18 May 2019

Psychedelic Nashville star Kacey Musgraves on creating a 'beautiful hiding place'

From RNZ Music, 1:32 pm on 18 May 2019

Nashville songwriter Kacey Musgraves charmed a diverse audience at the Auckland town hall on Friday, with songs of love, the universe, small-town ennui, and butterflies.

Kacey Musgraves at Auckland Town Hall

Kacey Musgraves at Auckland Town Hall Photo: Richard Myburgh / Ambient Light

All images by Richard Myburgh / Ambient Light - full gallery here

The audience at country singer Kacey Musgraves' Auckland Town Hall gig on Friday was as diverse as they come. There were excited young women in pink stetsons; middle-aged men in authentic brown ones; awkward pairs of young men; people in cowboy boots and fringed jackets; others in glittery dresses and Doc Martens.

At one point Kacey tells us to high-five the person next to us and I find myself palm to palm with a big dude in a cap. “You’re a fan?” I ask. “Yeah, usually I’m a heavy metal guy, but I’m here for her.”

At a Kacey Musgraves gig, anything goes – it's okay to be yourself. Never has country music been so queer-friendly, so agnostic, or so politically liberal.

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Photo: Richard Myburgh / Ambient Light'

Kacey's songwriting has been fearless since her first album – 2013's Same Trailer Different Park. Her lyrics have often referred to marijuana, questioned organised religion, and she’s been outspoken in song and interviews over gender inequity in the music industry.

Tradition-bucking lyrics like “Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that's something you're into” from 2013's ‘Follow Your Arrow’ have made her a cult favourite and gained her a following in the LGBTQI community over the years, but it’s never gained her much radio play on the notoriously conservative Country Music radio format.

Related: Nick Bollinger reviews Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour

When she won the Grammy for Album of The Year in February, you could almost hear an audible, "Who?"

No one was more surprised than Kacey herself, given the Grammy’s have not always been renowned for judging on artistic merit and critical success.

She was up against some of the biggest-selling names in pop and hip-hop: Drake, Cardi B and Post Malone among them. “Just even being nominated, was kind of a riot,” Musgraves tells me.

Golden Hour, her third album, displayed impeccable storytelling skills, smart lyrical twists, daring cross-genre sonics, and a flawless voice that appealed to everyone from ye olde Country Music Association to hipster music media like Pitchfork.

It was a cross-over album that brought rainbow coloured rhinestones to the pop charts and heralded a new age of yeehaw culture into the mainstream.

“I had my sights set on reaching people outside of country music with this album. And only really for reasons of connecting. You know, bringing my songs to people who I feel like might need them right now.”

But now that we’re in a post-genre, post-radio music world, who cares what the old-guard programmers think. Authenticity is the thing that will connect artists to audiences, and Kacey doesn’t shy away from talking about any of the liberal world-views that set her apart from some of her Nashville peers.  

Golden Hour came with a distinctly plastic psychedelic aesthetic, and the label ‘cosmic cowgirl’. She’s been open about LSD aiding the composition of some of these songs, and that rose-tinted sparkle in her eye is easy to hear and see. The music video for ‘What A World’ came out last week, and features an animated Kacey as a centaur (“centaurette” she corrects) glowing jellyfish, magic mushrooms and a banjo playing frog.

Though she is careful about not advocating micro-dosing for all, she says that drugs have really opened her heart and mind, and helped the songwriting process for this album.  

“You know humans can be egotistical, and I’m in an industry where my business is my face, I’m always talking about me, and my voice, and it’s nice to be able to step outside that, every now and then and realise that, on the grand scale… I tend to sweat the small stuff. And those things don’t matter.

“Anything that can help us step outside of our egotistical human self, and get a perspective on where we belong in the universe, and the pecking order of things.”

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Photo: Richard Myburgh / Ambient Light

Two songs on the album were written on her porch, on the same day, while on “slightly more than a microdose”. ‘Mother’ is a short song about how she misses her mother, and the opener ‘Slow Burn’ ruminates on her preference for taking things slow.

“It’s about enjoying the journey, instead of rushing to the end. That’s not how my career has gone, and that’s not how my favourite things go in life. At 30, I think I’ve learned that it’s more about taking your time and looking at things along the way.”

Golden Hour is flecked with overtly romantic love songs where her previous albums avoided them.

“I was going through a really beautiful time in my life, with meeting my husband (fellow Nashville songwriter Ruston Kelly) and seeing the world in this rosy manner, but it was also at a time when I realised there is a lot of suffering going on and a lot of confusion, and hate, so I guess that was my own answer to that.”

“Sometimes I feel beaten over the head with all the negatives that are happening in the world, and all of the controversy. And I think that we all can use a … little bit of a beautiful hiding place.”  

She’s good at taking cliches and twisting them. ‘Butterflies’ is not so much about having butterflies in your stomach but about finding a relationship that allows you to be yourself, after being in a controlling one.

“There’s a million love songs out there. Everything’s already been said, a million times over. So when you set out to write a love song, it’s a puzzle piece, as far as how to say something that hasn’t been said yet.

“It’s a little bit of a misconception that in order to be creative you have to be suffering in some way, and I think that a lot of artists think that way, and it can be unhealthy.

“I’ve definitely felt that way before in my own life, thinking man, this relationship needs to end, but I stuck around longer than I should have because I was getting something else out of it in an artistic sense. I just realised with meeting my husband that you don’t have to do that.”

“And once I did get happy, I was inspired by a lot of facets of life that hadn’t already inspired me yet, and it was comforting to know that the muse could visit me even when I was doing really well and in a healthy relationship.”

Related: Country music: 'It’s not just dudes in beards and hats'

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Photo: Richard Myburgh / Ambient Light

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