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KACEY MUSGRAVES

Kacey Musgraves is a unicorn. In a world where trashing people seems the order of the day, she is unfailingly kind and nice; when chasing radio is how it’s done, she continues to tour with eclectic artists from Harry Styles and Katy Perry to Little Big Town and Willie Nelson, while making every TV appearance from Saturday Night Live to nightly variety shows must-watch moments. And whereas country crossover typically comes from hip-hop/pop boom-boom, she relies on retro-dance and EDM angles. But especially in a world where music is often sacrificed on the altar of maximum reach and selling corporate connectedness, she remains staunch about following her musical arrow to where her heart takes her. 

Having fallen in love with songwriter Ruston Kelly, the Golden, Texas, native found herself yearning to expand her musical horizons. An organic producer change to Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk took Musgraves’ songwriting to more open spaces, cross-pollinating her kind of country with spacious, dreamy tracks and Daft Punk-style processed vocals that give Golden Hour so much of its intrigue. With raves from Rolling Stone, Spin, Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork, Musgraves again flexed her critical appeal, while also finding fans across the globe. She headlined the C2C Festival in the U.K. and Ireland, sold out European dates and now is poised to conquer Japan. 

Maintaining her perspective on life, love and the right thing to do, she may have shifted into love songs from her signature commentary, but—like John Lennon before her—love for Musgraves is the ultimate revolution. All you have to do is listen. 


After Pageant Material came out in 2015, you gave yourself a chance to exhale.
I did. I felt like I really needed time to think about where I wanted to go. I knew instinctively I wanted to do something else. I liked [traditional-leaning country], and I know a lot of other people did too. But it was time. People get confused having success with one thing. They start thinking they have to do the same thing over and over. It’s like being a copy machine a bit, only it gets less and less interesting. 

For you, what did that mean?
I like witty turns of phrase—trying to wrap every little lyric in a bow. I’ve never given the listeners as much room to find themselves in the songs. So Golden Hour is more of an aerial view instead of every little detail. There’s room in the songs to spread out your own life too. 

Sonically, I think that’s true too. This is a very spacious record.
Overall, this entire project has more air and space to it. I was as discerning with the lyrics, letting them breathe a bit, as I was with the arrangements. It was by design. 

Yes, in some ways, this record is leaner. But in some ways, it’s way more of a production.
I knew it was going to be more heavy-handed with the production, more layers, more ideas. I wanted to leave a lot of room for the lyrics and the songs to shine through. 

You were obviously listening to Daft Punk. Those phased vocals are pure them.
I’m a huge Daft Punk fan, Sade, The Bee Gees, Imogen Heap. She’s done a lot of vocoder stuff. Even the song we put on before we come on is “Staying Alive,” because no matter the age, the gender, the orientation, when that song drops, everybody is up and dancing. That ’70s gold era of Samantha Sang and stuff, it’s incredible. 

It’s amazing to think Saturday Night Fever was almost all original music.
I watched the film for the first time a few years ago, and thought, “Man, this is good.” Listen to “How Deep Is Your Love,” all those songs, and there’s so much going on. You have to have a key change, you know! I’ve never been a big vocalist. The way we wrote for this record, it gave me more room to play vocally. Those ’70s songs where the female singer just floated over the melodies? I could have a key change—or two. I did some things I’ve never done vocally, because we wrote the songs to let me go there. With “Happy and Sad,” or “Love Is a Wild Thing” on the bridge, those higher parts of my range come into play. 

Was that intentional?
I hadn’t explored melodies with the intention of going there. I’ve been singing “Merry Go Round” so long, which is basically a whisper. Maybe I got comfortable with melodies that stay in their lane. And maybe that made me stand out in a room of women power-singers, because I was more the lazy-river floater. I had my drink in my hand, just going along, but it was time to get out of the innertube and stand up. 

And for all the trippy, disco trappings, you still kept it solidly Kacey.
It was really important for me to keep a foot in the lane I’ve been in. I love country music. I don’t think anyone loves what I call country music more than I do—and there was no reason to lose that. For me, some banjo and steel guitar was a good place to begin; to make that the common ground for the new path I wanted to start down too. I didn’t wanna pander just to make a trippy pop record for the shit of it.

My records are very much “me.” So for the people who loved Same Trailer and Pageant Material, I didn’t want them going, “What the fuck is this? Where is Kacey?!” Being weird to be weird in their eyes wasn’t something I wanted to do, but being wholly me, even more me, was what this was about. You know, the future and traditionalism, organic instruments and synth and vocoder can co-exist. There’s no reason they can’t; it’s just figuring out how to do it. 

Was part of that the producer change to Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk?
Ian had played on Pageant Material, and both of them have been in my friend circle for years. Daniel and I tried to write a long time ago, and we ended up talking and talking all day, and then we never tried it again. When I got off the road three years ago, I knew I was needing to get back to my roots, to creatively do something else, but I didn’t quite know what that was. 

So you let it simmer.
When I got off the road, I was in a funky place. I didn’t feel good about myself. I was coming out of a bad relationship that didn’t help. And we all collectively knew it was time to explore other things. So I went over to Daniel’s one day, and we wrote ‘Oh, What a World,’ which was the song that really opened up everything. 

It’s almost a 180 from social commentary, Kacey.
People expect that from me, I know. And part of my creative persona is that. But three years later, it’s gotten so extreme and convoluted. There are so many issues; everyone’s on a soapbox and has an opinion. It’s just loud and churning people up in not always great ways. I wanted to focus on the beauty in the world. There are these parts of life we’re all missing because we’re getting hit over the head by the “fake news” 24 hours a day. They’re—whatever side you’re on—keeping you churned up, and we’re missing all this good in our world.

So “Oh, What a World” was born.
Yeah, we made the demo in Daniel’s little homemade studio. Banjo and steel at the crossroads of all this trippy, futuristic stuff. It was amazing, so we just kept writing and writing, and it became obvious this is where the next path starts.

It was the same way with Shane [McAnally] and Luke [Laird]. The amount of creativity all these guys have in their bones is inspiring. They challenge me, in each of their ways, to be so much more, and they all push me in ways that are awesome. 

Daniel, of course, has a band that’s sort of alternative, sort of roots. Ian is one of the most in-demand roots progressives even in mainstream country. So they also put you in a different space creatively.
Daniel has three little girls, all under the age of 6. Tiger Lily, Tinkerbelle and Matilda, who’d come in and out. They were like these three little fairies who sprinkled pixie dust everywhere [laughs].

And, of course, you fell in love.
Yes. And it was the last thing I’d expected. I wasn’t gonna date… 

What happened?
I don’t even know. I lived with this fear [this person] is gonna break up with me all the time, or walking on eggshells. If you stay in it, it wears you down and makes you this thing that you’re not, trying to be what someone tells you is right. It leaves you in a shambles, and I feel like for many years I have not really understood what love is. I built walls I didn’t know I was building, and I was in a place I didn’t understand.

I decided to go to the Bluebird one night for a writers’ round, which I never do, because it’s so touristy. Plus, I live a ways away, but I had a friend who was playing it, and I thought, “Well…” I didn’t go with anyone, and I was sitting by myself at a table. Ruston played his first song, and I was just stunned by everything in it—the words, the melody, what he was saying. I was just sitting at this table, crying. When it was over, I went up and introduced myself. I said, “Hey, I don’t really ever do this, but here’s my number; I really wanna write with you.”

That was March 2016. A few months went by, and we were supposed to write on May 11. I almost canceled. I just didn’t wanna go through trying to write with someone I didn’t really know. 

And?
The second Ruston walked into my house, I felt like Dorothy when the colorized part happens in The Wizard of Oz. We didn’t even write a song. We just talked, and talked, and talked. He didn’t leave until like 3am. It was the easiest, most natural thing in the world—and I didn’t want it to stop. 

And it didn’t.
No, it didn’t. I met Ruston at the start of this album, and everything changed. People were saying, “You even look like a different person. You’re beaming.” 

What happened?
You know me [laughs]. I’ve never had love songs or relationship songs. I write about other things, other people’s stories or perspectives. When you’re with someone you truly love to the core and they feel that way about you, there’s no sense of panic—or that it’s going to come apart. I’m living in a much more positive light now. It’s maybe opened my heart a little. If your personal life isn’t crumbling, you can tackle anything with joy and light. I never felt like this. I was always fearful of putting myself too much out there. And I realized maybe I’ve been a little over-[self]protected. Maybe I can let loose a little more, trust more in the songs, what I have at home and out here.

 

Has your definition of love changed? Since you’ve always—to my mind—been someone who’s been about acceptance, love, getting along.
I love love. So much I’ve never expressed it inwardly in the songs. Now that I’m with someone who loves me no matter what my flaws are, it’s a whole other thing. And you see it even more clearly. Good God, people suck. But then my heart wrenches for people in every situation: How did they get like that? And maybe in the craziness of the societal and political landscape, being a voice for love is radical.

In this world right now, love isn’t just political, it’s revolutionary. So maybe it is that social- commentary piece.
Bringing people together, even in some of these ways that are ugly, creates community, In the clashing, maybe they can find common ground. To me, if music and social commentary go hand in hand, we can also show people how to come together.

It bothers me when people go, “Shut up and sing.” The things I sing about are issues of humanity, not politics, acceptance, not judgment. Simple stuff: right and wrong, kindness, being a human being—because it starts there.

There’s a place and time for everything. After a day of being inundated by the latest crap on gotcha news, who wants to hear more of it? I think it’s more important to create an escape and a reminder of the beauty around us, the people we love—and to keep our focus on that. If we start there instead, who knows what might happen? 

You’ve toured with Katy Perry, and now Harry Styles. In a lot of ways, your timing for smearing the genre lines and maybe desensitizing pop fans to “country” is putting a flag in the ground for the roots of what you and I think of as true country music.
We’re having a fucking ball! It’s definitely surpassed my expectations—not that I had any. He’s a gentleman, a classy person, a sweetheart and someone who cares about music. I didn’t know that much about his music, but he wanted me to do this tour. He asked, and I listened, and I thought, “Well, we’re meeting somewhere in the middle.” It’s incredible to see the intensity and energy his fans bring. I was a little nervous about it, but they come out and know the words to my songs, which is nice. “Arrow” gets the biggest response every night. 

Those fans seem to really get you and know your stuff. But even more thrilling to me was the melting pot: You saw seriously LGBTQ kids, vogue-looking kids and also the misfits. But everyone was joyous and accepted.
Harry’s a beacon to all kinds, it seems. I’ve noticed that too. Tons and tons of LGBTQ people, older people, kids. It’s a very accepting environment, which makes me happy. To look around and see “All Kinds of Kinds,” you know? Looks aren’t a factor to his audience, I know! They’re all so happy to be there. And the pretty girls—and boys—are just the same as the regular kids. Everyone’s doing what they will, and it’s all cool. 

Do you think country’s loosening up any about this stuff?
A little, but there’s still a long way to go. Look at the struggle women are still having. I’m super-grateful Luke Bryan can have a hit with “Most People Are Good.” It’s a small step. But look at this: He can go #1 and get all kinds of acclaim, where “Arrow” stalls out at 40 and gets banned by all these stations for what I’m saying. Think about it: What’s the difference? Because I have a vagina?

And remove my success, because “Follow Your Arrow” has done insane things for me. But there’s the bigger world too. It makes me proud to go into the Harry Styles tour, or a pop plane, and know they see someone who believes people are equal and you should do what makes you happy. [It’s reassuring] that some people in country music believe that. 

Truly.
Let’s all get on the right side of history, right? There are kids all over the country who love country music with no one to look up to, which is sad. They love the music so much, but where’s the artist who looks and lives like they do?

And it’s hard for me to say, “I’m a country artist,” when what I do is so far from the radio, or what people think of as mainstream country. It gives people who know my music the wrong idea, and people who like what’s on the radio may not be prepared for what I do too. 

Well, I also think—beyond the hip-hop mash-ups that are so right now—there’s a kind of crossover that may come from Nashville that’s more organic, and possibly truer to what you do.
Capitol Pop [promotion] is starting to work “High Horse” to Hot AC. They think it fits there, and I think it could coexist on Country radio if they’d play the damn thing.

I will say this time, because the writing changed and the producers changed, I wasn’t focused on the tight regular world of Nashville. Instead, I was thinking much more universally, and it gave me room to drift. Country’s having a global moment. I was in Japan right after Saturday Night Live doing promo for the Japanese version of the album coming out July 4th, and they were all so polite, so excited and thoughtful and concerned about detail. They really love this music, which says so much. I’d always wanted to go to Japan. It was a top-of-bucket-list thing that I manifested to go do Fuji Rock. I kept asking Cindy Mabe, “Can you make this happen? Can you make this happen?” And she did. 

And you’re inventing the iconography to go with it. The mirror-disco-ball saddle is genius.
I grew up going to Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth as a kid, and they had one. I was just fascinated by it from the time I was 6. When we were talking about the creative for “High Horse” at SNL, I brought it up, because it was like my favorite thing ever. It says so many things, and it’s so true to so many things. So we did it, and now we’ve got it out on tour with Harry Styles, which is great. 

You see that kind of possibility in the past, in what country was.
Look at Buck Owens or Roger Miller; they’re both icons in my eyes. Roger Miller was known for his humor, but there was a lot of deep water under those songs, and a lot of meat on those bones. Look at all the places he went: from Broadway to Disney. To me, if you look beyond the box, the whole world is waiting—no matter what you call the music, just be true to what you’re doing.

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