By now, Katie Armiger’s country music career comprises six years, four studio albums, and still zero bona fide radio hits. Her label Cold River Records has nonetheless stuck with her since 2007, with her previous outing, 2010’s Confessions of a Nice Girl, producing her first chart singles in the #55 “Kiss Me Now” and the #42 “Best Song Ever.” Her new album Fall Into Me has yet to reverse her fortunes at radio – Lead single “Better In a Black Dress” topped out at #42 on Billboard Country Airplay – but it no doubt contains more than enough tasteful, likeable pop-country material to keep current fans interested.
At its best, Fall Into Me combines effective melodies with clever lyrical turns of phrase and colorful vocal readings. By such rights, “Man I Thought You Were” is arguably the album’s finest track, casting Armiger as a jilted young woman who’s had her heart broken by a man who didn’t fulfill expectations. She turns the song’s concept on its head in the second verse, musing that she wishes she could hate the woman she lost her love to, but can’t because she knows that the same outcome awaits her successor. The song’s story is enhanced by a compelling melody, and a performance that exudes vulnerability. A similar interplay of elements is heard on “Merry Go Round,” in which a frantic melody and performance pulse in a way that mirrors the tumult of the relationship chronicled by the lyric.
The album is produced by Chad Carlson, who also produced Confessions of a Nice Girl. Though the musical stylings often skew heavily toward the pop side of the country-pop spectrum, the album largely steers clear of the over-audacious pop arrangements that at times pervaded Confessions (with the noisy “So Long” being the glaring exception). The project boasts several standout instrumental hooks and clever production touches, as well as some increased stylistic variety. A brisk tempo and hand-clap section underscores the sense of urgency in album opener “He’s Gonna Change,” in which Armiger warns a woman not to hang her hopes on a man who will never grow to fully appreciate and respect her. A prominent bazouki and harmonica imbue a swampy feel to the single woman anthem “Better In a Black Dress.” Though “Merry Go Round” has the misfortune of sharing a title with one of the best songs currently on country radio, it boasts a catchy guitar hook anchoring a crisp, lightly infectious pop-country arrangement.
While Armiger has often shown herself to be a gifted vocalist worthy of rubbing shoulders with Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood on country radio, Fall Into Me finds the 21-year-old continuing to make artistic strides as a songwriter. The themes of empowerment and belief in self recur throughout the album, evident in the cautious optimism of “Okay Alone,” and in the straight-up swagger of “Better In a Black Dress.” Unfortunately, though the album serves up a generous fourteen songs, it doesn’t quite fill them out with fourteen songs’ worth of content. Armiger appears as a co-writer on every track, but some benefit might have been derived by interspersing her own cuts with some quality outside material. Though the figurative “A” side is fairly solid, the album loses steam around the tenth track, and starts serving up some filler. The rather bland love song “Baby You’re Everything” hardly warrants explanation, while the forced thematic concept of “Stealing Hearts” comes off as something like the poor woman’s “Hell On Heels.” There are also moments when she creates a solid foundation for a great song, but doesn’t quite tie it together with an effective hook. A biting line such as “Look down on me and criticize/ It’s easy to do from up on high” seems to call for a greater payoff than “I’m free, free/ Like a raging wildfire through the trees,” and a refrain of “I’ll find a way to be okay alone” doesn’t quite match the potency of Armiger’s nuanced, falsetto-enhanced delivery.
Even though Katie Armiger has three albums already behind her, one doesn’t generally become a fully realized country artist by age 21. At this point, she sounds like she’s flexing her creative muscles and having fun doing so. Fall Into Me continues to hint at Armiger’s lofty potential as a creative force – at times wanting for consistency, but not for lack of heart. Furthermore, it finds Armiger continuing to develop her own point of view as a songwriter, acting as a voice for strong, independent young women, which may very well blossom further with future releases. Without a doubt, there is much that Fall Into Me gets right, even if it does feel like a fourteen track album that should have been a ten track album.
Top Tracks: “Man I Thought You Were,” “Better In a Black Dress,” “Merry Go Round”
In 2007, Katie Armiger released her first album at just 15-years-old after winning a local singing competition in Texas. Since then, she’s had quiet but solid success in the industry, earning four Billboard-charting singles and touring with major artists such as Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean and Ronnie Dunn.
Last year, Country Weekly’s readers voted 21-year-old Armiger the “Hottest Bachelorette” for the second consecutive year, just before she appeared on ABC’s dubious reality television show, “The Bachelor Pad.” Ironic events, considering the fellow Sugar Land native has built her image on independence and empowerment, themes she captures pithily on her first Top 40 hit, “Better in a Black Dress.”
Armiger’s latest album with Cold River Records,Fall Into Me, drops today - but don’t expect a collection of love stories. Its 14 songs depict the highs and lows of love with equal weight, backed by strong, melodic hooks and Armiger’s character-filled voice. Last month, she took some time to chat with Country Universe about the blend of styles on her new album, being a woman in a male-dominated genre, and the inspiration for her ode to single girls.
Seetharam: Country music has long struggled with a gender bias that’s only now starting to melt. What’s your experience been like as a young female artist in the industry?
Armiger: Oh, I agree. It’s honestly gotten a lot easier as I’ve gotten older. Maybe it just comes with age, but I do feel like the industry has changed. When I first started, it was so male-dominated. Now the doors for females are opening up, and it’s a lot easier as a female artist to get your music out there.
How do you differentiate yourself from the other young female artists that are out there?
That’s a good question. I think everyone has their own style, and I am a singer-songwriter. Everything that I write is very personal – sometimes I wish it wasn’t as personal as it is. And my music is a blend. I tend to write everything. There are so many different types of country music– there’s more traditional, more modern – that you can sing, which is so neat. I try to do a really good blend of that.
I think that’s the constant debate – there are so many influences in country music these days. How do you define country music, or can you?
The thing about country music, regardless of what the sound is like, is that the songs all tell stories. You can listen to any country song, and it tells a story, whether it’s happy or sad. It’s not a song that’s sung without purpose. And that’s what I really love.
Are there any new artists that you find particularly interesting or inspiring?
I’m a really big Hunter Hayes fan. I love his stuff. He’s so talented. I’ve met him, and he’s so friendly. I really think we’re going to see great things from him.
He seems to be rising very quickly. Who are your idols in the industry, or the artists whose careers you admire?
I listened to a lot of Martina McBride growing up, a lot of Patsy Cline, Linda Ronstadt. A lot of very strong female country singers. I definitely try to emulate that. I want to portray strength in my music, and all of those women are very, very strong, dominant personalities. They knew what they wanted, and that’s always what I try to go for.
Speaking of different generations, have you had the chance to catch the show “Nashville”? Does it align with how you perceive the industry, and the way the veterans and newcomers interact?
I haven’t caught everything, but I’ve watched a few episodes. I honestly think it blurs the line. Some of the stuff is a little true – like you watch it and you’re like “OK, I can see that.” There’s definitely drama in the music industry, but not quite to that extent.
I’ve never seen anyone quite like Juliette in country music. Have you come across that kind of attitude?
No. That’s what’s funny. One of the things I love most about country music is that it is such a family thing. Everybody’s friends. Everybody’s super nice. It’s not cutthroat like other industries, and [“Nashville”] makes it seem super cutthroat.
What was is it like to play the Opry for the first time back in 2011?
It was one of the most indescribable things. It’s such an honor to be there, and when you’re singing, you’re just sitting there going, “I’m standing in this spot where all of these people –all of these legends who made country what it is– stood years ago.” It’s surreal.
And you have a dog named “Opry,” right? What’s the story behind that?
My dog at home gave birth, and she was one of the puppies. My stepmom called and was like, “You have to take her!” She was born when they made the announcement in my hometown that I was going to be playing the Opry. At the time, I thought there’s no way that I can keep the dog. I’m too busy – this is not going to work. But as soon as I got home and I saw her, I said, “Well, I don’t really care. I’m taking her with me.”
Let’s talk about your new music. You landed your first Top 40 hit with “Better in a Black Dress.” I think it’s fantastic – it’s empowering in a way that you can’t really find on country radio.
Thank you. It’s funny you say that because that’s definitely the thing I love the most about it. I think a lot of women are scared to sing songs like that because they think guys are going to judge them more. Guys can sing songs like that all the time, but if a girl sings something like that, it’s totally different. A guy can sing a song about taking a girl home and having fun, but a girl can’t.
What inspired this song?
It’s funny. It was kind of inspired by winning the [Country Weekly] “Hottest Bachelorette” contest. I had a lot of people try to set me up. You hit 20 and people are like, “So do you have a boyfriend? Are you going to settle down? When do you think you’re going to have kids? What’s your five-year plan? Tell me.”
I went into this with that thought in mind, and I wrote the song with my friend Blair. When I sat down, I told her, “I’m not ready for any of that. I don’t need the white picket fence. I don’t need to get married right now. Someday – just not now.” We wrote that song as the answer to all of these people saying that settling down is what you should do right now.
I love that story. Is the new album similar in theme to that song? How is it different from your previous albums?
It is very different from my past album. A lot of it is very progressive and percussion-driven, and there’s a lot of acoustic guitar. There’s definitely a theme, and that would be love. A lot of songs, whether they’re happy or sad, use the word ‘fall’ as in you’re falling in or falling out of something. And I thought it would be really cool to name the album after that concept, because whether you’re falling in love or falling out of love, that feeling of the fall you always remember.
That’s an interesting way to weave together songs that are happy, sad and in between. You co-wrote or wrote all songs on this album – what was that writing process like?
It was definitely challenging. I set out with the goal in mind to write everything. That’s what I had set out to do on all the other albums, but I heard songs that I just loved along the way and cut those as well. But on this one, I really set my mind to it. I was touring a ton in the last two years, and I’d be home for two days a month and would just try to write as much as possible when I was home. Sometimes I had to force myself get in the zone, even if I wasn’t there.
You’ve said it’s a deeply personal album. Are there specific people that these songs are about?
There definitely are. I won’t ever name names or anything like that, but honestly, some of them are about me, and some of them are about friends and their relationships. It’s a little bit of everything – it’s not just about me.
Do you have a favorite song or lyric on the album?
I cannot pick a favorite on this album. I have a few that I really, really love. There’s one I wrote with Mallary Hope, and it’s just this really sweet, really pretty, stripped-down love song (“Safe”). It’s actually the last track on the album. That’s definitely one that sticks out for me.
It’s about that feeling when you’re in a relationship – the happiest moment in a relationship. I think every person, whether you’re a girl or a guy, wants to feel safe. And when you feel safe with somebody, when you can tell them anything and be yourself with them, that’s the best feeling,
What was it like working with Chad Carlson? Was there a specific sound that you two were trying to create?
I worked with him a little bit on the last album, and we really wanted to change from the last album. We wanted to have cool moments in every song, and I wanted to be able to hear the acoustic guitar on songs. I wanted there to be a lot of percussion and a lot of movement so that when you’re listening, you can tap your hand – whether it’s a slow song or a happy song. It’s definitely a bit different than the previous records, so hopefully people like it and can relate to it.
I love every single aspect of country music. I’ve written every single type of country song, and on this album, everything was definitely put on there with a purpose and with intent. It wasn’t just putting some songs on there for the sake of doing so.
Over the past few years, you’ve toured with a lot of different major country artists. Were there any elements of their tours or music that you took away and were able to channel into your new album?
I don’t know if I put any of the elements into my new album, but I definitely took all of the things that were in the back of my mind for future touring. Just different things like watching how their crew interacts and how they interact with their crew. It’s tiny things like that that you put in the back of your mind and say, “Wow, I never want to overlook that.”
Who do you think you’ve learned the most from, touring or otherwise?
I did one show with Brad Paisley this last year, and I was like, “This is why he is where he is.” He has it completely together. Every single thing. It must take such a long time for those people [on his tour]. It’s a very big crew to put a show on, but everybody’s so gracious and so humble and it doesn’t matter how big he is. He’s nice and friendly to everyone. That’s so important.
Why do you think people like Brad and Reba McEntire and those types of artists have had such staying power in the industry?
I think it’s a combination of having really good music, having a really great personality and having that drive. You have to have that. You’re out on the road so often, you’re not home a lot, and you have to just be OK with that. You always have to be on and be positive, and I think that [artists who've had staying power] are always great at that. It’s very hard to do sometimes.
Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? Where do you want to be?
I still want to be touring. I mean, who can say where they’ll be, but I just want to be singing and making records. I want to be putting music out there – and having people love the music and hopefully relate to it.
An ode to being a chains-free, red wine-drinking hot mess could be tacky and unnecessarily snarky. In Armiger’s hands, it’s tasteful, swampy and empowering. Grade: B+
Brett Eldredge, “Don’t Ya”
It’s been awhile since we’ve heard a voice as soulful as Eldredge’s massage a melody as enticing as this one. “Just Got Started Loving You” this song is not, but with its sly lyrics and irresistible chorus, it comes close. Grade: B+
Justin Moore, “Til My Last Day”
Written by Brian Dean Maher, Justin Moore & Jeremy Stover
Written by Lindsay Chapman, Natalie Hemby & Blu Sanders
You can’t blend two of the greatest voices of our generation without a decent result. Unfortunately, that’s all this is – a pleasant, sweetly sung sleeper that doesn’t do much to elevate either of these enormous talents. Grade: B-
Miss Willie Brown, “You’re All That Matters to Me”
Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange
A manic, over-the-top love letter that’s simply not wacky enough to be the self-parody that its music video suggests. Grade: C
Jason Aldean ft. Luke Bryan and Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”
Written by Ben Hayslip and David Lee Murphy
Three of the fastest-rising male artists in country music are also three of the most distinct male artists in country music, each having built his fanbase on a unique persona and brand of swagger. Oddly, this collaboration seems to meld their personalities together into one that’s less interesting than all three.
But that’s not the bigger issue at hand. The song sinks because of its empty lyrics, its jarring theme of “humble pride” against a needlessly aggressive arrangement, and its subtle implication that a work ethic cut from a different cloth than the narrators’ is a lesser one.
Katie Armiger served as GAC’s Artist of the Month in February, and she recently released “Trail of Lies,” the third single from her album, Believe. The Texas-born 17-year-old called Country Universe recently to discuss her burgeoning career.
The youth movement on Music Row continues to pick up steam. Artistically, how do you stand out from the crowd of young women who are trying to establish their careers?
I think there are a lot of differentiations in our styles. There are a lot of younger artists now for sure, but we have different vocals and different influences. I come from a more empowered standpoint and want the songs to have that view.
What singers most influenced you during your childhood? Is there someone that served as a model for the career you would like to create?
I would say that Martina McBride would be the big one. I’m also a huge fan of Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt, but Martina is my favorite.