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LeAnn Rimes' 'Spitfire': In Her Own Words

The country star and producer Darrell Brown break down a selection of deeply confessional songs from the album that THR contributor Chris Willman calls "the best country record of the year."

Leann Rimes Spitfire CD cover P

LeAnn Rimes can only stay sotto voce for so long. “There’s a human being with a heart that wrote this record that’s been really quiet,” she says of her new album, Spitfire (out June 5), in which she candidly addresses a half-decade’s worth of personal controversy for the first time. “I feel like some people are always telling me something they think I don’t know. It’s like, no, I wrote about that.”

Spitfire has enough autobiographical grist to satisfy any tabloid watcher, as it deals quite openly with her affair with and subsequent marriage to actor Eddie Cibrian, bookending her divorce from first husband Dean Sheremet. Dealt with less explicitly, but perhaps still underlying the material, are her feelings about being part of “a blended family that’s not so blended” -- a reference to how her struggles with Cibriani’s ex, Brandi Glanville, have kept her in the gossip columns.

By this point, it’s almost easy to mistake a woman who was long recognized for having one of the best voices in country music history for being one of those tabloid habitués who’s famous for being famous. So Spitfire is a welcome rejoinder to that notion: far from just capitalizing on existent sensationalism, it’s a deeply confessional, musically rich singer/songwriter album that’s almost certainly the best country record of the year, not to mention the album of her career.

“This album is at no one else’s expense but mine,” she says. “I didn’t go out and lash out at anyone, or put names in any songs.” Although massive feuds have broken out on Twitter pitting Team LeAnn against Team Brandi, she swears she really doesn’t blame anyone for siding against her. “I think you could have read any story and absolutely hated me. I mean, I hated me half the time, because I read some of the stories, and I was like, wow, am I that horrible? And I knew I wasn’t, but at the same time, it can kind of seep into your head and you start believing stuff.” Some of that conflictedness seeps into Spitfire’s best songs, which veer between, well, spitfire-iness and a jolting vulnerability.

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Not seeping in so much: electric guitars. Which may be odd to say of an album that includes an almost metal-sounding Jeff Beck solo -- his axe weaving in and out of a duet with Rob Thomas. But “especially in country music lately, you find the electric guitar driving the bus, and you want her voice to drive the bus,” says producer/co-writer Darrell Brown. Agrees Rimes: “Literally if you listen to half of country radio, there’ll be three or four different electric guitar parts on a thing. And why? It isn’t like you can hear them all. And then the vocal is squished in with a compressor to make it fit in with all the guitars.” Not on Spitfire, which includes an all-star session team that includes Steve Jordan, Willie Weeks, Paul Franklin, and Dan Tyminski -- each and every one audible alongside a set of chops that have never sounded more magnificent.

At 30, Rimes is both veteran -- having found stardom at 13 with “Blue” -- and spring chicken, in terms of finally becoming an artist and not just thrush. The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the singer and her producer at her West Valley home to go through the album track-by-track, starting with the title song, which she unveils on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Below, a selection of songs and the stories behind them.

“Spitfire”

The album’s rocking-est song is also its most primarily acoustic song, counterintuitive as it may seem. Rimes takes on her enemies by breathing flames, and by saying “Bless your heart,” which everyone knows is a Southern euphemism for “F--- you.”  

Rimes: People think acoustic guitar can’t rock, but the acoustic guitar got really angry on that song. So did I. That’s probably the angriest song on the album… I remember some stupid article in one of those tabloid magazines had been brought to my attention and it pissed me off that day. Darrell walked in the door and I was bitching about it, and he looked at me and said, ”Wherever you are, we’re going to write from there. Just stay there.” I went, “I don’t want to stay pissed off all day!” But I don’t think it’s in the human psyche for anybody to wrap their head around being lied about constantly for four and a half years. I’d had it. There could have been a million other ways for that to come out. It’s a good thing it came out in music.

“What Have I Done”

Prior to the album’s release, Rimes put out two ballads as digital singles. One, “Borrowed,” described longing for an illicit lover and chagrin at being the Other Woman. The other, “What Have I Done,” was about feeling shattered at breaking a man’s heart. They were commonly understood to be about her affair with her love affair with Cibrian and subsequent divorce from Sheremet.

Rimes: Those are the two most revealing songs on the album, when it comes to a specific situation people have talked about for the last four and a half years. They’re flip sides of my emotions during that time. Sometimes I think there were a lot of people who forgot there was actually a human with a heart behind all of this. It’s a very complex thing to be a human being in those situations, especially with the world watching. I don’t think I’d been able to express my emotions what I want through until those songs, and they’re not pretty. Well, they’re pretty songs.

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“Gasoline and Matches”

The album’s sexiest song is a hard-rocking cover of a Buddy and Julie Miller song, with Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas as duet partner. Though the song has roots in rootsy Americana, guitar soloing by Jeff Beck takes it almost into metal territory.

Rimes: That has the sensual emotion to it that we didn’t really have anywhere else on the record. We all started talking about getting Rob, because Rob and I have been trying to work together for 10 years. We reached out to him and he said yes without even hearing the song. When he got there, he said, “I thought it was going to be a ballad!” But he loved the song. And I worked with Jeff a couple of years ago on the Barbra Streisand tribute for the Grammys. We had said we wanted to work together again, but I was thinking, “Oh yeah, Jeff Beck will work with me again -- sure he will.”

“Borrowed”

Though it’s part of a tradition of country cheatin’ songs, the most shocking song on the album comes without any of the witty wordplay typical to the genre’s classic adultery ballads.

Rimes: We talked about how it might be a very polarizing song. I knew I was bracing myself for a hell of a storm. But it comes from a real place of being up and down with confusion and guilt and misunderstanding in what I went through with that situation. It wasn’t easy for me to write. I wasn’t trying to make it palatable for people. That’s not a situation that’s ever palatable for anyone. No one’s willing to talk about it. And so I knew I was gonna have to either jump off the ledge and write it like I did or back away. It’s amazing how many people can relate to it, even if they don’t want to admit it. And I find that the people that get angry at me and say “How dare you!” for actually telling the truth are the ones that still haven’t dealt with something within themselves. It should be just a song to them. For me, it ‘s a lot more.

Brown: After you sang that on The Tonight Show, Merle Haggard called up and said, “Now, that’s a country song.”

Rimes: That was one of my proudest moments in life.

Brown: You kind of go, oh my gosh, did she just say what I thought she said? There’s been so many times where men have written about this kind of thing, but not so many women -- although Dolly Parton had “I Wish I Felt This Way at Home.”

And usually if people are going to be revealing, they do it in one song and don’t do it on any other song. You get one little peek inside the window, right? That’s why I said, “Why don’t you just pull the drapes back on the entire place, and let people have a look?”

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“Just a Girl Like You”

A happy, almost frolicsome song, clearly written in response to some intense criticism about romantic choices. Rimes tells accusers about her new love and says: “We’re not all that far apart/Both fragile works of art…./I get you, I wish that you’d get me.” It’s a sweet, epic tweet send out to her detractors.

Rimes: When I wrote that, it was a very specific point toward a person, and then it became a much broader group of people I was aiming it to. I think a lot of women look at everything on such a surface level and brand me whatever name you’d like to call me -- insert horrible name here. And no one ever realized that I had a heart and I was struggling with a lot of different emotions that as women we all struggle with at different times of our lives on different levels. I wasn’t delusional. I didn’t have this picture that I had painted for myself that was so pretty about “I’ll never have to worry about someone hurting my heart” or “I’m completely clueless about the pain that I’ve caused or the pain that I’m going through.” It was all very real to me as a woman. And I think you could have read any story and absolutely hated me. I mean, I hated me half the time, because I read some of the stories, and I was like, wow, am I that horrible? And I knew I wasn’t, but at the same time, it can kind of seep into your head and you start believing stuff. So it was kind of my conversation with any other woman to say, “I’m experiencing everything that you’ve experienced. Maybe you don’t even know you’ll go through it yet. But you might.”

“God Takes Care of Your Kind”

Although it sounds like it could be a broadside aimed at Brandi Granville, this semi-comic promise of karmic justice actually dates back at least seven years, as the co-writing credit for ex-husband Sheremet will attest.

Rimes: It was a moment in my life seven or almost eight years ago where I was going through a problem with my label, so I wrote a verse out of that frustration. And then as it went on it was about a friend’s divorce. We didn’t like him very much at the time. But it’s funny, because after writing it so long ago and then going through what I’ve gone through, I could be talking to myself in that song. So many people have said to me: “Karma -- it’s coming your way.” And I’m like, “Fantastic. I think it has. Trust me! I’ve definitely experienced it.” It doesn’t mean that anyone else is exempt from it, either. If you keep throwing it out there, it’s going to come back and bite you in the ass eventually.

“Who We Really Are”

A ballad about taking off the rose-colored glasses and seeing love for all the hard work—and, presumably, reward -- it is.

Rimes: It’s the emotion that I most relate to at this moment, and I think it closes the album with where I’m at. Love is one of the hardest things. Sometimes you have to fight extreme fights to keep or maintain it. And it's not necessarily against each other. For us, it’s been a lot against the world. A blended family that’s not so blended. And learning for me to fit into a world with two children. And having everyone make you want to question what you have, but then you know what you have, so you shut it all out and have to start living. The way that we stumbled upon what we have… It’s not the love I dreamt about as a child. It’s not the fairy tale. I thought I was going to get married at 19, like I did, and that was going to last forever, and it was going to be easy, and we were going to be BFFs for life. It’s almost a nice burst of a bubble. It’s almost like this big breath of fresh air to go, “Okay, so we’re supposed to not agree and we’re supposed to have to go through hard times. And then on the other side of this up and down and up and down of life, we can become stronger because of it.” And sometimes people don’t. Sometimes there’s a reason why you’re not supposed to be together.

But that’s what love is. And so I have a really hard time singing that song. I had to record it four times the other day at a place in Nashville just to get through the dang thing. And someone said, “Oh my God, how miserable you must be to cry through that song.” I thought, “Actually, how miserable you must be not to understand it. It’s so sad you can’t get why that would affect me. I’m so sorry you’ve never felt that before!” It’s actually these happy tears, along with this sadness and relief. When you’re from the South, that seems to be what get said to you all the time, as a woman: “This is what love’s supposed to be.” But it’s not. And I can actually deal with that, instead of having to keep up a front that everything’s perfect. 

Twitter: @THRMusic