With fierce new album ‘Wildcard’, this superstar has confirmed her place at the top of the country summit
Whether judging by her achievements (32 ACMs, 13 CMAs, 2 Grammys and a plethora of other accolades) or the strength of her output, there’s only one conclusion that can be reached – Miranda Lambert is the real deal. Ever since Kerosene, her platinum-selling label debut, she’s straddled country, rock and pop in a way which makes her one of the most relatable and likeable superstars out there. Drawing from her Texan roots, songs like Gunpowder & Lead, The House That Built Me and Mama’s Broken Heart have quite rightly taken their place alongside other country standards.
2016’s The Weight Of These Wings, a double-album with a slightly more sombre tone, showcased a singer-songwritery side to Lambert’s work. Then, when you also throw in her work with Pistol Annies (her band with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley), including one of 2018’s finest albums, Interstate Gospel, you an artist that is as prolific as she is versatile – and a multi-million selling one at that.
Lambert recently returned with her seventh album, Wildcard. Brimming with sass, wit and a host of killer tracks it features co-writes with some of Nashville’s finest, including Luke Dick, Ashley Monroe and The Love Junkies (the writing collective of Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose). With Jay Joyce on production duties, the first time she hasn’t had Frank Lidell in the role, it manages to sound like a fresh direction while also harking back to the more carefree nature of her early work.
Shortly after discovering that she’d been nominated for another two Grammys (one for her song It All Comes Out In The Wash, and the other for Interstate Gospel), we had the chance to chat with Miranda about the new album and her songwriting career…
Congratulations on the Grammy nominations.
“I’m completely thrilled and shocked and excited. The Pistol Annies getting nominated absolutely filled us with joy. We’ve been a band for nearly a decade and this is the first time we’ve ever been nominated for anything, so it’s pretty cool. We’ve been through a lot of life together and put it all out there on tape, so the fact that our peers recognise it and appreciate it is great, to share it with your sisters.”
Did Interstate Gospel lead straight into Wildcard?
“I think I started writing for Wildcard just about the time we finished Interstate Gospel and they came out almost a year to the day from each other. The Annies is always its own thing and we kinda know when it’s time to write for The Annies and those songs show themselves.
“When it’s time for The Annies we focus on that and put our solo careers on the side for a second and then when The Annies record was done it was, ‘Okay, now it’s time to make a new record of my own.’ It’s really fun though, it’s pressure in a good way.”
Does your approach to songwriting differ for each?
“It doesn’t differ that much. I think I’m a little more brave writing with the girls, because there are three of us. There’s power in numbers. But it doesn’t change that much. Whenever we write it’s mostly for The Annies but sometimes it shows itself to be a song for one of our solo projects.”
Were the songs you wrote with Ashley Monroe for Wildcard done in the same way as your Annies songs?
“Different actually, she knew I was writing for my own record. We do it separately. Truthfully, The Pistol Annies’ songwriting style is usually a slumber party with a guitar. It’s a catchup session and then we just happen to also write some songs.”
And what’s your process when you’re working on your own album?
“I usually start with people I know because it’s comfortable, but for Wildcard I wrote a lot with Luke Dick, who I’d never written with before. He’s a track guy and I’m kinda an old school writer, I usually just sit down with a guitar but Natalie Hemby was like, ‘You’re gonna love writing with him.’ Natalie is a long-time co-writer of mine, and friend. She was right, I loved it. He really pushed me outside of my comfort zone and built these amazing tracks.
“You walk in and you might think you have an idea to write something that day and then he plays a few things that he’s been working on and you totally switch gears – mess with my head things that wouldn’t have come out of me, but they came out of Luke. I’m willing to try new things but I also like to have my comfort zone a little bit because when you’re going in to bare your soul, it’s scary to do that in front of a relative stranger.”
What’s the key to being able to do that?
“I haven’t figured that out yet, I’m pretty much a creature of habit and stick to the people I know.”
Do you enjoy writing with The Love Junkies?
“You know what, those girls are incredible. The good thing about those writers is that you can show up in any emotional state and they’ll just go there with you – which is very cool and unique. You walk into a room full of women who have obviously had a lot of life of their own; they’ve got kids and careers and they’re wives and daughters, and so when you sit in a room with Liz, Lori and Hillary there’s already magic.
“I think that they’re really open too – I will walk in with a title and they’ll just jump right it. Or they’ll have something brilliant when you get there. It’s also fun. For me songwriting, it is my business but it’s still music. I don’t ever want this to not be fun. There are parts of the job that aren’t fun, but overall I don’t want my writing sessions to feel like a grind, I’d rather have a great time while doing it.”
Are you always keeping in mind that you’re writing for your album, or is it more a case of writing the best songs that you can in those sessions?
“I think it’s writing the best songs that come out, I think that’s what’s important. I love writing but as an artist you can’t cut every song that you write. I’m hoping that I’m building this catalogue that can maybe have some other artists cut it in the future.”
And did you do things to change up the way you write and record because you’re on your seventh album?
“This is the first time that I’ve ever used a different producer. I’ve made every record that I’ve ever made with Frank Liddell but this time we talked about it and he gave me his blessing and I went and used Jay Joyce. I’d never worked with Jay before and I just felt like this was my seventh album and it would have been my tenth album with Frank who also produced The Pistol Annies.
“Sometimes you’ve got to switch it up and I felt like I had to do something a little different. It was a risk that was a little scary to take but I think it was worth it.”
In what ways did he switch things up?
“There’s already a different energy when you’re working with somebody new. But I think the best example is that he takes your songs and turns them upside down. That’s what you know you’re getting when you work with Jay, you have to be willing to let him take them apart and put them together in his own way.
“For instance, Locomotive… Locomotive was written with a slower bluesy feel and we walked in there and he made it punk! Just having that new relationship. Having that new energy, a little bit of nervous energy, just added to the project.”
One of the great things about Wildcard is the way that it ebbs and flows…
“Throughout the recording process, and the writing process, I really kept in mind that I wanted to have something that translated live because I’d just done a songwriter record. I wrote so many songs for Weight Of These Wings, it was a double-album, so then I wanted to really hone in on my setlist because I was going back out on the road. I wanted to make sure that I had diversity for my set and I definitely think Wildcard brought that back.”
What’s the audience reaction been like to the new songs?
“It’s been awesome. It’s funny too because the reactions… there’s not one that stands out on this record because it’s so diverse. You ask 10 different people what their favourite song is and there are 10 different answers. It’s great and it’s exactly what I needed to do to revamp my show.”
When you’re writing poignant songs like Bluebird and How Dare You Love do you have to be in a different headspace than when you’re working on more rocking numbers?
“Yeah, I think you have to get there emotionally, whatever you’re writing. Some days you walk in and maybe you’re in that mood but some days you may have to switch moods depending on what the songs are saying.
“In general, on this record and where I am in my life, I drew from a different place. By getting a little happier and coming out of a bad time in my life I think it allowed me to show up to writing sessions in a different headspace than I was in before.”
Are you beyond caring that people will look through your songs and lyrics for insight into your relationships?
“My job is to be honest. I started my career songwriting from exactly my point of view and from my heart, so I feel like from my perspective I give everything in those songs. It’s whenever people ask me personal questions and I’m like, ‘You know what, all the answers you want to know are right there on the record.’
“You just have to listen for it. I use it as therapy, that’s what we get to do as songwriters. It’s an awesome blessing, getting to use our words to heal ourselves and hopefully in the process we’ll heal other people, because we’re not the only ones going through hard things.”
What advice would you give people who have a fear of putting their songs out there?
“You’ve got to go for it, you have to take the risk. Sometimes it feels a little scary, I always get a little anxiety and nervous when I put out a record, or even a new song, but I know that when people come up to me and say ‘Over You helped me heal from something terrible that happened to me,’ or ‘Gunpowder And Lead saved my life, I got away from the son of a bitch,’ that’s why it’s worth it.
“That’s what we’re supposed to use music for, to help people escape and help people not feel alone. So, in a way, you’re doing yourself and other people a disservice by being dishonest.”
Can you think of any songs by other artists that have had that impact on you?
“The very first record that I remember feeling that impact was an Allison Moorer song called Alabama Song. I remember just understanding. I could hear pain in her voice and I remember understanding that emotion. You hear songs and until you’re a little bit older you don’t really know but I realised that a beautiful young girl could sing about such pain and hurt and heartache in a country song. That really struck me as a baby songwriter.
“Another example of that is Against The Wind [Bob Seger], but now I hear it differently because I’m older and I’ve been through more. Depending on where you are in your life, a song may not strike you, but then you hear it again. Even if it’s something happy, it’s like, ‘Oh this is what that song is about.’ It kind of enlightens you.”
Has that ever happened with one of your own songs, that a different meaning presents itself to you over time?
“It has. A lot of my songs have come back to me. One of them was Leave Me Lying Here. It was one of the very first songs I ever wrote, on my independent little CD I made. Now, thinking back, I don’t know how I wrote that or where I was coming from. Obviously, I was taking from people around me because I hadn’t lived enough life for it to have come from my own perspective. Then, as time went on, I couldn’t believe that it came out of me then because it struck a chord so much now.”
Is your compulsion to write songs still the same as it was back then?
“I’m still very much in it. I’m obsessed with it, I love it, I miss it, I start to crave it. I haven’t written a song since Wildcard was finished and I’m getting the itch. It’s something that I can’t not do, I have to do it. I can’t explain why that happens; you start to crave it because there’s a release in it.”
We’ve noticed that there are a lot of specific references in your songs. Even though people might not know the exact things you’re talking about, would you say that’s more powerful than writing in generalisms?
“I think a lot of people just write from what they know. There’s a line in a Randy Houser song [Whistlin’ Dixie], I think he’s great, and he says, ‘I can only sing like I talk y’all,’ and it’s that simple. We just write from the perspective of what we know and where we come from. My husband is from New York City and sometimes even he doesn’t get my references, he didn’t know what a crawfish bowl was. Somehow people understand the sentiment even if they don’t understand the exact thing.”
Tequila Does felt like you were going back to your Texas roots a little…
“That’s probably my favourite song on the record because of the Texas sound to it. It sounds so much like home that it gets me homesick when I sing it. I wrote that song in Texas with two Texans. We wrote it in Marfa, a West Texas town which is full of nothing but tumbleweeds. I wrote it with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram, Texan songwriters that I’ve known for years.
“When we were writing it we knew, ‘This is home, this is what home sounds like.’ I started in the honky-tonks so when we were going into the waltz and two-step it just took me back to my honky-tonk days when someone would shout out, ‘Play a two-step,’ or, ‘Play a waltz’. I guess we just wanted both in one song.”
Do you think those roots still inform everything that you do?
“I know that my roots shape every single song that I’ve ever written. I don’t think I can get away from it, even if I try. You can hear it in my accent alone so I feel like where I’m from is my sound. Authenticity is the most important thing in this business. No matter where you’re from, where you grew up or what you stand for, I feel like it should show in your music, because that’s your roots. Country music obviously has a stronger opinion on that, for sure, but I like to believe people.”
And do you ever have time to find a moment to take stock of how far you’ve come and all you’ve created and achieved?
“I do. When I started writing for Wildcard I sat in my music room, where I have all my awards and plaques and things that I’ve earned, and I sat there and soaked it in a little bit and felt nostalgic and proud of it, but then I ended up hanging tapestries all over the room to cover everything, because that’s the past.
“I covered it up and was like, ‘That’s great but that’s the past.’ I have to keep reinventing; I have to keep moving forward and doing better musically. I felt like that was a good moment for me to regroup and reset.”
When you started out did you have a long-term plan?
“I hoped I would be on a bus playing music, and that’s exactly where I am right now, so I feel like I’m very lucky and fortunate. I worked really hard and I love it. The business side is sometimes what will discourage people, because that can get rough, but when it comes to music, that’s what I always wanted – to sing country music.
“I used to write on the road and now I really can’t because I try to give everything I can to my shows. So if I’m trying to fill my head with words during the day it just gets too much. So I have two different sides of my brain that I use, but I do love both sides.”
Do you have any big ambitions that you’re yet to achieve?
“I want to write great songs. My songwriting goal is to write a song that I would be proud to show John Prine or Guy Clark. I still want to keep growing as a musician. I love what I do but I do know now that balancing it and having a life outside of all of this is important, and I’ve learned that over the years. So it’s always keeping the balance of the rockstar lifestyle and being a person that can go to dinners and have weekend’s off and be a normal person. It’s a fine line but I’ve learnt to walk it.”
Do you think you’ve come close to achieving that ambition with any of your songs?
“There’s a few. I think Automatic is one of those.”
Do you have a piece of advice to leave our readers with?
“I’d say leave it all on the paper. You have to do it even if it hurts or if it’s hard, you just have to do it.”