With so many tours on hold, lots of artists have been pushing back their album-release dates. Not Tenille Townes. In fact, the 26-year-old Alberta, Canada, native believes a global pandemic may well be the exact right time to unleash her long-awaited debut album, The Lemonade Stand.
"I know, for me, turning to music since the beginning of the pandemic has been my safe place — it's my escape," Townes tells PEOPLE. "And I feel more excited than ever to get to create a place for people to come and find whatever emotions they need to find in this time."
Indeed, the album, released Friday, is overflowing with longing, love and light. The title —plucked from the lyrics of Townes' top 30 single "Somebody's Daughter" — is intended to evoke much more than liquid refreshment.
"I want this music to be a place," Townes says, "where people can come and be filled up and put a little bit of hope in their tank."
For Townes, the album's essence can be found in her two based-on-a-true-story songs, "Somebody's Daughter" and "Jersey on the Wall (I'm Just Asking)," both of which rose to No. 1 on the Canadian country chart. "Daughter" was inspired by Townes' roadside encounter with a young panhandler. In "Jersey," Townes was moved to ask a series of eternal questions after visiting a Canadian high school that had lost a star athlete in a car accident.
"I feel like music is a place to talk about the harder things sometimes," Townes says. "And that is very much in the foundation that I want to stand on musically."
Getting to that point — understanding her musical mission — has been a journey that began, in 2013, with a 45-hour road trip from her hometown of Grande Prairie, Alberta, to Nashville when she was just 19 years old. Already a budding recording artist in Canada, she was determined to make a name for herself in country music's epicenter.
"I just had space to dig in and find myself during that time," she says. "I listened to my heroes play and talked to songwriters and heard their stories of what it was like when they first got to town. It made me hungry to be better, and it also was cultivating that kind of pain and restlessness to go, okay, I want to be here. How do I do this? And I'd go home and write so many songs, and I would just sit by myself and play for hours."
During those lonely stretches, her breakthrough finally arrived with "When I Meet My Maker." The heavenly reverie, the only song on the album Townes wrote by herself, was the arrow she was looking for that pointed the way toward her own distinctive lane.
"I think I wrote that song in 20 minutes," she recalls. "I'd never really had that out-of-body experience as a songwriter before. It felt very spiritual, like, this feels like something to me. That opened up the door to thinking, I'm getting closer."
The song's inspiration, she explains, came from the recent death of her beloved great-grandmother, the "glue to our family" who always took a front-row seat at Townes' hometown shows. "She was such a spirit, and I just was missing her and thinking about where she is now," Townes says. "It brought me a lot of healing just sitting and holding the pen for that song."
Even as Townes was discovering her musical voice, she also was finding her singing voice. It's a unique sound in country, containing a fierceness that's a perfect fit for her passion-packed lyrics.
That's no coincidence, says Townes. As she worked on songs, "I just kept opening my mouth and singing, and I just kept writing to the pockets of where my voice felt the most like myself," she says. "So it was kind of like, oh, if I'm singing something this way, I'm shaping my heart around what I want to say."
Every cut on the album — written or co-written by Townes — features some facet of her heart. The wistful "I Kept the Roses" describes the aching bittersweetness of lost love. "Find You," a song with the feel of a timeless classic, is a tribute to the quest for perfect love. "The Most Beautiful Things" is a dreamy piece of musical poetry, offering the wisdom that "maybe the most beautiful things in this life are felt and never seen."
Besides the overt references to God in "When I Meet My Maker" and "Jersey," there's a spiritual thread running through many of the lyrics — a purposeful decision by Townes, but one made with a light touch. "I want this music to be an invitation to just meet people where they are," she says. "These songs represent my own personal feelings, and I never want an agenda of faith to be at the forefront. I just want the doors to be open, and I'll sit beside you as you walk through that part."
Townes also knows her way well around a love song, though she says, there's currently no one in her life who's serving as her muse. "Not at this time, unfortunately," she says with a laugh, "but I've got my eyes open."
As a songwriter, she jokingly adds, maybe that's for the best. "I was actually having a conversation with one of my friends and co-writers, and he's like, 'I think it's good to just write love songs from the dreaming perspective, because once you're in it, it's going to look a little different!'"
To promote the album, Townes has scheduled the LemonAID Stand Virtual Tour, a series of benefit concerts including one next Tuesday that will assist the Grande Prairie nonprofit that she's supported since was 15 years old.
"Big Hearts for Big Kids" will be streamed from the stage of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, and it will feature at-home performances by Dierks Bentley, Brandi Carlile, Luke Combs, Mickey Guyton, Caylee Hammack, Ashley McBryde, Andy Grammer, Lori McKenna, Chrissy Metz, John Osborne and Lucie Silvas. Proceeds will benefit Sunrise House, the youth shelter that Townes has raised more than $1.9 million for over the years.
In this time of quarantine, Townes says she's "grateful for social media to be able to feel like we're still connected." But she's also anxious to resume face-to-face encounters.
"I miss being able to talk to people after the shows and hearing those stories," she says. "Feeling that connection is very much my very favorite part about doing this."