The wait is finally over. Fourteen years after their Grammy-sweeping album Taking The Long Way, The Chicks – formerly known as the Dixie Chicks – today (July 17) release their incredible new album Gaslighter via Columbia.
In the cover story of the new edition of Music Week, The Chicks – that's Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer – open up about their “emotionally raw” new record, working with co-producer Jack Antonoff, their relationship with country music, industry double standards, the infamous George W Bush controversy and the reasons behind their long absence.
“We took a long hiatus and didn’t know if we had anything to say,” Maguire told Music Week. “We didn’t want to just do it to do it. It made sense for us to take that long break, but this was an itch we needed to scratch, and we did have something to say collectively. It was perfect to do it now.”
Here, in an unread extract of our cover feature, Maines, Maguire and Strayer take us further inside the creation of Gaslighter…
So, after 14 years, what does it mean to you personally to have a new record coming out?
Natalie Maines: “It’s just exciting, and it's exciting because the fans are excited. We can feel that. But it was fun to make it and to work with Jack [Antonoff]. He's the best. I'm not sure an album has ever taken that long that Jack’s done before – which tends to be our usual story, not his! But he hung in there with us and it was great. It's a bummer that we didn't get to do the tour, but I'm just excited to have it out there, and that's why we aren't postponing it again.”
What did you learn about yourself from making this album?
Emily Strayer: “It's a kind of a culmination of things because I feel like it's not only coming out of – what now seems like ancient history – the controversy, but also us taking time off and going into some different endeavours, whether it was Courtyard Hounds or Natalie doing her solo project, all those things kind of informed how we've grown. I think we came to it with a lot more wisdom than we did in the past, and the fact that we don't have to be doing this. We don't have to be here. We are here because we want to be here. For me personally, I would take things too personally before, I wouldn't let things slide off me. Through the whole process coming to this, I didn't find myself worrying about well, ‘Should we say that or should we not say that?’ With age and the experiences we've had, it’s just complete freedom to not worry about those things. I guess that's probably the biggest thing for me. It’s been liberating.”
Martie Maguire: “The biggest difference this time was working with somebody like Jack who plays every instrument under the sun, and is so inspiring as a fellow musician. It's just so fun to be in a room with him in general as a person because he's hilarious and his ideas come so quickly, and every time we've recorded before, we've written by maybe sitting around with an acoustic guitar and banjo or fiddle. His process was quite different in the fact that we did sit around in a studio, but we could instantaneously hear where the song was going. A couple of songs on the record started out as ballads and ended up being up-tempo [or] changed form so many different times just because we didn't have the pressure of, ‘OK, the whole band's in the studio, the clock's ticking’.”
Natalie, in 2016 you told the New York Times that your ‘muscle for songwriting is like a 600 pound man right now, way flabby.’ How is that muscle songwriting muscle now? What was required of you to get it working again for this album?
NM: “This album was a lot easier for me. Working with these co-writers and Jack, it really helped for them to be able to create beats and just start even laying down some synth, it really led me to a million melody ideas and made things flow much better. It helped me to think of lyrics in more of a rhythmic way. That was really new for us and much easier for me, I prefer it. It would hard to go back and go back to writing a song to an acoustic guitar.”
So what did Jack bring out in you as a songwriter specifically?
NM: “He’s just a great collaborator – he throws out a lot of melody ideas. He would contribute lyrics for sure, but mainly knew we had things to say and knew what we wanted to say. We would joke because whenever he was telling us a melody idea, which he was hearing as the track was playing, everything had to do with fire! ‘Burn it up!’ ‘It's on fire!’ We were like, ‘You are always ad-libbing lyrics about fire!’ And we have that in Gaslighter. ‘Had to light it up, had to burn it down!’ That's totally a Jack line. I guarantee you he wrote that line! [laughs]”
ES: “He's just a mile-a-minute man of ideas. But also we're pretty insular when we're writing. We don't want to have a ton of people around, we really like small groups. And when you're in the studio with him, it's like being in a candy store because it's like, ‘Well, how about this!?’ or ‘How about that!?’ And he plays everything and he can create any sound you can imagine. He was just constantly throwing things out there and then we'll just grab onto things. He's ultimately the best cheerleader for what we're doing, and he's not trying to change us. He's also good at talking us back into [being] ourselves. We can second guess ourselves and be like, ‘We want to experiment, we want to take a step forward’ and he would be like, ‘Yeah, but don't get away from the essence of who you are.’ For the most part, he's just adding a new, more modern approach to what we already do.”
Martie, you said, ‘We're not going to get country a lot of country radio airplay’ with Gaslighter. Does that matter to you? Your relationship with country music in general at this point is an interesting one…
MM: “Well, I don't know if this album fits the format here [in the US], I don't know if it would sound out of place. I mean when I heard that our label head had given it to country radio I listened to hopefully hear Gaslighter and I didn't. I was curious just to know just what it sounded like with all the other stuff because programmers kind of want a genre to have a sound and I don't know how far away we've gotten from that, honestly, because I don't really listen to country radio. Definitely some of the ballads I could hear on country radio. When you hear that banjo going I don't know how it's not country. But things are moving away from radio and getting more to people getting to choose that they stream on their streaming sites and everything's moving that direction anyway, which I'm really happy about.”
March March addresses a lot of powerful topics, from gun control to women’s rights. What inspired that song?
ES: “Aren't you glad you're not in the US right now? [laughs] It’s bad, but it’s great at the same time. It is just like finally things are starting to feel real again. There’s not just this glaze over everything… Usually we don't have a plan on any given day when it goes into writing sessions. But inevitably we'll sit around and just talk for an hour or two with whomever we're writing with. And it just starts the conversation. And on that day, we were just all riled up about what was on the news and how we were feeling with the state of the country and what it was we were passionate about. And we went to the March For Our lives, we brought our families to the gun control march. And so we were talking about that in the session, and that's where the march idea came up. And we're just like, ‘It's important that we talk about how we feel about different issues.’ And whether that makes people not want to listen to us? I don't know. I just feel like it's better to be honest. So on that given day, that was what was on our minds. But we didn't want to write three verses all about gun control, so we started talking about other things we were passionate about. There’s so much to do [as a country] and we’re just going back to undo the progress that’s been made.”
NM: “It was also a song that really changed from the beginning of it. It was a totally different song on the first day we left the studio. It was cool, but there was something hokey about the tempo or parts of the melody. Jack is definitely the one who helped us solve what was going wrong.”
It’s really hard to imagine a hokey version of it…
NM: “I think we're going to reveal it at some point. That embarrassment will be out there at some point [laughs]. I can't remember who came up with the March March refrain, but it’s like, once you go down that path, we could have had endless verses [laughs]”
It could have been 25 minutes long easy…
NM: “Exactly. Like, where to begin? And we wrote that song over two years ago, so now we’d really have a lot of verses.”
Photo: Robin Harper