Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth
Miranda Lambert Talks Her New GRAMMY-Nominated Album 'Wildcard,' Pistol Annies & More
Maybe your favorite artist of the last decade is Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or Drake. For me, it's Miranda Lambert, who, 17 years ago, was a runner-up on singing competition TV show "Nashville Star" during its debut season in 2003. Two years later, she exploded onto the country charts with the Stones-y "Kerosene," the title track off her 2005 debut album, followed by 2007's extraordinary, and hard-rocking, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, one of the best country albums of the 2000s.
As her encore, she hit pay dirt with the 2009 GRAMMY-winning ballad "The House That Built Me" and 2011's raucous, Kacey Musgraves-penned "Mama's Broken Heart." Over the last decade, she's unleashed a streak of solo albums, including 2014's Platinum, which won the Best Country Album GRAMMY, as well as three collaborative LPs as part of Pistol Annies, her astounding trio alongside Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley.
Last November, Lambert released her seventh solo album, Wildcard. Her most pop-oriented project since Platinum, Wildcard features beautiful little ditties ("Bluebird"), surprising rockers ("Mess With My Head") and traditional honky-tonk fare ("Tequila Does").
This month, Lambert is pulling double duty at the GRAMMYs. She's nominated for Best Country Song for "It All Comes Out In The Wash," the lead single off Wildcard. She's also up for Best Country Album for 2018's Interstate Gospel, Pistol Annies' third studio album.
Ahead of her big night at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards, which take place Sunday, Jan. 26, and will be broadcasted live on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT., Lambert spoke to The Recording Academy about her unprecedented winning streak and its myriad inspirations.
Pistol Annies started out as this fun, breezy thing, but Interstate Gospel is darker than the group's first two albums. It feels like a switch where your new solo album, Wildcard, feels like a relief from the heaviness this time rather than the other way around. Was that a conscious decision?
It wasn't. Actually, I'd never thought about it until you just said it. But yeah, I guess you're right! That's the beauty of art, you know? Especially being in a girl band, where it's three different stories, so we kind of balance each other… meet each other all in the middle.
Did it feel like you all had more sad stories last time?
I honestly just think we were more grown-up, if that makes sense. I don't think we were actually sadder, we just lived a lot more life.
Is it harder for you to write more breezy, fun kind of songs than more reflective, mature ones?
I think it just depends on the time and the day and where you are in your personal life and who you're writing with. I mean, there are so many factors as to what mood you're gonna be in.
Right. For me, the theme on Wildcard that stuck out is that line, "Life's pretty good if you live it." There's this upbeat feel to most of it. Did you set out to write that way?
I did. I wrote for this record in the way of wanting to have a little fun and letting myself off the hook. I wrote a pretty heavy singer-songwriter record with The Weight Of These Wings. And also, you really have to factor in playing live, what you're missing on the stage and what you want to give your fans.
Some of the songs on Wildcard, like "Mess With My Head," embrace this almost digital-sounding pop production. Maren Morris guests on the album, and she and Kacey Musgraves have done some very pop and electronic stuff recently. Are you flirting with going in that direction more?
I don't know, I'm open to new things. The way we put music down is all changing so quickly—literally day to day, it can change—and I'm not trying to be too old school. I mean, I'm old-school romantic about putting out country records; that's just what I do. But I know I want to stay in the game and go with whatever the changes are, so I'm trying to be flexible.
To me, "Holy Water" feels like a whole different other kind of experiment. It showcases your vocal abilities more than ever before. Did you do anything special to prep your voice for that one?
I love blues and swampy music, soul music, so it just was my take on it. I think there's just a lot of influence from everything I listen to, and love came a little more through my own art. I got into a listening party with myself. I got on a Fleetwood Mac and Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones kick and Bob Seger really hard the last year. Not that I didn't know those artists before, I just hear them differently for some reason. When you get older, you hear different things coming through.
More and more people are unafraid, and it's very necessary lately to be outspoken feminists in country and everywhere now. I wanted to know if you think it's finally starting to impact county radio.
I do think it's shifting. I'm getting a single played right now, and I'm thankful for that. I don't know how quickly it will shift and I don't know how balanced it will become, but I do feel like it's getting better. Someone asked me in an interview before this one if I needed radio, and I said yes, because I can see from the stage [that] country music is its own thing; it's not like any other genre. So if you've been an established country artist for a long time, we're not like grandfathered into the new system. We still need our old-school ways, to be honest. I can see in the towns that I play in, the people singing along, that they've heard the song, and it helps.
What do you think when you look back on your work from the 2010s? For example, can you hear a progression from your Pistol Annies debut album, Hell On Heels, from 2011 compared to Wildcard now?
I'm always trying to reinvent myself and find a new sound, but there's always such a common thread in my music. I think my life actually caught up with my writing. As a young writer, I didn't have a lot of life to write about, but I worked with other people. "Love Is Looking For You" [off 2005's Kerosene] was deep, and I didn't even get it until I actually lived through it my own self. But like I said, when I hear "Mess With My Head," which is my new "innovative" song, and then I hear "Kerosene," I think I'm pretty consistent with my statements and my sounds.
Is it easy to balance your solo career and schedule with Pistol Annies?
It is because we don't put too much pressure on the Annies. We all let our solo careers take first priority because that's the bread and butter. But I think that's what made it work because it's not too often; Annies is just whenever we have time and whenever the spirit moves us, if you will. That's what the magic about it is: It's not all the time and we don't have the pressure of an album cycle. That's what makes it fun and not so work-y.
Are you doing any wild arrangements for the Wildcard songs live? A backup choir on "Holy Water," perhaps?
I just have my band! I've got a huge band now because we've grown organically over time. I've got some guys who've been with me for 15-18 years and I've got some guys we just added just because some of them are getting old and can't play the whole show. [Laughs.] I have a keyboard player who sings great background vocals and my friend Gwen Sebastian who's an amazing singer. We're not like fancy on the road. We have a great production right now and a beautiful set, but we just go up there and play the songs. There are not a lot of tricks and craziness and pyro and all that. We rely on how good the band is, and that's what makes me comfortable.
Are there any secretly melancholy moments on Wildcard that all the fun and lightness distract from?
If there [were] a moment, it's "Dark Bars." I do "Tin Man" every night still. I tell the crowd I'm not sad right now, but I love sad songs. I'm not afraid to just go in a hole with, like, Gary Stewart and just get sad for hours on end on my porch, or John Moreland, someone who takes you to a place. That's what John Prine does, that's music. You don't have to live in it, but it's OK to go feel that for a minute. I feel like "Dark Bars" is that song for this record.
It's so funny that you mentioned Gary Stewart. I only just discovered him and so much of his stuff is out of print, and it's amazing.
"She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)." "Brand New Whiskey." I was so blown away. I don't have a good sense of how big he was. I guess his heyday was country radio from before I was born, but people should really know those songs.
So now you understand the Gary Stewart hole. [Laughs.] It's one where if you don't drink, you want to start.
Listening to something like "Tequila Does," I was thinking, "This is so Gary Stewart."
"Tequila Does" is my favorite song on the record.
That's hard for me to pick. Today I finally caught the lyrics in "Locomotive," and I was just laughing at the little jokes like, "I totaled his truck / But he loves me just the same."
There's a lot of humor on this one. And about six months ago, I did run into my husband's car with my car in the driveway, so… [Laughs.]
Was it actually totaled?
No, no. But you've gotta have poetic license.