NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- “American Idol” did more than launch Carrie Underwood’s career—it helped shape the picture-perfect image she has today.
In interviews and public appearances, she never has a hair out of place and always says the right things. She only recently decided it was safe to join Twitter, and if there’s ever a controversial tweet from her account, assume it got hacked.
Her carefully crafted persona doesn’t come from “American Idol” media training, but rather from what she feels were cringe-worthy moments during her winning run on the show in 2005 that stereotyped her as a naive “country girl.”
“I’m glad I can present a polished version of myself when it counts. When I was on ‘Idol,’ I said some dumb stuff, and learned what that could do, and that stuff lives on,” said the Oklahoma native. “It seemed like every single solitary stupid thing I said was aired and featured and replayed over and over and over again.”
After that, the 29-year-old made a conscious effort to portray herself in public as what she calls a “somewhat intelligent person” who graduated from college.
Yet when recording her fourth album, “Blown Away,” out Tuesday, Underwood allowed herself to be unguarded, and sometimes downright silly.
“When you go in to write, you have to be willing to sound stupid,” said Underwood during a recent interview at the Grand Ole Opry, of which she is a member. “Before you have a chance to think about something, you blurt it out and it doesn’t make any sense, and everybody gets a good laugh out of it. You can’t be afraid to sound completely dumb when you go to write.”
She’s giving herself permission to be a little less concerned about her image these days as well. It has taken her multiplatinum, Grammy-winning success, as well as the confidence of co-writing six of her 14 No. 1 country singles, for her to get comfortable with letting her personality shine through in more than just her music.
“Blown Away” represents Underwood’s continued growth as an artist. She co-wrote eight of the album’s 14 tracks, a far cry from the one tune she penned on her debut album. The disc is also a diverse collection, both musically and thematically.
The title track pulsates with a dance beat over a storyline describing a girl who heads to a storm shelter, hoping a tornado will destroy her home and her drunk, abusive dad asleep upstairs. “One Way Ticket” sways with a reggae groove. “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” featuring Brad Paisley on guitar, introduces fans to her redneck side. And “Wine After Whiskey” is a heartbreaking break-up ballad that has a classic feel.
Grammy-winning songwriter Josh Kear, known for hits like Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now,” wrote four songs on “Blown Away.” Three were penned with Underwood, including the foreboding “Two Black Cadillacs” about a wife and a mistress who conspire to get even with the man who betrayed them both.
Kear, who had never written with Underwood before this record, was thrilled with her as a collaborator. The day they wrote the quirky “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” Kear had suggested the title at the beginning of the session, and they had spent two to three hours working on another tune before getting stuck.
“Suddenly, she starts stomping her feet and clapping her hands and singing essentially what is now the melody for ‘Cupid’s Got A Shotgun.’ She had somehow, while we were in the process of writing this other song, been mulling it over in her brain and came back to that title,” he said.
Kear jumped right in, and they wrote the song in about 15 minutes.
“It was kind of goofy, and a lot of people don’t get to see that loose, goofy side of her, and I think that is one of the reasons she was excited to get those songs is she gets to bring a side of herself that hasn’t really always been out there,” he said. “Hopefully now people will imagine that as part of who she is.”
Country fans have seen Underwood’s comedic side as co-host of the Country Music Association Awards with Paisley for the past four years. Executive producer Robert Deaton had worked with Underwood and saw another side of her behind the scenes, which is why he initially tapped her for the job.
“The more you know her, the more you like her,” he said. “That outgoing personality, just funny, timing is perfect, witty. She’s also incredibly intelligent and smart as well.”
Deaton believes the CMA Awards gig has been very important to balancing out her career. During writing sessions for the show, he said Underwood is quick to make a joke even funnier or throw out an idea that is spot on. He says her quick-witted delivery on stage is “very much who she is.”
“Her participation is so deep on many levels (of the show.) On one hand, she can do comedy. On the other hand, she can also bring class and beauty to the broadcast,” he said. “Then she can go out and do an unbelievable performance, so it’s multi-layered of what she brings to the table.”
While Underwood has brought more of her personality into play with “Blown Away,” she is careful to point out its songs—many of which have a dark, edgier tone—are not a reflection of her personal life.
“When I think of my career and when I think of ‘Carrie Underwood,’ that has kind of taken on a life of its own. I feel like when I’m on stage, when I’m writing songs, singing songs, I’m in the studio, I’m shooting videos, I kind of get to become this character, and I can make that whatever I want to make that. I honestly in a lot of ways don’t want to sing about my real life, because that’s private,” she said. “I’m pretty private about my personal life and my husband and our life together, and I think it’s so wonderful I can separate the two. I get to be an actress. I get to play a character. I get to have fun and tell stories.”
And she’s apparently not a bad actress in real life. She jokes that she’s “got everyone fooled” if they think she’s flawless.
“My husband (NHL player Mike Fisher) calls me ‘the queen of awkward moments.’ If something can be said to make an awkward moment even worse, I’m going to say it,” she said.