07_1553_v1_Randee St. Nicholas
Credit: Randee St. Nicholas

A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 7 issue of Entertainment Weekly. Buy it or subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

There was a moment during the Academy of Country Music awards in April when the vulnerability and surrender that Carrie Underwood sings about in her current hit — the title track of her upcoming album, Cry Pretty — were writ large.

Underwood performed a powerhouse rendition of the dramatic ballad — her first live TV performance since a fall outside her Nashville home last November left her with a broken wrist and dozens of stitches in her face — and then joined Keith Urban to accept the award for Vocal Event of the Year for his hit “The Fighter.” After a brief, heartfelt speech, as she walked off stage, the camera caught a glimpse of the country superstar letting real tears mingle with the glittery ones that had been painted on her face.

That sense of unguardedness informs the essence of the new record, her most emotionally accessible work to date. From the laid-bare intensity of “Cry Pretty” to the naked vocal on the bluesy, acoustic “Low” to the optimism of “Love Wins” and “Kingdom,” there is a sense on her sixth release, out Sept. 14, that Underwood is embracing herself in a new way: experimenting with her voice, sometimes writing in true first person. “I know lots of artists that are just open books and you can ask them anything,” Underwood says, perched on a couch at a boutique hotel in the bustle of downtown Nashville. “They sing their hearts and souls. I feel like I’ve never been great at that, just in life even. My husband probably doesn’t know what I’m thinking half the time. I’m just a little harder to read.”

From Hurt to Healed: Every Photo of Carrie Underwood Since Her Accident
Credit: Carrie Underwood/Instagram

And that is why the Oklahoma native has tended toward singing and writing about fictional characters in her music, from the Louisville Slugger-wielding woman scorned in “Before He Cheats” to the co-conspirator of “Two Black Cadillacs.” “For me, it’s more comfortable to write about a character than saying, ‘I feel this way. I think this way,'” she explains. “It puts you in the hot seat, versus if somebody doesn’t like what that character is doing or saying in the song, well, it’s just a character. It’s a safety net between you and the fall.”

Those choices have garnered Underwood 26 No. 1 singles, a trophy case brimming with awards, sales of over 60 million albums, and gigs ranging from hosting the CMA awards and serving as the gateway to Sunday Night Football to purveyor of cosmetics and fitness wear. But this time out she chose to take a few net-free leaps on Cry Pretty, starting with the title track, which she wrote with the songwriting collective known as the Love Junkies: Lori McKenna, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey. The response has heartened her. “I’ve heard things from fans thinking it was refreshing to have a song that wasn’t a victim-type song,” she says. “It was emotional, but still strong.”

That sentiment is an apt summation of the album, even on tracks Underwood didn’t pen (she’s a co-writer on nine out of 13), like “The Bullet,” written by Marc Beeson, Andy Albert, and Allen Shamblin. The searing ballad is about the collateral damage done by a single bullet. “You can blame it on hate or blame it on guns, but mamas ain’t supposed to bury their sons,” she sings. “The first time I heard it I was like, ‘Well, this is important,'” she says. Resolutely apolitical publicly, Underwood, 35, calls the tune — which is sure to stir up a buzz — “timely but not political. It doesn’t matter what the opinions or feelings are, it just matters that something happened, and it’s about the people that are affected by it at the end of the day…. I’m just glad I heard this song before anyone else did because I feel like it found its home with us.”

She understands that the song’s inclusion — as well as a reference to a shooting in “Love Wins” — may pique the curiosity of some listeners about her own views on guns. And she knows others will decide how she feels no matter what she says, or doesn’t say. “I know I have a couple of songs on this record that people try to make about something — it’s already happened,” she says, unruffled. “It’s been interesting to just see what I’ve been asked about it and what people try to assign it to. It’s about people. We are all different for a reason. It’s bigger than any one political party or issue or any one thing.”

While she may not be comfortable sharing her personal opinions, Underwood hopes that the theme of unity underpinning “Love Wins” — the video for which debuted Sept. 11– will help make people think harder about the consequences illustrated in “The Bullet.” Meaningful doesn’t have to mean overt messaging in her book. “If we don’t sing or write important songs, what’s the point?” she asks. “It’s just noise and static. If you are scared about what people are going to ask you about something that you feel passionately about, this art, you are going to write fluff. At the end of my life, will I care? Will it mean anything?”

See the video for ‘Love Wins”

One factor Underwood raises when asked to what she attributes her newfound sense of risk-taking: becoming a mom. “I mean, it does change you,” says the singer-songwriter, who is expecting her second child with her husband, former NHL star Mike Fisher. “It does emotionally open doors. This is the first project that I have started since I’ve been a mom. This time it was harder and better to write more songs and have more things that were more first person.”

Even as she’s felt challenged, Underwood is proud of the progress she’s made. “I always knew I liked to write,” she says noting she was a mass communications major in college and liked to write stories. “But I didn’t know if I would be a good songwriter. That’s a completely different animal. The first time I walked into a writing session, you just have that feeling of ‘Oh gosh, are they going to think I’m stupid?’ You have to dare to suck.”

Underwood is looking forward to hitting the road in 2019 to support Cry Pretty and is excited to bring an all-female lineup of opening acts with her — duo Maddie & Tae and trio Runaway June. With country music mired in a years-long debate about the obnoxious inequities of commercial radio and what is considered a bankable tour, it’s a refreshing step. “I hate rules,” says Underwood of the antiquated notion that female headliners need male warm-up acts. “I hate being put in a box. I think it just came down to ‘Who’s going to be great to watch? Who is talented? Who is hardworking? Who is great to be around? Who can just bring it all?’ It just so happened that the answer was women.”

Carrie Underwood, Cry PrettyCR: Capitol Nashville
Credit: Capitol Nashville