No wonder Carly Pearce named her new sophomore album after herself. This is full-spectrum Carly: sassy and sexy, tender and romantic, and, ultimately, strong and self-assured.
But for Pearce, the album — which debuts Friday — is even more than a multi-dimensional self-portrait. It’s also a tribute to her beloved producer, Michael James Ryan, aka Busbee, who was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer just 10 days after they had completed the project. He died weeks later, at age 43, in September 2019.
For a brief, broken-hearted moment, the 29-year-old artist tells PEOPLE she considered shelving the album “just because it was so painful for me. I didn’t know how to make music without him, and I was just sad.” But she quickly realized the album was a final testament to the mentor and friend who took her under his wing when she was still an unknown and every other door had been slammed in her face.
“I feel so honored,” she says, “that I got the last full record that he ever made.”
Busbee — whose songwriting and production credits include Maren Morris, Keith Urban, Gwen Stefani and Pink — signed on with Pearce in 2015 to do artist development. Two years of hard work finally bore fruit with Pearce’s breakthrough hit, “Every Little Thing,” which they co-wrote with Emily Shackleton. He went on to produce Pearce’s first album, with the same name, that was released in 2017.
If you consider that debut album a first date — an invitation to get acquainted with Pearce — the new one is sure to entice listeners into a fully committed relationship. Every track sets itself apart, each one reflecting a different facet of Pearce’s personality. But all share the star power of Pearce’s supple voice.
She says she has Busbee to thank for that. “He had an unbelievable way of getting a vocal,” she says. “He wasn’t just a producer for me. He was a co-writer. He was a vocal helper. He was a friend. He was a confidant. I mean, I talked to him almost every day. Music will forever be different for me moving forward just because he helped me build what I am.”
There also were other forces at work, she adds, to help her become the artist she is today. “I wrote so much of that first record in the years before I had a record deal, and that girl was just not fully developed,” she says. “She was searching. She was scared that this wasn’t going to happen. And through the last few years, country music fans have given my music a place. They’ve helped give me confidence. My personal life has helped give me confidence. Life experiences and age have given me a lot of self-confidence, and I just really feel good.”
The “personal life,” of course, is her husband, artist Michael Ray, who she says has been a valuable sounding board for her new music. He has also been a muse: Their first few giddy days together in 2018 turned into the inspiration for her co-write “Heart's Going Out of Its Mind.”
“I went into the room and I was like, well, this is going to be interesting to tell these people that, ‘Hey, I am totally in love and I want to write this,'” she recalls about the session with songwriters Laura Veltz and Joe Ginsberg. “We wrote it in about 45 minutes.”
Pearce says Thomas Rhett and label head Scott Borchetta pitched the song not long after she and Ray started dating, and it came with the directive: “We want you to sing this with your new boyfriend.”
“I was like, what?” Pearce says, chuckling at the memory. She says she waited to make sure the relationship was “for keeps” — the couple became engaged in 2018 and wed last October — before recording the song that “felt like what we were” in that phase of their relationship.
Pearce reveals Ballerini, who’s also a friend, and Thomas Rhett had originally written the song for themselves before deciding against it. A grateful Pearce feels it was meant to be sung by a real-life couple, and she told Ballerini so.
“I was like, ‘Girl, if you would’ve put that song out with him, that’s just weird,’” she says.
Pearce’s hot chart-climber, “I Hope You're Happy Now,” is another song on the album that also took a detour in its making. She co-wrote it with Luke Combs, Randy Montana and Jonathan Singleton just as Combs’ career was taking off. Both artists originally intended it to be a duet for them, but when the time came to record it, their schedules made it an impossibility.
So Pearce set her sights on another country troubadour, Lee Brice. “I know their voices are very different,” Pearce says, “but what they bring is very similar.”
And once she heard the final version, she knew her Plan B sounded a lot more like Plan A: “What’s kinda cool to me is, obviously, I went after Luke because I thought he was amazing, but I ultimately didn’t need Luke for this to be a hit. Lee brought what we needed to the song.”
“I Hope You’re Happy Now,” now in the top 15, draws deeply from her personal history, as does another Pearce co-write, “It Won't Always Be Like This.” The latter is a wistful reflection on the transience of life, and she intended it to “speak to my journey” since leaving her native Kentucky in her teens to pursue a music career.
“It’s taken on a bigger meaning for me now that Busbee’s gone,” says Pearce, who dedicated her album to its producer. “I didn’t know when I was recording this album that that would be the end. So that one’s a heavy song for me.”
Does that make it hard to sing?
“Yeah,” she says, “but I think that’s when I know it’s special.”
Pearce is now heading out on tour with Old Dominion, though for Valentine’s Day, she and Ray will be together, in St. Louis, performing on the same bill — a rarity these days for the two solo artists.
So do they have anything romantic planned?
Pearce says she’s already bought a few gifts for her husband — and since it’s also her release day — she does have one extra special something for them to do together.
“Hopefully,” she says, “we’ll be able to go buy the album somewhere.”