How Natalie Hemby Made a Perfect Country Album by Accident
'Puxico' started out as a documentary soundtrack, but the Nashville songwriter's debut turned out to mean so much more.
On a recent Chicago morning, hours after a coming-out party more than 20 years in the making, Natalie Hemby was still reeling from the excitement. "Yesterday was such a whirlwind," the 39-year-old singer-songwriter said as she relaxed in her Windy City hotel room. "I was very emotional last night. I almost cried quite a few times." She's been one of Nashville's most successful songwriters for more than a decade, having penned songs for the likes of Miranda Lambert, Little Big Town, Kelly Clarkson, Lady Antebellum, and Maren Morris. But not until the previous evening, when she opened for her good friend and collaborator Lambert at the intimate Joe's Bar, had Hemby been the one out front.
"I was a little shocked," the singer, who after two decades working in country music finally released her debut album Puxico a few weeks previously, said of the crowd bathing her in adoration and sing-alongs. "I'm not used to that," she added with a laugh. "I'm not used to people singing along. And they're right at your feet and they're screaming. But it sure as hell beats the alternative."
Hemby never intended to emerge as a solo artist, nevermind one that outlets from the New York Times to Rolling Stone are hailing as a revelation for her poignant, warm storytelling and honeyed voice. She'd been working on a documentary about the 70th anniversary homecoming celebration in Puxico, the small Missouri town where her grandfather lived. But, as she explained, after writing original songs for its soundtrack—including the romantic swinging "Lovers on Display" and the reverential "Cairo, IL"—Hemby found herself being encouraged by her peers from Morris to Brandy Clark to release the collection as a standalone album.
"Let's just be honest: I'm a 20-year overnight success," Hemby said. "What can I say?" Despite her budding career as an artist, Hemby remains fond of songwriting for her friends and fellow country singers. Lambert, in particular—with whom she began writing with on 2009's Revolution—inspires her like few others: "I've always been so appreciative of her because she does push boundaries and she tries new things."
Hemby said she's grateful for this unexpected new wrinkle in her career but admitted she's unsure of what the future holds for her as an artist. "I really don't know where this is going to go," she explained in a conversation that touched on the genesis of Puxico, why she's particularly amped about a certain group of female country singers, and how in her estimation her career has finally come full circle. "All I know is wherever it goes is I just like calling the shots."
Noisey: Playing at Joe's Bar last night must have been an exhilarating experience given your long history in country music.
Natalie Hemby: It was! I felt like Selena or something.
Considering all your successes as a songwriter, it's hard to believe it's taken this many years for you to put on a proper show.
I've been here for a while now, so I just wanted to go up and enjoy it. Even the songs that I had just written that they don't know, the fact that they even just listened, I was a little shocked. I don't think that happens all the time. I'm grateful.
Then again, you have the luxury of trotting out hit songs like "Pontoon" and "Automatic" you wrote for Little Big Town and Miranda Lambert, respectively.
It's a really awesome thing to have in your back pocket. It's almost an unfair play.
The songs on Puxico were originally intended solely for the documentary you made on the small Missouri town.
To be honest in my mind I thought it was a soundtrack. I honestly wasn't thinking about putting out a first record. At the time I was so enthralled with the documentary and trying to finish it. What's funny is a lot of these songs, there are like four or five of them that are like seven years old. I wrote them in 2010. I did not think I was going to put it out as my record at all. I just didn't know where this was going to go. It's kind of gone on this little journey off the beaten path. I did a big showing of the documentary in Nashville and another big one in Puxico. But when I made the documentary I also wasn't going to make it about me. I just wanted it to be about the Puxico homecoming: how do you keep this thing alive? How do you keep this small town celebration going after 70 years? But then I slowly started realizing "This isn't just about the homecoming and Puxico. This is about my grandfather." So the story evolved out of it. But the same thing happened with the record.
So you never thought it could become a standalone album?
Over time people would be like "When are you going to do your record?" People like Brandy Clark and Maren Morris. All my buddies. That's what I do love about Nashville. We love and support each other. It was Maren actually who kind of tipped the scale for me. She came to the showing in Puxico, which meant the world to me. She asked me "Hey, do you know the songs from the movie? Can I listen to them? My boyfriend (singer Ryan Hurd) and I are going on a trip to Michigan." I said "Sure." I sent her all nine songs and then they both started texting me "Hey, you really need put this out. This record is so beautiful." I started thinking, "This is me. This is my heart and soul." I'm a spitfire at heart, so I always thought my first record would be balls to the wall: "I am woman. Hear me roar!" But I'm going to be 40 in March, and I don't feel like that's where I'm at. I just wanted to pay homage to this place and this person I love so much. That's the deepest part of who I am.
If you had been signed to a label and put our your debut album 20 years ago it surely would not have been nearly as meaningful a collection of songs.
I would have just been a blip.
"I'm a spitfire at heart, so I always thought my first record would be balls to the wall: 'I am woman. Hear me roar!'"
A big-name country artist could probably have cut a song like "Lovers on Display" and it might have gone Top Ten. Did you have to keep these songs to yourself?
Totally. I actually might have pitched "Lovers on Display" to Little Big Town one time, but I don't even know if they'd remember me pitching it to them. But I've always been precious as to keeping the songs for myself for the documentary. I've written songs where an artist cuts a song I wrote and I love the version of it they do. But sometimes you don't always love the version an artist cuts. Because you wrote it from a different place. I have examples in my head, but I just don't want to say names. I've had a couple songs where when I sing it and people are like "Oh my God! I love this song." But when the artist sings it it doesn't translate as much because they didn't write it. There's something about writing your own songs.
I'm sure you have to let go in many ways when allowing another artist to record your songs. You can't be too precious.
Man, you just nailed it. If you're a songwriter in Nashville you can't be too precious. That's just the thing. If you get a cut and maybe it's some artist you don't really like it's kind of like "Tough shit!" Because people are waiting in line to get cuts. It's not easy. It's a small pool. But these things just lead to other things and steps to other directions. I am so grateful. I had a contract from Columbia Records in 2000, and it's literally the size of a novel. I'm pretty sure they would still own my blood type to this day if I had signed it. I'm so glad it didn't happen that way.
So how did you start songwriting for big-time artists?
I was working at Comcast for a while, and then I just started writing songs that I loved just because I wanted to write again. My husband (producer Mike Wrucke) did Miranda's first three records, and that's how I met her. And then she asked me to come write on Revolution and I was like "Hell yes!"
Have you been pleasantly surprised by how people have responded to Puxico ?
I was nervous. I just wanted people to go "When I heard this song it reminds me of my hometown." That would mean so much.
It's been getting such a wonderful critical reception.
It's just nice having a body of work where your name is on it. My husband produced and played over half the instruments on it. Everybody wants their work to be praised. But at the rate I'm going I hope I don't wait another 20 years to put out another record (laughs).
Going back to last night, I imagine it took on extra significance given that it was with Miranda. In many ways she changed your life.
She totally did! It was so special. She's the same age as my sister—they have the same birthday—so in many ways I've always seen her as a sister. But we've only actually been close in the last couple years because she lives in Nashville now. But I've always loved her. And I'm so glad she took a chance on me because literally it just changed my life. Even though "Kerosene" or "Gunpowder and Lead" should have been her first Number One, she and I got to share our first Number One together. And that was so special. But this was another one of those moments last night for me. I honestly can't thank her enough. I love her so much. And she has been so supportive of me. And it's been awesome because she knows I don't want anything from her. I just love to write with her. I love her songs. I love her artistry, and I think she's just amazing. I really do. There's not many people like her that come along. There's very few in fact. And honestly I feel the same way about Maren too. There's this group of girls, God, they just have it. Things you can't teach. It's just star quality.
"Everybody wants their work to be praised. But at the rate I'm going I hope I don't wait another 20 years to put out another record."
When it comes to songwriting, do you and Miranda feel like a tag-team?
Hands down. And you know what's crazy? Even for this last record (2016's The Weight of These Wings), which I was so honored and happy about, she cut ten songs of mine on this record, but we wrote like 25 songs together. And it wasn't even like "Hey, we need to write 25 songs together." She kept calling "Can you come over tonight? I've got this song idea." Or I'll be like " Hey, I've got this song idea. Let's write." We just have a thing. I don't know what it is. Some artists, you might have moments with them. "Oh, that's a great song." But you should hear the songs that don't make the record. They're awesome. She's so much fun to write with for me. I get her. She gets me. We just understand each other.
I imagine it's more meaningful when you're writing with artists you personally love like, say, Miranda or Maren or Kacey Musgraves?
I ask that because I know Toby Keith cut one of your songs. And for some reason I can't imagine you sitting down and bonding with him. But maybe I'm wrong.
No. You're right (laughs). You know that part about letting go (laughs)? Toby cut one of my songs ("Drinks After Work"), and I was like, "Really? Wow. I was thinking like Kelly Clarkson, but all right." You can't say no, though. You're not going to write great with every artist. And if you do, good for you. There's actually only two songwriters in this world who can do that: Shane McAnally and Luke Laird. They can write with anybody. But there's people you connect with more than others. But the great thing is it's not built on this contrived-friendship relationship. Shit, I've been doing this a long time. I was doing this before a lot of these girls were even singing in bars when they were 13. That's when I was losing my record deals (laughs). You have to be confident. I have confidence. I have good ideas. I walk in and I go "Hey, I've got a song for you!"
Looking ahead, where do you see your career as an artist headed? Did last night make you want to tour?
Would I love to go and play and open for somebody? Absolutely. I am doing my debut at the Opry which I'm so excited about. I graduated from high school on the Grand Ole Opry stage. It's hilarious. This will be another graduation of sorts.
It's all coming full circle.
That's what this is. It's full circle! God, if you stay in this game long enough and it happens it's so freaking amazing! You're living in your own movie. And it has a good ending.
Photos by Kate York, courtesy of Natalie Hemby
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.