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Makin’ Tracks: Alana Springsteen Contemplates What an Ex Doesn’t ‘Deserve’

todayFebruary 8, 2023

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People who are extremely guarded about their private lives — particularly their love lives — would do well not to get involved with an ace songwriter. Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” left music fans speculating for decades about the narcissist at the core of her venomous takedown, and Taylor Swift rather famously built a big part of her catalog on a string of disappointing relationships, dropping clues about her subjects’ identities but declining to name them.

Alana Springsteen delved into her own real-life bouts with heartbreak in her first full-length album, 2021’s independently released History of Breaking Up (Part One), and again in 2022’s Part Two. Now signed to the New York division of Columbia, her first release for the label — “You Don’t Deserve a Country Song,” issued last month — reflects her efforts to purge the emotional residue after the split that informed those prior projects.

“Coming off History of Breaking Up (Part One) and (Part Two), it made a lot of sense to start the year off with this song,” Springsteen reflects. “If they found my music through that period, this is going to feel really familiar to them.”

The room was crowded when “Deserve” came into the world in fall 2021. Springsteen already knew three of her four male co-writers — Michael Whitworth (“Break It In”), Geoff Warburton (“Best Thing Since Backroads”) and Will Weatherly (“Thinking ’Bout You,” “Lose It”) — and was introduced to Mitchell Tenpenny, who subsequently made her an opening act during a 2022 tour. Her willingness to put her emotions on the line in that room impressed him.

“You can tell that she was vulnerable about it,” Tenpenny says. “She’s opening up in a room full of dudes to tell us how she feels, and I respect the s–t out of that. She’s a badass.”

Springsteen possessed the musical catalyst for the day’s work at that writing session. She introduced a stuttered, descending acoustic guitar line played at an aggressive pace in an open tuning, and it sifted into a sort of cluttered conversation. In the middle of it, Tenpenny offered a title that he had logged in his phone, “You Don’t Deserve a Song.” It resonated with Springsteen’s recent breakup.

“When things were good between us, we would actually have conversations and talk about me being a songwriter, and maybe writing something about our relationship or him getting to hear his name on the radio,” she recalls.

They tweaked Tenpenny’s title to accommodate the genre — “You Don’t Deserve a Country Song” — and set out to write a tune that refuses to acknowledge a relationship, even if writing it undercut the actual message.

“I thought it was cool to say you don’t deserve it while you’re giving them a country song,” Tenpenny says. “I’m writing it about you, but I just love the irony in saying you’re not going to do it. You’re doing it because that’s what we [as songwriters] do.”

They wrote the chorus first, with the singer vowing not to do the standard things that jilted lovers do in broken-hearted country songs: no drinking alone at the bar, no stalking the ex’s house. All the writers knew her emotional situation, regardless of whether they knew her ex.

“I actually have no idea who this person is in Alana’s life, but I have that person in my life,” says Weatherly. “That’s what makes the entire thing more universal. Everyone knows that person in their life.”
But with each of those five creatives contributing their viewpoints, “You Don’t Deserve a Country Song” has a certain orderliness to it. Every stanza serves a different purpose, structured in a way that makes chronological sense to the listener, even though the room itself was a bit disorderly.

“It is chaos when everybody’s tossing out ideas, but everyone in their own mind has an idea of what they think it should be,” Whitworth notes. “Five people’s ideas amalgamate into the final product, but every one of us could have written our own version of that song.”

They first explored the details of writing a song — putting pen to paper, rhyming and forming chords — while vowing not to waste the effort on the ex. Verse two invoked other classic country songs that mined the same subject: “What Hurts the Most,” “You’ll Think of Me” and “Neon Moon,” the latter written by Ronnie Dunn for Tree Publishing (now a part of Sony Music Publishing) when Tenpenny’s grandmother, Donna Hilley, was one of the company’s leading executives. The titles appear in the story with surprising subtlety.

“Maybe it doesn’t catch you on the first listen, but it still services the song and the hook,” says Whitworth. “There’s a backstory no one would ever know listening to the song, but we kind of put in songs that got us into country music.”

Weatherly oversaw the demo, using layers of guitars over a pulsing, synthetic bass to create a near-constant sense of forward motion. He built the sound to a crescendo at the end of the bridge, where Springsteen proclaims, “You don’t get to hear your name on the radio.” He followed it with a down chorus, designed for a short respite before raising the intensity once again at the close.

“As a listener, I don’t want a kick drum hammering my ear the entire time,” Weatherly explains. “So you either do a down bridge and an up chorus, or you do an up bridge and a down chorus. You give the listener a moment to breathe.”

Weatherly’s demo was so well-executed that producer Chris LaCorte (Sam Hunt, Cole Swindell) gave him co-producer credit after using the bass and some of the percussion parts from that demo for the master recording. They were only cutting one song at the time (as opposed to three or four songs in a session), so to keep costs down, they built it with the musicians recording individually in their home studios. The cast included drummer Aaron Sterling, guitarist Sol Philcox-Littlefield and keyboardist Alex Wright, with LaCorte playing bass.

LaCorte lowered the key a half step, beefed up the basic foundation with a few extra tracks and recast the bridge, making that the part where the song’s intensity drops. As a result, the line “You don’t get to hear your name on the radio” stands out.

“A lot of times, I look at how the songs would be performed live,” he says. “This is a moment here where it’s just you and a spotlight out there on the catwalk, you throw the guitar behind your back, you grab the mic, and you’re just singing these lyrics. It’s super intimate, and that was kind of the moment I wanted it to feel like.”

Springsteen’s final vocal had all the intimacy that was required — and all the bite, finding that part of the spirit by listening to her now-disgraced former boyfriend’s voice on an old phone message “Her pitch is crazy good,” LaCorte says. “She has such an ear for pocket or the timing of her words. And she’s so in tune with it, too. So we’ll record a bunch of passes and piece together our favorite stuff. And she’s right on top of me for getting the timing right. I love an artist that’s particular about their vocal.”

“You Don’t Deserve a Country Song” teases Messing It Up, a collection due Mar. 24 as the first installment in a three-part album, Twenty Something. “It’s for everybody who’s decided that they’re done putting somebody else’s happiness first and they’re deciding to choose themselves,” Springsteen asserts. “I think there’s a lot of power and competence that comes from that.”

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todayFebruary 8, 2023

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