Before she became a teen phenomenon in the late 1980s, Tiffany already had fond memories of Nashville. Along with spending several weeks riding the roller coasters at Opryland theme park, she befriended songwriter Mae Boren Axton (who wrote "Heartbreak Hotel") and appeared as a starry-eyed child on The Ralph Emery Show.
As she recalled during a recent visit to the CMT offices, that was when she was about 10 years old -- and a very different experience from her more recent visits to Music Row. With the multi-platinum plaques and teen magazine covers far behind her, Tiffany recalls, "They called me a carpetbagger, it was great. I had no clue what that meant!" With a rambunctious, infectious laugh, she says, "Somehow, I was like, 'I don't think that's friendly, I'm not sure ... .'"
Even as music business executives snubbed her, Tiffany found solace in the city's songwriting community. This month proved she still holds that love of Nashville. Named for the California nightclub where she performed as a child, as well as the ink on her own skin, Rose Tattoo gives her a long-awaited opportunity to introduce herself to country fans. She co-wrote all but one of the tracks, which run the gamut from party songs such as "Feel the Music" to surprisingly candid ballads like "He Won't Miss Me."
Asked what country fans can learn about her from listening to Rose Tattoo, she replies, "Hopefully they'll like my voice and hopefully they'll like me, ultimately," she says. "To me, the biggest compliment is when somebody comes up and say, 'I really connected with that song. That song was speaking to me.' Or, 'I'm down in the dumps but I put that song on and it lifts me a little bit. It gives me hope.'"
Tiffany now lives near Nashville with her son and husband, and she's been making the rounds at writer's nights. When she first started investigating the scene, her hair was black -- not the familiar red -- so she blended in as just another listener, rather than the former pop star with hits like "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Could've Been." Now that she's written new material (and returned to being a redhead), she's been known to get up and sing, too.
"If you go to the Bluebird, it's a little more structured and a little more serious. For somebody like myself, you go in there and you take notes," she says. "But you can go some place like the Listening Room -- that's one place in town that I love. It's like, 'Oh, I want to live here!' It's a little bit more casual. Of course, if somebody's up there doing a ballad, be respectful. But it's OK to holler a little bit and have a couple of cocktails and show your 'Whooooo!' Especially when I'm doing a round, I do better with crowds like that. When people are too quiet, I'm like, 'Oh, you're making me really nervous! I'm going to buy a round for everybody here!'"
She vividly recalls hearing one of her all-time favorite songwriters, Mike Reid, perform "I Can't Make You Love Me" as she sat just a few feet from the stage.
"I'm a huge Bonnie Raitt fan and she sings it amazingly, but watching Mike Reid singing that song and telling a little bit about it, it took on a totally different life form. I got to see him at the Bluebird and that stuck with me for weeks," she says. "Hopefully I'll be not just an artist, but I can be one of those songwriters telling a tale about something I wrote that somebody else took someplace and made it better than I could."
On the cusp of 40, Tiffany still has the enthusiasm of a teenager, even though she's branched out beyond her "teen queen" identity. (A sci-fi movie with Debbie Gibson, a spot on Celebrity Fit Club, a revealing Playboy spread, a handful of dance singles and a loyal gay audience have all kept her busy in the last two decades.) And she's a vivacious individual who pretty much interviews herself. Just toss her a question and let the tape recorder run. Even so, she can leave a lasting impression as somebody with a lot left to say and an undeniable desire to connect with her audience.
"I think I'm representing women a little bit," she says when the talk turns to "Feel the Music," the energetic first track on Rose Tattoo. "We're moms, we've been married, but we're not dead, you know? We still want to be hip and cool -- and we can! We want to go out on the town for one night and that's OK!"
On the album's most direct song, "Just Love Me," she sings that she might drive you a little insane but she's worth it. And she says she likes herself more now than ever before. "I know no different than to be myself at this point," she says. "I think you have to go through life and grow up a little bit to be in that situation. So when I write songs, it's a lot about that. When I say, 'Just Love Me,' it's truly 'just love me.' I know I'm not perfect. There's something so humble and simple about saying that and being open to that."
Asked if that's a message that she wants her fans to embrace as well, her laughter fills the room.
"Oh yes, definitely!" she says brightly. "I send that message every day actually on my Facebook! 'Hello, it's me again -- love me!'"
Turning more serious, she continues, "People will say, 'You don't have to share all your colors. You don't have to say that you made a mistake. You don't have to be so real.' A lot of artists don't like that. They're polished and I respect that, but my world has never been like that."
Indeed, tapping into her own life may just lead to a new career as a Nashville hit songwriter.
"I'm very forthcoming with how I feel at the time," she says. "I think that's something that my fans depend on, and I think that's something they relate to. We have a lot in common, even though I'm off touring the world and not doing the 9-to-5 job. People feel things and we're all connected. As a mom or as a wife, or as a person who's fallen out of love, all of those different things connect me with my fans. There's always something to talk about. I'm a shopaholic so there's always some girl out there who's going, 'Oooh, cool shoes!' And I'm like, 'Yours are great!' There's a lot to talk about!"