Kacey Musgraves Is A Wild Thing
The country star talks Sheryl Crow, Selena, and her gorgeous new Golden Hour
The first thing I notice when I walk into Kacey Musgraves’ hotel room is a pair of heeled metallic boots. It feels like the perfect welcome. Like country divas before her, Musgraves is known for rocking rhinestones and all things sparkly, and though her new look has gotten definitively more space-aged on her Golden Hour promotion kick, the way Musgraves turns out onstage hasn’t changed. She’s still everyone’s favorite dimestore cowgirl, the reigning queen of country misfits who likes what she likes and follows her own muse.
Musgraves herself is standing right around the corner, dressed in a white terry-cloth robe. She just got her hair and makeup done for a photoshoot, but she comes over and hugs me in spite of that. I make sure not to lean into her for fear of fucking everything up, but I want to. Badly. Musgraves made one of the best albums of 2018 so far, and who wouldn’t want to bear-hug someone that brought such a joyful and fun piece of music into the world? (For the record, she also hugged me when I left because she is Extremely Nice.)
There are a lot of albums out there about love, but Golden Hour is Musgraves’ very first. She wrote the bulk of it after falling for her now-husband Ruston Kelly, a musician and songwriter whom she met out in Nashville at a songwriters night. His music, she says, reminded her of John Prine. For a songwriter who built her name on witticism and cheeky turns-of-phrase, Musgraves found that her entire worldview shifted when she discovered what it felt like to find a forever partner. The result is a collection of songs that bottle up some of that bliss, and Musgraves doesn’t shy away from sounding wide-eyed and uncynical. To her, this newfound feeling is like some kind of magic. As one of the album’s finest songs puts it plainly: “Love is a wild thing.”
Musgraves is a bit of a wild thing herself. She made her name poking fun at Nashville gatekeepers on songs like “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” and she never hesitates when discussing her love of marijuana. (A framed “fatty” joint Willie Nelson once rolled for her hangs in her Nashville home.) In the press release for this new album, Musgraves explicitly states that she wrote the short, heart-stopping song “Mother” after she received a text from her mom while she was on acid. Her fanbase extends beyond typical Nashville folks, too. Indie blogs (like this one) love her, and with her embrace of campy aesthetics and an inclusive attitude she boasts an ever-widening circle of queer fans. Musgraves’ songs span all kinds of topics, but if you were to choose one theme that always stands out in her music, it’s that being yourself will carry you further than you know.
The material fueling Golden Hour isn’t all that’s new. After working on her breakout Same Trailer, Different Park and follow-up slam Pageant Material with Shane McAnally and Luke Laird, Musgraves opted to change it up and work with new people on Golden Hour. She brought friends Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian into the studio, and together they recorded the vocoder-laced “Oh, What A World,” which sounds-off to Daft Punk while simultaneously maintaining some of Musgraves’ traditional influences. Other songs that seem like huge departures — “High Horse” and “Space Cowboy” — integrate distinctly country instrumentation with production that sounds unlike anything Musgraves has worked with before. Pedal steel, banjo, slide guitar, and Musgraves’ Texan twang keep Golden Hour rooted in, well, her roots, as much as it shows off the breadth of her ambition.
Throughout the course of our conversation, Musgraves recounted a day spent horseback-riding with Sheryl Crow, revealed some of her major influences, and told me a bit about her grandma. She’s been doing press for Golden Hour non-stop, it seems, but she answered my questions with candor and a lot of laughter. Read our Q&A below.
STEREOGUM: Golden Hour is almost out — how does it feel?
MUSGRAVES: It’s about to be a little nutty, but it’s all good ‘cause I’m just really excited and ready for the songs to finally come out. But I was thinking about it last night and I was like, “Man, there’s kind of a sadness attached to releasing a project.” I guess, the finality of it, being like, “Well, there’s nothing left to do on this.” You know, you spend a year, a year and a half making it and making memories and hanging out with the people you made it with, and, well, then it’s over. Obviously it’s more happy than sad, but it’s just like, “Oh man, it’s crazy, that came and went really fast.”
STEREOGUM: What are some of your favorite memories attached to making the album?
MUSGRAVES: Well, first of all, we recorded it out at Sheryl Crow’s place right outside of Nashville. It’s on like 55 acres and it’s really wooded and really beautiful. There’s an old church on the property, but the recording studio itself is this amazing studio with the best gear imaginable like all this sick, vintage gear. And then below the studio is this horse stable and so it’s just like these beautiful horses are there when you wanna pop outside and take a break, get out of the studio for a minute, you can go ride. I got to ride with Sheryl one morning before recording and that was really fun. We went through all these beautiful trails and there’s a river on her property. It was just like unbelievable. It was also hot as balls. It was literally 110-degrees that day or something. I was sweating my ass off, but it was the most fun way to start a recording day. I never had a studio experience that was so compounded with nature, you know? So it made for this really zen environment to record in. And I love horses, so it was just like, a happy place.
STEREOGUM: You have a horse now, right?
MUSGRAVES: I do, yeah. I mean, I haven’t seen him in a long time at this point, or in a while. But I ride whenever I can and it’s like a soul cleanse when I go out there and just put my phone down and get my hands dirty and work with him. I don’t know, it’s the best thing ever, I love it.
STEREOGUM: It’s great that you brought up Sheryl Crow right away ‘cause I just rewatched the video of you performing with her in Nashville.
MUSGRAVES: Oh my gosh, that was so much fun.
STEREOGUM: I recently wrote a piece about “If It Makes You Happy” and why artists are still covering it so many years later.
MUSGRAVES: It’s so good. It’s such a classic song. I feel like her stuff will stand the test of time, you know? ‘Cause I mean, it wasn’t made to be trendy at the moment, it was just good classic songs and, I don’t know, those always last, you know? But she’s a badass. She’s like the quintessential original badass woman, like guitar-slinger, mom, you know, super fit and cute. I don’t know, she was just really cool to us during the process.
STEREOGUM: It makes me happy that you guys hung out.
MUSGRAVES: I know and she would stop by and have a beer with us. She’s got Guinness on tap there at the studio and she would just come have a beer. One night we ended up talking about reincarnation and it just got super heady and I don’t know, it was just really fun. Otherwise, I mean I made the album with two really good friends of mine and we just laughed our asses off through the whole thing. Just made some really incredible memories. But also, I would say the bulk of the inspiration came from meeting my now-husband. Listening to the songs brings back a lot of memories of meeting him for the first time, just kinda setting off on that journey that kinda really changed my life.
STEREOGUM: When the two of you met, you had a songwriting session. I was wondering if any of those songs you worked on are potentially going to see release?
MUSGRAVES: Maybe. Well, there is one thing in particular that I’m really excited for people to hear and it was actually our first project as a married couple, which is pretty insane. Well, I mean, we started I guess before we were married, but it’s for this Johnny Cash project that’s gonna come out. Johnny’s son, John Carter, is putting this project together, or he put this project together, and it’s like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, like tons of people that are just kinda all over the map. He found a bunch of his dad’s unreleased poems, lyrics, and drawings and stuff and he called on a bunch of different artists to put music to these poems that have never been heard.
And so, he asked Rusty and I if we would do that and there’s this poem that Johnny wrote June in 1970 when she was like eight months pregnant with their son and it’s just the sweetest poem and it’s like a side of Johnny I feel like you don’t really hear of that much or get to see. It’s just a really tender, sweet thought to June. Rusty and I put music to that and then we recorded it and filmed a video for it out at Johnny and June’s cabin outside of Nashville.
It just felt like sacred ground, you know? His son was there, all their belongings were there. Rusty played Johnny’s guitar on the recording. I don’t know, it was really special … John was like crying during us recording it and he was like, “I think my parents would be so proud of this.” Anyway, that comes out 4/6. The video’s amazing. Willie and Kris Kristofferson are in the beginning of it and then Rusty and I have our little moment and it’s in black-and-white. It’s really sweet. I’m proud of that.
STEREOGUM: I feel like with this new album you’re definitely opening yourself up to a lot of new fans and many of them might be like, “I don’t normally like country music, but I like this music.” What are some country artists that you would tell people who love your music to listen to?
MUSGRAVES: Oh, well, obviously Dolly Parton. She’s the queen — queen of sparkle and intelligent lyrics. I love that she’s the perfect combo of sex appeal and humor and intelligence, all in one. Like yeah, she was a beautiful woman with huge boobs and was kind of a cartoon of herself, but she also was super witty and really intelligent and wrote everything and played all these instruments. I don’t know, I just love her so much and she wasn’t afraid to just look how she wanted to look and just be herself. So her, Loretta Lynn — she was banned from radio stations at one point because she was writing songs about birth control and things that were kind of taboo at the time. Obviously Willie. I’m a big fan of Glen Campbell. I love John Prine. He’s kind of an outlier, a little bit — you know, right outside of country music — but he kinda fits in there. But, yeah, Dolly’s a huge inspiration, especially for this album. But I love all different kinds of music though, not just country, so it was really fun for me to kind of forge ahead and explore some of those things and infuse some of those on this record.
STEREOGUM: What was some of the stuff you were listening to that got you excited and moving?
MUSGRAVES: Yeah, well I was on a giant Bee Gees kick going into this record, I could not quit. And I think that through osmosis that kind of seeped in and I was like, “Wait a minute, OK, a Bee Gees-country mashup or a world where the Bee Gees meets country would be so sick.” And also I love Sade, I grew up listening to her. I was kinda thinking, “Man what would it sound like if Sade made a country album?” There has to be a world where sonically, this can all make sense, you know? It was also important for me to not lose the my spirit or my character through everything. Like I didn’t want people to just be like, “Oh, third record, she’s just gone fucking crazy, off the rails here, who is this?” So I wanted a vein of familiarity that people have come to know about my music, but I definitely wanted to play with some other realms within that. And songwriting-wise, I’ve always been really focused on turn-of-phrase and wit, you know, and I love that kind of songwriting. But I think at a certain point, it can kinda wear people out. Like, we get it, you can turn a phrase and not everything has to be wrapped up in a lyrical bow, so to speak. With this record it was really important for me just to play with getting kind of more an aerial view of the lyrics and not getting my magnifying glass out for each thing. Just kind of using a different color or different shade writing wise. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.
STEREOGUM: I noticed there’s a lyric on “Slow Burn” that was also used in an earlier song of yours, “Burn One With John Prine,” and I was wondering how that ended up happening and why you chose to recycle the line, “Grandma cried when I pierced my nose.”
MUSGRAVES: Well, I never really did anything with that song “John Prine,” or “Burn One With John Prine,” whatever you wanna call it. And I always loved it and I always liked what it said ‘cause it really is true: My grandma did cry when I pierced my nose. I guess it could live in both songs, I mean, I’m the one who made it up so I was like, “I can borrow from myself,” you know? “Slow Burn” is the song that starts the record off and I feel like it’s kinda one of my most autobiographical songs. It’s describing a lot of things about me and my mindset. It just seemed to really fit. But also, like I said, I wasn’t trying to be too discerning about the lyrics this time around, so I just grabbed it from that song and ran with it. I was like, “Some people might notice, and maybe they’ll think it’s kinda cool, or no one will have heard that other song anyway.”
STEREOGUM: That line stood out to me when I first heard “Slow Burn” and it made think, “I wonder how Kacey reacted when grandma cried when she pierced her nose.”
MUSGRAVES: Oh, I was like, “Really?” [Laughs]
She’s such a trip. She came the other day to the listening party and this lady, she was like my booking agent when I was like 12. She was like at the ready to give anyone a CD and try to get everyone to book me for their event, but weirdly, it worked most of the time. But she is just funny. After all these years, I’m almost 30 years old, and she still has such a giant issue that I cuss a lot. And I’m like, “This is not a new fact, like you’ve known this for many years now,” and she just shudders every time I say anything, she’s just like, “Kacey.” She was so mad the other day at the listening party that I threw some cuss words in there and I’m like, “Nana, we all know there’s an F-word in there waiting to come out inside of you,” and it hasn’t come out yet.
STEREOGUM: She’s not gonna let it out.
MUSGRAVES: Oh, no. Like she’s literally never said it, apparently. She’ll say like, “Darn!” Or if she’s really mad, she’ll say, “Shit,” but it takes a lot for her to say that. And I’m like, “Damn, how do you have that much restraint? It feels good for me to cuss, like I don’t know about anyone else.”
STEREOGUM: That’s so funny because I feel like so much of your music denies restraint.
MUSGRAVES: I remember when “Follow Your Arrow” came out and she was real embarrassed that it talked about weed and things like that. She lives in a small town in Texas and she was like, “My friends just couldn’t believe that you put that in there.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t make music for your friends, I’m sorry to tell ya.”
But it’s cute, I mean I like that my family still has their opinions, you know? But I’m still gonna do whatever I wanna do.
STEREOGUM: You worked with new writers on this album. Who would be your dream collaborator, if you could work with anyone?
MUSGRAVES: I think if Selena came back from the dead, that would be my pick. I’m from Texas, she’s from Texas. I really respect Mexican culture and I love traditional mariachi music and I love that she infused the classic parts of her culture with a pop sensibility. Plus, she had a killer fashion sense, so I think that would be my pick … It’s such a shame she’s not here. I mean, it’s crazy that she was only 24. She made a huge impact on music and oh my god, she would be fucking giant if she were still here. And she had a fashion line. She had stores across Texas, she was doing some cool shit.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of icons … I know you’re a fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race and I was wondering if anyone’s reached out to you about hosting yet?
MUSGRAVES: They have. [Laughs] Well, I was actually supposed to do it a couple years ago and there was just no way that I could make it work, but I’ve been dying to do that ever since. I mean, I love drag so much. Like I’m pretty sure that there’s a little drag queen somewhere inside of me or that in a past life I was a gay man, or maybe I am a gay man, I don’t know. [Laughs] But yeah, I mean, it would be so much fun. But you step into a situation like that and I would probably feel like the basic one there, you know what I mean? Like I need to step my game up to go on that show.
STEREOGUM: You play around with the way you present during performances and with each album, you have kind of a different vibe going. How would you describe the Golden Hour look?
MUSGRAVES: That’s a good question. I mean, it was important for the band’s style as well as mine to kind of evolve this time around. I think my hair is smaller, that’s one. I’ve kind of turned my inspiration a little bit away from the kitschy western wear that I was wearing with the last album specifically, even though I love that so much and it’s been cool to see it kind of have a bit of a comeback in popularity. Like fringe, rhinestones, all that, like I still love it so much and my heart is still western. I grew up wearing all that stuff and singing all those old school country songs, but I don’t know, I guess this is more of a polished, minimalist take on that I guess, just not as western. Lots of sequins and lots of rhinestones still, I probably won’t ever get rid of that. I don’t know, Cher’s a big style icon to me. I love her. If I can just get my abs lookin’ like hers … that would be the goal. But no, that long, straight hair, and, I don’t know, just kinda that disco vibe, it’s inspiring to me.
STEREOGUM: The full body, sequined suits are so fun.
MUSGRAVES: Yeah, so good! I like wide pants and oh! I’m really inspired by like a monochromatic, tonal palette. Like the band has all powder blue, or dusty blue suits and the shirts match and a lot of the time I’m wearing the same color, so we come in full force, all in the same tonal palette. I don’t know, there’s something that I really like, when everything is in the same color. I don’t know why, that just appeals to me. I’ve never really been inspired by that before, but I love head-to-toe one color. It’s so cute.
It’s important for the band to have a look, too, ‘cause I feel like a lot of times the star is out front trying to look so cool, and the band is kind of in the shadows like hidden back here with not a lot of style going on and I don’t know, they’re just as important as me up there. If we come in as a force all together, it’s more commanding and it’s like, “This is a show you’re watching,” you know? I mean for a long time, the band wore light-up western suits that literally had LED lights all inside of them. So I’ve always liked for the band to have their thing, you know?
STEREOGUM: Since Golden Hour tells a love story, I wanted to ask you one specific question before I leave: What song did you choose for the first dance at your wedding?
MUSGRAVES: Aw. For Rusty and I? Oh yeah, well, duh, I was like, “Well I danced with my dad also.” [Laughs]
Rusty and I danced to this song called “Two For The Road” and it’s a classic song. I never know how to say his last name, Henry Mancini? Yeah, Mancini. He had like an orchestra and this song is so nostalgic and special. Rusty proposed to me and this song was playing in the background and it’s like the sweetest sentiment in a song. It says, “If you’re feeling fancy free, come wander through the world with me.” It’s basically saying, “Come along, let’s go on a life adventure together,” but it sounds just straight out of 1959 or something. I don’t know, you have to listen to it. It instantly makes me want to cry like every time I hear it. It’s just special.
STEREOGUM: It kinda blows your mind a little bit?
MUSGRAVES: It’s really a random song, I don’t think many people know it, but yeah it’s called “Two For The Road” and he had it engraved inside my ring. It says “Two For The Road.” And it’s like, “We’ll be fine on our adventures, you know, let’s just me and you collect memories and souvenirs as we go through time together.” It’s just really fucking sweet.
STEREOGUM: The vibe of your new album is extremely optimistic and hopeful about the way love can open people up to new experiences.
MUSGRAVES: It is and it’s the first time I’ve really ever had that perspective, truly, so it felt really good to share. It just feels like kinda a crazy time in our society and everything is so inflamed … it’s just kinda scary. I mean, there’s something crazy happening every single day and as tumultuous as that is and easy to focus on, I refuse to let it dictate what I wanna sing about and what I wanna write about. So I kind of went the opposite direction, I guess, and tried to focus on the beautiful parts of the earth and my relationships and life, instead of being a social commentator on all the crazy shit that’s going on now — which I feel like people could expect from me with having done “Merry Go ‘Round” or “Follow Your Arrow,” you know? But I just feel like everyone needs an escape from it, a little bit.
Golden Hour is out 3/30 via MCA Nashville. Stream it at NPR.