As one of the songwriters behind hits such as Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” and Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Hillary Lindsey has written with a who’s-who of country artists and helped chart the genre’s current course. The Georgia native is also one of the principal collaborators on Lady Gaga’s new album Joanne, which is available today and blends the superstar’s knack for massive pop hooks with a more personal, straightforward style of storytelling.
Among Lindsey’s contributions to Joanne are the stay-or-leave ballad “Million Reasons” and the up-tempo rocker “A-Yo,” which she helped debut when Lady Gaga launched her Dive Bar tour at Nashville’s 5 Spot. Lindsey wrote at Gaga’s home in Los Angeles, having been identified by the performer’s record label as a potential collaborator. She’d previously written with pop stars like Miley Cyrus (who has deep Nashville ties) and Shakira, but Lady Gaga was something else entirely.
“It’s very rare that you get these calls,” says Lindsey, “but when you do it’s always a ride.”
In any case, it’s not the kind of opportunity many songwriters would turn down.
“You say yes because you just want to do it,” says Lindsey. “Here in [Nashville] we obviously write country songs but there’s a lot of pop writing going on here too. But it’s different when you’re asked to write with the artist. It’s amazing to be in the room with an artist and to get in their head and to get into their world.”
That was certainly the case with Gaga, whose personal experiences and stories gave Lindsey countless song ideas from that initial meeting. “Million Reasons” was actually the second song they composed, the title phrase lifted directly from their conversations. In many respects, Lindsey says the experience wasn’t radically different than when she writes with someone else in Nashville.
“She is a badass songwriter,” Lindsey says. “Pretty much everything she said, I’m like, ‘That’s a title! You’ve gotta either stop talking or you’ve gotta let me come live here for a month, because everything you say is a song.’ It was just the two of us and it was just a very natural process, a straight-up songwriting process. The only thing different is she writes her lyrics out on an old school typewriter, which I freakin’ love.”
Their conversations and a few glasses of wine gave rise to a third Lindsey song on Joanne. “Grigio Girls,” which mixes electronic percussion with a strummed acoustic guitar, piano and warm vinyl record crackle, serves as a weary rallying cry for friends helping one another through the tough times, bottle in hand – the album’s titular Joanne even makes a brief appearance. “Make it all make sense,” Gaga sings, intoning a slight twang at the end of the line.
“I picked up the acoustic and we started playing around with it and we were just laughing and having a good time,” says Lindsey. “We didn’t think it was a real song but it ended up being a real song. We were just kind of messing around. And she took it to a very personal place.”
Lady Gaga has possibly become as well-known for switching her image and style as her performing and musical ability, skipping from the pop bliss of “Bad Romance” to the more fractured electronics of ArtPop to the campy sophistication of the Tony Bennett collaboration Cheek to Cheek in short order. The narrative around Joanne seems to be that it’s Gaga’s move toward a more grounded, country style of songwriting and, while it’s hard to say that for certain, it does at least seem clear that she doesn’t exactly think in terms of one genre or what’s working on radio at the time. At least for now, during this time of her superstar reign, she can set off in a direction of her choosing and pull the genre and radio toward her.
“That that’s how all music should be. I don’t think we need to box anything in,” says Lindsey. “It’s music. It doesn’t have to be called country, it doesn’t have to be called pop. It’s just music. And when it’s being made specifically from an artist, whether that’s a country artist or a pop artist, it’s just coming from them. That’s what I’ve always hoped it could be. And I praise Jesus for her, for somebody that can still do that.”