Country music is having a moment, and it’s thanks in no small part to Kacey Musgraves, the acid-dropping, UFO-spotting, Coachella-punking queen of the rodeo. Kevin EG Perry meets her in Palm Springs, California, to talk about her transformative ‘Golden Hour’ album, her socially progressive lyrics and her dream of working with Daft Punk. Pictures: Getty/Press.
The sun is going down on the first Friday of Coachella 2019 and Kacey Musgraves is onstage in front of an outlandishly oversized disco ball attempting to introduce the spirit of country music to California’s hipsters. She is doing this via the medium of call-and-response. “Let’s see if Cali can bring the yee-haw,” she says, approaching the front of the stage. “When I say ‘yee’ you say ‘haw’… ‘Yee!’” The crowd responds with the appropriate: “Haw!” She goes again: “When I say ‘yee’ you say ‘haw’,” except this time she points the mic towards the crowd in silence. “Haw!” shout the crowd, falling right into Musgraves’ trap. She grins as she pulls the mic back to her mouth: “I didn’t say fucking yee!”
It’s a moment that captures Musgraves’ playful sense of humour, as well as her ability to teasingly win over any crowd she finds herself playing to. A few hours earlier, sitting in a hotel in Palm Springs while a stylist takes a blowdryer to her wet hair, she points out that her spot on Coachella’s main stage couldn’t be more serendipitous. “We have a slot during the literal golden hour,” she says, brimming with delight.
‘Golden Hour’ is the album that transformed Musgraves’ life when it was released last March. Her first two records, 2013’s ‘Same Trailer Different Park’ and 2015’s ‘Pageant Material’, had both been big successes in the country music world, but ‘Golden Hour’ was something else entirely. A genuine crossover hit, it has made Kacey Musgraves a household name across America and scooped up armfuls of awards. It was named Album of the Year and Best Country Album at this year’s Grammys, and it picked up Album of the Year awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. It is only the third album in history to pull off a clean sweep of all four awards, putting it in the rarefied company of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack and Taylor Swift’s ‘Fearless’.
Musgraves pulled off this impressive feat by bedazzling her country songwriting with elements of pop, psychedelia and even a Daft Punk-style vocoder. While it’s easy to look back on this decision with the benefit of hindsight and see it as a shrewd move, at the time she was writing the album Musgraves felt like she was taking a gamble. “There was the thought in my mind that the traditionalists and purists in the country genre might not find anything in this record,” she says. “But I thought: ‘Well, that’s fine.’ Music is supposed to evolve and change. Some people come with you onto the next one, and some people don’t. That’s totally cool. In the end, when it came out I think those people found something in it as well. That’s when I knew that taking the risk had paid off.”
If you’ve noticed while listening to ‘Golden Hour’ that Musgraves’ increasingly psychedelic sonic experimentation is also intertwined with a blissful sense of awe and wonder at the universe, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that – like artists from The Beatles to The Flaming Lips to Cary Grant before her – the album was heavily influenced by dropping acid. Both ‘Slow Burn’ and ‘Mother’ are tracks that started life as ideas jotted down during a trip, and the whole record seems coloured by the warm glow of LSD. It’s a way of working that Musgraves is happy to endorse. “Any time I can have the ability to step outside of myself and the human ego and be reminded of my place in the universe, that’s a very helpful tool for me and really for anybody, I feel,” she says. “This album was inspired by that opening of mind and opening of heart.”
It was also inspired by an even more elusive and intoxicating drug: love. Back when she first started writing the record in Nashville, Musgraves went along to a songwriters’ showcase at the Bluebird Cafe to see a friend and by chance caught a performance by a singer-songwriter named Ruston Kelly. The pair got to talking and a few months later he went over to her house to write a song. You can see where this is going. They married in October 2017.
It’s a romantic story, but isn’t country music as a genre built on cheating spouses and relationships gone sour? Isn’t it something of a hindrance to be so loved up? Musgraves says this thought has crossed her mind in the past, but ultimately she disagrees. “I think creative people can trick themselves into thinking that they have to be suffering in order to produce something worthy,” she says. “I think that’s a really big mistake, and kind of dangerous. I feel like I kept myself in unhealthy situations longer than I should have because I was getting something out of it creatively. My song ‘It Is What It Is’ [From ‘Same Trailer Different Park’] came from that feeling. In this new era of my life, it’s nice to know that I don’t have to feel that way anymore. I was kind of worried about being able to create again, but if you’re a well-rounded creative person then hopefully you can create in any emotional state. Inspiration is there no matter what. You’ve just got to be tuned into noticing it.”
Musgraves’ relationship with Kelly inspired several songs on the album, including ‘Butterflies’ and stand-out track ‘Oh, What A World’ which manages to combine the sense of falling in love with the feeling of tripping on acid. “That song started as a love letter to a person but also to humanity and nature and spirituality,” says Musgraves. “I had met the right person and I was falling in love while learning how to love myself more which gave me a more compassionate feeling towards humanity and the world.”
It’s also the song that starts with that robotic vocoder voice. Musgraves is well-known as a dedicated fan of country-realist songwriting icons like Dolly Parton and John Prine, but when I ask which non-country artists she’s into one name jumps immediately to her lips. “Daft Punk, for sure,” she says. “They would be one of my ultimate collabs.”
In lieu of an actual collaboration, the vocoder on ‘Oh, What A World’ was the next best thing. “I wanted to explore what it would sound like if Daft Punk and my favourite parts of country music came together,” says Musgraves. “I loved the notion of traditional elements meeting futuristic elements. I wanted to combine pedal steel and banjo with things that on paper don’t make sense with them. It was all about balance, because you don’t want it to sound like a fucking quilt that doesn’t make sense. It was fun to figure that out.”
Musgraves has always had a voracious musical appetite. As a child her parents played her a lot of Neil Young, which she loved just as much as the ’90s pop and R&B her friends were into. She was born on 21 August 1988, a month early – she arrived on the day of her mother’s baby shower, so has apparently always liked a party – in the aptly named town of Golden, Texas. Once known as the sweet potato capital of the state, the crop has dried up in recent years but that hasn’t stopped Golden hosting a Sweet Potato Festival every October. Musgraves played it back in 2012. “My mom is already asking me if I can make it this year,” she says, in a tone that suggests that the Golden Sweet Potato Festival doesn’t have quite the same pull as the main stage at Coachella. Sorry Mrs Musgraves.
It may have been a small town upbringing but Musgraves remembers her early years fondly. “I had a very quote-unquote ‘normal’ childhood,” she says. “We were lower middle class. My parents were small business owners and they’re still together. I have one sister, Kelly. I spent a lot of time outside. I begged my parents for a horse but I never got one. It wasn’t a super luxurious upbringing by any means, but it was happy.”
Fans of childhood dreams coming true will be pleased to know she has now finally got her horse. Meanwhile, Musgraves is self-aware enough to know that there were some parts of life that growing up in a small Texan town didn’t teach her about. “No matter where you grow up you’re kind of a product of your environment until you leave that and get a different perspective,” she says when I ask her if she’d consider parts of her upbringing ‘redneck’. “I was definitely more in that category then. I just hadn’t seen the world yet, ever. I hadn’t been around a lot of different kinds of people. I know it sounds stupid but I just hadn’t. I moved to Austin after high school and of course that’s a huge melting pot. My childhood best guy friend came out to me one day, and that made a big impression on me.”
Those experiences fed into ‘Follow Your Arrow’, her first hit back in 2013, which managed to shock conservative country listeners with positive lyrics about homosexuality and smoking weed. (“Kiss lots of boys / or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into / When the straight and narrow / Gets a little too straight / Roll up the joint, or don’t / Just follow your arrow”) She’s hardly the first country star to be open about smoking weed – Willie Nelson has practically made a career out of it – but as a young, female star Musgraves has sometimes had to fight old battles all over again.
Given her success, and her position as a liberal star in the traditionally conservative world of country, I wonder if she feels music can help heal some of the deep divides in American society. “I think music can be whatever you need it to be,” she says. “I think it has always been a glue that holds people together in times of chaos. Since the dawn of social awareness it has served as something to lean on, be inspired by and find refuge in. Look at the Sixties. We wouldn’t have a lot of the pop culture that came out of that if it hadn’t been for the turbulent times.”
Musgraves will be on tour for the vast majority of 2019 so it seems unlikely we’ll hear the follow-up to ‘Golden Hour’ any time soon. She does have a few ideas she’s working on though. One is inspired by something her dad taught her, many years ago, as they lay gazing up at the vast Texan sky.
“I’ve always been interested in space,” she explains. “At a young age my dad got a telescope which we would take outside. We lived out in the country so there weren’t any lights around. You could see everything really well. He showed us how to spot satellites which in retrospect is kind of insane. They’re little tiny pin-points of light that move really fast, they don’t blink, and they’re really, really small. They’re almost invisible to the naked eye, but my dad would be like: ‘That’s a satellite.’ I’m writing a new song that ruminates on all this. One thing that he always says is: ‘Keep looking up. You never know what you’ll see.’ I think right from the beginning something about all that mystery has intrigued me.”
Her father’s philosophy of watching the skies seems to have paid off. On a couple of occasions in her life, Musgraves believes she’s spotted UFOs. “I always find myself looking up when I’m outside, hoping to catch something,” she says. “I really have a few times. One of them was in Mexico. I was there for a friend’s wedding. It was me and my boyfriend at the time and the bride’s parents and some of her other family, about six of us. We were on the beach around 11 at night. I noticed something hovering above the corner of the hotel. In the night sky it kind of looked like the underbelly of a bird. You couldn’t really see what it was. You know how around the outside edge of a hotel they sometimes have floodlights that point up into the sky? Whatever it was it was being shined on by those. I was very confused by it so I said: ‘Y’all, what’s that?’ We all watched it for a minute and then it changed shape into an X-pattern, like a windmill shape. It was so weird! We were like: ‘Oh shit, that is so not a bird!’ We watched the thing for a good 10 or 15 minutes. Then it started glowing and doing things that nothing normal would do. It was crazy.”
A few days later, she says she saw two giant balls of fire hovering over her neighbourhood in Nashville. No explanation has so far been forthcoming from the authorities for either incident, so allow me to offer a few of my own: maybe there’s an alien race out there that’s trying to give ‘Golden Hour’ some kind of intergalactic Album of the Year Award, maybe it was Daft Punk dropping in for that collab, or maybe it was something to do with all that acid. Either way, Kacey Musgraves will keep watching the skies. Yee, and indeed, haw.
The album, ‘Golden Hour’ is out now