Interview by Holly Gleason
Part 1 of 2

When Miranda Lambert dropped the needle on her vinyl-hissing single “Vice,” she didn’t just send a message—she was working to her own rhythm. At that pivotal moment, she took ownership of the same unrepentant rogue lifestyle that’s been embraced by Keith Richards, Steve Earle and countless other male icons. Generally a reality eschewed by “nice girls,” Lambert has always been one to lean into the realm of how women actually are. Waist-deep in a tabloid-fodder divorce, she opted to not do the glossy-magazine perp walk but instead let her double album The Weight of These Wings, released in November 2016, do the talking.

Wings spoke to the masses—certified platinum the following July, it’s still selling. It also spoke to the industry, drawing Album of the Year (or Best Country Album) nominations from the CMAs, ACMs and Grammys, while the co-writes “Vice” and “Tin Man” received Song and Single noms. What’s more, Lambert has continued to headline, something few women in country can do, and she’s embarked on a third Pistol Annies project in the glow of Wings’ critical acclaim.

With society ever-pressuring women to “be nice,” “be quiet” and “be pretty,” Lambert—who skewered the stereotype with catty precision on “Only Prettier,” “White Liar” and “Mama’s Broken Heart”—hasn’t been a straight-up middle finger to feminine dynamics. But with Wings, she assessed the cost of celebrity, fame, faded love, broken hearts and the kinds of urges the rest of us mere mortals battle daily. She’s more vulnerable than people imagine, her truest love is music and there’s no price too high for doing the right thing by her songs.

At a time when people aren’t buying albums, she weighed out her pain in three- and four-minute increments, grieved in public, owned her mistakes—and stopped talking. With the incredible success of what interviewer Holly Gleason describes as “a very porous record,” Lambert goes deep in her first interview ever for an album that was released what seems like a lifetime ago.

It’s a weird time, with all this growth and people rushing into Nashville. But I find that a lot of younger people, even with decent jobs, aren’t good communicators.
I think it’s the phones. There’s always something to catch you and correct you. Even the spelling, there’s always an aid to finish your sentence or do your spelling for you.

Yes, but people still need to be able to communicate, to tell you what’s going on.
I try to do that every day. I’m still trying to figure it out.

This morning I listened to every one of your records in order to really track your growth. I remember when [then Sony Music Nashville A&R exec] Tracy Gershon was trying to sign you; then trying to get you airplay; then trying to get you #1s—and how true you stayed through all of it.
Well, thank you.

But you did it. And whether it was your voice or your writing, when you started you went from being a kid with swagger to a grown- up. I was talking to Frank [Liddell, her producer] when Platinum came out, and I said, “Well, she’s made her superstar album—and a lot comes with that. It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.” And it’s interesting to see how Weight of These Wings shifted, be- cause I don’t think any of your records feels like the next obvious step.
[laughter] I literally don’t have a plan… every time. The only plan I had for Platinum was I wanted everyone to know it was coming out. I needed to get to another level. I remember I told [manager] Marion [Kraft] that I needed to up my visibility on this record.

I don’t know why I felt that way. Maybe it was the phase in my life where the tabloids came into play. The Hollywood part of my life, but really my husband’s life at that time. And I remember thinking, “If we can focus on the music, the light’ll take the focus off all this other shit that doesn’t matter.”

I remember telling Marion that I’m willing to do whatever publicity I have to do. Because I’m pretty private. It’s not my fave, the glam and cameras. It’s my least favorite part of the business. But that record, particularly, I did a two-day photo shoot, just because it’s part of getting people to listen. I wanted people to hear my messages.

You’ve navigated that stuff as well as anyone who’s focused on being an artist and not an entertainer or celebrity.
It’s a huge difference. It’s not even in the same world. Not that any one of us works any harder, but being an artist or a writer is a very different life to live. In my opinion.

They have different hazards. You are really private. One of the things that is really ironic is you’ve done a really good job keeping your private life private.
I try, but it’s not up to me. With social media, it’s a whole other thing. And it’s such bull-shit. I’m thankful for the drama of it all, because it gets sillier and sillier. They make up so many lies, no one can know the truth. The truth is it’s in my music if you listen close enough.

For a girl who’s reticent, who goes out of her way to not be on display, I thought when this record came out: “This is a brave freaking girl.” Because a lot of people would’ve dived under the couch, and said, “Bring me some songs.” But you didn’t; you kept going back to the well. Was your process any different?
I took my time more than ever. I did it in a hidden little place in East Nashville, so I could take my time. I moved back here during all of that. Because cheaper than therapy is my front porch with wine and all my friends who are songwriters. I took all of that and used it five days a week.

Having not lived here, I didn’t have that sort of access to writing with writers living in Oklahoma or being on the road. Normally, I’d rush in for five days, trying to write for my record—just write as much as I can. Living here, I had six months to sit with myself and try to put it on paper. Whatever mood I’m in, try to go there with me.

You really did too.
Whatever mood I’m in, go there with me. I’ll show up, and it’s either a rainbow or a cooler full of some numbing substance. Whatever day it was, it was a different emotion. And they never knew what it was going to be.

Yes, you really did cover some ground emotionally. It’s uncanny how far you went. And you never dumbed down, or cheaped out either.
It gives me chills when you say that, because I’ve been in rooms where that’s happened. But through this journey of The Weight of These Wings record, I didn’t really write with somebody new. I was too vulnerable already and didn’t want to walk into a room with a stranger.

I didn’t really know Josh Osborne, but I knew Shane [MacAnally]. So “Vice” was one of those days, I came in with a little rollie cooler and said, “Here’s what we’re doing.” Another mood would be sitting on the front porch with Liz Rose and Natalie [Hemby] writing “Keeper of the Flame.”

Nobody was afraid of the emotion of it. Or if they were, they didn’t tell me. I felt like they were almost encouraging me. They could use me to be honest themselves, because I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to say whatever I need to say so people understand. I’m hoping my story’s their story, because everybody’s had shit in their lives.

I’m just thankful I get a voice to speak about it. It’s unpleasant, believe me. It’s un-pleasant for me sometimes to write it down and sing it into my phone. Oh, I hurt myself, you know, and I’m glad I did, because I hope it hurts somebody else too. It lets it out.

People feel less alone. Sad songs set you free. They get you on with your life. Do people come up and tell you their stories?
That’s the only reason I fight with my pencil. People come up to me, and tell me, “This song helped through a time…,” “That song saved my life.” It’s funny. The first time someone told me that, I was—like you said—still a kid with swagger. Because as you get older, you hear music differently, your own and other people’s.

“Love’s Looking for You,” from my first record, is like that. I was 19 years old, and I listen to that now, and I hear, “Maybe I was writing that to myself this whole time, and I didn’t realize it.”

You also grew up in bars. You’re smart, and you’re a PI’s kid. You’re gonna see everything and absorb it, even if you don’t completely get it.
That’s the only place you have to get material. You haven’t done anything yet. But your parents’ stories of PI work. Your dad going in the middle of the night to pick up one of your friends’ moms at midnight ’cause the dad beat the shit out of her. That’s real. “Gun Powder and Lead” was—and is—real to me. You just sort of scream real loud when you’re young to get your point across. Then you learn; you kind of slide your point across to get it in there.

When was the first time you felt people were listening?
I’d say Revolution. “House That Built Me.” That song so impacted me when I heard it, I cried for hours. That’s why it’s the song that it is. Everybody feels that, or wishes they had that. But it was a ballad. It wasn’t feisty, and it didn’t have a gun in it. I didn’t write it, but I wish I did, because it had so much truth in it. That was the first record where I felt like I was starting to catch on. That record had “White Liar” on it, and it was my first #1. I felt like I had to fight tooth and nail to get it. I remember staying up to six in the morning to see if we got it, because I really needed it. It was my third record; I’d been on tours. It was just time for something good to happen to push me a little further in my career.

It was that important to you.
At the time, because I thought: if I don’t get this now, I probably won’t get it. That to me was the first real record where I was coming into my own, having some life under my belt.

Back then, it was important to have that credibility. Now it’s completely different.

Do you mean credibility or validation?
I think I had them confused back then. To my young mind, I thought, “This gives me credibility,” when it was validation. But, it was for my whole team too. We were working 250 dates a year with hardly any radio play, So, it helped a lot with ticket sales, visibility, people hearing you. Now it’s kind of the opposite. Everything’s out there.

That’s the double irony of “Famous in a Small Town,” which was so true when you put it out. But now, everybody’s famous; it’s just what are you famous for?
That’s my favorite question! You can’t get any new information, because it’s all out there. You know, I see my friends, but it’s all on Facebook. So you say, “What are you doing?” but you already know. It’s why I don’t put everything out there. I wanna have a conversation, hear about it, have real face-to-face conversations—and be interesting.

I use it as a smokescreen. People think they know, but they don’t. Lots of shoes, lots of pictures of people with my book. And then there’s real life… and that’s mine.
I took three months off all socials in 2015. I loved it. I realized I wasn’t picking up my phone looking at Twitter and Instagram. I wasn’t learning anything, wasn’t learning any what or why. I read Willie Nelson’s It’s a Long Story, and poetry. I wrote 75 songs in six months because I wasn’t using my mind staring at mindless shit.

I took a week off [social media] a little while ago, and it felt so good. But you have to use it for work. I don’t want all my posts to be about promoting something. I do want to let people in on my regular life too; I’m just not very good at it. It makes me nervous, ’cause I’m private. I want to have some mystery, and I want people I’m fans of to have mystery too. But I just read and wrote so much more when I wasn’t staring. Sitting in a bar by myself, listening to conversations around me, that’s where you can find interesting things, not staring at Instagram. Somebody said to me once, “Stop comparing your behind-the-scenes to everybody else’s highlights. It’s not fair.” It’s pretty simple, but it resonated with me.

I think that’s really true, but it’s also really false. You’ve seen me in catering face down in a computer enough to know that all I do is work. But somebody has to tell the story. The fact that you’re sitting in a bar alone, listening, is you respecting the story.
I feel sometimes when I’m not at work, I need to get a job, I rattle around, fighting words in my head. 2015 pushed me into a writing mode I’ve never been in before. It’s very humbling to be hurt, and I have to be honest. My fans expect that from me. I expect that from people, from John Prine. He delivers.

As a writer, something will dangle in front of you, and you’re like, “I don’t have a pencil” or “I’m kind of busy right now.” But you sit down anyway. The other night, it was kind of late, and I’d had too much wine—just this flood came out, then it stopped. I was so furious, I broke all my favorite pencils. I was like, “Why did this happen?” But now it’s looming, and I can feel it. It’s pushing me—to be better, to listen. This song, this idea, they’re out there.

I feel like I’m finally coming into my own as a writer, to really be where I want to be with it. I think it comes with life and time. Having the first 12 years of my career being really balls-to-the-wall, work, work, work, get to the goal, get to the next goal. You reach a place where you have to slow down; you have to breathe and look.

It also makes me a little weirder. I can feel myself getting a little reclusive or a little spacey. It comes to me in waves. You feel it start to come, this bubbling up but it’s not here yet. It wants to come out, but you don’t even know what it is.

All that being said, I still love great songwriters. Finding songs where you go, “Damn it, I wish I wrote that,” that’s the greatest feeling in the world. I cut a lot of outside songs, and I have a new appreciation for that too. Take “Priscilla” [from Platinum]. Man, I never would’ve thought of that, but I need that in my life.

This may sound bougie, but I think you cultivate a salon of songwriters. It seems many of your friends are the writers, and they’re often more interesting because they do see the world in different ways. The conversations are always better. I remember a bunch of years ago, being over at Guy Clark’s house. You and your dad had been over there, writing, and he said, “She’s a little firecracker, and I hope she blows up the right tubes at Country radio.”
I’ve never heard that before. Thank you for telling me. I was terrified by him and in awe of him. Don’t you love that feeling? If you don’t have that, you’ve lost something important.

I think awe is what makes us tingle. Those are the moments you don’t see coming, but they’re the ones that matter. Like this record, you didn’t plan on making a double album.
Why would anyone plan on something like that these days? [laughs] We did a lot of pre-production, a lot of just going in with a guitar and messing around. It gave me that room to breathe, to walk in, in whatever mood, with the list of 10 songs I’d written over the last two weeks. You know, “How are we feeling today?” and using that.

Being so comfortable with Frank helps. He’s been on every step of this journey, not just musically but personally. Guess that goes hand in hand. But we were in this little studio in East Nashville with Eric Massey, the co-producer, and Glen Whorf, who’s played on every record I’ve ever made. It’s really nice to not only see writers but musicians go there with you too—to use not just the songs but the emotions in the best way we could. You couldn’t walk into a session with “Running Just in Case,” and go, “OK, we got two hours.” It wasn’t like that. It’s too heavy.

One day, we all sat around outside by this fire at Eric’s for four hours. We were all so defeated, because we hadn’t been able to capture what we were after. We were just all sitting there in silence, drinking a beer like we didn’t even know ourselves. Sometimes when emotions that heavy hit you in the face, you’re not ready for it. But we went back inside, and suffered through it, and we got it. Sometimes Frank says these things; my favorite on this record was, “Hey, if it were that easy, somebody else would’ve done it.” And he’s right. So we suffered through it and got there.

That’s the other thing about Frank. He respects the process. He knows you have to get through some junk to get what you truly want. It’s some-times not about inspiration.
How you clear it, yeah.

So what shifted?
I think there was some humility in the room. It brought us back down to raw bones. Not trying so hard, not expecting ourselves to do something. We’d just given up, surrendered and given ourselves over to it. It wasn’t supposed to be big, it was supposed to be meaningful. But we had to be kicked in the nuts to get there.

And in this town, everyone has opinions.
I know. And with these songs, sometimes I’d walk in, having written it the night before. I didn’t have a vision for it to begin with, which is awesome, and really gets my adrenaline pumping. To go, “Here. I wrote this last night. What are we doing with it? What does it even mean?” because I hadn’t even lived with it yet.

That’s really brave. Did you feel really brave?
We didn’t do it every song, but you know, it doesn’t feel brave—it feels terrifying. Pistol Annies work that way a lot. You know, I’ve never been skydiving, but it’s like skydiving in a way. “Hey, we’re jumping off a bridge, guys—hope you brought a rope.”

I can see that. Plus, these songs are your actual life.
My actual life. When I made Kerosene at 20, I never was afraid, ’cause even on that record, maybe it was the second, “More Like Her,” I wrote it myself—and you can’t blame it on anybody when you do that. But I wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable. I wasn’t then, and I’m not now, but it sure feels different.

That’s my one time to be honest, my one chance, because I’m not going to put my troubles for everyone to see on social media, or interviews, or anything else. In the same breath, I’m starting to want to write more from other characters; I don’t always want to be the person in the song.

Were you the “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”?
I’m sure I was. I think I’ve dabbled in it, there and “Gunpowder.” Or maybe I found myself in the character and put myself in there. But I want to do it more. Look, a man writing “Angel from Montgomery” —I want to find how to do that.

Have you ever talked to John Prine about songwriting?
Oh, God, no. I’d pass out. Guy too. All the great heroes of songwriting of mine were honest, but they found honesty in other hearts. That’s the growing and learning, the listening. I’m working when I’m sitting at Losers [laughter]; I’m gathering information.

One of the things about John, he has a lot of empathy and a candy heart. He really wants to understand why people treat each other the way they do.
“Sam Stone”? I mean, come on! And I’m not setting that as a goal, but just starting to scratch the surface of looking more, opening my eyes even wider and gathering what’s around me. Being in conversation with people who’re strangers, having conversations with people you know and listening even more—to what’s really there.

Coming off Platinum, which was your superstar record, where you made a record that could go toe-to-toe with Carrie Underwood. Or Shania and Faith back in the day. There was a definite shift after Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and Kathy Mattea to this arena-pop aesthetic
The Pretties.

Right. They made pretty good music, but the make-up overshadowed it, the look and the form. They just put jet packs on their records. But it was interesting, because it felt like you put your flag on Mount Superstar and went, “Hi! I’m Miranda. Deal with it.”
It was a different ring; the circus was added. It became a little crazy, and I went with it.

And it went with you.

The press isn’t fair; now they’re in it to sell papers, no matter what.
And it felt like the more they wrote, the more they just made stuff up. Though, honestly, it all muddied the waters so much, you couldn’t tell what was true anymore.

That’s the Dolly Parton approach: The more they get it wrong, the more they get it right, because it doesn’t matter anymore. She was smart. She knew you can’t control it; she actually worked with them.
Before there was Madonna, there was Dolly.

Exactly. So when you decided, “Enough! I’m giving it all back to music,” was there any fear attached?
No, there was relief.

But you’ve won all these awards, you’re a headlining artist, you’re starting to have traction at radio, you’re that thing for these little girls that the Dixie Chicks were.
…for my generation. But I didn’t sign up for that. That’s a lot of pressure. I am who I am. I am honest about being flawed. That’s all I can be, you know? I cuss. I drink. I get divorced and get my heart broken. I break hearts. I can’t do or be that anymore, or it’ll drive me crazy. [laughs] I won’t be any good anymore.

More when you made the musical decisions. It was brave to be porous, brave to be real. Emmylou [Harris] went through this period when she didn’t court radio, but she made what she felt. The Ballad of Sally Rose happened, then she went back to making the solid Emmy records that people expected until Red Dirt Girl, which was a whole thing, and Wrecking Ball.
Look at my arms when you say that. Those titles give me chills.

Those records were porous, but she was despondent. She’d given up. You were having a tough time in your personal life, but you’re headlining tours, one of the few women who gets played. It wasn’t, “Well, if you’re not gonna play me…”
I felt, maybe, a different kind of fear than any other record. It was really my life’s work, and my life’s story. But there was also relief, I was thankful to let the music do what the music does—and to allow myself that.

I walked into [manager] Marion’s office, saying, “I’ve got 24 songs.” She said, “How’re you going to cut it down?” I said, “We’re not.” She said, “We’ll deal with it.” Because I needed to say things, if only for me. I’m thankful Randy [Goodman] and everyone at Sony let me do this. I know radio’s been a struggle, but I really needed to say these things.

Was it a conscious decision to strap on the jetpacks and do a double album?
Halfway. Yes, because it was becoming very male-oriented, then I was dragged into this paparazzi world, which I had never been part of, never wanted to be part of. I had established this headlining career, finally, and wanted to make sure I kept my spot, really. I’d worked really hard to get my spot, and I wanted to see how I could up my game, to make sure that I stayed at the level that I’d gotten to. I don’t know if that’s all that was going on. I started writing a little better then, for instance. Platinum I’m proud of lyrically, because it’s clever and fun. Then you fast-forward to this record, and it’s completely different. I think I’m just back to me. Fully, fully me.

It’s interesting that you make that superstar record, then this is the response. I think I actually get why you did it, but it’s very heart-on-your-sleeve—and musically, it’s very there. It’s a very porous record in a lot of ways.
That’s a great way to say it.

But porous cuts both ways. You certainly come into us, but we can also come into you. Was that your intention? To be that raw and open?
No, no. My intention was to use it as therapy, to figure this shit out. I was going through a divorce very publicly, and thank the Lord I am a writer. That meant I could find some way to deal with it, that people could say, “I get it—I’ve been there too.” And “It’s why I relate to you, because I went through the same thing.” It made me feel so alone, as much as it does anybody else. There’s fun stuff on there too. I feel like I’ve captured the seven stages of grief, but it took me 24 songs to get there.

Read Part Two of Holly's interview with Miranda here.

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