did a lot of the vocals, all my acoustics, all the piano and most of the editing at home," she says. "I wasn't sure how it would turn out. I had days when I thought, 'Please, somebody come rescue me!' It was mentally exhausting and challenging because I wanted it to be great. I made some mistakes along the way, but I was able to correct them. The icing on the cake was the enthusiastic reception from the team at Equity. At that point, I knew this music had found the right home."
From her earliest dreams of Nashville, songwriting has been at the core of Johnson's artistry. And that comes through in the ringing melodies of "Got A Good Day" and deft turns of phrase in the title track. But she's always been more than a songwriter with a record deal, as the vocal performances on "Crybaby" and "Got There First" show all too well. And then there's the unvarnished emotion of "Dreaming Without You" and "Nothing Good About Lonely." She's unapologetically personal on "Everybody's Favorite," and, on the first single "Taking Back My Brave," perhaps offers up an anthem for this latest chapter in her young career.
Early reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and Carolyn Dawn is intensely proud of the project. Regardless of its ultimate level of success, and despite all her trepidation, Love & Negotiation seems destined to be regarded as a triumph.
"Once we got the bows tied on I realized it was really taking the shape I had hoped it would," she says. "By the time we did the record deal and had deadlines, I remember the panic of, 'Okay, now I have to let this baby go.' It was one of the scariest things I've ever done in the same way as even taking the chance of moving to Nashville. That was such a leap of faith, and making this record was as well. But I'm so glad I followed my heart."