Photo by Bobbi Rich
The Unbreakable Margo Price
At 37, Margo Price hasn't just lived a few lives already. She’s lived a few country singers' lives already, famously pawning her wedding ring to make Midwest Farmer's Daughter, the 2016 album that caught Jack White's attention and then the world’s, with not just the Newport Folk Festival to follow but "SNL" and a GRAMMY nomination for Best New Artist. For someone who survived the death of her infant son, a drunk-driving accident, jail time and homelessness, that's a vast change of fortune. Except fast-forward to 2020 where everything goes wrong no matter who you are, and Price came out of a few-years hiatus to have her excellent new album That’s How Rumors Get Started delayed anew while her husband and fellow musician/collaborator Jeremy Ivey fought a frightening bout of coronavirus right in her home just after beginning to raise their newborn daughter.
Luckily, the new album is a good fit for the holdup, a scorched-earth record that's at least half rock’n’roll on lyrics alone: "Call me a bitch, then call me baby / You don’t know me, you don’t own me," "Sobriety is a hell of a drug," "I won’t forget what it’s like to be poor," and of course, the delectably autobiographical "If it don’t break you, it might just make you rich." The tenderly worded All American Made made its points through typically acerbic country ("Don’t say you love me when you treat me this way," "Pay gap, pay gap, breaking my dollars in half") but the Sturgill Simpson-produced Rumors adds howling guitars returning the White Stripes favor on "Twinkle Twinkle" and the lung-bursting coda of "I'd Die for You," which is exactly what a multivalent songbird sings to her newborn's ailing father during a pandemic. GRAMMY.com spoke to Price over the phone about coming out of this state with sanity (and songs) intact, and her two heroes, late friend John Prine and his oddball soul-legend pal Swamp Dogg.
How is Jeremy doing?
Oh, he's healthy again and we’re really grateful for that.
That's great, I imagine this period was really scary for your family.
It’s been... not ideal for sure. I really hope that we all continue to stay healthy.
Do you feel like you're ready to plug back into music after all this craziness?
I do, I mean, it’s just been a long time coming and if I wouldn’t have gotten pregnant—and you know there would have been a lot of different factors—I would’ve had this out last summer. But I think everything happens for a reason, so we just roll with the punches.
When an album like That’s How Rumors Get Started sits on the shelf for this long, do you start to feel less connected from it? I imagine this year gave you a whole new album to write.
I'm definitely getting ready to, you know, start writing and recording again just to keep myself occupied and whatnot, but I feel like we picked it up, we started learning the songs and we put it back down. It’s still the best thing I’ve ever done, I think, thus far, and, you know, that makes me still feel connected to the songs and confident that it’s gonna hopefully go over well.
All American Made felt like you had a lot of things to say, and Rumors feels like you wanted to show those things rather than tell them. Did you feel like you were doing more dynamic singing or making a louder album?
I knew that I wanted to sonically do something that I'd never done before and use what I’d learned over the past few years being on the road. Having played rock’n’roll music and played in a soul band prior to everybody getting to know me through Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, it’s been interesting to only get put into this Americana category. So I just wanted to do something that was well-rounded. We put a lot of time into doing this album, a lot of care into my vocals, and I would say that Sturgill helped me turn it up to 11.
What was the biggest thing that you learned from working with Sturgill?
I really wanted to record every song that I had at the time, and we did put down like 16 tracks. But he was like, "You should just get something that sounds like they all go together like texturally and as a bigger picture." I think that was good advice, and I feel really good about the 10 songs; they feel like they belong together. It’s not like, oh, you’re skipping over this one track. And the way he had me approach doing my vocals was pretty key in getting the sounds that we got. I don’t like to sing with headphones on—I don’t think anybody likes to hear their own voice coming back at them—so that was an idea of his: To get more of how I sing when I’m just performing on stage, we took the headphones off and just sang in the studio with the track coming back at me at, like, a very low volume. I was just able to belt and hear myself the way that I normally would hear myself.
Like singing in the shower where you can just go at it.
It shows. A song like "I'd Die for You" is a much less muted way to close your album, like "With or Without You" or one of those big U2 ballads.
Oh, thank you, that’s great. I love that reference.
And then you have "Heartless Mind," which sounds like an idea Sturgill would definitely encourage. Was it always planned to be a fast, new wave-y song?
No, I did not picture it coming out like that and I absolutely love it. I was going into the session thinking that that one may be like, a [Pat Benatar’s] "Heartbreaker"-like guitar-driven song and then the synth got on it. It turned out better than I could have expected, with my friend Ashley Wilcoxson on backing vocals, but it's a big sonic change for what usually is behind me. I actually even let [Sturgill] put a drum machine just on the snare head for the choruses; a few years ago I might have said that’s sacrilege. And my drummer Dillon Napier is playing actual drums on it.
It's very in the spirit of Sturgill’s last album, Sound & Fury, which quite a few people compared to ZZ Top, and they are generally considered to be one of the most successful acts to put synthesizers on roots music.
Yeah his album's wild. I don’t think anybody expected it from him. I mean, I didn't expect it from him and I know the motherf**ker. A lot of times I see people working with certain producers because they're hot at the moment, or like, you know, things become really trendy and it's scary to go out there and get out of your comfort zone. But I’d rather make a few mess-ups then go crazy from just regurgitating the same ideas.
Do any of the lyrics on Rumors resonate differently for you now after the events of this year?
There’s moments that have become more powerful. I felt that same thing happened with All American Made because I wrote it while it was an election year but no one was in office, and then… you know. Time always has a way of making things feel more heavy, especially these days. But "I’d Die for You" has become the most important song to sing and feel connected to because of the tornado, and the cancellation that's happening, and people everywhere all over America unemployed and without health insurance. The racism and the division all that’s kind of spinning around. But Jeremy and I wrote that song for each other and for our children.
Certain songs on here are really cathartic to listen to now even if they were written way long ago. Something like "Twinkle Twinkle," where you’re singing "In the good old days, things weren’t really all that good," has me how all these coronavirus deniers will eventually go on to romanticize this period.
Oh, without a doubt. I was talking about that earlier with somebody, about how everything seems like it’s changed but really, all of the fear, and the hate, and the racism those things were all there, just below the surface. I don't know when we’re going to be able to live the way that we did with, you know, human contact and hugs and stuff like that .
Somehow we got to the point where hugs are in question.
But don’t even come at me with that hand and I've really perfected my handshake.
On "Stone Me" you could be singing about toxic men, or fame, or the completely divided state of society all at once, and maybe those things are inherently connected.
Yeah, it has a double meaning for me. When I first wrote it was about a personal relationship, and the things that happen when you get put up on a pedestal, and then people immediately want to knock you down, and I let it all roll off my back. But it’s very cathartic to write a song. I don’t even ever have to say who it’s about specifically, because it’s about so many people that I've known.
A lot of country artists address things like growing up poor, but they're so associated with conservatism that you get the sense they expect it’s like, just part of dues to be paid. But you sing things like "Pay Gap" that are actually about changing that.
Oh, without a doubt. I mean, that song probably cost me a lot of fans. I had so many people try to argue with me and tell me it’s a myth. As a citizen I have every right to think about the things that affect me and we're all in it together no matter what side of the fence you're on. Everybody wants the same damn thing, food on the table. To would be able to be taken care of when you're sick.
This year is really the test case for that, because you’d think everyone would be able to agree that, like, we all want to be alive, and doing some things that are not too difficult in order to lower that risk. The rebellion against that is really surreal. Have you already begun writing new songs?
My husband’s got an entire album that he’s written. I have, like, starts of songs… I don’t know, six or seven things I'm working on. And then I’ve just been writing and journaling more. It’s important to write your memoir while everything’s still fresh on your mind. Especially now with not being able to go to shows. I’m like thinking back to specific memories and things that happened and just saving it all for a rainy day.
Do you have any plans for live shows again?
I’m really wanting to do these drive-in theater shows. I think that would be super cool. It would be a great way to start back and feel like things are at a safe distance, but who knows what the future holds. I'm just dreaming about a day when I can like, bodysurf across the crowd again. That’s gonna be a long time.
What have you been listening to while you’re stuck at home?
I have been addicted to this new Swamp Dogg record, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It.
I love Swamp Dogg, I actually just ordered reissues of Gag a Maggot and Total Destruction to Your Mind last month.
Yeah, I mean, "Synthetic World"…there are just so many good songs on Total Destruction to Your Mind. Rat On! and that whole album cover. And then I realized that he was putting out this new record, and John Prine sings two duets on it which are amazing. It’s the last thing that John Prine ever recorded.
Wow, I didn’t realize it was the very last thing he ever did.
There's a song on there is called "Family Pain," and it's really cool, like a hip-hop track with a fiddle. I’ve also been listening to Run the Jewels.
I mean, speaking of catharsis…
Yeah, perfect time to put out a political rap album. And of course I’ve been diving super deep into the Bob Dylan and the Neil Young records; the fact that they came out on the same day was pretty spectacular.
If you do any more covers, I definitely vote for Swamp Dogg.
That's a great idea. And Swamp Dogg’s version of [Prine’s] "Sam Stone" is just killer. When I met John I was like, "So tell me about Swamp Dogg." You know they were buddies. It’s really cool to hear them on [2020’s] "Please Let Me Go Round Again." They just are riffing back and forth, really conversational improv. It cracks me up to listen to.
Now I’m gonna have to put that on after we hang up.
I hope you stay well and, yeah, see you next time we get out of this burning trash fire.