Interview: Mitchell Tenpenny Hopes Every Fan Can Find ‘Their Song and Their Story’ on His Debut Album
For Mitchell Tenpenny, notching his first No. 1 radio single with "Drunk Me" in December was the culmination of a dream he'd held for a long time, and one he'd watched others achieve for even longer. The singer-songwriter grew up ensconced in the country music community, a Nashville native whose grandmother, Donna Hilley, worked in music publishing and introduced him to stars and songwriters from an early age.
However, by the time Tenpenny's turn at the top of the charts came around, he barely had the time to stop and celebrate. "I don't know if it's even really hit me yet; it's just crazy," Tenpenny told The Boot during a recent interview.
"To finally ring that bell on something I always dreamt of as a kid, it's full of emotion, definitely," he continues. "I shed a few tears for sure, [but] we're working right now. That's our celebration!"
The singer is busy promoting his debut studio album, Telling All My Secrets, which dropped on Friday (Dec. 14). He's also preparing to join Old Dominion on their Make It Sweet Tour in 2019, and embarking on a short headlining tour of his own in support of his new project.
"I just wanted [to get to say thank you to] everyone who supported an EP for almost three years, and get to play these songs that I've been itching to play for a long time," Tenpenny says of his headlining trek. "And end the year off riding strong."
Ahead of Telling All My Secrets' release, Tenpenny had only had a chance to perform two of its new songs live (though three of its tracks come from his previous EP, so he's also been playing those). As the project's name suggests, the stories Tenpenny tells on the album are personal; he says that he has long drawn on real-life experiences to craft songs, even if he doesn't know it when he sits down to write.
"These were songs that I didn't necessarily know I was writing 'em about me ... until I was writing 'em about me," Tenpenny explains. "You just kinda channel things that you know and that you've done personally, and then the song's done, and you're like, 'Damn, that was exactly what I dealt with last year.'"
As an example, Tenpenny names "Somebody Ain't You," the record's ninth track, which tells the story of struggling to leave a toxic relationship but not being able to move on, even when there's a healthier option standing right in front of you. "That's one I remember. I remember being stuck in that purgatory for a little while there back in the day," he recalls. "That song was really all about that."
Arguably the most personal track on Telling All My Secrets, however, is "Walk Like Him," the album's final song. Tenpenny lost his father to soft-tissue cancer in 2014, and the singer says that writing that song was what finally made his dad's death feel real.
"I broke down a couple times during the writing process," he admits. "Especially that line, 'One day, my babies can look at me and see what he's like,' because my mom wants grandkids, and I wish -- I just started crying when I wrote that line, because they'll never get to meet him. But it was something I really wanted to say because, you know, I grew up from him. I'm so much like him. And so they will see a little bit of him."
Tenpenny struggled to find the right time to play the song for his mom. "It took me a while to show it to her," he remembers. "I didn't really know the right place." Then, at a party to celebrate the announcement of his album, he played "Walk Like Him" in front of a live audience that included his mother.
"I tried not to look at her, but I caught her eye when I was on that second chorus," he relates. "I could barely sing it. I was already crying."
Songwriting has always helped Tenpenny process his emotions. "It's the only way to get it out, for me. It's why I started doing it at a young age," he shares. "It was my way of getting that out, for lack of better terms, and, cliche aside, it worked. It helps me in the hardest and happiest times, and even to move on."
As his fanbase grows, Tenpenny hopes that his music will help listeners process the "hardest and happiest" times of their lives, too. "[I hope that] somebody who's lost someone close can listen to ["Walk Like Him"], and have their song that they can listen to when they're down and they're at their lowest, that they can listen to and remember them," he says.
No matter what part of life a fan might be in, Tenpenny aims to put out a record that will have something that can connect to each listener. "I know that people have dealt with some of the same issues or can understand where I'm coming from on this [album]," he adds. "I wanna make a full record where everyone can find their song, or their story, on it."