“It’s like taking your pants off and running through a field of daisies, with just a light mist and enough sunshine to keep you warm, and there’s also rainbow.”
No, that’s not a pitch for a deodorant commercial. It’s Thompson Square’s Keifer Thompson, sitting down alongside bandmate and wife Shawna Thompson in Nashville’s Gulch neighborhood to talk with Rolling Stone Country about the duo’s new album, Masterpiece.
More specifically, Keifer is talking about the freedom the pair felt in making the album, which marks their first studio release since 2013’s Just Feels Good. It’s also their first since parting ways with record label Stoney Creek Records – hence the daisies.
“We spent our whole lives trying to get a record deal,” he says. “Then you get this record deal and your life just takes off. We’ve been very blessed with a bunch of hits, more than we ever thought we deserved or would ever get. At some point, it fizzles out, the relationship you have with this label that changed your life… You’ve heard this story a million times. New people come in with their priorities and you fall by the wayside. The different in this case is we were actually able to get out of the record deal, which most people can’t get out of. BMG let us go because they didn’t want to trap us.”
Thompson Square released their self-titled debut album via Stoney Creek in 2011. That album spawned three Top 20 country singles, including the Number One hit and two-times Platinum “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” a song that propelled the then-little-known duo to country stardom. Just Feels Good followed two years later, but failed to produce a single of “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” proportions.
Frustrated, the duo waited it out while Stoney Creek promoted three singles at country radio, eventually making the decision to opt out of their contract with the label’s blessing. It’s clear in speaking with them that this is still a difficult subject, and one that elicits a complex, sometimes contradictory array of emotions: While certainly optimistic about Masterpiece, they both recognize what was lost when Stoney Creek and its parent label Broken Bow Records were acquired by BMG in 2017. They say there’s no bad blood, though, and both Keifer and Shawna express gratitude for all they were able to accomplish – like winning a handful of ACM and CMA Awards – so early in their career. At this point in the conversation, Keifer’s tone shifts to the disheartened resignation familiar to those who have also been at the mercy of the unpredictable music industry, saying matter-of-factly, “There were people that were our champions that left.”
A couple years passed. Then, in 2016, the couple celebrated another milestone: the birth of their first child, a son named Rigney Cooper Thompson. While drastically changing their day-to-day lives, Cooper’s birth also changed the pair’s approach to their music career, and inspired a number of songs on Masterpiece, particularly its title track.
“[Parenthood has changed] the way we view each other,” Shawna says. “It sounds cheesy, but I think we love each other more now than we did before. It’s a whole different ballgame. So I think that’s definitely influenced us.”
“Becoming a parent is a whole different deal,” Keifer adds. “Unless you have a kid, you don’t understand. I always though, ‘Ah, I can relate to whatever.’ But when you’re blessed with a little kid and you hold it for the first time… It’s amazing to not know this person but know that you would die for them. It’s a really strange metamorphosis that happens. It’s super inspiring. It’s like filling up the tank with gas again.”
With the tank full and the confining relationship of a record deal in the rearview mirror (Masterpiece is an independent release), Keifer and Shawna began plotting what would eventually become Masterpiece, digging through songs they’d written in the intervening years and tending to new ideas — like the title track — that bubbled up right until “the eleventh hour,” as Keifer puts it.
“We were at our house in Alabama and I woke up about 5:30 or 6:00 with [‘Masterpiece’] in my head, so I got up and grabbed my phone,” he says. “I know now that when you get a good idea to write that crap down, because it’s gone when you wake up. For some reason I kept toiling with it… I started thinking about what I thought the masterpiece was in today’s terms. I felt like the masterpiece for any individual is the one thing that you do that you’ll never be able to beat, or never be able to do anything that means more to you than this one thing. Three years prior to that I would have said different things, but after we had our son, the best thing I’ve ever done is him. And marrying her.”
An hour after writing the song, he played it for Shawna, who was brought to tears by lines like, “Da Vinci’s got his ‘Mona Lisa,’ and Beethoven’s got his symphonies But you’re my masterpiece.”
It was the final piece of the album’s puzzle. It also gave the project its title. Elsewhere on Masterpiece, the duo confront the highs and lows of long-term love, subject matter inspired by their 19-year marriage. The sultry “Let’s Do Something Stupid” is cut from the same narrative cloth as “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not.” Conversely, closing track “Breakers,” which Keifer cites as chronicling “the worst thing that has happened in their life,” finds Shawna singing frankly about being hurt by the one she loves.
They also venture into less serious territory, as on the appropriately titled pop number “Stuck in My Head,” the reggae-tinged “Good Day,” and the smoldering rocker “Up in Smoke.”
“It was interesting because Keifer and I don’t really listen to ourselves at all,” Shawna says. “We’ll write a song and put it away and if it sticks out, it sticks out. But ‘Up in Smoke,’ we could not stop listening to it, just the scratch work tape. We played it over and over again in our car and we were like, ‘I think there’s something to this.'”
Both Thompsons are quick to sing the praises of the trio of producers behind Masterpiece, Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, and Ilya Toshinskiy. This album marks the first time they had a say in their production team, and the resulting music is markedly different in sound and scope from their previous releases.
“It was a blast working with Nathan Chapman,” Shawna says of the Taylor Swift producer. “We learned a lot. We recorded our vocals differently. We had never sang live before in the studio. I don’t know why, but it was pretty genius. We sing live on stage, so why not record live? He’s just so creative, coming up with different sounds that aren’t typical.”
While both Keifer and Shawna are veterans of the industry at this point, in some ways Masterpiece is its own kind of debut. The two funded the project themselves, and have high hopes that streaming services like Spotify and non-traditional radio formats like SiriusXM will bolster their own already considerable efforts at getting this new music to the band’s fans.
Either way, though, both are just happy to have released new material that really gets to the heart of who they are as people and as musicians.
“It’s like we’ve had a rope around one leg and we’ve been trying to stay standing until that rope finally breaks,” Keifer says. “But we’re running now. It’s nice.”