Before she was signed to Justin Timberlake’s artist development company and traveling to London for songwriting sessions—before she even wanted to be a singer, or a painter, an author or an actor—Ivory Layne grew up in tiny Denver, North Carolina wanting to be a pastor.
“It used to used to be a lot smaller when I was growing up there. Now they have a Chick-fil-A and a Wal-mart—they’re practically a buzzing metropolis,” she said of her home.
A middle child, she grew up at her parent’s church, where her father was a worship leader. It was at church where she starting singing, and her faith has remained heavily rooted in her songs even though she’s firmly planted in the pop world. One only needs to look at her latest single, the appropriately titled “Heaven,” which she started writing in an L.A. hotel room as her career was beginning to accelerate, and she was facing more decisions than ever before.
“I was feeling overwhelmed [and] I just felt like I needed to pray for help, but I didn’t really know exactly what I wanted to pray for,” Ivory Layne said. “I think prayer is such a connective thing and such a perspective thing. I didn’t even know what perspective to have. So I just started this chorus, ‘Heaven help me for what I’m supposed to do right now.’”
“I wanted it to feel like an open prayer that hits on some broad subjects that anybody who sings along to it, or listens to it, can feel like it applies to them. I still sing it every so often if I’m caught in a situation where I don’t know what to do.”
Ivory Layne wrote her first song when she was 6, and it inspired her to write more, including poetry and keeping a diary. Writing, singing and performing became a significant part of her life, but she never considered it as career potential until she was 14 and performed an original Christmas song at her church for the first time.
“Just hearing people’s responses afterward; them coming up to me and saying ‘I loved this line’ or ‘This lyric really spoke to me,’ or ‘I had no idea that you did that’—seeing people’s reactions and the way I was able to connect with people through a medium I hadn’t used before really empowered me.”
Layne moved to Nashville in 2013 to work with producer Ed Cash (Dolly Parton, Amy Grant), signed a publishing deal, released an EP, and collaborated with the likes of Andrew McMahon In The Wilderness and Needtobreathe. It was one of the execs at the company who put her in touch with Timberlake after hearing the pop star was starting her own firm.
Her music was sent to Timberlake, and the two met for the first time the following year to talk about goals and ambitions.
“I didn’t even know what to expect. I think I’ve never met someone with that level of celebrity, and so I was nervous about, ‘Was this guy going to be kooky?’” she said. “Also, ‘Is this for real? Is he really interested in my music?’ … What really caught me off-guard was he was very down-to-earth, and pretty normal. You see someone that you’ve seen on TV screens, YouTube videos, and album covers in a Target.”
The two played some of her songs, and Timberlake told her he liked them but wanted her to work harder to write from a place of unfiltered emotion. While he gave her advice, she learned even more from observing his career.
“You’re like, ‘Are you sure that you want the real me in these songs, or are you wanting a version of me?’” she said. “He really seems that he’s very authentic and wanting authenticity, so that was something that inspired me to stick to my guns and keep challenging myself to write harder and harder songs, or more open songs, and I’m really grateful for that.
“He’s a very diligent person, and very smart and savvy. So it’s been cool to be able to see that and draw inspiration from that,” she said.
She signed with Timberlake’s Villa 40 in 2017 and has been releasing songs every few months since last year. The ‘80s-influenced “Committed” was followed by love song “Boy Loves Me” before “Heaven.”
Through her older material and the newer songs, her faith still shines through, and Layne said she wants her songs to communicate with others.
“I’ve never been content to sit down and write a bunch of love songs or breakup songs,” she said. “Those things are hard-hitting and do cut deep, but I do think that those things can be fleeting. I like to write about recurring themes in our life. … Even with “Boy Loves Me” … it’s a love song but it’s also addressing a lot of hallmarks of being human and what we experience as individuals in our lives and in our journeys. There’s a huge element of my faith there. There’s a sense of urgency in me. I wanna write things that connect with people on a deeper level and inspire them to think differently about life; to think positively about themselves, and to be hungry to keep living and changing things for the better.”
And even though she’s not a pastor, painter, author or actor, she’s happy.
“I’m able to share messages with people and talk about life; I’m able to be in music videos and on stage as a heightened version of myself. I design a lot of what I do. And at the end of the day, I’m a writer and I get to share my stories with people,” she said. “I’m really grateful that I landed on a career path where I didn’t have to give up any of my previous dreams and ambitions.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.