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Carolyn Dawn Johnson figures out a simple formula for success

Story by Bob Paxman • Photo by Chuck Jones

Carolyn Dawn Johnson scrunches herself into a chair, lets out a sigh and casts a gaze toward the ceiling. "Things are going so well," she says, "I'm in total disbelief."

It has been an unbelievable year for the 30-year-old singer/songwriter. Carolyn took her hit song "Complicated" to the Top 10, served as the opening act for the rollicking Girls' Night Out Tour and captured a record-breaking five honors at the Canadian Country Music Association awards. Topping that, her debut album, Room With A View, also cracked the Top 10 in its first week of release.

"That's the one that's still kind of crazy to me," says Carolyn with a smile. "You can't make people buy your album, so the thought that they wanted to have it is very gratifying."

Carolyn can also be grateful that her formula for success - working hard and setting goals - is finally paying off. It's a decidedly uncomplicated recipe, but one that fits the smalltown girl from Deadwood, Alberta, Canada.

"My background is pretty humble and simple," she says quietly, "though I do tend to overanalyze things at times. But I learned a good work ethic, and I did work hard to get here."

Her résumé would bear that out. After moving to Nashville from Canada in 1996, Carolyn made the usual novice rounds: networking with other songwriters, pushing for demo recording work, knocking on record label doors.

Carolyn finally found success, but not as a performer. "Single White Female" - which she wrote - hit the top for Chely Wright. That opened the floodgates, and soon Patty Loveless, SHeDAISY and Jo Dee Messina were recording her songs.

But her biggest break came when Martina McBride hired her as an on-tour backup singer, which eventually paved the way for Carolyn's record deal.

"You always hope that it will happen for you," Carolyn says. "But you also have to help make it happen."

She puts her hopes into action by setting goals for herself. "I started doing that during my last years of high school," says Carolyn, "and I have been able to meet most of them."

And true to form, she follows a simple plan - put your goals in writing and be specific about them. "For example, I can't just say, 'I want to be a better writer' - that's too general," Carolyn explains. "Instead, I list those things that will help me achieve that, like reading for 15 minutes a day."

When she writes, Carolyn lets experience be her guide. "The guy I wrote about in my first single, 'Georgia,' was the one I thought I was going to marry," says the still-single Carolyn. "And 'Complicated,' which talks about falling in love with your friend, is also true. I was torn as to whether I should tell this man how I felt and possibly wreck the friendship - or not tell him and miss out on something that could be really great."

So, did she open up or forever hold her peace? "I did tell the person," Carolyn reveals. "It didn't work out, but that's okay. Because now ..." she stops and pauses for a grin, "I've moved on, and there is somebody else."

Brushing back a streak of blond hair, Carolyn admits that letting her feelings flow can be, well ... complicated.

"Sometimes, I do hold things inside," she observes. "There is that part of you that says, 'Every time I open up, I just get stomped on, so why bother?' But then again, you have to go out and fall a few times. When you don't take risks, you'll always lose. If you take the risk, you might lose - but you also might win."

These days, Carolyn's on a definite winning streak - in all phases of life. But she's also mapped out even bigger plans for herself, beyond singing and songwriting.

"I would love to produce a record for someone else," she says, "although that's way down the road. I also want to have a family someday. My ideal life would be to have that great balance between career and family, like Martina has. She is a great example for me, because she proves that you can have all those things. And I really do want them."

After all, is that so complicated?