The career of BC-raised, Nashville-based country singer/songwriter has been following an upward trajectory in Canada in recent years, but she has just had the type of break in the US that artists dream of but rarely receive.
Back on April 14, Merlo won the premiere episode of the second season of the hit NBC show Songland, during which seven-time Grammy-winning group Lady Antebellum chose to record and release Merlo’s co-written composition Champagne Night.
That track quickly topped both the ‘all genre’ and ‘country’ iTunes charts, prompting the BMLG act to release it as a single to country radio. Merlo becomes the first artist on Songland to have their winning song go to radio, and early indications are that hit status is on the way.
To learn more about Merlo's breakthrough accomplishment, we reached out to Ron Kitchener, her long-time manager and record label head. Kitchener spotted Merlo's talent early on, signing her to his management company (RGK Entertainment Group) and record label (Open Road Recordings) back in 2013 when the singer was just 18.
Merlo was named 2015’s Rising Star at the Canadian Country Music Association Awards, and her 2016 full-length debut Free Soul included three Canadian Top 20 singles. A lead role in country musical film Country Crush further increased her visibility.
With Kitchener's blessing, Merlo relocated to Nashville around two years ago, a move that has quickly paid dividends. "I have always told Madeline it is important to step on every rung of the ladder. She has gone from discovery by myself from doing demos at a Vancouver studio to recording her own music, performing live locally, then nationally after the release of singles to radio, then starting to write songs."
"As that progressed we felt that instead of her taking 4 or 5 trips a year to Nashville, Madeline should move there. She studied and worked at songwriting on the Nashville scene for a year and during that time we got her a publishing deal with Deluge Music, who are based in both Nashville and LA."
Now the Songland success has accelerated that path of career development rapidly. Kitchener explains that “when the Songland opportunity came along, we just thought it was a very smart show. Songwriters can present themselves in front of a big name act, not to mention the judges. [Nashville hit songsmith] Shane McAnally, in particular, is one of her heroes.
“We knew that win or lose, the experience would be tremendous for Madeline. She would spend time in LA and if something worked out well, there was much to be gained credibility wise. It was a chance for Madeline to be recognised as a songwriter now, not just for her voice, yet she also got a platform to showcase her voice. It was a win-win opportunity.”
He recalls that "a casting agent from another of those singing shows had previously reached out. That didn’t really work out, but that person got the job at Songland and reached out to us again, asking for a song. Madeline sent that one, and they said 'we can work with this. Can you come to LA?'"
"It was a whirlwind thing, and we were finalising details while she was waiting at the airport. I was at my son’s hockey game, and he was having one of the best games of his life while I’m on the phone with LA lawyers – 'are we good with Point 16?' I told Madeline not to get on the plane until I finished negotiating!"
"She didn’t know how long she’d be there for. There were multiple people in that round so if she didn’t perform well or the song didn’t connect she might have been in and out in two days, but she was there for over a week. It was nothing but great fun and has led to great contacts for the future. as they say, you have to be good to be lucky!"
The pair couldn't have written a better script for the Songland experience. The song Merlo presented on the show was originally entitled I'll Drink To That, a tune co-written by Merlo, fellow Canadian writers Patricia Conroy and Dave Thomson, and American Tina Parol. After grabbing thumbs up from the judges and Lady Antebellum, the song was rewritten by Shane Macanally, emerging as Champagne Night.
Kitchener recalls that "after Madeline was on the season premiere of Songland, the song got so much attention in America that Lady Antebellum’s label decided to release it as a single a week later. It is rare for that to happen. So the first outside song of hers is being released as a US country single by a major artist on a major label. The best part is that after we got to bask in a week of Songland plus a week of Lady A putting it out as a single, Madeline got to drop her own three new tracks on April 24."
Fortuitous timing indeed. Merlo's three new songs are Kiss Kiss, If You Never Broke My Heart, and It Didn't, all Merlo co-writes. "Those songs are all representative of the hard work she’s put in over the last 20 months of living in Nashville," says Kitchener.
The Songland exposure has also heightened interest in Madeline Merlo from US record labels, as Kitchener confirms. “Things are starting to heat up, there are lots of conversations being had right now, and I expect good things to come of this,” he says, without getting into specifics. "We have a well-focused plan for her in terms of where we think she fits musically and ambition-wise and what the right partner would be."