The singer-songwriter's 'Pageant Material' is apparently here to make country music cool again. We asked her what that meant.
Kacey Musgraves is late. About 40 minutes late, actually. “I’m so sorry, so sorry,” she says over the phone from Aspen when I answer. “I’ve had interview after interview after interview.”
It’s cool, because I’ve been waiting to talk to the latest savior of country music for about two years. And, well, so has the rest of the music industry, apparently. After winning multiple Grammys and awards for 2013's Same Trailer, Different Park, the singer-songwriter’s second album Pageant Material—a record that’s drenched in the classic styles of 70s simple songwriting—hit shelves to much acclaim. Pitchfork writes that “her songs exude a relaxed resonance because they have a lot less to prove.” The New York Times says it’s “an elegant, wistful, sometimes beautiful record that’s almost completely bereft of punch. It moves at an expertly played gallop that suggests classic country without adding a wink.” And The Fader, in a cover story called ‘Kacey Musgraves Is Making Country Music Good Again,’ she’s labeled as “not your usual country star, nor is she anything but.”
And Musgraves? Well, she’s not really thinking about that. She’s just happy to be here.
“Do I enjoy it? Am I proud of it?” she says of Pageant Material. “That’s the mark of success for me. I just genuinely hope that people enjoy listening to it.”
Over the phone, Musgraves is happy and chipper, someone who clearly has the experience of doing interview after interview. Her answers, at times, are formulaic—but she’s also someone who carries the manners of a Southerner, always polite and respectful (later I’ll realize that this is probably why she was late calling, because she was too nice to kick nosey reporters off the phone). Yet despite her charm and proper answers, Musgraves has been labeled a “rebel,” the country musician who’s here to take us back to the roots and save us from the bro’d out EDMifcation of country music (this is how we roll, you know?). But she’s insistent this isn’t the label she’s trying for, or really any label at all. As she puts it on the album's title track, "Sometimes I talk before I think, I try to fake it but I can't, I'd rather lose for what I am than win for what I ain't."
It's simple, really. Kacey Musgraves ain't pageant material in any shape or form. And she's fine with that.
“I’m really just writing about the things that inspire me,” she says. “And I feel like that’s a songwriter’s job.”
Noisey: You’ve had an explosive past couple years. How’s it been dealing with that?
Kacey Musgraves: I have a pretty strong core as a human—not like a physical core [laughs], but mentally, I feel like I’m holding it down pretty well. I still feel like myself. I’m a little more tired these days, but it's good and I love the people I’m around and have an amazing team and we just have fun together and don’t let any factors outside of the music we really create influence what we’re doing. And so that’s a healthy way to be and I want it to stay like that.
Is it a challenge to keep it that way?
Well, for me, it's all about keeping it as much about the music as possible. There are so many things in this industry that kind of pull it from the music.
I don’t know, there are just a million factors. It's becomes a lot more about your appearance than what you're doing, and your music—and that’s the ultimate reason I’m here. This is about the songs. This is about the music. I try to keep it about that, but also make sure that I have time for my brain to rest, and catch up with my friends, and, like, you know, making time for my hobbies, riding horses, and taking Spanish lessons.
Your music is so appealing because it’s classic songwriting that’s simplicity yet personal. Is it difficult for you to put that personal stuff out there?
Not really. My favorite songs are the one's that are clearly really personal but that have universal relatable. A lot of our songs are pretty specific to my experiences, but they can relate to or other people can kind of make them what they want them to be.
Is that a goal?
Maybe it's a self-conscious goal, I don’t really know, you know? I think it just happens to come out that way a lot of times.
What’s it like going through your 20s while becoming famous?
For me, this has never been a race, because I know as time goes on, I’m just gonna be more sure footed in who I am and what I like and what I don’t like and what I’m about so it's never a race for me to be the biggest and most famous or reach the widest audience in this amount of time, because it's only gonna serve me better to hang out and figure it out. Playing shows for the last few years has made me a better, stronger musician, and I feel like it can only get better with time. It’s easy for me to have patience in that way because if would’ve all happened to me right when I first moved to Nashville when I was like 19 or 20 then I would’ve—I would have a completely different career.
What was it like moving to Nashville?
I moved from Austin. It was one of the best moves I’ve ever made. They’re actually pretty similar cities in a lot of ways. But it was different in the sense that I was moving like ten hours away from my family, but I really enjoyed the transition and found it pretty inspiring.
What inspired you?
Anytime you're put outside of your comfort zone you grow. Either you grow or you shrink and if you want to survive, you’ve gotta grow, too. I had choice but to put myself out there and you know meet as many people as I could and write and get better and see what happens, you know?
Did you have to work any shitty jobs during that transition?
Luckily, no. I did have one random job dressing up for little kids birthday parties but it didn’t last very long and then luckily about a year after I moved to town I got a publishing deal and I started writing as a staff writer for a publishing company.
How’s it feel to be the face of the “cool country music” wave that’s happening right now?
What, that country music is cool again?
I mean, I do see it spreading, which I do think is great. I think the genre is probably bigger than it ever has been. I do find it very interesting that the countrier I get or my music gets, the less I really know where it's fitting into the modern country scene. For me, one of the coolest things that a country artist can be these days is be really traditionally country. I feel like everyone is concerned with being cool these days—just cool and not country. I just really appreciate being able to bring the roots of the genre that really inspire me into play.
Did you grow up listening to country?
Kind of. I grew up singing western swing and very traditional music but I also listened to NSYNC or Spice Girls like whatever everybody else was listening to. I don’t even know how I grew up singing it—it just happened. And then I kind of moved away from that in my teen years I didn’t think it was very cool I got into a really emo phase—
Whoa. Emo? We have to talk about that.
No we don’t! [Laughs.] And then I started writing a bunch of songs and figuring out that I could tell stories and songs from my perspective and that was inspiring me. And then as time went on and I got closer to the age I am now, I’ve really been inspired by digging up those old school country roots that I sang as a kid and bringing them back.
What attracts you to those roots?
Country music to me has always been a genre that’s just straight up real shit, real life, real people, heart break, you know, whatever. Life. And so that’s what drove me to the genre you know?
Do you feel misunderstood?
I feel like people get a really good sense of who I am. I do think though however some of my ideas are sensationalized and that’s a little frustrating. Just a little. I feel like people will pick out several topics of my songs that are considered a little against the grain these days. And dub me as a rebel or a wild person but I’m really not. I’m really just writing about the things that inspire me and I feel like that’s a songwriter’s job. It’s just bits and pieces of the world around them, and putting them in songs for people that are going through the same things. That’s really all that is. I never sing about the things I think about to be a sensationalistic person. They’re just generally things that have made an impression on me somewhere along the way.
People love to call you a rebel.
Yeah, I mean, I feel like I’m a pretty easy-going chick—kind of a hippie at heart. I love all different kinds of people and traveling has really allowed me to see the world. I just really love just writing about what people my age are going through.
Eric Sundermann minds his own biscuits and his life is gravy. Follow him on Twitter.