Tenille Townes likes to say she processes reality through her songwriting. A few years back, the Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada native, who grew up adoring both U2 and Shania Twain, was in the car with her mother and saw a homeless young woman asking for money. She had a lot of questions, the kind that kept nagging at her.
“How do I understand this? This girl on the side of the road, who very well could be my age, and how am I getting to taste my dream and do the thing I love? What kind of hand was she dealt?” Townes says on a Facetime call from her adopted home in Nashville, where she’s been riding out quarantine by working on lots of new material.
Not long after that ride with her mom, she was writing with Luke Laird and Barry Dean and had the woman on her mind. The three of them wrote “Somebody’s Daughter,” which artfully relates the encounter without ever losing sight of the human about whom she wrote it.
That kind of empathy is a big component of Townes’ newly released debut album The Lemonade Stand, which borrows its title from a line in “Somebody’s Daughter.” A similar impulse informs Townes’ “Jersey on the Wall (I’m Just Asking),” inspired by a meeting with some New Brunswick high school students who were grieving the loss of their friend, a star student and athlete. “If I ever get to heaven, you know I got a long list of questions,” Townes sings, asking God why tragedies like the car accident that took the student’s life are allowed to occur.
“This is a real person. And so it matters a lot to me to try to carry that the best way that I can, to honor that through the music,” Townes says. “And sometimes I think that looks a lot like just getting out of the way and letting [the song] become what it’s supposed to be.”
Tough topics to wrap one’s head around, for sure, but Townes seems undaunted by the prospect. “It’s always worth the risk of trying,” she says. This caring stance comes from a very real place for Townes — when she was 15, she started the “Big Hearts for Big Kids” benefit concert for a homeless shelter in her hometown and raised $30,000. Last year, it raised more than $430,000.
Recorded with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Ashley McBryde), The Lemonade Stand takes the keenly observational songwriting Townes displayed on her introductory EP The Living Room Worktapes and makes it into something cinematic and epic. “White Horse,” originally a strummy number with acoustic guitar and tambourine, sounds like shimmering indie rock with Joyce’s layered production and Townes’ distinctive voice.
“Every song was such a different adventure as we disappeared in there,” Townes says of the sessions with notorious experimenter Joyce. “It was like, ‘OK, this one needs a little bit of this and we’re going to bring in a band and jam on this song, catch the live vibe. This one, we’re just gonna sit down at the piano.’”
Even when Townes sings about a breakup, as in “I Kept the Roses,” her sense of empathy remains. Over a slowed-down, Memphis soul groove, she describes getting rid of all the things that remind her of that relationship. But the roses she retains as a nod to happier times and a love that almost was, before it wasn’t. “‘Cause you weren’t the one, babe/But you were the closest,” she sings.
Elsewhere, Townes welds bright melodies to lyrics about being a beacon for someone in “Lighthouse,” the benefits of living in the moment in “Come as You Are,” and the search for love among the danceable, syncopated rhythms of “Find You.”
The album’s closing track, “The Most Beautiful Things,” is a lovely piano ballad that offers an appreciation of the indescribable beauty of feelings and sensations swirling all around us. Like the rest of the album, it’s ultimately hopeful, empathetic, and supremely welcome at a moment when it’s easy to start feeling like everything looks pretty bleak.
“My goal with this music is that people feel filled up by it,” she says. “I hope they have a little bit more hope in their tank when they finish listening to it.”