Living with regret sucks. It’s often better to say yes to an opportunity and know the results than to look back years later and wonder if you missed out.
That’s the life lesson in “What Could’ve Been,” the debut single from Triple Tigers’ Gone West, a group that easily could have not been. Pop artist Colbie Caillat and her fiancé, Hawaiian artist Justin Hawika Young, were both committed to successful solo careers.
Caillat’s longtime co-writer, Jason Reeves, had settled in Nashville, where he wrote songs for Kenny Rogers and LANCO. He also married Nellie Joy (formerly known as Danelle Leverett during her tenure with The JaneDear girls), who authored songs for Big & Rich and Kelly Clarkson.
Caillat enlisted the other three as support personnel when she toured behind her album The Malibu Sessions, and when they felt a unique chemistry, it would have been easy to retreat into their familiar patterns. Instead, they dabbed their collective toes in the water, writing together and slowly turning their separate careers into a single group. In their second co-writing session, Tom Douglas (“The House That Built Me,” “Drunk Girl”) convinced them they might regret it if they didn’t at least try to make the quartet work.
“He gave us like a 30-minute pep talk of how beautiful it was, how special we could be as a band and why we needed to follow through with this project,” remembers Caillat. “Hearing that from a legendary songwriter, we all just got the chills and were like, ‘Wow, we really should follow this feeling.’”
After completing their debut album, Gone West signed with Triple Tigers in January 2019. It tried a couple more writing sessions to see if they could surpass the existing material, with no real luck. And when they awoke on Feb. 1, beat up from a heavy radio promotion schedule, they considered cancelling another writing session with producer-musician Jamie Kenney (DierksBentley, Marc Broussard).
“Thank God we didn’t,” says Joy. “We showed up, and Jamie had started this melody and a little bit of a lyric concept. He was listening to our EP in the shower apparently and sat down at the piano and started just humming this chorus melody. And immediately we freaked out and just started writing it and wrote it very quickly.”
The initial lyrics in that chorus — “We left blood on the tracks/Sweat on the saddle/Fire in the hills/A bullet in the barrel” — subtly aligned with the cowboy spirit in the Gone West moniker. “There’s a lot of western imagery,” says Reeves, “and I guess our name is pretty western.”
There was no title at that point, but as they sifted through the images, they realized that unfinished business was at the heart of the tale. As musicians, they all had seen distance take a toll on relationships, and they were able to bend their collective experiences into a universal tale about missed communications and unclaimed opportunities: “Words never said in a story that didn’t end.” It all led to the title, “What Could’ve Been.”
“The first verse is a long-view perspective on the whole thing,” explains Young. “In the second verse, after the first chorus, it zooms in a little bit and has more specific details.”
That opening stanza finds the former couple reconnecting, and a pre-chorus sums up the drama at the heart of the story: “I don’t know what this is or what this isn’t/ But it feels like we’ve got unfinished business.” They skipped that section before the second chorus, but slipped in a revised version of it later as a bridge with a familiar ring.
“We did want to bring it back in the bridge because the ‘unfinished business’ part of the lyric is actually tied to the ‘words never said in a story that didn’t end,’ ” observes Reeves. “Those are like the signposts of the song, kind of being infinite and not having a true defined ending.”
Working in Kenney’s studio, they started inserting instrumental parts, fashioning the actual recording even as they wrote it. “There’s a lot of writer-producers that you go in to write with, and they have their back to you the whole time ’cause they’re just working on the track while you’re writing the song,” says Young. “Jamie’s not like that at all. He will get a little inspiration or hear something and dive down into programming real quick. It’s like the perfect amount of production because it helps in the writing process, but he’s also present in the writing.”
They intended for Caillat’s smoky tones to carry the lead throughout, and she recorded her final vocal early in the process. Later, Kenney suggested they turn it into a male/female duet with Young — her real-life partner — providing the counter voice. “It seems to even make it a little more sad that both of them are feeling the same way,” says Young, “but also, you know, there’s a little bit of hope that maybe they reconcile.”
They sped it up a few clicks before capturing Young’s vocal and the harmonies, though not enough to harm Caillat’s original solo tone. Tempo wasn’t the only quirk in the recording process. The weather made an appropriate appearance, too.
“It was raining really hard that day, and if you listen to the beginning, there is rain in the acoustic guitars because his studio has these really big windows,” says Reeves. “If it’s raining super hard you can hear it. And that kind of actually added to the emotion even more, because it was really dark out and the rain kind of fit with this song.”
They doubled all the four-part harmonies in the chorus, stacking eight weighty voices total. And Reeves sang a soaring counter-melody, blended with a guitar effect, to enhance the haunting atmosphere. Triple Tigers and management were all impressed with “What Could’ve Been,” and when Gone West shot live performances at Vevo in New York on April 8, the team requested that the act take a shot at the song. It was risky — the bandmembers had never formally rehearsed it — but they waded in and focused closely on the group dynamic to ensure they could pull it off. They did.
“There were people crying in the room, and that’s strange,” says Joy. “You don’t play a song for the first time and then see people tear up like that.”
The quartet held an official rehearsal later that night, then debuted “What Could’ve Been” in concert on April 9 at the Gramercy Theater. Once more, the response was a huge mix of cheers and tears. “That was the moment that made everyone realize that we were going to be switching singles just because of the reaction,” says Caillat. “We knew it was a good song, but we had no idea by us playing it a couple of times that the reaction was going to be so strong.”
Triple Tigers sent “What Could’ve Been” to terrestrial country radio PlayMPE on June 24. It is No. 44 on the Country Airplay chart dated Aug. 31 in its sixth week on the list. There are, to be certain, no regrets among Gone West’s members that they set their individual goals aside for the band.
“We have a lot more work to do,” allows Joy, “but we’re just really grateful that we’re off to a great start.”