David Hinds of Steel Pulse
Photo: Mike Martinez
Many passionate social advocates mellow over time, but not David Hinds. Nearly 45 years into his role as leader of GRAMMY winning British reggae outfit Steel Pulse, Hinds is still working hard for change. While their message has always been a global one, Hinds has doubled down on his passion for progress to match the modern state of world and updated his method to the current creative flow of the band, keeping his nose firmly to the grindstone. The result is Mass Manipulation, Steel Pulse's infectious new album and first in 15 years.
— Steel Pulse (@steelpulse) May 17, 2019
We spoke with Hinds while on tour to find out what he poured into the new project, where his working to make an impact on his next tour, his interest in movies and TV, what his future plans involve and more.
Why was this the right time to record and release Mass Manipulation, the band's first studio album in 15 years?
The recordings have been staggered. But because of the circumstances throughout the world for the past five, ten years, informed by activists with regards to terrorism, with regards to racism, with regards to police brutality, and regards to all these setbacks, so many countries being taken advantage of by superpowers.... All these things have always been templates years ago that made what we were doing automatically timeless. We had a year to go, and after recording several tracks, we thought to ourselves that there's still three more tracks that would have made the album right in the pocket as far as things that were happening, really on an escalated scale with things just stepped up a notch.
Although things have been happening systematically over the past years, it was stepped up a notch. As in, you can see over the past two or three years, there's been a lot of mass shootings taking place across the United States and other parts of the world. There's other protests and demonstrations going on as well. We witnessed that for the first time back in 2011, when we saw the Middle East uprising with taking over from the people that govern them, the dictators of several decades, whether it's Tunisia, whether it's Egypt, whether it's Libya, where in all these countries, all of a sudden, people are realizing that they've got a say. So "Rize" and "Stop You Coming and Come" were based on my Ethiopian experience. I was in Ethiopia for the very first time in mid-2017.
After that experience, I was so overwhelmed, I thought it was necessary to express my views and put that song down. And then we just wanted a song also that had a solution, a conclusion to it. We didn't think the album concluded anything and we decided to do the cover version of Steve Winwood's "Higher Love." And obviously we formulated the lyrics differently and called it "Higher Love (Rasta Love)."
When it comes to Rastafarian philosophy, it is the most unifying thing for mankind when it comes to music, period, across the board. So we just thought it was necessary to record the three to four extra songs and complete the album.
Was this album intended to be so global or did it just come out that way? And why do you feel like your message is so universal?
If you go then back through Steel Pulse's albums that we've done, the messages have always been global. We've always been universal. And maybe because you're trying to differentiate between how the Jamaican acts, those that actually record and produce songs in Jamaica I mean, their lyrics are not exactly global in a sense, but a lot of it's to do with just being from Jamaica. Where Steel Pulse is coming from a British background, so it's easy for us to adjust and create songs on that merit and on that kind of platform, because we are coming from a cosmopolitan country. First of all, England as a first world country, as a Western world country was always up to speed with what other countries has been doing whether it's political, whether it's social, whether it comes to business and enterprise. So it was easy for us to keep churning out songs. That was always going to be a given from day one. I mean the very first, album, "Ku Klux Klan" was on that and you don't find that in the United Kingdom. So that tells you straight away that the band has been international or trans-Atlantic from the get-go.
Because of the weight of that message and because of Steel Pulse's legacy within reggae, the actual songwriting isn't talked about as much, but you're an extremely prolific and accomplished songwriter. After 45 years of the band, is your songwriting process the same as it was back when you were writing those early songs? How has your songwriting process changed?
I would say it varies, it ebbs and flows, but the principle has changed somewhat. Whereas in the earlier years, without a doubt there were songs that were written where the lyrics were written first, and then the music. And then there were songs where the music was written first and then I added lyrics to them, like the song "Ravers" from the True Democracy album, for example. That was an instrumental before and I added lyrics to it. And take "Sound Check" from the Handsworth Revolution album. That was actually a rhythm groove and I decided to add lyrics to it while in the studio.
This time around it's a bit of me supposing, focusing on punchlines and melodies and trying to make the lyrics as constructive as I possibly can. That can be a tendency where one can dry up when it comes to the potency and the substance that a song can have and I made sure that I wasn't drying up in that domain. That's what I'm saying. In the early years, like I said, there were a lot of times we'd base the band's lyrics on rehearsal and jamming.
But since the format isn't like that anymore, I tend to be a recluse in my home and I'll wake up in the middle of the night, maybe two, three, four, five o'clock in the morning and jot down lyrics that I found stimulate me, or that I thought provocative. And sometimes I'd purposely write without intentions of recording it, thinking if it's that strong of a song, I'll still remember it by the morning. Then I realized that was not such a good idea. Some damn good ideas I've had, and I should've held on to them so to speak. So I got the iPhone now, the iPad, and hum the melody into those machines, and you wake up the next day you capitalize on what was an idea in the middle of the night. So that's how it's been now.
Early years, a lot of the time the music was there and I added the lyrics to it. It seems to be more difficult for me sometimes. I tend to write the lyrics, having a melody in mind in the first place, and a groove in mind, and then I hear out of the tempo of delivering the songs as the words, and try to match a beat to that and then that's how it goes for me. I'm more concerned about the strength of the lyrics than melody a lot of times. In actual fact both should be supplementing themselves.
Can you tell me about this tour you're planning? As I understand, you're choosing to perform at Native American reservations and juvenile detention centers…
Well, you've heard of the term bucket list. These are the things from the beginning of the band's career, especially when we touched down in the United States (by the way about a year from now is going to be the 40th anniversary since we arrived in the U.S.) that it's always been on my mind to pursue those avenues because those have been always our major concern. We wrote songs like “Soldiers” based on how the Native Americans were decimated, and their land desecrated. Then we've always thought that there was some kind of a bond with ourselves and Native Americans with regards to the slave trade that took place in Africa, and colonialism. So there's always this thing saying, “let me hang out with these guys and see what they are about, and see how they're coping with situations.”
And then there was the other side of things as well, where for instance, I've read up on prisoners, political prisoners in different countries, and people that I've admired over the years were once political prisoners. When you think of all the African leaders for example, that took over Africa, once Africa got independence. They were all prisoners at one point, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta, all these guys at some point served time for their beliefs. So I've always had this thing about going inside jailhouses and seeing how people are coping with their predicament. Especially because a lot of times I don't think prisons are really addressing the situation, what really goes down within the mind of someone who's being seen as a criminal.
New tour dates announced! Tickets on sale Friday. Tag a friend you want to bring with you and be entered to win a pair of ticket to any of the shows listed here...#steelpulse #massmanipulation #newtourdates #wisemandoctrine #rootfire #rootfirecooperative pic.twitter.com/3U7bdohfpx
— Steel Pulse (@steelpulse) August 21, 2019
I don't think programs have been set in earnest to rehabilitate guys like this. But I've always been intrigued by trying to get into the minds of the incarcerated... And a lot of the time someone just had a bad break, a lousy break and just needed that second lease of life and needed a program to turn their life around for something positive. I mean you'd take the situation of the Central Park Five, who were five youths sent to jail for an alleged rape that took place in New York and Central Park back in 1989.
For all five guys there was not enough evidence for time in jail, but because certain factions of the police wanted to get brownie points, they were put away for a crime they didn't commit. So these kinds of things, I'm always focused in on situations where it's evident that someone didn't commit a particular crime, or if they did, what is it you can do to help their cause. I mean, obviously if they've committed murder, and the United States said it's the death penalty, you can't do anything about that, because that's the law so to speak. What I'm talking about is those where there is hope of them being rehabilitated...They come out of jail only to find themselves back in there again, because they weren't given a fair crack at the whip.
And there's a movie based on the Central Park Five, When They See Us. One of them got out of jail and God knows, he spent so many years trying to get a job, and he had that stigma hanging over his head, because they said he committed that crime he knew he didn't. After a while he had no choice but to stand on the side of the streets, selling crack like everybody else. So what I'm saying is, because he didn't do it in the first place, but got ostracized by family, got ostracized by God knows what else and he went out there trying to make a go at life. Once again, couldn't get a job. And before you know they're scraping back up again for another sentence because he didn't have that fair crack of the whip. He had to go out and try and make his ends meet. So these are the things I'm looking at, and this is why I'm taking an interest.
With all of these intense and heavy issues you and the band are addressing, what are some things you do to take care of yourself mentally, whether it's to relax or to make sure that you're mentally healthy?
Well, that's another good question, because right now as it stands, I'm sort of managing the band. I've done a lot of overhauls, I've changed the landscape, the backdrop of what's Steel Pulse's been about, I've changed management, changed the agency, changed certain members of the band. And it hasn't been easy, trying to do all this and still trying to create. You still try to stay focused and have the energy, the physical energy to go out there and perform, because doing this is a 24/7 kind of scenario. Once you're performing, and you've got a rest spot, you know you're not doing that, because you've got to start doing the business side of things until proper management kicks in.
So I try to make it a rule of thumb that I don't let anything stress me too much. Before, I'd be irascible, when I started out in this business, the moment something wasn't the right way, I would go apesh**. And now that's been reduced a heck of a lot, because I'm a total believer in Murphy's Law, trying to compensate and correct it, number one. Number two, I'll say, “all right, you did this much, and how much can you expect to do for the day? You're not getting any younger,” and try to just chill out a bit. So I've managed to put on a different head in how I perceive things. In my spare time, I still do a relative amount of reading in regards to what's going on in the news.
I tend to really wind down when I'm watching a couple of bad boy movies and stuff… I like watching movies in my spare time on Netflix recently, before that you see other ways of trying to access a movie. And that's how I wind down. It takes away from the reality of the world, you see how someone's living in their world in the sense of film.
Lastly, you're coming up on 45 years of Steel Pulse. What are the goals for the future of the band?
Finances being our biggest deficit, I'd like to know that there's enough money generated financially, that I can start to really be more active in other areas in regards to, for example, charity. I mean we dabbled in it, sold T-shirts or presented other avenues in generating funds for certain causes, like the earthquake that took place in Haiti, nine years ago. We did a donation for hurricane Gilbert, but that was in bloody 1988. But I'd like to know we stepped up to the plate some more in regards to certain causes, is what I'm saying. That I'd like to know. For myself personally, I'd like to know that the band's songs get featured more in movies around the world, or documentaries, and be that kind of a force when it comes to reenacting the songs that we do, with the lyrics and all that kind of stuff.
Then I'd also like to be participating in acting. When we first came to the United States, my dream was to participate in one or two movies or TV shows.
And at that time in early 80s throughout the 90s it was very difficult, because the dreadlocks were not a palatable thing in the United States and in film at that time. And then whoever became a dreadlocked individual in Hollywood had a fake Jamaican accent. They had a stereotypical kind of thing going on. I had one or two close shaves trying to get into proper selective roles. There was The Return of Superfly. That storyboard, that script was presented to me when it came out. Never happened in the end, but it was presented as an idea. And I've already managed to do acting for a brief moment in one particular film, called Rock Steady, for which, I actually wrote the title track. So that's what I'd like to know. I like to know we're a bit more active in these domains.
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Once you hear Billy Strings do his thing, you'll get it. His unhinged flat-picking guitar playing kicks the tradition of bluegrass into new territory with one foot while keeping the other firmly planted in the genre's rich tradition. As a young artist, his songwriting, already scary good, seems to only be improving. For good reason, Stings is being called the future of bluegrass. And even though seeing is believing, and he proves he's worthy of the attention every night he takes the stage, that's still a lot of pressure for one person.
We sat down with Strings recently at Newport Folk to talk about how he handles the challenges of all the attention and success, how other genres like rock and metal have weaved their way into his astonishing guitar work, the collaborative process of making his forthcoming album, HOME, and more.
You're new album HOME is on its way, Sept. 27. Can you tell us how it was recorded?
We made it back in January over about 10 days or 12 days I think.
So lots of live tracking then?
Yeah, we just all were isolated in different booths and stuff, but we just try to lay the tracks down and I'll play it and live track it. Yeah, I think most of the songs we just end up doing that way. It kind of feels more live that way too than if we played the music and then did the vocals and then did this and that. We kind of just do it all at once like we do at our concert, you know?
I think there's a collaborative element of that, and a collaboration is a theme to this album. Why is it important to you, as a solo artist?
For me it's just I love playing music with my friends. Like I just did with Molly Tuttle up there [on stage at Newport Folk], but yeah, Jerry Douglas played some on the record and sometimes collaborating with people like that, it's just inspiring. It kind of puts a fire underneath you and keeps you going. When I get to play with my heroes, it really inspires me. It's good for you.
I am so happy to share that my next studio album - #HOME - will be released on September 27th with @RounderRecords. Preorder begins July 12.
40 brand new Fall tour dates are ON SALE NOW: https://t.co/he0cH4Wgeh
Animation: @steadyprime pic.twitter.com/3BkW6kriP7
— Billy Strings (@bstrings1) June 25, 2019
There are a lot of the people who want you to carry the torch for bluegrass, bring traditional bluegrass into the new generation. Obviously, you know the history and you come from the history, but you're doing something new. How do you navigate that as an artist?
A lot of people have said, and I would believe that it's true that you kind of have to know the origins and to know traditional bluegrass before you can then branch out. I think there's something true about that. I grew up playing bluegrass with my dad and very traditional bluegrass, I cut my teeth on it, but then somewhere along the way when I was a teenager, I got into heavy metal and rock and roll and all sorts of different music as I grew up and branched out a little bit.
As a writer, I try not to block off those other genres for inspiration as well. I'll let all the rock and roll and the metal and all that stuff that I've listened to inspire me while songwriting just as much as a bluegrass. And also, even if I'm writing a song that's not very bluegrass, it sort of comes out because that's how I learned how to play. It always kind of, you'll hear that flavor in there, I guess.
Yeah, is there something specific about rock or metal that has worked its way into your style?
I think it's more just about our live show. I think the most important thing that we do is our live show. I think that's where we are really best seen is on stage, in a concert venue somewhere. We're gonna make records and we're going to do our best to recreate that live setting on an album, but we're a live music band. Every night it's different. We could play the same song, but it's totally sometimes different. I don't know, we just try to jam with each other.
How often do you practice to play at such a high level?
I mostly even play on stage every day. Sometimes I never get to practice because I'm always on stage. I was talking to my friend David Grisman about that the other day and like, "Man, I never have time to practice." He's like, "Well you could work up new songs and play them and we do that." But, we play a lot of gigs, and sometimes when I'm not playing gigs, I finally get a day or two off after several weeks on tour. Man, it's almost like you just want to take a nap and catch up.
But, I would like to practice more. Honestly, I think I could do better about that. I'd like to write more music. I'd like to get out my metronome more and practice with that. I'd like to just practice learning my fretboard, everything. I mean I'm still trying to get better.
You spend a lot of time playing shows and touring. For a lot of artists, mental health has become a topic we talk about now, where it used to be avoided. What do you do to kind of stay grounded when you're away from home?
The main thing that I do is I see a therapist and I talk to that person and I've been doing that for a while. I had a lot of anxiety back in January maybe before we started making the record and I don't think it was based around the record. It's based around a lot of other things. Things when I was young and just everything, everybody has their own troubles and that kind of things, but certain things can haunt you or if you keep things inside and don't talk about them, that stuff can come out as an anxiety.
It's almost if you have a pot of boiling water, all these emotions and things that you wish you would have said or maybe thought about or this or that and you put the lid on, it starts boiling and a little bit of steam is gonna get out no matter how hard you hold that lid on. Might as well just take it off.
That's what I do is I talk, I see a therapist and I would recommend it to anybody who struggles at all in that way. I think it is an important thing to talk about and I'm certainly not ashamed of that or anything. I have to work on myself and I think a lot of other people do too. I've lost a lot of friends to, whether it's substance abuse or depression and anxiety and that kind of stuff is very real to me.
Unfortunately, I do believe in this line of work as a musician, entertainer, an actor or actress, those kinds of folks, because there is this added amount of pressure, I think a lot of times anxiety and depression sometimes, I think a lot of musicians deal with that or I think maybe a lot of therapists or psychiatrists see a lot of musicians or entertainers because we're like in the public eye and there's a lot of stress involved.
A lot of musicians depend on things. I know a lot of people that are in bands drink a lot and that kind of stuff. It's easy to do. People are always handing your stuff too man when you're out there. People are offering you everything and it's hard to say no when there's a party and it's, until you start to have anxiety and stuff and that's, man, I just, I do everything I can to try to stay healthy. I try to make sure I get enough sleep, make sure I drink enough water, don't be doing drugs except for psychedelics, but yeah, just try to take care of myself and stay zenned out brother.
One more question: What's inspiring you right now?
I think my earlier life, I use [it] as inspiration a lot. When I grew up, I grew up in a small town and I saw a lot of drugs and stuff, a lot of substance abuse and I saw also that those people drove themselves down into a dark hole and that they can never get out of, prison and overdose and stuff like that. It's like, I didn't want to be a bum. I wanted to do something good with my life. I think just seeing that kind of helped me run towards the light in the right direction.
It's great that we get to travel and spread the light and meet people and play music for people and hopefully brighten somebody's day. Also, I've got to mention my father who taught me how to play. It's just great to sort of carry his torch in a way and to kind of, I'm doing it for him and from my mom and him.
Our Native Daughters
(L-R) Rhiannon GIddens,Allison Russell, Leyla McCalla, Amythyst Kiah
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Newport Folk has always hosted historic musical and cutural moments, but when the roots music supergroup of Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah know as Our Native Daughters close out their debut run of shows, history took center stage.
Best described by Smithsonian Folkways, the album Songs Of Our Native Daughters "shines new light on African-American women’s stories of struggle, resistance, and hope. Pulling from and inspired by 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century sources, including slave narratives and early minstrelsy, [Giddens, McCalla, Russell and Kiah] reinterpret and create new works from old ones."
"Black women have been makers and markers of social change in the United States for centuries, at this point," McCalla said. "I think this album is a part of that," adding, "We're looking back at the past, but the music is for today."
Just after their landmark first-ever set on the Newport Folk Quad Stage, the Recording Academy sat down with the quartet to hear how the project came together, what tools they used to create it, how they hope it will affect the narrative of history and more.
Why was Newport Folk the right place for Our Native Daughters perform in this brief initial tour?
Giddens: Well it just seemed like the right thing, because Newport folk festival has such a history to it and I know that they've been really trying especially recently to really build on that legacy. In a way, even more than they have in the past. You know, just really make it about the folk music and about what folk music can do. And so when the offer came in, it just made so much sense. If we could build a tour around it and let this be the sort of finale to this part of the tour, it's really amazing.
Obviously, this is a and very historical and research-heavy concept for an album, but the music rings out fresh and very alive. How did you approach the daunting task of balancing the historical elements with the musical elements?
Russell: Well I think we really approached it song by song. I would say Rhiannon was struck with the idea to do something like this when she was given a private tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture with her daughter. And that's a painful experience for anyone, let alone a descendant of some of the people who were enslaved. And a quote, a William Cowper quote really sparked the idea, and it was a quote to the effect of, "slavery is terrible, but how could we do without our sugar and our rum?" And the correlation to our modern day dependence on technologies that are being supplied by slave labor… that connection really resonated in her mind and she invited all of us to come and join her and sort of explore some of that history.
Initially the project, the idea was to kind of explore some early slave songs and minstrel music and we did a little bit of that with, with her adaptation of 'Better Get Your Learnin'." But we really realized we had a lot, we're all songwriters and we had a lot of feelings to process around all of this painful history, which is so much in evidence that these ghosts have not been laid to rest. Clearly the divisiveness in our country, the kind of outright racist and fascist rhetoric that's coming from the highest offices in our land is indicative of the fact that this history is not sleeping easy. It is affecting our present on all of us directly and all of you, directly. And so we, we felt like we had some things to say.
Giddens: I think it's also just the recognition of the lack of reckoning around the effects of slavery in the United States and the Atlantic Slave Trade. And even though we come from this place of a lot of research and reading and engaging with like academic material, I think that we've been living in our skin our whole life and that's a part of our experience. We've inherited some of this trauma in different ways and we represent different parts of the African diaspora. And so it made sense for us to come together and try to process this together. And honestly we didn't really know what exactly that was going to land us. And, like Alli said, I really think it was song by song. It was like; 'I have this musical idea, I have this musical idea, I have this phrase that has been turning in my mind,' 'Well, oh, I just came up with something that plays off of that.' And it was very collaborative.
2019 ARTIST ANNOUNCEMENT: Please welcome Our Native Daughters (@RhiannonGiddens @jtandalli @LeylaMcCalla @amythystkiah) to this year's Sunday lineup. @newportfestsorg has made a donation on their behalf to @kidz_notes. Learn more: https://t.co/9IjxshNW2W pic.twitter.com/5JCaqe6Qr8
— Newport Folk Fest (@Newportfolkfest) April 10, 2019
Can you tell us more about the instrumentation and the instruments you used?
Kiah: The banjo was the centerpiece, all of the songs in some capacity needed to revolve around the banjo because the banjo is a descendant of the West African loot family. And historically, at least in contemporary music times, it has been very long associated with white male, three finger style bluegrass players. And that history has been sort of muddled and lost because of the segregation of the commercial music industry. There were black banjo players, black fiddlers and once the record executives wanted to market music, they assumed that, 'well only white people are going to listen to string band music,' so black people had to put down their banjos and fiddles and pick up a guitar and play the blues or play jazz if they wanted to make a living making music.
So this was obviously spun from Rhiannon's Inspiration, but her idea to take the banjo and to reclaim it as something that is also part of black culture because all of us in some capacity have lived like on the in-between of you know, not being black enough or not being white enough because of our interests and, even though by default, if someone is moved by music or move by something, they should be able to like it. There shouldn't have to be a birthright to be able to enjoy your love something, but just in case here is the historical backstory this instrument. And so that was really important to have that because that more or less blasts away the myth of like, 'what is blackness?' You know, what it means to be black, it goes to show that we're not a monolith and there's all sorts of ways to express yourself regardless of what your race is. So the banjo was really important. And then we had fiddle, we had drums and really just song by song, we kind of pieced together what instruments would make sense to serve the song. I think that's kind of kind of how we pieced arrangements together.
Giddens: Yeah, we were in Louisiana, we worked with Dirk Powell, who's a got a lovely, very small studio and it's kind of a built out of a very old, one room house that was once owned by a Creole family nearby. And it's just got all this history to it and he was great to work with, in that he was really very much setting up the sounds and then we just got in there and just did our thing… It was a very much a kind of fostering of like; 'I want what you want.' You know? 'I just wanna make it sound really good,' And so that it became a very safe space and it was a space where we all just felt very comfortable to, "oh and let me try this banjo or that or do that." And we weren't afraid to put electric guitar on and we weren't afraid to put modern instruments on it because it's not a historical record. It's something inspired by histories and inspired by these instruments and we wanted to use those sounds just because that's what we play.
Russell: We're all multi-instrumentalists, as well. We all do play banjo, different banjos, each of us. Rhiannon plays a fretless minstrel banjo, I play a five string, gut-string banjo, Leyla plays a tenor banjo, Amythyst plays a steal string. So we all have different banjos, but we also play other things. Amythyst is an incredible guitarist, Leyla is a classically trained phenomenal cellist. I tootle along on the clarinet and plink on the Ukulele [laughs humbly] and Rhiannon plays like eight to 25 instruments as far as I can tell-
Giddens: I play also fiddle [laughs humbly].
Russell: So we all, you know, we were kind of bringing all our little babies into the project as well.
McCalla: I think it's also that the banjo, like despite how much research we've done on the history of the Banjo, the Banjo is a modern instrument and it is relevant to the conversation of, 'what is folk music and what is American music?' I think the banjo is essential to that conversation. We're looking back at the past, but the music is for today.
What types of conversations are you hoping listeners will have from experiencing this album?
Giddens: Well, I'd like to think that maybe people that are possibly on the fence with the whole... I think this will really be helpful for the people that are like, "Well, isn't racism over? We elected a black president. Isn't racism done?" I think this is a record for people that are asking that question and these subjects are difficult to talk about just face to face. You can talk about it academically with other academics but when you talk to a person that doesn't know the history... A lot of people don't necessarily understand it or people get too upset and don't want to talk about it. Like they kind of go into like a bit of an emotional crisis of either not wanting to hear about it or being defensive.
And so music has a way of disarming people. It's like sugar for the medicine, if you will. You know, these are these harsh realities of things that happened. Because these things happened, this is why things have evolved the way they have, socially, in our culture. This is a way to to disarm people and allow them to think and realize, "oh, this is why we still need to talk about this," you know? Because we're all sort of wrapped in this trauma of that part of our history that still affects how we interact with each other and the kind of legislative policies that we make and all those kinds of things that affects that, whether people see it or not. And hopefully with this record, people can maybe start thinking about it and having that conversation.
The album's liner notes serves as an emotional, historical and contextual companion to the album, and the song by song information is very insightful Can you talk about how they support the music?
Giddens: Well, the liners were collaboration. I wrote the essay.
Russell: It's a great essay.
Giddens: I got together the bibliography, I really wanted people- I mean the problem is that people forget that something always comes from something else. So knowledge is always coming from a place and I have such a respect and such a debt to the scholars who really found such amazing, you know, facts and figures and put them all together. And especially nowadays, these incredibly sensitive, like really, really just well done books. And so I wanted people to know where to go, you know and also to say this is where I got my information from, because I'm not making any of it up and I don't want credit for that.
And then I asked the ladies to give what they would want people to know most about each song, and Dirk wrote something. I just think it's important also to acknowledge him, all of the folks at the Smithsonian Folkways, most of which are white dudes. There is a relationship with allies going on here and I think that that's really important because, in this day and age, there's a lot of kind of, us versus them and I'm like, the only way forward really is to accept the platform that's given to you and the help that comes along with that and then you say your thing. It was like we weren't in any way needing anybody to help us say what we wanted to say, we just needed the space to do it.
So it's really important, I think, to acknowledge that, and to say, "This is how we can work together and not by you guys writing our story, but by you guys letting us have the space to write our story." And in this day and age, that's what it takes, and that's okay. You know what I mean? That's the way to turn it around. It's not like, "No, we don't need your help." It's like, "No, actually, because of the behemoth that we're shifting, it's going to take that." It's going to take the handout and then, "thank you. I got it now." You know what I mean? "Thanks for giving us the space." So I just think that's really important to say, and I'm glad that the Smithsonian has the budget to put liner notes in [laughs].
Russell: And I think, something that you said, this idea of allyship and moving forward and we move forward together. It's a family, it might be a dysfunctional, broken family, but it's a family. This country is still very young and its strength is also where the fault lines can, you know, when there's fear-mongering going on, those fault lines can crack and break and people can have the illusion of some sort of inseparable gulf between themselves and someone they perceive as other. But as Rhiannon's other album posits, there is no other and it's a we, you know, it's a we, and we have to figure out how to talk to each other.
And you know, we were talking about so many of these songs, the reason we wrote them and the way that we connect with them emotionally ourselves, it's a lot of them are trying to make things personal. It's personal, it's not academic, it's not dusty, it's not ancient, dead history, it's personal, it's present. Empathy comes from being able to imagine yourself, your child, your family in that situation, in a given situation. And that's what our hope is, that we're building empathy and sharing empathy and being more empathetic ourselves and I think that is the only way forward.
McCalla: I think it's also so important to talk about the strength of black women in this country and worldwide, really. Because a lot of the time we talk about the victimization of black people, and I think that that's certainly part of the story, but it's not the whole story. And black women have been makers and markers of social change in the United States for centuries, at this point. So, I just think this album is a part of that. And I don't see any other completely black groups at the Newport Folk Festival, for example, you know? And so, it's a step forward. You have to start with one foot in front of the other.
Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby & Amanda Shires of The Highwomen
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
The Highwomen stole the show on opening night of Newport Folk Festival 2019. The new supergroup composed of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires have been storming the country world with a powerful and poignant message, and they're having fun doing it.
"Redesigning Women" arrived as an anthem for the modern female—but the single serves to unite, not divide, which was very clear as the group closed out their Newport set with the song. Their second single, "Crowded Table," a siren song for inclusivity, also dropped just ahead of their Newport debut.
We caught up with three-quarters of The Highwomen backstage at Newport Folk to talk about their debut album, due out Sept. 6., about the lack of representation of women in country radio, why they call Carlile the group’s “wide receiver” and more.
Let's start with Newport and the debut last night. How did it feel to finally present this project live? What's special about this festival in particular?
Morris: I mean, it felt amazing. We felt like when we walked on stage that all these people that came to see us were already on our side. It went by too quick. That was my only complaint.
Hemby: Yeah. It went by really fast. I was kind of relieved it was over, but kind of sad that it was over. But it was very electric. It was like everybody was waiting for us and it was just, I felt I was really nervous. This is my first time to Newport and being on stage with the girls. We had been rehearsing and it was kind of emotional because it was all coming to fruition, you know?
Shires: It seemed electric. You know, we walk out there and we're ready to play, they want to hear us. Then we're also at Newport. I've been coming here a long time and I haven't felt a audience as charged as what I felt on that stage last night. I'm not saying I was here when Dylan did his thing, but I'm sure that was almost as electric as what we did.
Highwomen go electric.
You closed the set with "Redesigning Women," a song that makes a bold statement, but it's also a lot of fun. Was the video as fun to make as it looked?
Morris: Yeah. It was the hottest day in Nashville and we were wearing firemen gear.
Hemby: Which is so heavy.
Morris: Then we built a fire. So we were melting by the end of it. But it was so fun. Tanya Tucker and Wynonna Judd came out in support. Yeah, it was probably just the easiest video I've ever done.
Hemby: Yeah. Elizabeth Olmsted did it and she was incredible.
Shires: I think the song though... Natalie, wrote it and as far as I can tell, it's about owning what it is to be a woman.
Shires: And I think making that video and then including all our friends, you know, up and coming and the legends. I think that has a lot to say for the unity of the project.
Hemby: Well, I mean you touched on it perfectly. It's basically, I didn't want to sound preachy writing the song. I wanted it to just be real and be kind of funny. It is the life we lead, we are doing as women now more than ever. We're running businesses and taking care of families and it's a different time we live in and it's just sort of like the hilarity of it all.
Morris: There were dudes singing "Redesigning Women" in the crowd last night. It was awesome.
Shires: I love the evolved ones.
Morris: It's for everybody.
Yeah, everybody was singing last night. Also, the second single came out this week, "Crowded Table." Can you talk about where that song came from?
Hemby: Well I wrote that one, again... I actually wrote these two songs before I actually even joined the band, so I feel like it was sort of my rite of passage to get in the band. I wrote that with Lori McKenna and we sat down at my piano and I told her about what they were looking for for the Highwomen project. I had this title that I wanted to write for a long time called "Crowded Table."
We sat down at a piano and we wrote it literally in 30 minutes and then I took it to Brandi and I was like, is this something that works? And she changed it. Just like a few lines on it and it was just perfect. We just wanted to write a song about women getting pitted against each other. We wanted to write a song about like, "Hey, I've got you." It's not just women, actually. I think men too. Like, I want a big house that has lots of friends and family. Just something sort of heartwarming, you know?
Morris: This motto of the band, it fits so perfectly with that song because I think the message we're trying to get across is like, you can sit with us. This is a very inclusive project.
Shires: We're singing in unison so people can sing along.
Amanda, I read this project came out of noticing a lack of representation at women in radio and country radio specifically. Can you talk about a little bit what you found and how that turned into this project?
Shires: It was something I had noticed before, but I really don't operate in that genre. When the idea really started was after my daughter was born and I was thinking, what if Mercy grows up and decides she wants to be a country artist? Like, what can I do and how can I in any way try and change it or at least make it easier? That's sort of the whole thing for me. And then, you know, as ideas do, they grow and they become something much larger than you ever could even imagine. I feel very lucky that these people wanted to do this with me.
And how have you seen this project already have an impact on the conversation about gender equality so far with these first two singles?
Hemby: Well, I think we just want to shine a light on all different types of artists. It's exactly what Maren said in her video.
Morris: We don't want more than anyone else. We want the same as everyone else.
Hemby: Exactly. I think that's the key to it all. In the Top 50 charts of country music, there's not very many women on it.
Shires: Apparently Maren's number one. Watch out. Fire.
Hemby: She is currently number one. This girl right here. I don't know yet what happened.
Morris: But it is cool. To be at Newport and do the Highwomen debut the same week that "GIRL" went number one. It just feels like, I don't know, I'm pretty superstitious, but sometimes the stars just align and it's just timing.
Hemby: But it didn't use to be an issue of having women on country radio. We used to have Tricia [Yearwood], Shania [Twain], Faith [Hill], all of the them.
Morris: Dixie Chicks.
Hemby: Dixie Chicks. Through the years it's just, it's been so much less inclusive and that's kind of our point. It's not, we don't want more. We want the same opportunities.
Well, what you're doing is incredible. Maybe because she's not here, we can talk about Brandi. What does she bring to the group?
Morris: We have dubbed her the wide receiver.
Hemby: She's the wide receiver. If you have a ball and you want to do something, Brandi will take that ball all the way. She was like, I'm going to catch the ball and we're going to score a touchdown and we're going to win the Superbowl.
Shires: And then she'll run back down and get it again.
Morris: Yeah. She's definitely a doer. Like, she has an idea and she manifests it.
Shires: I think her work ethic matches the power of her voice.
Morris: Unparalleled vocalist.
Shires: The amount of work she can do, the amount of, you know, air she can take.
Hemby: Yes. That powerful voice. That's how she works too. And she's also, she is a very big supporter.
Shires: All we do is hold onto the reins.
Morris: She's really supportive. In our show last night, I was like, Brandi has amazing stage banter. I'm kind of glad I can sit back. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand when she was speaking.
Hemby: She is definitely made for this, for sure.
The album comes out Sept. 6. How in the world did you record this with four very busy schedules?
Hemby: Well, you work. Dave Cobb produced our record and she's worked with Dave several times.
Shires: Yeah, I have worked with Dave a lot. But when I first had the idea for this before it became even this, I told Dave about it and then I told him that I wanted him to produce it. Then he was like, you gotta go meet Brandi. And I met Brandi and then everything started coming together. I mean, we have the songs, we have awesome bands, we have awesome suits.
Morris: I recorded for two days. Well three, I guess with cocktails. What was the life span of the studio time? It was probably-
Shires: It was two weeks. We did a lot of stuff the first week and came back and did it the second week.
Hemby: Yeah, and we tracked a lot of the vocals-
Morris: We were writing in the studio also. Like, on "My Name Can't Be Mama," they wanted me to help write my verse and so it was very collaborative and creative. I love the way Dave operates. He's really into live tracking. So you've got humans around you making music and you can look at each other and you're all on each other's wavelength. I loved recording that way.