LeAnn Rimes has started to write things down. Not just for song ideas — that was a given, as she compiled the material that would become her next studio album — but for the simple reason that she just wanted to stop forgetting.
"There is a whole part of my life I have no recollection of, because it was so fast," Rimes tells Rolling Stone Country, seated in her dressing room at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, before her show with the orchestra later that night. She's wearing a long-sleeved red dress and, to her left, an iPad pings with messages every now and again while a makeup artist sets out some lipsticks by the mirror. "No one told me, at 14, to take a moment and enjoy these two Grammys I just won. No one said, 'Slow down and take a moment to enjoy it all.' But now, every little success I'm like, 'That was good.' I have a journal of things I write down so I can literally remember." She pauses for a moment, adding, "I think it was a defense mechanism."
It's been 20 years since the release of Blue, the album that launched Rimes into superstardom (it went six times platinum in the United States alone), back when she was barely a teenager and still in her awkward stage, which puts her in the odd place of being both an elder stateswoman in country music but also, at 33, in what she considers the prime of her life. It also leaves her starting anew, with a fresh record deal — Rimes recently signed with RCA Label Group in the United Kingdom, severing ties with Curb Records after two decades on their roster, and released a single, a cover of Brandi Carlile's "The Story," in the U.K.
To look back on Blue now, and the title song — including all those stunning runs and vintage yodels that Rimes insisted on herself — is to find a prime example of how well Nineties Nashville could blend pop construction with tradition (now, "Blue" sounds downright throwback). But what really made it stand out is how well Rimes, despite her years, could capture not just the vocal nuances so particular to the genre, but its signature ache and heartbreak, too.
Not many artists with that sort of path, one that began at the same time as puberty, have been able to avoid the stereotypical routes of early fame: addiction, jail time, worse. Because Rimes' life hasn't exactly been free of gossip, it's sometimes difficult to step back and realize that few celebrities who had their first Billboard Number One before their first date rarely end up where she is now. Which is on the verge of a whole new phase of her career, with a husband and two stepchildren back home in Los Angeles, her worst vices seemingly bikinis and Instagram. Most of the time, the path of the uber-successful child star is often dotted with potholes and white lines — the kind spread out on a mirror.
"There are very few people I can call and say, 'Hey, what do you do in this situation?'" Rimes says. "Most of them are gone, actually. Anyone who started as young as I did, well, we don't really make it very far in our lives."
Rimes was just 14 when she collected the Best New Artist trophy at the 1997 Grammy Awards, along with Best Female Country Vocal Performance for "Blue," the song that catapulted her to the top of the country (and pop) stratosphere, and garnered instant comparisons to Patsy Cline. Picking up her golden gramophones, she looked like the kid she was — hair worn curly, a trinket necklace, big ole smile. At the podium, she thanked her parents, not knowing that three years later she would have to take her father to court, alleging that he squandered over seven million dollars of her fortune.
Then there was that other "scandal," where Rimes ended up falling in love with her co-star (and now husband) Eddie Cibrian on the set of a Lifetime movie while they were both married to other people, and getting caught in the act. The outrage and media scrutiny that followed was extreme, and still haunts her to this day. Although the affair was in 2009, gossip magazines continue to run stories weekly about her supposed battles with Cibrian's ex-wife. Plenty of other singers — even in country music — have been involved in equally dramatic romantic foibles: Jason Aldean, for one, met (and was photographed with) his current wife, American Idol contestant Brittany Kerr, while still married. But Aldean was allowed to rise quickly back to the top, with his Old Boots, New Dirt debuting at Number One on the Billboard 200. Rimes' excellent Spitfire, meanwhile, didn't even crack the Top 30. Rimes knows that if she were male, she may have been forgiven a long, long time ago.
"It has always boggled my mind. We live in a man's world when it comes to that kind of thing. All is not fair in love and war," she says. "And affairs. "
So it might be surprising that, considering the scrutiny placed on her romantic and personal life, her next album is about one thing in particular: love, from all angles. She's not ready to share much — no release date has been set as of yet — but there are moments about being a stepmom, her own mother and the LGBT community (she is an outspoken advocate for equal rights).
"It's a very healing record," she says, of what will be her 16th studio album. "That's really what I hope people get out of it, is some sense of healing. I'm not attacking anything; it's from a settled point of view. And yes, it is vulnerable. I'm scared to death."
Spitfire, her last non-holiday record for Curb (Rimes subsequently recorded two Christmas albums), felt a bit like something from the mouth of a fighter. This, she says, is more focused on catharsis, away from the gossip or years of torture-by-tabloid. The fact that RCA/UK is also worlds apart from Nashville's Music Row — they boast artists like Usher, Beyoncé and Christina Aguilera — certainly helps. Rimes had never even taken a label meeting before, and settled on this new partner because they were more interested in her as an artist, she says, than whatever material she was working on at the moment. At the time, there wasn't much. She had some ideas here and there, some reference points, like Carlile and her song "The Story" — which the label surprisingly suggested they release as a single.
Though Rimes was a little hesitant at first to lead with a cover song, she saw an opportunity to focus on a particular breed of singing: the kind that prioritizes emotional power as much as those million-dollar high notes, pointing to artists like Adele and Chris Stapleton for inspiration. Stapleton, in particular, embodies something else she'd like to relay in her new music — a little more soul.
"I've always been a very soulful artist," Rimes says. "It came across live, but I've never been able to truly capture that on a record. I wanted to pull in all of these different influences, from the country side, to things that are very rootsy and grounded, to doing something with a hip-hop groove that is really organic. It's not full of stuff just to make it sound large. I don't even know how to explain it, but I think it's timeless."
As Rimes has been touring, "timeless" is a word that's begun to apply to her back catalogue as well. She's rearranging songs like the once up-tempo "One Way Ticket" into something more introspective, far from her teenage days when she was dancing on a trolley in the music video, blissfully unaware of how much a ride like hers really costs. "I'm gonna start all over again," she sings. It's choked her up a few times to perform it live.
The words of "The Story," too, hit home: "All of these lines across my face / tell you the story of who I am. So many stories of where I've been / and how I got to where I am."
"It's an interesting way to start out the next chapter of my life," says Rimes. "I have a story that has been lived out in the public, but I have a personal story, too. [So] I relate to the lyrics big time. Except I don't have lines [on my face] yet. Give me a couple more years, and that part will be believable."