The Story Behind Every Song On Margo Price’s New Album Strays

The Story Behind Every Song On Margo Price’s New Album Strays

A renegade personality can be easy to sell, but it’s not so easy to live. Margo Price knows this better than most. Famously straightforward in interviews – and a self-admitted contrarian — Price tends to be slotted into the Outlaw Country category by journalists, who liken her to genre pillars Tanya Tucker and Emmylou Harris. More contemporarily, Price is often grouped in with contemporary country-music rebels like Angaleena Presley, Nikki Lane, and Sunny Sweeney – women with opinions who may get a symbolic Grammy nod and heaps of critical acclaim but in reality are still fighting to do things their way within the rigid industry framework.

Price, whose fourth album Strays is out this week, has a long, well-documented history of pushing back against the system. Originally from the small town of Aledo, Illinois, Price decamped to Nashville as an adult and took a series of odd jobs while pursuing music. At just 20 years old, she met her now-husband Jeremy Ivey, who has been her creative, romantic, and business partner for nearly 20 years (the two also share two children). Initially, Price and Ivey played together in a band called Secret Handshake, but soon they broke off to form Buffalo Clover and later, Margo And The Pricetags, which at one point featured future alt-country star Sturgill Simpson.

In 2015, none other than Jack White signed Price to Third Man Records and released Midwest Farmer’s Daughter the next year. Despite this ostensible success, not to mention high-profile friendships with Willie Nelson and Brittany Howard, Price has spoken at length about how the mainstream country industry sidelines her. As a recent New York Times profile points out, “She has yet to be invited to the genre’s flagship honors, the Country Music Awards. Even a Grammy nomination for best new artist at the 2019 ceremony left her feeling like an outsider, when she wasn’t invited to perform or present (she was also pregnant at the time).”

Price also chronicled her rocky early career in her memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, released last October, which she wrote in tandem with Strays, a 10-song wallop of an LP that tackles everything from Price’s sobriety journey to abortion rights to the female orgasm to her own self-acceptance and self-destructive tendencies. Strays also features a poignant song by Ivey, “Anytime You Call,” that was written during a painful moment in the couple’s marriage. (They’ve had many — in addition to the usual touring life rigmarole and substance abuse, Ivey and Price lost their son, Ezra, in 2010 due to a genetic heart condition. The experience later made its way into the song “Hey Child,” on 2020’s That’s How Rumors Get Started.)

In order to create Strays, which adopts a more Southern rock and psychedelic sound, Price and Ivey (who had recently recovered from a serious bout with COVID-19) rented an Airbnb in Charleston, South Carolina, where they took mushrooms and spent a lot of time listening to Patti Smith, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin, Springsteen, and Dylan. The result is a clear-eyed, mission-driven collection of songs that also feature guest spots from former Heartbreaker Mike Campbell, Sharon Van Etten, and Lucius.

Below, Price opens up about each of the 10 tracks on Strays, how she and Ivey met their now-“mentor” Campbell, the importance of celebrating women’s sexual pleasure in country music, and tricking her management into thinking she’d scheduled collab sessions with a Taylor Swift co-writer.

1.”Been To The Mountain”

The lyrics to “Been To The Mountain” sound like a mission statement for Strays as a whole. “Used to be a lover, a queen and a drifter/ A cowboy devil, a bride and a boxer/ A pilgrim and a thief but it was me underneath/ I just know who I’m not and man that’s alright with me.” Is that fair to say, and can you walk me through what it took to write a cathartic song like this, one that lays out a complex artist, woman, and life journey?

MARGO PRICE: Yeah, definitely. I did like starting the album off with it. I mean, we didn’t really know what was going to be the first song [on the album] when we went into the studio. I always saw this as being the peak of a trip because I wanted this album to be a whole psychedelic experience in itself.

But yeah, I really liked starting off with “I’ve got nothing to prove, I’ve got nothing to sell. I know who I’m not, and that’s really all that I need.” I think as I’m aging, I don’t need validation from anybody. That was one of the very first songs that we wrote for this album, and I was going for more of a Patti Smith kind of freedom in involving poetry and just being able to get everything off of my chest in that one. It is a very cathartic song to sing and perform. It really is.

2. “Light Me Up” (Feat. Mike Campbell)

I read that “Light Me Up” is meant to be a celebration of women’s orgasm and sexual pleasure. Why did it feel important to weave that conversation into this album?

PRICE: Well, I think for as long as time has been going on, as long as people have been making records and music, men have been able to sing really freely about sex. I think everything that we are battling right now with Roe v. Wade being overturned, women’s sexuality and their identity around that, it’s in their own hands.

I think in rock ‘n’ roll music, women have been made to be objectified. Yet when a woman starts talking about her own pleasure or her orgasms or whatever it is, it just seems like it’s such a mysterious thing. Even with periods, it’s like, “Don’t talk about it, don’t even bring it up. Just be quiet and look pretty.” That is very frustrating to be a woman in this business and to have people constantly picking apart my looks, picking apart my beauty or my lack thereof. So it’s just really freeing to be able to take control of your own destiny and talk about one of the most beautiful things in this world, which is making love. It’s something that I think, especially in country music or in Americana, really has not been done very often in something that needs to change.

You’re making me think of this article in the New York Times that talked about how little scientific research, to this day, has been done around the clitoris, and how little it’s understood by the medical community.

PRICE: I need to read this article. It reminds me of a joke that I enjoy telling: What’s the difference between a golf ball and a G spot? A man will spend all day looking for a golf ball.

Amazing. On a totally separate note, I saw that you recorded with Mike Campbell. How far back does your relationship go with Mike, and what did he bring to the proceedings?

PRICE: Mike Campbell and I met at a Grateful Dead tribute shortly after Tom [Petty] passed, and I didn’t speak to him very much. It was just kind of a, “Hello, how are you, I’m a big fan of your work and your songwriting and your guitar playing.” Then my husband, Jeremy, was going to open for him on Mike’s solo tour, and I was getting pushed to write with other people for this project, [but] I wasn’t really feeling it at first.

Then my manager, Amy, was the one who was like, “Well, would you write a song with Mike Campbell?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, of course. I’d write a song with Mike Campbell, but he doesn’t have time to write a song with me.” And she’s like, “Well, why don’t I just ask him? I’ve been messaging with his manager about some other stuff. Maybe he’d be down.” And then we just really hit it off. Me, Jeremy, and him, he’s become a mentor to us. We co-wrote some songs with him. I feel so lucky that I’ve got to know him.

3. “Radio” (Feat. Sharon Van Etten)

I’m glad you mentioned that bit about how the label encouraged you to do more co-writes on this album, because I noticed that in your New York Times profile, you said something about tricking the label into thinking that you’d be writing with one of Taylor Swift’s co-writers. Except you hadn’t actually done that.

PRICE: First of all, I don’t know that my label knew how that was just a ruse until the New York Times article came out. I had also tricked my manager, and she’s like, but wait, didn’t you write with [a Taylor Swift co-writer]? I’m like, “Well, I had a co-write set up, technically.” I really did. And I still am probably going to actually do it. But at the moment when that happened, I just really wanted to get them off my back and trust me to do the work to make a good album.

But I love to collaborate with people. I love to sing with other people on their projects. I think last year I did more collaborations than I have in quite some time. I sang on Drive-By Truckers’ album [Welcome 2 Club XIII]. I sang on Teddy And The Rough Riders’ album that I produced. I sang on Molly Tuttle’s album [Crooked Tree]. And I had Willie Nelson [featured on “Learning To Lose”].

I love to perform with other people. But I do think that sometimes, in the times that we’re living, that everybody thinks that everything has to be a collaboration and have 50 people on the song to get anybody to listen to it. And it’s like, whatever just happened to listening to a fucking Janis Joplin song because she’s Janis Joplin? So there’s a big piece of me that, if it feels forced, then I do not want to do it. If someone is pushing me to do anything, then I’m just going to say no, just because I like to be contrarian.

On that note, how did working with someone like Sharon Van Etten impact the writing of “Radio”? Do you feel more open to cowriting in general, given what you’ve also said about Mike Campbell?

PRICE: With this album, every single collaboration happened super naturally. It was all my idea to work with those people. I knew that I wanted Mike to play lead on that song. And I knew that I wanted Lucius to add their harmonies because I felt like “Anytime You Call” was lacking in something. But with “Radio,” that song came to me really quickly. I sent it to Sharon just to get her opinion. And she was like, “This is such a killer song.”

I was like, “Does it need a bridge?” And she’s like, “No, but what about changing these two words here and there?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s an even better lyric.” So when I asked her to sing on it, I was so grateful that she carved out time, because I know she’s super busy and she’s also a mom, and I just admire her work so much. Her writing, her voice, she just has such a style. I see so many people try to imitate it, but she’s the only one that can really do what she does. I mean, I’ve listened to her albums on repeat and thought, why can’t I write a song like that? And she’s just the most down-to-earth person ever too, so that’s always cool.

4. “Change Of Heart”

Your press materials indicate that “Change Of Heart” is meant to be about finding peace around your past. Can you talk about how this song might also relate to your memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, and the steps you’ve taken to maintain that peace since the memoir was released in October?

PRICE: I was working on the album in tandem with writing this book for four and a half years. Definitely some of those emotions that I was working through, just reckoning with the past, being afraid to change at times, and just the fear of judgment and trying to eradicate the people pleasing in my life, it’s been a really freeing experience. That song was one that Jeremy had started — he was playing the riff on the guitar, and it was just like that melodic thing got embedded in me and stuck in my head. We flushed that out after the big trip that we had. “Been To The Mountain,” “Change Of Heart,” and “Light Me Up” were all written in the same day.

I have 100% changed the way that I used to cope with things — eradicating the alcohol from my life and all of that numbing, it changed me, and it’s been a great change. It’s been difficult at times, but I have stuck with therapy. Jeremy and I actually just left a couple’s therapy appointment. I do my own therapy. I have been doing the EMDR therapy that helps you reprocess trauma.

It’s been challenging, but it’s been great. It’s been something that I never really saw myself doing because I grew up in a time and a place where it was like, oh, if you were going to therapy, then you had mental problems and you weren’t right in the head.

It feels great to feel my feelings very deeply. That was part of writing the memoir and looking at things from an outside perspective and being able to give myself compassion in a lot of ways that I definitely have never been able to do. I mean, I was just pushing it all down.

Everybody just always described me as such a badass. [But] really I was still processing a lot of trauma, a lot of grief, and was really struggling with my mental health. I wish I could go back in time and handle it differently, but I’m here now and I’ve walked through the hardest part of the fire. Now it’s just the coals underneath my feet.

5. “County Road”

Listening to “County Road,” I wondered if the “kid” you’re addressing within the lyrics, is that a younger version of yourself? Who are you speaking to?

PRICE: I think subliminally it is, for sure. We wrote that song for a friend of ours who was a little bit younger than us, and we lost him really tragically to colon cancer and to the failing American healthcare system, and especially how we treat artists and musicians in this world. He died at Vanderbilt, I guess it was back in 2018 or ’19. He was a drummer, he was a friend. He played with me, he lived with my bass player. “County Road” was a song about the old times, how the scene has changed, and how everything has changed. He got out before it got really bad. He got out before the tornado hit Nashville and before COVID. He never had a car, but every time we would go out of town he would borrow my bass player’s Volvo. People would see him driving it around, and then they’d tell his roommate like, “Oh, Ben’s driving your car around.”

The song was [how] he finally gets his car in heaven, but I want everybody to have their own interpretation of the song. I mean, for sure, I’m talking to my younger self in a way as well. I think that that’s always a sign of a good song — that it can be multifaceted and it can come from many different perspectives.

6. “Time Machine”

When we were talking about “Change Of Heart,” you actually used the phrase “I wish I could go back in time.” Do any of those sentiments tie into “Time Machine,” or am I reading that too literally?

PRICE: That’s the only song that I didn’t have a hand in writing on the album, but it definitely feels appropriate. It feels like it was meant for me to sing it. My drummer [Dillon Napier] wrote it, and I remember the first time they played this version they had recorded, the song just would not get out of my head. And I think they brought it over during – I like to call it “White Claw Summer.” It was late 2020 after COVID hit. It felt like, “Let’s go back before the difficult things, before the pain and everything that changed through the pandemic.”

7. “Hell In The Heartland”

Words like “Some days I wanna destroy it all/ And watch it blow away” and “I’m a hazard to my health” sound like you’re addressing a self-destructive tendency. Is that an accurate read?

PRICE: Yeah, that song is definitely about wanting to destroy myself and build myself back in a different way, or just pick apart the pieces of me that feel broken and frustrated.

I was going through a difficult time when I first stopped drinking, [wondering] how I was going to move forward in my life with all of my friends and everything I’ve built. I know that I do have self-destructive tendencies at times. I know that there are plenty of things that I could have done in my career or my life that would’ve made my path a lot easier, made my success and my bank accounts much bigger. But I just can’t do things the easy way, and it’s frustrating sometimes to have to live with that duality. I mean, everybody has that in them, the good and the evil. But it was one of those days when I was really sick of looking at myself in the mirror and wondering why I had continued to kind of barrel down this destructive path like a tornado.

So that song, I had written it, and it was just sitting around. My friend Lawrence Rothman hit me up and said, “Hey, I’m working on this movie soundtrack. Do you have any songs?” So I showed him that one and a couple other ones that I had that I thought might fit. I think that happened with Bob Dylan before, somebody asked them to write a song for a movie, and then they didn’t end up using it. But then you just have a really great song.

We had gone into the studio with Lawrence and tracked “Hell In The Heartland,” and I liked it so much. I liked the way that the band built it out to be psychedelic and really conveyed my emotions. So I sent it to Jonathan [Wilson]. He mixed it and made it feel like it was a part of the [Strays] session.

8. “Anytime You Call” (Feat. Lucius)

Given that this song is written by your husband and longtime musical partner Jeremy — sustaining a relationship with anyone in the long term is one of the hardest things anyone will ever do, let alone a relationship that is creative, business, and romantic. Without veering into cliche, what are some vital lessons you might be able to impart after sustaining a relationship like that for nearly two decades?

PRICE: Oh, it is not for the faint of heart. I think any long-term relationship that you are going to be in, you have to fight for it sometimes. And it’s not all going to be pretty. Him and I have been through so much, and he’s truly one of the only people that knows me on a deeper level. I mean, my memoir is very revealing, but you can never truly know someone. We have grown together, and at times we’ve grown at different speeds. It can be a little heartbreaking. I think even him having to live through my success and how outrageous it has been at times. It’s really tricky.

Then when you throw kids into the equation and traveling and being gone… I mean, we’ve been together for… I’m 39. I met him when I was 20. And yeah, sometimes it’s really easy and natural, and then other times it’s challenging. We’re in therapy because we love each other and we want to keep making it work. The songs have been therapy for us, and they kept us glued together in a way that’s kind of like children. You’re like, “Huh, we co-wrote all these great songs and kids together,” but sometimes you just want to be like, “I’m packing up my shit. I’m really sick of this.”

That’s how love is. If you allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be in love, then you’re vulnerable enough that you can be hurt, and it can be very complicated.

9. “Lydia”

Though it was written before the overturning of Roe v. Wade, “Lydia” has taken on new significance in our post-Roe era. Without being able to predict the future, were you anticipating a further decline in access to women’s healthcare as you wrote this song, even as more barriers went up on the state level? Likewise, what goes through your mind around a topic like abortion and women’s healthcare when it comes to living in Tennessee?

PRICE: Oh, such a complicated question. To be a Southerner or just to live in the South. I’m a Midwesterner born and raised, but oddly enough, that song was written in Vancouver. It was a piece on poverty in the world and people who struggle to make a living, make a family, make a life for themselves that is respectable. [We] saw a lot of people struggling, addicted to opioids; there were a lot of methadone clinics. There was one right outside of our venue.

I loved that song, but I was also deeply afraid of it. Because it is so dark. There’s not a little silver lining in that song. But that’s how life is sometimes. Sometimes it’s just absolute shit and we don’t know why. That is the dark moment in the trip, really. I knew that [“Lydia”] was going to be on this album even before anything started happening on the state level. That tells you just how long I had been working on recording this album.

The first tape that I did, I just sat there and I played it all the way through. It was everything it needed to be. I didn’t want to do it a bunch of times and lose the feeling, and I didn’t want it to be perfect. It is eerily spooky that everything has panned out the way that it did. I wish that I didn’t feel like a fortune teller. It was the same thing when “All American Made” came out. Trump was immediately elected, and I had written that song about — not even about him, but then it ended up really feeling cathartic for the moment. “Lydia” is the same kind of chill that I get when I think about how everything’s turned out.

10. “Landfill”

“Only love can tear you apart” reads like a Joy Division reference – is that a coincidence? Why did you opt to close out Strays with “Landfill”?

PRICE: Total coincidence, but I do love Joy Division. I did really get into them back in my mid-20s. I worked at the Belcourt Theatre where they showed the documentary about them. Then I went and dug into all their work. Somebody else referenced that the other day when I was on the phone with a reporter from Germany. They were like, “This is [referencing] Neil Young’s ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ or Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’

I knew that that was the phrase there — Jeremy and I were writing that song and we were talking it out on a beach in South Carolina, and the song was just writing itself. We’ve already had the melody written. I felt like it was the album closer because I wanted to end with a positive message. The last word on the album is “love.”

I love how we put a lot of care into those parts. The drums and the way that Jonathan mics them — everything feels like washing away the pain, or a return to a neutral state after all the ups and downs that I’ve put you through during the album. That song to me sounds like molly feels. Or MDMA. It’s a wash of compassion over everyone. It’s a palette cleanser.

Strays is out 1/13 on Loma Vista.

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