From the time she was just a little kid, Jillian Cardarelli loved singing a good heartbreak song. From George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to Dolly Parton's "I'll Always Love You," the Massachusetts native has always found a certain comfort in the forlorn, long before she even knew what heartbreak was.
"I just love the storytelling and the emotion of a sad country song," Cardarelli, 28, tells PEOPLE in a recent interview. "Give me a steel guitar and a sad lyric, and I am totally in."
And yes, the country music songstress certainly sounds in her element singing her current single "If You Had a Heart," an all-female powerhouse of a production consisting of writers Alex Kline, Erin Enderlin, Liz Hengber and Kellys Collins.
"We can all relate to heartbreak at one time or another," explains Cardarelli. "My last two singles were sort of fun and flirty, so I was ready to release a more serious song. It gives people the chance to get to know all aspects of me as an artist. It also allowed me to draw from past experiences and hear what I wanted to hear when I was in moments like that. I'm not experiencing heartbreak in this moment, you know."
Because while professionally, Cardarelli finds herself dwelling in the lyrical tidal wave of love gone wrong, personally she is experiencing all that happens when love goes right, courtesy of her engagement to longtime boyfriend Brian Parker.
"It's so ironic that I am releasing such a sad song when I am really the happiest," says Cardarelli, whose single "Strong" with Nashville star Charles Esten was written in honor of her own mother's battle with cancer. "As I'm singing about heartbreak, I am simultaneously planning my May 2021 wedding. But the fact is that a good song always prevails, even when it's about heartbreak."
The story of how Cardarelli met her match may just be as ironic as her song choices as of late.
"We met five years ago in Nashville," Cardarelli says of fiancé Brian Parker, a well-known sports agent in Nashville that she likes to refer to as her "very own, real-life Jerry Maguire," referring to the 1996 romantic comedy starring Tom Cruise playing, yes, a sports agent. "We were next-door neighbors in the same condo complex. He used to call me in for singing and playing guitar really late. It was sort of serendipitous that we met outside the building."
The two had their first date at a little Italian restaurant down the street from their condo, and the rest, as they say, is history. The two got engaged in Central Park in New York City in November of 2019.
"He totally surprised me," Cardarelli remembers. "We were just on our normal morning walk, but it quickly turned out to be the most special walk of my life."
And unlike so many other engaged couples who were forced to postpone their planned weddings due to the ongoing pandemic, Cardarelli and Parker say they had always planned on a May 2021 wedding from the very start.
"We wanted to take our time and enjoy being engaged," she says. "It's crazy to think that we were able to stick with our original date, despite everything that has been going on since we got engaged. I'm just so glad it worked out this way."
And while she is busy putting the finishing touches on the final plans for her upcoming wedding, Cardarelli says she is relishing in the realization that heartbreak is often a part of even the most beautiful of love stories…even hers.
"I always think about the Rascal Flatts song 'God Bless the Broken Road,'" she says quietly. "Every heartache and bump in the road brought me to the man of my dreams. Everything happens for a reason."
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