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KACEY AT THE BAT
Cutting-Edge Country’s Great New Hope Delivers

Interview by Holly Gleason

Kacey Musgraves is wearing a black sleeveless jumpsuit embroidered with flowers at the waist. Her hair is back-combed into a retro free-fall tumble, eyes cat-eyed and kohled to perfect ’60s perfection. Having won Grammys, CMA and ACM awards for her folk-hard country Same Trailer, Different Park, all eyes are on the Golden, Texas-raised singer/songwriter and her wildly acclaimed new set, Pageant Material.

With her clear-eyed commentary on hypocrisy, small-town dynamics and being true to oneself, she is a refreshing—if somewhat outsider voice in today’s Nashville. She’s toured with Katy Perry, Kenny Chesney, Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss, proving the universality of true songs delivered from a place of pure intent. If “Follow Your Arrow” and “Merry Go Round” painted actual pictures of tolerance and real life, Pageant Material addresses the notion of the pace at which we live, the way we connect and, well, how we love. The album represents a giant step forward for the already acclaimed artist, who took three giant 
steps back to talk with HITS’ own pageant reject Holly Gleason.

When you went in to do this record, did you have things you wanted to do—given the success of the last record and a learning curve from being on the road?

I didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken. But I learned a lot the last few years on the road. I’ve gotten stronger as a player and singer; I know what my direction is more this time. I did want some of my new influences, and some of my old influences, to come across. Like a lot of those old records that I really, really love, like Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson, Marty Robbins, Bobby Gentry. Those records had a nice, even tone and they were recorded in a live manner, so we did that this time around. I wanted that classic live spirit to come across.

“Late to the Party” is so lush, so ’50s country, the pretty stuff.

That one was really inspired by Ronnie Milsap, a lot. There was this era of country that had a really good groove. Ronnie Milsap and Charlie Rich; I 
listened to a lot of Charlie Rich especially while making this record.

That lushness, when I think of those Bobbie Gentry records, those Patsy Cline records. It’s interesting to see you find a way to modernize them. “This Town” was…so Bobby Gentry!

It started with this idea my sister told me after going to Marfa, Texas. She went out there, hanging with a bunch of girlfriends, and she met a local. Marfa’s, mind you, two hours away from anything. So she asked her, “What’s it like to live here?” The girl said, “I’ll tell you one thing: This town’s too small to be mean.” And I just loved that. It’s so true, with small towns. If you look at Nashville as a small town, you can’t be an asshole here, or everyone’s going to know. If you stop working with someone at some point, for some reason, you’re going to end up working with them again on something else. So that rang really true to me. I just wanted it to be this kind of moody, simple, setting. And we used my grandmother’s voice on the track. She passed away like a year and a half ago.

That was perfect color. Do you remember her telling that story?

One of the things we always liked to do with her was get her going on her stories about work. She always worked in an ER as a nurse, always, as long as I can remember. She was a really tough woman. So she always had the craziest stories. She was just telling the story, and I hit record on my phone. I thought,” I might want to hear this someday.” I didn’t even have a reason or a thought behind it, other than this is a good story. She didn’t know she was being recorded, she never knew. Then after the song was tracked, I really wanted some kind of vibe—almost like a front porch story or like a TV on in the background. So it ended up being perfect. We called her Meemaw, by the way. That was my Meemaw. 

Has the way you write shifted?

I don’t think my writing has changed. Maybe it’s grown up a little bit. It’s coming from the same person, just one that’s seen a little bit more. But really I took the same approach with this one almost as the last one: I wanted the songs to represent where my head was. Just my perspective, nothing preachy, just this is what’s made an impression on me.

You feel more in possession of your truth. Not preachy, but when you’re saying things, I think you’re stronger. This is a very sweet record. It’s funny, it’s direct and it’s clever, so you can land the truth without kneeing someone in the balls.

That’s where songs like “Late to the Party” and “Miserable” come into play. Because I do feel I have a lot more sides than just the “Follow Your Arrow” 
girl, or the girl who has an opinion. I want you to listen to this record as a 
whole and see all sides of it. I do have a little bit of a rebellious side. But there are some sweet moments on here that I haven’t really had before that I really love. Those help soften those other moments, you know?

“High Time” reminds me so much of Merle Haggard circa Big City.

I thought that was a fun way to kick off the record. “High Time” starts with just a breath, and it goes [inhales], “It’s high time…” Then it immediately kicks into this kind of Mexican country world. I just think it’s a fun tone to set the whole record on. And it’s also saying—everyone takes that song as an innuendo, which I’m not going to say there’s not any in there—but the point of the song is that it’s saying it’s high time to get back to my roots, putting my phone down, connecting with who I am and who I was: [singing] “It’s a fine time to let it all go.” I’ve been too low, so it’s high time.

Are you more of a melody-driven or lyric-driven writer?

Typically I’m more of a lyrical person. But I love a good melody; I’m a sucker for a good melody. It’s just easier for me to figure out what I want to say, then figure out how it’s going to feel. But I’ve had instances where I’m just playing the guitar randomly. These days I don’t have a lot of time to just pick up the guitar and play. But whenever I do, and I’m just strumming along and I find something I like, then I go “Ooh, what would the words say with this?”

Is that by design or just the way your brain fires?

I really enjoy a little turn of direction, a little bit of an adventure hook. There’s something really fun in that for me. That being said, “Late to the Party” I don’t think does that. There are some that just don’t. That’s why I think it’s important to have songs that are straightforward, because you can’t just be beat over the head by a turn of phrase all the time. But I do really like that. I think it’s the fan of John Prine in me that really, really loves that.

 

There’s a media slant that just wants to pitch you against the world: Kacey vs. the radio, Kacey vs the record company, Kacey vs. this or that. But really, you’re a Texas girl who’s not going to sit down about something that’s wrong, but I think you’re a very live-and-let-live person.

I think it’s really funny that there is always an angle to something. The people who know me know I’m not looking to get on my soapbox. Of course I’m opinionated. I’m a Leo and I’m a Texan, so do the math. There are so many opinions flying, and so many people’s ideas of reality—and all these factors add up to people not really getting to see the real you. Sometimes that’s a bit of a frustration. I try to be a positive person; I love love and I love music. That’s why I’m here—that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s about the songs, and unfortunately there are some pieces of the puzzle that get placed before others.

It’s also just about agenda.

Like we were saying earlier, the media really believes humans thrive on drama. I really think humans are tired of drama, but we just keep getting fed it. I don’t have enemies, I like people doing what they’re doing, me doing mine. It’s ridiculous. It so quickly gets turned away from the music. You just really have to watch it, you know?

What was the experience of touring with Katy Perry like?

Incredible! I mean, so fun. It was a sparkly, glittery, just fantastic time. I really enjoyed getting to see a different side of music that I don’t normally get to see. And props to her for having the balls to do something different and take somebody out that’s wildly different musically than her, and be a total champion for them. That says a lot. Then to go from being on tour with her to Willie Nelson and Allison Krauss literally within weeks. I just had to smile so big at that, and it made me feel really good about being able to cross bridges and play music, to see all these different sides of music that I normally wouldn’t get to.

 Did touring with Katy have any impact on how things played out for you? Seeing how she does it, because it’s such a different way of approaching it.

Aesthetically, visually—absolutely. We’re both super-visual people, and I really like that. We’re on different sides of the street, but we’re walking toward the same thing. And I’m sure every little piece of everything I’m doing is probably playing in my psyche somewhere.

She’s an empowerer. She doesn’t play to “I’m so hot; don’t you want to be me?”

I read something that I thought was interesting—instead of pitting girls against you and trying to be the only one, girls are stronger in numbers. So naturally, you look better if you have powerful friends. It’s not a threat to you, you know?

Do you feel like you’re a voice of empowerment for young women?

Maybe, because I’m a young female who speaks her mind; that might empower someone, maybe not the specific ideas, although those might, too. I had a journalist the other day say. “Why are you such a feminist?” and I was like, “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist.” I’m not standing up for just women. I think there are some double standards that really get on my nerves, but I’m just… we’re all… I’m writing from the perspective of a 26-year-old figuring out how to live. We’re all figuring it out together. We all experience the same thing.

You’ve always blazed your own trail, done things differently. Does that give you freedom to protect your music?

Because I’ve always been able to create freely and be who I want to be; I’ve never faltered, for any reason. I haven’t painted myself into a corner. A lot of plans for artists and new music are to put out your more watered-down, your more widespread message first, and get crazy later. Show them who you really are later. I’m just really thankful I didn’t have to go that route. I think it allowed people to see who I am from Day One, and to know they’re either going to like it or not.

 In “Pageant Material,” you say, “I’d rather lose as I am than pretend to be somebody else.”

Yeah, I’d rather go down in burning flames for the person I am than win a crown and wear a sash for something I don’t like.

 It makes it OK to not want to be that too. We have this culture where there’s so much pressure on girls to be sexually forward, to dress a certain way, to be perfect.

Yes, to look perfect, and give the right answers, and not be weird, and hide your emotions. Denial of self. It’s very much expected.

 The song with Willie speaks to that. “Look around you” is a pretty cautionary opening line. How do you see him cast in that song?

He’s this wise, wonderful, weathered voice that comes in, the voice everyone knows and loves. You hear his guitar playing before his singing, you hear Trigger and you know a storm is brewing. A Willie Nelson storm is brewing, and he’s about to pop out! I loved saving it for a surprise—the last thing someone hears on the record. It came about really organically with him. It was a really obscure song I’d never heard him play, and I brought it up one day. He seemingly pulled a guitar out of literally nowhere. We kind of worked it up, and it fell together. It was just crazy.

You didn’t write that?

No, it’s an old song of his, a really old one. It’s on one of his first records, from when you didn’t even know who he was and the character he is today. But he never sings or plays it. I randomly heard it on YouTube, just a version with him and his guitar, and I was like, holy fuck—this is two minutes and 14 seconds of the realest shit that you’ve ever heard.

One of the things that makes you great, is that you’re not afraid to reference drug use. Do you think that to have an honest representation of life, that it’s all got to go in there?

I wouldn’t be authentic if I didn’t—or my message wouldn’t be—if I wasn’t honest about the things that make me me. A lot of people pull that out of my songs and use it, either for or against me, but it’s not a whole lot different than people singing about moonshine. To each their own. I think everything in moderation. I don’t have anything to hide, that’s the thing. That’s one small fraction of what life is, you know? It’s a very small part of the human experience. And for a genre that’s built on being very real and very forthcoming about all kinds of things, I think it’s important to include everything. •

 

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