Madeline Merlo has been a country music star in Canada for several years, with a well-received album, hit singles, a CCMA Rising Star Award, and tours with Willie Nelson and Keith Urban under her belt. Earlier this spring, Merlo, now living in Nashville, seemed set for major U.S. stardom as well. In April, her winning appearance on the reality-TV contest show Songland — where emerging songwriters pitch tracks to big-time artists and producers – led to country stars Lady Antebellum having a hit with Merlo’s song “Champagne Night.” But then COVID-19 shut down any chance of touring.

It’s been a rollercoaster ride for Merlo, but she remains sanguine. “The things I love about performing – connecting with audiences, hanging out with my band, meeting people — aren’t there. But I feel blessed that I can still write songs and do co-writes through Zoom,” she says. “And there’s been a lot of attention on me since Songland, which has allowed me to get in the room with people I’ve wanted to write with for a long time.”

Merlo grew up in Maple Ridge, B.C., in a music-loving family—her dad was a funk musician, her mom liked country, her older sister listened to pop. She loved to sing and knew she wanted to write songs, but decided to focus on country music for two reasons. The first was when her mom took her to see Shania Twain, and she realized that a female artist could be powerful and in charge. And the second was because of the lyrics.

“I loved words, I loved poetry, and I really loved that the lyrics and storytelling are so important in country,” says Merlo. “In pop it’s all about the beat, the production, whereas in country it’s about the story you’re trying to tell. A common move in pop is to sing the first verse again in the second verse, and people don’t even notice. You’d never get away with that in a country song. The publisher would say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to write a second verse.’”

“It’s allowed me to get in the room with people I’ve wanted to write with for a long time”

Watching the Songland episode, it’s fascinating to see Merlo’s song, originally called “I’ll Drink to That,” take on, then lose, a reggae rhythm, and go through multiple changes as it morphs into “Champagne Night.” “It’s very Lady A,” she says. “They really crushed the production, and it feels like it was tailor-made for them – which it kinda was.”

Even though Merlo raves about the Songland experience, it must have been difficult to hand her song over to the band and producer Shane McAnally, and let it happen.

Songland: A different kind of TV music competition
Merlo thinks Songland is a valuable way to bring the craft of songwriting into the spotlight. “Songwriters work behind the scenes,” she says. “People talk about their favourite song in the world, but they have no idea who wrote it, they don’t think about that. This show can do great things for songwriters. There would be no music and no radio without writers helping artists tell their stories, and it was cool to be a part of it.”

“Yeah, it was nerve-wracking,” she admits with a laugh. “They called me one night and said, ‘Congratulations, your flight is tomorrow at 6:00 a.m.’ And I was suddenly there in front of all these people. But I was aware that when I pitched it to Lady Antebellum it was no longer my song, it was theirs, and they would do whatever they could to make it a Lady Antebellum song. I knew a lot of changes would be made – but what you don’t see in the episode is that we sat in the studio for eight hours and re-wrote that song together. And Shane was incredible. So I feel very connected to the new song as well.

“Also, I don’t think I would have pitched a song that was really personal to me, like ‘War Paint’ [which references a friend’s mental illness]. That’s one piece of advice I’d give to someone going on the show.”

It’s disappointing that Merlo can’t get her band together and go on the road right now, but she’ll keep writing and recording – in April she released three new songs, “If You Never Broke My Heart,” “It Didn’t” and “Kiss Kiss” – and she may drop an album next Spring.

“I feel like I’m going into writing sessions better prepared, because I’ve had more time to work on ideas,” she says. “Also, the internet is a beautiful thing, and I’ll promote my songs as much as I can from my living room. And I’m just writing every day, because that’s what I can do right now.”