Nashville’s reputation as the co-writing capital of the world attracts songwriters from all over, and more than a few of them want to write with Richey, who has penned hits for Brooks & Dunn, Trisha Yearwood and Radney Foster as well as her own critically praised—if modestly selling—albums. Two Londoners, Giles Martin and Julian Gallagher, clicked with Richey so well that they invited her to their hometown.
“I started traveling to London to write with them,” Richey explains. “They’d introduce me to people, and I’d make new friends. Pretty soon, traveling to England was less about being a tourist and more about being with friends. London’s an absolutely fantastic city. It’s really expensive, but I was perfectly happy just walking everywhere. It was a nice change from having to drive. I just started spending more and more time there until I felt really at home.”
With Gallagher and James Morrison, she co-wrote “Better Man” for Morrison’s platinum debut album, Undiscovered. Martin, who’s the son of the legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin, had just finished the three-year project of producing the successful Beatles remix compilation, Love, when he went out with Richey one evening. She blurted out, “Would you like to make a record with me?” and he quickly replied, “I’d love to.”
The result is Richey’s new release, Chinese Boxes, which was recorded in London and is inevitably filled with Beatlesque touches. “Jack and Jill,” for instance, describes the arc of a romance as two lovers walk up a hill hand-in-hand to drop a coin in a wishing well, only to come tumbling down in disappointment. And like “The Fool on the Hill,” Paul McCartney’s own song about a grassy knoll, the arrangement is full of flute, harpsichord, triangle and organ, as if evoking the vertiginous feel of being “high up on a hill.”
Beatlesque arrangements only work, though, if they’re built atop Beatlesque melodies, and Richey has long demonstrated a rare gift for tunes that grab the ear. On new songs such as “I Will Follow,” “Something To Say” and “Not a Love Like This,” she crafts vocal lines that manage to be simultaneously logical and unpredictable. Asked how she does it, Richey instead talks about two of her favorite melodic writers, Rufus Wainwright and Ron Sexsmith.
“Their melodies go places you don’t expect them to,” she says, “and yet they still land in familiar territory, which is the best of both worlds. For me, it’s nice to be able to grab hold of a melody, something you might remember after you heard it, rather than something so complicated you can’t remember it. It has to be something new that seems familiar.”
Nothing in music is harder to write about or talk about than melody—that’s why so much music journalism is about lyrics, rhythm and business. Much of pop music’s pleasure comes from tunes, hooks and harmony, yet even the creators of those pleasures have trouble explaining them.
“They just happen,” Richey insists. “I don’t know how. It comes from messing around on the guitar with different chords. All of a sudden a melody will appear over the top of the chords. Then a lyric line will come to mind that fits that melody, and it’s up to me to decipher what the words mean.”
On the new album’s title track, the words attached to the bouncy acoustic-guitar strum, the slap-happy drum brushes and the tinkly piano are, “You’re like Chinese boxes / One inside the other.” At first, the giddy melody and the central image suggest that the singer is admiring a lover for his aura of mystery. But soon she’s telling him his mysteriousness is more like “misdirection, smoke and mirrors, plastic flowers”—a kind of manipulative dishonesty.
The album is filled with songs where the sunny, buoyant music is undercut by dark, sinking lyrics. “Jack and Jill” go up the hill in the high hopes of new love, but come tumbling down with love grown stale. The contagiously jumpy new-wave hook of “I Will Follow” is subverted by the admission that the boy she is following is leading her down the garden path. “Something to Say,” with its swirling harmonies so reminiscent of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe,” sounds intoxicating, but the lyrics are full of regrets about time thrown away and good intentions gone astray. No wonder Richey had trouble satisfying country radio’s demands for “up-tempo positive” songs.“Yeah, I like up-tempo negative songs,” she admits. “I think it’s more interesting to have the music and the words contrast; it adds another layer to the song. Like that movie Pulp Fiction—that was all over the map. There were some pretty horrific things in there, but also some hilarious stuff. Not just relationships, but everything is a mix of good and bad; nothing’s black-and-white. There are some great songs that say exactly what the music is saying, and they can break your heart, but I wouldn’t want to listen to only that kind of song.”
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