As Carly Pearce dealt last year with perhaps the worst trial of her 29-year-old life, she grew sure of two decisions: She would bring an end to her brief and failing marriage to fellow artist Michael Ray, and she would write songs about it.

The artist, who's built her career on telling her own story through music, recalls to PEOPLE when she cemented the latter decision in a fateful phone conversation.

"I feel like I'm going to write a project," Pearce told a close girlfriend soon before she filed for divorce on June 19, 2020. "I feel like I'm going to write a project called 29, and I'm going to write a song called '29, the year I got married and divorced.'"

Her friend was a bit incredulous, Pearce recalls now with a chuckle. "She was like, 'Wow, you have fun with that!" But as with her divorce decision, Pearce told her girlfriend that she had to go with her gut: "I need to do this."

True to her word, on Friday, Pearce released a seven-song EP, 29, with the title song as its heart-wrenching centerpiece. As a sorrowful fiddle plays, Pearce sings the chorus she'd originally contemplated: "29 is the year that I got married and divorced / I held on for dear life, but I still fell off the horse / From a Miss to a Mrs., then the other way around / The year I was gonna live it up / Now I'm never gonna live it down."

It may well stand as the most pathos-infused divorce song since Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," and — Pearce confirms — it accurately reflects the sense of despair she felt in those first dark days after her decision to end her eight-month marriage. But that was then, and this is now, and today Pearce is calm and self-assured as she talks about that grim time.

"I hurt for her," Pearce, now 30, says, thinking back to the nights she wept on her kitchen floor. "I hurt for her because now I can kind of look at her as a 'her.' It's not necessarily where I feel like I am in the moment."

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Indeed, six of the seven tracks on 29, all co-written by Pearce, document the way stations on a journey that has brought her to a new, hopeful place.

The bracing "Day One" is a first view of a fresh breakup, with Pearce anticipating a future turned upside down. In "Should've Known Better," she wrestles with all the predictable pangs of pain and self-blame. The seductive rhythms of "Liability" broadcast the righteous anger of a wronged woman — and it features one of country's all-time cleverest wordplays. (The "liability"? His "lie ability.") The lightened mood of "Messy" signals Pearce's resolve to recover. And Pearce's current chart-climber, "Next Girl," is, of course, a much wiser woman's pungent warning about a charmer's deceits.

The seventh track, a poignant reverie titled "Show Me Around," was inspired by the other recent trauma in Pearce's life, the 2019 death of Busbee, the West Coast producer who put the pop vibe in her country. The loss of this beloved mentor, Pearce says, had already set her adrift professionally when her private life was beginning to fall apart. But after his death, she came to realize Busbee had left her a new direction with "I Hope You're Happy Now," her No. 1 duet with Lee Brice.

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"That was the last song we ever worked on together," Pearce recalls, "and I remember, when we were cutting it, having this moment where I'm singing it and going, this is the most 'me' I have ever felt. He produced that track like he grew up on the '90s country sound. Creatively, he opened the door for me to just step farther into that sound, which is what I grew up wanting to do."

Last summer, to finally pursue those roots, Pearce sought out two all-star Nashville songwriters, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, both '90s country aficionados. The two veteran chart-toppers ended up collaborating with Pearce on four of the EP's songs, including "Next Girl" and "29," and went on to produce six of the seven.

"I don't ever want people to feel like Busbee didn't allow me to creatively speak my thoughts at all, because he did," Pearce says, "but I think there was just this next level of trust with Shane and Josh."

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One sign that Pearce was on the right track with her new sound: During the recording of "Next Girl," her longtime dobro player confided that she'd "never sung better."

"He was like, 'This music is what you were meant to do,'" Pearce recalls. "I just think it's because I was able to kind of unleash that, because Shane and Josh understood it."

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With the release of what is essentially a divorce diary — granted, Pearce stipulates, with some artistic license — she knows she is making a risky move, opening herself up to possible criticism and judgment. But she's taking her cue from the public response to "I Hope You're Happy Now," the platinum-seller that earned four CMA nominations and one win, for musical event of the year.

"I also was nominated as a writer for song of the year," Pearce notes, "and that did something to my brain where I went, okay, people care about what I have to say. And what I have to say is just telling my stories. I tried to pull myself out of [thinking], everybody knows you just went through a public divorce, and then I just did what I always do, which is write from my heart, write what I know, write what I know is the most 'me' place. So, I just did that without thinking about the noise of people who are going to listen to these songs in whatever way they want to."

The project is risky in another way, as well, exposing more fully a chapter in Pearce's life that she admits has been a tremendous source of shame. But her anxieties around those feelings, she says, were eased in a conversation with pal Kelsea Ballerini around the time Pearce filed for divorce.

Ballerini urged her friend to stop dwelling on her embarrassment. Yes, Ballerini said, Pearce had done something "that's not like the cookie-cutter American dream thing," Pearce recalls. But then Ballerini challenged her: "Do you know how many people you're going to help?"

Ballerini urged Pearce to embrace being an example of strength to people who may be staying in an unhealthy relationship "just because they feel like they have to."

Since the news of her divorce broke, Pearce confides, she's had to endure the "humbling experience" of getting extra glances from strangers, feeling as if she's being rubbernecked. "I'm like, 'Yeah, it's me,'" she says, ruefully. But since opening up about her story, she says, she's also "had people literally come up to me, crying in restaurants, telling me that I helped them."

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Those are the encounters that have given her the courage to tell her story in song. If anything, she says, she wants her listeners to come away from the EP with a sense that "I am a woman who understands." 

As Pearce looks back on the past year, she still wonders about the whiplash of it all. Yes, it held her worst personal moments, but professionally, it was her best year yet: a No. 1 song, the CMA accolades, a new single that's on the ascent, a steadily building fan base. Toted up, the achievements feel like a new career stage, Pearce says. 

"Which again is so interesting," she adds, "because I feel like I found how to get there through a lot of pain. It's the redemptive piece of it. I had to go find myself again, and I feel like I found so much more than just music."

To be sure, she looks at the new EP as just a piece of her story. She isn't trying to earn Tammy Wynette's "Queen of Heartbreak" lifetime crown. "I don't want to only be known for that," she says. She also is adamant: "I don't want to be known as the girl who writes songs about her ex-husband."

"I did what I've always done," she says, harking back to her first No. 1, "Every Little Thing," an autobiographical heartbreak song. "I wrote what I lived." 

Today, she is deep into the process of living some more — in what she calls "a new season of life." 

"Not to quote my own song," she says with a playful grin, "but I really am happy now. I have been validated and validated and validated and validated — by God and by the people who know me — that I made the best decision for myself. I'll never second-guess that."

Still not ready to steadily date someone again, she does reveal she is testing the waters: "I have been on a date."

She adds: "I am really hopeful, too, to find love again. As much as I'm guarded, I would say I'm cautiously optimistic about that and look forward to that."

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And she's looking forward to sharing the new music, knowing by the time she performs it for live audiences, the stories in these songs will be firmly planted in her past. Of course, she knows that "29" may always be difficult to perform. Pearce has done so once, for a video, and she admits, "It's hard to sing."

She knows it can be hard to hear, as well. When she played the demo for her band, one musician, who's been with her for a decade, caught her eye at the end and simply said, "I'm so sorry."

Pearce found herself consoling him. "It's okay," she told him. "It's okay."

After all, she knew she wasn't 29 anymore.


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