By Sarah Skates
© 2013 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Keifer and Shawna Thompson explore new avenues and share stories of their personal and professional voyage on Just Feels Good, the second album they’ve released as Thompson Square.
“We wanted to really open up our lives to everybody on this album,” Keifer explained. “It’s literally a soundtrack to our lives over the last 13 or 15 years.”
“I’m so proud of this album because they did what is so tough to do: They stayed true to their brand but really pushed themselves creatively,” added Jon Loba, Executive VP, The BBR Music Group, which includes the group’s label, Stoney Creek Records. “It’s a journey of where they’ve been content-wise, but production-wise it is a roller coaster. They had to come with a next-level project and they did. One listen to this album and Thompson Square elevates.”
The married twosome experienced the rush of success with their breakout No. 1, “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not.” Written by Jim Collins and David Lee Murphy, the single achieved double Platinum for digital downloads and became the most played song at Country radio in 2011, according to Mediabase. In 2012, Thompson Square earned numerous distinctions, including CMA’s Vocal Duo of the Year Award, and a Grammy nomination for Best Country Song and Best Country Duo/Group Performance of the Year.
The duo averages 250 dates a year on the road. As guests on tours with Jason Aldean and Lady Antebellum, they played to more than a million fans. This demanding itinerary taught them some important lessons. For example, Keifer notes that performing onstage night after night helped them understand the importance of building a varied set list, from ballads to feel-good uptempos, in preparation for their future as headliners. Also, opportunities arose for them to explore new outlets, including co-writing a novel, Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not, based on the hit song and released on June 4.
The commercial success, enriched by years of working together before their breakthrough single, informed Thompson Square’s confidence as songwriters and artists. Armed with plenty of creative ammunition, they were ready to start on the follow-up to their self-titled debut, but they could barely find time to begin work on the project.
“They are such hard-working artists that the challenge was to find available days for everyone to sit down and go over songs,” said Loba. “The success of the first album created endless promotion and media opportunities, and they didn’t want to pass on any of them. Consequently, it took nearly a year to record the album, but the end result was a much stronger project. They had a wider array of songs to choose from and were able to dial in even more precisely what they wanted their music to represent.”
In fact, songs that seemed like obvious choices for singles in the early process didn’t even make the final cut, as the quality of the material steadily increased. Keifer and Shawna invited co-writers to join them on the road and took songwriting retreats, including a productive junket to Breckenridge, Colo., with hit tunesmiths Brett James and David Lee Murphy. The Thompsons composed six tracks on Just Feels Good, including the lead single, “If I Didn’t Have You,” with Paul Jenkins and Jason Sellers.
“The project runs the whole gamut that we’ve gone through over the years,” Keifer said, “beginning from the time we met with ‘That’s So Me and You’ (Keifer Thompson, Vicky McGehee and Kyle Jacobs) to the song on the Walmart exclusive album, called ‘What Am I Gonna Do’ (Keifer Thompson, Shawna Thompson, Jacobs and McGehee), about Shawna’s dad passing last year.”
Thompson Square co-produced Just Feels Good with New Voice, the production team made up of Kurt Allison, David Fanning, Tully Kennedy and Rich Redmond. “The major advantage of working with those guys is that they are musicians and they play on the project,” Keifer explained. “They all come to the studio at the same time, and they aren’t just acting as producers. They are physically producing something as well as mentally producing something. They are friends of ours and we get along really well, so working on an album together is really enjoyable.”
Maintaining Thompson Square’s track record at country radio was key to their process in making Just Feels Good. “You’re crazy if you don’t think about radio,” Keifer stated. “Radio is the lifeblood of what we do. It’s changed our lives forever. I can’t tell you how much gratitude we have toward our friends at radio. You have to keep them in mind because they’ve got to play it and get it to the fans. They know what works and what doesn’t work. It’s not the only thing that goes into the equation, but it’s a big component. What we normally do is pretty radio-friendly. You want to push the envelope a little bit, but not so far down the road that no one can see where you’re going. You’ve always got to think about what radio might like, but not to the point where you sacrifice your creativity. You still have to be an artist.”
For the most part, Thompson Square avoids maudlin love songs. “In the past, we’ve been pitched very lovey-dovey stuff, and that’s not what we want,” Keifer said. “That’s not what we write. We tell everybody we don’t want to record duets. Instead, we prefer songs that could be sung by an individual, and then we make them our own. We don’t want to get pigeonholed into duets, because they can be so predictable.”
That same focus drives their approach onstage, including their current run on Luke Bryan’s “Dirt Road Diaries Tour.” “I think people come to our shows expecting a love story the whole show, and then they’re pleasantly surprised by the rockin’ out aspect of what we do,” Keifer said. “We’re not really a stereotypical, boring old married couple. We were both raised out in the country, hunting, fishing and riding 4x4s. We take our motorcycle on the road. We’re a married couple that likes to rock out, and hopefully that’s what we exude onstage.”
On the Web: www.ThompsonSquare.com
On Twitter: @ThompsonSquare