Miranda Lambert Lets Loose

Interview by Holly Gleason

Miranda Lambert didn’t throw out the playbook for her platinum double disc The Weight of These Wings. In many ways, the Texas-born-and-raised songwriter was writing for her life, trying to sort out what happened and reconcile who she was beyond the footlights. She took her time, soul-searched as necessary and wrote with unflinching candor about the wreckage real life can contain.

She maintained her sense of humor with songs comparing bad habits on “We Should Be Friends,” but she also owned her aching vulnerability on the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year “Tin Man.” It was every color of heartbreak imaginable, all delivered with Lambert’s straightforward tenor. The woman who is committed to dog rescue didn’t flinch, she put it all in her songs. Media outlets from The New Yorker to NPR and Rolling Stone to Pitchfork viewed Wings as her masterwork.

Lambert picks up the conversation with an extended gaze at her creative process, the price paid for her career, being honest to a fault, expectations, the need to feel your feelings and marveling at how far she’s come. With Pistol Annies going back into the studio, the blond bombshell is spending plenty of time with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe as the dust settles around her latest project. (See Part One here.)

You have no problem not being perfect.
In every way.

And in our society, nice girls don’t speak up. “Only Prettier,” right? But you’re putting it out there: I’m flawed, here’s how it is, like it or fuck you.
It is.

That’s really radical.
It’s good to hear you say that, because I need to hear that. I need to reiterate for myself. The most I didn’t trust all that, when I still was that person, was Platinum. But I put a little more pressure on myself on that record than I ever had; then on this album, I let all the air out of the balloon—and it felt amazing. Just, here it is, whatever it is.

You’re allowed to make art. If you win all those awards and you don’t make the records you want to make, what’s the point? Because listening back through your catalog this morning, you’ve had records that died in the teens and 20s that have far more lasting impact than a lot of #1s.
It’s happening more and more.

Does that give you any kind of a parachute? In the back of your mind, did you think, “Well, I’ve done it without Country radio before; I can—if I have to—do it again”?
Yes, but it helps. We’re in country music. Getting your records played to the world is awesome, versus people finding your record—your 24 songs—which takes two hours of their life to listen to. But it does give me a parachute. And I’ve been doing this, what? My first record came out in 2005, and I feel like I’ve earned a little leeway to do a record like this. [Producer] Frank [Liddell] always says, “It’s like I park my car in New York City, and every time I get a space, I move the car.”

You won that Merle Haggard Award. I spent time on the road with him in the ’80s, doing six pages for Spin. He was in a tough spot: the IRS had padlocked his buses with his dog on it, he was flip-flopping politically, but he remained unrepentant, because as he said, “They can take whatever things they want; they can even take the masters. But they’ll never take the music from me. They can’t change my music.”
That’s why he’s my top, my #1. Right there!

He was so clear, so very true to the music. And you have that.
I have a bit of that, but I want more of it. I’m getting more of it as I grow and get a little older in the business.

Are you surprised this record is platinum?
Kinda. Kinda with an A. I am. For one thing, in this scrolling society, or hit the seek button, I feel like that many people really took the time to listen, to pay for the music? That means a lot. It really does.

It’s a hard thing to get people to buy records now, because they just stream.
It’s been suggested to me lately, “Well, you can just release a song.” It’s like they sucked all the air out of the room, because I’m too romantic about making records. I can’t change that; I’m never gonna change that.

At indie shows, little bands sell records at the merch tables. You ask people why they buy records and they tell you the same thing: “I wanted a piece of them to keep with me.” People who care really feel that way. Ten dollars is two cups of coffee at Starbucks.
But it means the world to someone, the artist and the person who buys that CD. It’s that journey. My favorite Merle to listen to is the Down Every Road box set, which is three CDs. I’d be so sad if there was only one song I could listen to. The Brothers Osborne record is short. I want more. Maybe I’m not part of the masses; I don’t want a nugget. I grew up listening in a way that I want it all.

When did it hit you, “Oh, wow—my personal therapy barf bag is (A) gonna be a record, (B) is working, (C) is really working.”
I don’t think it’s (C) yet.

Um, I’d say being platinum and winning all those awards, it is. You got it done, and the great reviews...
It was, “Are you serious?” I don’t know how I convinced them, I really don’t. It didn’t take much, though. [Sony Music Nashville chief] Randy [Goodman] went back to the basics with me, I remember. He really listened, and went, “These are really well-written songs. This is a truth only you can tell, so we’re gonna do it.” I told him I’d do whatever I had to do to support it. Then we had another bomb when I told him I wasn’t going to talk to anyone. And I didn’t. I came into [manager] Marion [Kraft]’s office and said, “I’m not speaking to anyone until they hear this record.” That’s fair. I thought that was fair.

Did you? I don’t remember seeing any interviews. But I also think this record was compelling enough that you didn’t need to. It was all there.
Exactly. And I knew that. It was going to be hell, and I’d already been through hell. It was hell putting it on paper, putting my words on paper. So I didn’t want to rehash. I’d finally gotten to a place where I wasn’t sad anymore. All the sad moments were there, all the truths were right in those songs. All you had to do was listen. I didn’t need to say anything.

Interviewers judge, mishear, pull toward their own truths. Sometimes when you do interviews, you elevate the music. Talking to the artist, getting the narrative from them allows you to understand where the music comes from or why this is what it is.
But it wouldn’t have been that. It would’ve been taken out of context. It would’ve set up some expectation that couldn’t be met. I was very publicly going through this thing, and there wasn’t an explanation to be given.

When the music was out, people had listened, I got on the phone for the first interview. First question was, “How do you feel about Gwen?” I hung up. I told Marion, I just can’t do this.”

What was in the music was real, and I wanted people to get it from that. Take from it what they would. Then if I needed to talk, I would. But I haven’t really. Until now.

I think the golden lesson is in this anal-expulsive society of ours is this: if you listen, it’s there. And it’s easier to be honest, because it’s not going to get spun. And not to go back to the flaws, but remember Steve Earle and his song “The Unrepentant”?

You’ve basically channeled that for a whole cycle of songs. Is it hard to go there? Since you’re basically very tenderhearted.
It’s just the other side of who I am. It’s being a tomboy and wearing a dress. I have this swagger, as you’ve said—“firecracker,” “firebrand,” “little pistol”—all my career, there are these quotes. And I am that. I’m proud of it. But as I said before, I felt like the first time people really heard me was “House That Built Me.” It completely showed the other side of me. I love puppies and pink too. Going through all this life as a musician and writer, it’s both.

I think lots of people expected a revenge vibe. I’ve heard that a couple of times, but really, this is opposite of that.

It was honest. It was hurt, sad, raw. It was ‘Oh, fuck,’ whatever that is. But I can see on your face you know what I mean.

When you start to come out of it—because you have to come out of it…
Sometimes you have to wallow in it a little bit. You have to feel it.

I remember telling Frank right before I started writing, just the beginning of some turmoil… We were having drinks at the Red Door, and I remember saying. “I’m about to feel a lot. I’m ready to feel every bit of it, and I’m gonna use all of it.” And he said, “I’m in.”

I didn’t even know really what all it was gonna take to come out of it, but I was gonna feel it. And I was gonna come out alive. Hungover a lot, maybe, but I was gonna get through it. Alive and feeling like death, but it was OK. It was true.

This does sort of bring you all the way back to when you were young and innocent. It really broke all the celebrity off you.
I know. I’m so thankful you saw that. It really did, and I’ve never felt more at peace with it. I remember you saying, “Don’t feed the famous people,” and I never once in my life remember saying, “I want to be famous.” I remember saying, “I wanna be a country singer.” I remember saying, “I wanna be a songwriter.” I know I wanted to be known, but “famous” was not on my to-do list. It won’t ever be. I’m thankful to be known for music.

What about all of those awards?
When I moved to Nashville, I’d never really had a place to put anything. It was all in boxes, pretty much my entire career. So then I bought a house, and I was unloading boxes by myself late at night. I had this room, a kind of library place, where I thought, “Well, this will be nice to put all my things in.” The things I’d never really displayed, because I don’t have face plaques all over my house. If you do, that’s a whole other problem.

But I hung all the plaques on the walls and put all the awards on the shelves, and I couldn’t honestly believe it. I just felt like —for one time in my life, I saw my life’s work in front of my face. I don’t go listen to my records, or go back through and look at stuff. If you do that, you’re not gonna grow. Or get better.

I just stood there. Then I called my mom and dad on the phone, on speaker [pauses]; I said, “I can’t believe how hard I’ve worked.” All of this is amazing, but it just ran me through on the other side what I’d given up for it. It hit me in that moment. I’d never thought of it that way. I’m such a little rabbit sometimes—on to the next, on to the next. But I took a picture and sent it to my family, saying, “Thanks for doing this with me since I was 17 years old.”

My peers, the industry, artists and writers, producers who vote on those things, who believed in me enough to keep circling my name—or checking the box—they appreciated me for my work. I gave up a lot. And that’s part of it.

People have no idea.
Pretty much everything normal you can think of goes out the window. So being celebrated for that is a big deal to me. But I don’t rely on that to validate me. Early on, it’s nice to be Best New Female Vocalist, to have a #1, to be in the circle, but it’s also, you have to move your car.

I gave plaques to all the songwriters when this went platinum. We sat on stools and sang songs. Twenty-four songs, 21 writers, and I got to live through all this with friends. I wanted to celebrate this with the people who lived through it with me. I won’t say who, but one of them said it was their first piece of hardware, which is special, you know? I went to write with him in his studio after that, and the plaque was against the wall, backwards, and he says, “I hope that doesn’t offend you, but I’m struggling with where to put it, because I don’t want to focus on what I’ve done. I want to keep moving forward.” And I was like, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.” The room I told you about? I keep the doors closed 90% of the time. You can’t live with that. But it’s nice to see, and really take in all that work you’ve done.

Does that put any pressure on you?
I think it relieves it a little. I can tell myself, “Continue to be brave, continue to be you, make music for the music. You’ve already done this.”

Anything else?
Well, one thing. Pistol Annies is such a relief. Because there’s three of us, it’s such a relief in a different way. It makes me more brave, because when there’s three of us, we can say whatever we want. It teaches me why writing alone is so much more pressure, and so much harder. That right there, paper and pen, scares me to death. But I know there’s a resolve. You sit your ass in a chair, and you’re gonna wait and it’s gonna come. Deadlines are hard for us, but they’re also good. I know it.

When you know what you’re capable of, and people are looking at 70% of what you can do and saying, “This is so good,” you know, and knowing’s a bitch.
Right. Knowing is what makes it so hard. You know, and you want to get there.

So the Annies give you the freedom to totally change gears.
And it’s fun. It’s a slumber party with songwriting.

And it lets you go to your next project with everything reset. It’s pretty brilliant.

Do you ever feel trapped by the person we think you are?
Yeah, a little bit. Frank sends me texts sometimes that say, “I am so sick of people telling me what you are. Giving me these songs for you, and they don’t know anything.” They don’t mean any harm by it, but it’s frustrating to not be seen. I feel less trapped by it now, though. I just wanna be known as a good songwriter, you know? That language they use for me: “firebrand,” “firecracker,” “pistol,” whatever all that is—it’s great. But I don’t like the corners.

We need strong women. Ballbusters, truthtellers, icons, not Barbie dolls. Part of what The Weight of These Wings is is that. You’re the only one, really, and you have a whole other weight that you may not even realize you’re carrying.

You are our Kung Fu Panda. You’re the keeper of a different flame too.
I take a lot of pride in and care for that role. I don’t know how I got put there, or how I am supposed to execute going forward. But I want to do the best I can for that reason.

I want to be the Dixie Chicks for this next generation. If that’s what’s meant to be. To put it simply, I want to write and make music that moves people, to give them freedom to be who they are. I want to kick those doors open. Until I don’t have a turn anymore, I want to write and find great songs. I still listen to outside songs. I didn’t for The Weight of These Wings, but I am still inspired by outside songs.

When I finally was beaten down enough, it was [co-writers] Shane [McAnally] and Natalie [Hemby] beating me down from both sides. It was “Highway Vagabond,” and I needed it. It’s just… I’m going to leave this interview, and I’m going to do what I’ve been doing for the last six months: “I need to be writing. I need to do this.”

It’s always there, the pressure. I don’t take it lightly—I take it seriously. Maybe too seriously. But I do the work, and I am always going to do the work.

See Part One of Holly's interview with Miranda here.

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