This month, critically-acclaimed singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves returns to the UK to headline Country To Country Festival. But that’s not all. She’s also set to release her highly-anticipated third album, Golden Hour. Music Week speaks to the charismatic star, her manager Jason Owen and Decca’s Rebecca Allen about how she is finding success on her own terms...
"I actually went to a psychic today,” Kacey Musgraves says to Music Week, her Texan lilt charged with excitement.
The story goes a little something like this: in her home, Musgraves and her husband – singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly – often hear noises.
They’ve never seen anything, but there are mysterious footstep sounds on the staircase, a feeling of being watched, not to mention the inexplicable smell of fresh cigarette smoke that sometimes lingers in the air.
Typically, Musgraves reassures herself that their house is just “settling”. She hadn’t divulged any of this to the psychic, so it goes without saying that her ears pricked up when she heard what he had to impart.
“So the noises you hear in your house…” he said, unprompted. “It’s not your house settling, it’s them. They’re there. They’re around. The spirits are there.”
This supernatural turn of events is being recounted in Nashville’s beautiful Noelle hotel. Through the window of Musgraves’ room, the Tennessee Titans NFL team’s Nissan Stadium glows in the night sky across the Cumberland River.
Mere blocks away, country music spills out of every rowdy bar on Broadway. It’s a noise that’s a world away from where Musgraves finds herself now, sat on her bed, poking at a plate of food, and meditating on what she heard earlier in the day. She is taking some of what he said with a grain of salt. But still...
“He said the spirits are probably going to get noisier this year,” continues Musgraves. “I don’t know why, I don’t know what that means. But they don’t want me to feel like I’m alone – in a good way. He said they’re protective and they won’t show themselves, sometimes they do but they won’t to me.”
In particular, the psychic singled out a “strong masculine energy” orbiting her home life – a description she feels is congruent with her late grandfather, who taught karate.
If this clairvoyance unexpectedly seems to chime with the truth, his other words, however, could have been uttered by anyone who has followed the trajectory of Musgraves’ career closely.
“What else did he say?” she ponders to herself. “He said, ‘The seeds you plant this year, you will see the benefits of for the next 12-13 years.’”
It’s hard not to interpret one of the seeds as being Golden Hour, Musgraves’ highly-anticipated third studio album, due for release on March 30 via Decca/Universal Music Group Nashville.
Even without fortuitous omens – not to mention Musgraves citing the total solar eclipse that transpired on her birthday in the middle of recording it – the stage is set for Musgraves to cement her reputation as the most exciting artist to emerge in country music for a long, long time.
Musgraves’ first two phenomenal albums, 2013’s Same Trailer Different Park (71,973 sales to date – OCC), and 2015’s Pageant Material (43,472), established her as a songstress opening a new, post-Taylor Swift audience up to country music.
It is no wonder she has graduated to headline Country To Country this year.
“She has already broken down walls with her music,” enthuses Decca Records Group UK president Rebecca Allen. “Kacey is 100% unique - she doesn’t conform. And that’s powerful. Our business needs uniqueness to cut through the noise out there. Her lyrics, her storytelling resonate with both the young and old.”
The same charismatic qualities that define her music emit from her in conversation – she’s friendly, down-to-earth, whip-smart, and charmingly droll. “Want a tree?” she grins at one point in the interview, offering Music Week what is surely the world’s biggest piece of broccoli from her plate.
For now, however, it’s time to turn her attention away from vegetables and the metaphysical realm, and towards her album launch. Musgraves’ hotel room is full of bags, tonight being her last in Nashville before heading on tour to bring her new album to life.
Golden Hour is, by equal turns, a mesmeric comeback and a surprising one – “I pressed play and my head exploded!” is Allen’s review.
“I’m never going to be the kind of artist that repeats themselves,” explains Musgraves. “That’s detrimental. The old saying is don’t fix what ain’t broke – but I’m not inspired to work that way. I changed everything up on this one.”
Yet to truly understand where Musgraves is about to go with this new album, you first have to understand where she’s been in the past year or so.
Sometimes when a woman has a really strong opinion of what she wants to do it can come across as bitchy. That's fine, it's just about what's best for me. I'm the one who has to live with it forever...
Kacey Musgraves’ life has changed dramatically. While she is visibly excited to be “back in the swing of things”, she also admits it’s a little bit jarring leaving the existence she’s been living for the past year-and-a-half behind.
Having tied the knot in October 2017, lately she’s been relishing normalcy – be it working on her house, seeing friends or even doing laundry. All of this is inextricably linked to the songs on Golden Hour.
“When you’re in the wrong circumstances in life – relationships and whatnot – you close yourself off, maybe just out of protection,” she explains. “Now I’m with an amazing person, my life has totally gone on a different path, I just feel a lot more open and receptive to people and more inspired to write about that side of life, you know?”
Such happiness did, however, come with a slight undertow of trepidation. After all, where would country music be as a genre without the sweet, sweet agonising sting of heartbreak?
“I was a little bit scared at first when I got really happy that I wouldn’t be able to create again,” she admits. “But my songs have never really just been straight up about pain. Songs just started pouring out when my life took a new direction.”
Nor is her life the only thing going in a new direction, so too is her approach to songwriting on Golden Hour.
“With this album I really tried to learn to use a different part of my brain with writing. I tried to be…” she pauses. “I don’t know how to explain it. I tried to be less hard on myself to turn a phrase or have to prove my wittiness with each line.”
This is a big deal. Since emerging in 2013, Musgraves has been widely – and deservedly – celebrated for punchlines, zingers and double entendre. Look no further than her 2015 meditation on blood relatives, Family Is Family: “They might smoke like chimneys, but give you their kidneys, yeah, friends come in handy, but family is family.” Fetishising clever wordplay was, she says, an easy career trap for her to fall into.
“I’m a huge fan of John Prine,” she says. “I’ll always love witty songs like that, but I wanted to lead a bit more with my heart on this than my brain – you don’t want to wear anybody out or become a parody of yourself, a caricature. It’s interesting, I don’t want to say that and this record be seen as less smart or biting, I was still as discerning as always with the lyrics – it’s just a different shade.”
Indeed, Golden Hour may be her finest hour in that it practically overflows with beautiful, intimate songs. It is precisely for this reason that the decision was made to launch Golden Hour, in true Sheeranian fashion, with not one, but two singles: Butterflies and Space Cowboy.
The first is Musgraves’ favourite song on the record. Co-written with Nashville legends Natalie Hemby [Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Lee Ann Womack] and Luke Laird [Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Blake Shelton], she says it shows her becoming a “more open person”.
The other is not the Jamiroquai cover you may expect from the title, but rather a song about accepting when someone no longer fits into your life.
Musgraves’ manager, Jason Owen of Sandbox Entertainment – also home to Country To Country’s other 2018 headline acts Little Big Town, plus Faith Hill – outlines the strategy for launching with a two-pronged attack.
“Golden Hour is such a transformative record for Kacey and showcases a completely different side to her life,” he tells Music Week. “She’s been out of the spotlight for a minute, so our main goal in launching this campaign was to show fans the depth and growth she personally went through while making this. Space Cowboy and Butterflies were the perfect yin and yang to showcase that growth and change.”
Of course, some huge promotional opportunities have already complemented all this. To tie in with the releases, Musgraves performed a graceful, show-stealing live rendition of Space Cowboy on Jimmy Fallon, while colossal Golden Hour ads have already started appearing in the US – including Spotify’s digital billboard in New York.
Everything points to Musgraves breaking out of the confines of country this time around. But is that actually the plan?
There's going to be people who are going to say, 'Oh, she's made a pop album!' I always want to go wherever I'm inspired...
The notion of manifesting your intent – of thinking something, visualising it, and willing it into existence – is something Kacey Musgraves takes very seriously. That certainly applies to the musical vision she had for Golden Hour.
“Once you think a thought you’re putting it into a realm somewhere,” she explains. “I’ve been trying to channel this album reaching people way outside of country music, but also including the people that have been there for me. Hopefully, all sides will find some joy in it.”
This is something she’s actively put into practice with the music on the record. Rebecca Allen marvels at how Golden Hour retains the essence of her back catalogue while also stretching out into the “retro disco journey” of High Horse.
It’s an exploratory streak Musgraves credits to her working with songwriters Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian for the first time. It was the “futuristic” song Oh, What A World in particular that set the experimental agenda on the record. This is not without potential pitfalls.
“I’m really excited and anxious for everyone to hear the album,” Kacey tells Music Week. “I’m not going to lie, it was a little daunting. There’s a lot of traditionalists, especially in the Americana world, that feel you almost have to prove how country you are, or stay a certain type of country to be country, but that’s just not the way music is supposed to be made. There’s going to be people who are going to say, ‘Oh, she’s made a pop album – there’s synthesisers on this!’ I always want to go wherever I’m led, wherever I’m inspired to go. That’s what happened this time.”
Of course, Musgraves’ country credentials are impeccable – as anyone who has seen her rip through a live cover of Geoff Mack/Hank Snow’s I’ve Been Everywhere can attest.
Yet she insists she is “not a traditionalist” – Golden Hour even ushers in a host of diverse influences from Sade to the Bee Gees. That said, at a time, culturally, when pop stars like Justin Timberlake and Miley Cyrus are pivoting to country to find their identity,
Musgraves is not exactly returning the favour. Indeed, throughout her career Musgraves has bypassed all the typical courtship rituals of the mainstream and yet pop still came calling regardless.
In 2014, Katy Perry took her out on her massive Prismatic tour, while last year Harry Styles recruited her to open shows in the US and Canada. If, on paper, these alliances seem surprising, so too is Team Musgraves’ approach to presenting her music to radically different audiences. Or rather the notable lack of it.
“It’s interesting, Katy Perry asked us out on tour and then we immediately turned around and went out with Willie Nelson,” she beams. “Nothing changed about what we did. Hopefully it all translates the same way and maybe I’ll walk away with some fans who didn’t even realise they liked country.”
The fact that Musgraves continues to attract a large audience may also have its roots in something else. Right from the off, she established herself as a singer with righteous values – her hit gold-selling (RIAA) 2013 single Follow Your Arrow proudly asserted that whether you want to roll up a joint or kiss a member of the same sex, you have every right to do so.
Likewise, Musgraves says Rainbow – Golden Hour’s elegant closing track – not only offers hope to the LGBTQ community but also anyone with, “any kind of weight on their shoulders.”
Musgraves doesn’t deny her openness may have brought some into country music for the first time, but also shrugs off any notion that she’s a liberal Trojan horse in the genre.
“Country music – true country music – has always been celebratory of all kinds of situations,” she says. “It’s just natural that in this day and age, on this, the right side of history, we would have country music that talks about that. I mean, why not? There are gay country fans all over the world."
It seems for Musgraves, handling her artistic vision is tantamount to taking care of business. And it always has been.
Jason Owen still remembers meeting Kacey Musgraves for the first time. She made quite the impression.
“I met Kacey through my long-time friend and mentor, Luke Lewis,” he tells Music Week. “He was interested in her for a label called Lost Highway and he asked me to meet with her for management. We instantly fell in love. She was this tiny, headstrong, 21-year-old brilliant songwriter with bangs and bad highlights. I was new in the management world, and we instantly started dreaming big together and making plans.”
Indeed, Musgraves has always seemed fiercely independent throughout her career so far. She even raised eyebrows with her 2015 song Good Ol’ Boys Club – a song many perceived as taking a swipe at Big Machine with lyrics like,
“Another gear in a big machine don’t sound like fun to me, don’t wanna be a part of the good ol’ boys club.” Musgraves attests that she is still very much hands on when it comes to planning her career.
“At the end of the day it’s my face, my reputation,” she says. “Sometimes when a woman has a really strong opinion of what she wants to do for herself it can come across as bitchy or whatever. That’s fine, it’s just about what’s best for me. I’m the one who has to live with it forever, and every detail is really important to me. Though I will say, as I get older and get deeper into knowing about the business side of things, I try to pick my battles and discern what’s really important.”
What’s the best battle you’ve won?
“Hmm, that’s a good question,” she ponders. “I’ll always stand up for songs I believe in, even if I’m told that they’re going to go down in flames. Look, they see a side of the business that I don’t have to deal with, I understand they might be relaying their reality, but that’s not ever going to change what I think is good and what I should do. So they need to realise that.”
If anything, this defiance has stood her in good stead, especially in a world of country music that has, of late, been embroiled in its fair share of scandals. In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill sparked outrage in an interview by saying,
“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take [female artists] out,” before adding, “The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” And so the ‘Tomato-Gate’ scandal was born. This year, too, Rolling Stone published an incendiary article entitled Inside Country Radio’s Dark, Secret History of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct, detailing horrendous personal encounters from across the biz. Musgraves is familiar with it.
“Most of the world probably has a sexism problem, but yeah, there’s still definitely one that exists in country music,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, there are good people in country music all over that don’t have that mentality, but there are other people that do act like that. I’ve noticed it first hand for sure, whether it’s being told a certain song won’t work because I’m a female, or a DJ on air asking if he can touch my legs… Whether you’re in country or not, those people exist everywhere.”
The Rolling Stone feature did, however, make it sound more brazen in country radio…
“There’s definitely a massive extra pressure on females in country music to be more accommodating, more friendly to the PDs at radio stations. That same pressure is not applied to men. And it can count against you negatively if you don’t live up to those expectations in some areas.”
How do you negotiate that?
“I don’t,” Musgraves laughs. “Ultimately, I’m sure my music or my airplay probably has hurt from that in some circles. But I don’t know, Merry Go ‘Round got played a lot in the beginning – it gave me a lot of momentum. I’m thankful for that.”
Momentum is certainly something Musgraves will not be short of in 2018, especially as she faces the “fucking crazy” prospect of headlining C2C – an event that will see Decca’s promotional propellers at full speed according to Rebecca Allen.
“It gives us a huge moment to connect with her core fanbase,” says Decca’s president. “There will be listening parties for her fans as well as key TV and radio appearances.
Kacey herself has also given creative direction for the marketing of her album so there are lots of ideas being discussed, including a London bus campaign. The UK have hugely embraced Kacey and our opportunities lie far wider than for a country artist.”
It seems the seeds the psychic predicted will soon sprout. But were there any other revelations for her to keep in mind?
“He said, ‘The spirits are telling me that amethyst will help you out.’” she concludes. “And that’s weird because yesterday I ordered a water bottle with a giant amethyst in it...”
A smile on her face suddenly breaks out into a laugh. “Maybe he has my Amazon password...”
You can listen to Kacey Musgraves' latest single High Horse below: