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Kelleigh Bannen Wrote a Song About Relationships. Quarantine Changed Its Message

Jon Freeman

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Kelleigh Bannen didn’t really have the spirit-draining aspects of quarantine in mind when she wrote her new song “The Optimist.” The Nashville native, who also hosts Apple Music’s streaming radio show Today’s Country, was thinking more of transformative relationships than national crises when she penned the ballad with Will Bowen and Claire Douglas, and ultimately recorded it at home.

“It was written about the people that can turn you into an optimist and the way love can turn you into an optimist,” Bannen says. “That’s definitely true of my husband, but it’s also really true of my girlfriends, my close girlfriends, of which Claire is one.”

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But at a time when people are seeking out messages of perseverance as a reprieve from the realities of life during COVID-19, the song has taken on new meaning. “I’ve had my doubts, that ‘happy ever after’ ever works out/Oh, but you made this cynic believe,” Bannen sings, which could just as easily be about a sustained feeling of hope as lasting love.

“That’s one of those strange phenomena about music creation — you think you’re writing about one thing,” Bannen says. “But it’s really not you that’s writing it anyway. It’s like some other creative force or muse.”

Driven by piano with acoustic and electric guitar accompaniment that builds to a cathartic finish, “The Optimist” is actually Bannen’s demo recording — raw and powerful, with some soulful, vulnerable singing. When she sent it off to her team for feedback, they felt it was too timely to tinker with.

“‘Should we just put it out like this?'” Bannen recalls being asked. “There was something really freeing about that, for a chronic over-thinker who would never put a demo out.”

It’s that kind of adaptability that Bannen has developed over the last decade, following a brief major label stint in the early-to-mid 2010s before striking out on her own. She released several independent singles, including “Cheap Sunglasses,” “Church Clothes” and “The Joneses,” that got attention from SiriusXM and shared new music when she felt like it.

“At first I was maybe overcorrecting,” she says. “One of the weird paradoxes of major label world — especially the era I was there, right at the beginning of streaming — is that you have a major label deal and you make a lot of music and none of it comes out.”

Bannen kept herself busy, launching the podcast This Nashville Life in 2016 to examine different aspects of the country music industry. She also had a major milestone in 2019, releasing her debut full-length album Favorite Colors.

“To check the box as an artist, I needed to finally get an album out. That was symbolically important,” she says. “More than anything, more than timing, to be an artist and to have been working in this town for this long, [I thought], ‘Let’s put an album out, let’s just do it and let’s just figure out how to finance it.'”

In 2019, Bannen was named host of Today’s Country, the first country-music focused broadcast program on Apple Music. In the weekly episodes, she plays a selection of songs from the streaming service’s Today’s Country playlist and talks to a guest about their new project. She says This Nashville Life helped her find a voice as a presenter, but she’s still trying to get a handle on the demands of the job.

“It’s hard, and the prep is hard,” she says. “Man, to feel like I’ve actually honored an artist’s music enough to be able to ask them about it, it is so time consuming. I have not found the cheat codes to that yet.”

But worst comes to worst, she knows she can talk musician to musician.

“I feel like I can always rely on the music to be more than enough to talk about,” Bannen says. “If everything goes to hell, just focus them back on [that]. If it’s an album, I try to listen all the way through at least three times, and that’s hard.”

In the meantime, This Nashville Life has been releasing pared-down “Song RX” episodes that require far less production time. Bannen says she’s currently in “the curiosity phase” of what happens next for her podcast, and has some ideas for how to keep it fresh.

But that all comes down to having time, of course. With Today’s Country occupying a large portion of Bannen’s weeks now, she hasn’t been able to think as much about songwriting or side projects.

“My days are just full of listening,” she says. “I’m gonna have to make space to create. It’s a different rhythm than before.”

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