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Kacey Musgraves on Embracing Love Over Snark and Being a Country-Pop Centaur

Not exactly being the type of artist who’s all about the braggadocio, Kacey Musgraves surely didn’t title her most recent album “Golden Hour” to be some sort of self-fulfilling career prophecy. But there’s little doubt that she’s one of music’s 2019 golden girls, by virtue of her slow burn of a third studio album having culminated in a set of big Grammy wins, including the awards’ highest honor, album of the year. Just over a year after the collection came out, its afterglow won’t die.

But even though she has plenty of national and international touring still to do behind “Golden Hour,” and a single, “Rainbow,” just getting its start on radio, Musgraves is already looking over that amber horizon to the next album. That’s one of the subjects she took up during her conversation for Variety‘s Power of Women: New York issue, which has her as one of five honorees. The charity Musgraves chose to benefit for the occasion is the Grammy Museum; yes, it seems that she and Grammy have a mutual love affair. And as a once-and-future country artist, she’s working on having a mutual romance with that radio format, even though she’s done just fine without any chart-toppers.

It’s a measure of how big your public profile has become that, a week after winning all those Grammys, the Oscars not only rushed to pick you up as a presenter, but it seemed like you were the telecast’s favorite reaction-shot go-to.

So many memes!

So how’s it going, and how have you kept your head from ballooning?

I’m not surrounding myself with yes people. One of my ultimate fears is being one of those cliché people in the industry that loses touch with who they are, what makes them happy, and real parts of life. You get thrust into a world where you are having people constantly do things for you. It’s a very self-centered profession, constantly thinking about what you want to do and what’s best for your career. So I can see how it could overtake some people. But my grandma would be at my door, quick, fast and in a hurry, for a little slap.

One of the things that’s exciting about you for some of us is that you don’t have any exact predecessors. Of course, sometimes we point to Loretta or Dolly as an antecedent, and sometimes, style-wise, I think of Bobbie Gentry….

I love her. What happened to her? I’ve heard she went out and became a real estate agent somewhere in California and got away from fame. The rumors are fascinating.

But as much as we like to make those comparisons to country queens, all of whom were great songwriters, you have a specific singer-songwriter sensibility. So it’s interesting to imagine where you go from here, exploring even more things than you already did on “Golden Hour.”

It’s exciting to think about where I could go. I already have my ear on a little bit of an area that excites me musically. I’ve just gotten to write a couple songs for the next album, and one of ‘em seems like something that you could dive deeper into and explore making it into a bigger world. And I love when that happens, because it opens a door. It’s like a clear pathway. That’s what happened with “Oh, What a World” for “Golden Hour.” That was the first song we wrote, and it was this world where the future could meet the past — where roots could meet electronic; pedal steel could meet vocoder. It’s a love song to someone, but also kind of a love song to humanity and the world. It set the tone for the rest of the album and made me think, ‘What would a whole record sound like if we went down this path?’ It only took one song. I feel like I have that in my pocket already, but I would love the time to explore, which is what I had with “Golden Hour” — a year, almost, to meander through and try to see what kind of creative wind I could catch.

Is it possible to describe what direction you think you might’ve latched onto with this new song you wrote?

I don’t know if I really can yet. What I have right now is a reflection on the first year of marriage. I haven’t had the chance to really get in the studio and play with it yet. But I could see it being a nod to a Bill Withers kind of a thing. That would be really fun to explore. But I’m also game for whatever. There are a lot of people that I want to write with, going into this new album. I would love to write with the Tame Impala guy, Kevin Parker. Sufjan Stevens would be amazing. I was thinking this morning about the Shins; I would love to collab with them.

“Golden Hour” has such a sweetness to it. As someone who has appreciated the acerbic side of songwriting in the past, were there ever moments where you feared what you were doing was so romantic, it was corny, and you tried to suppress that in yourself?

I was a little trepidatious of creating an album of just 14 songs about getting married and about love. I’ve never had a (positive) relationship song before. Like, you can look at all my past albums, and I’ve probably have one. I’ve just never been inspired to write about that side of life. It’s probably because I wasn’t in inspiring relationships. When I got happy, I was scared of not being able to create very well, and it really turned out to be the opposite. Songs just started pouring out. But yeah, any time you set out to write a love song, you’re faced with the fact that it’s all been said before, a billion times. So if you can find a way to flip a perspective or color it with something different, that’s the only way that I wanted to have songs with that subject matter. At the same time, I didn’t want the songs to be taken completely as less biting than my older material. In the end it was, I think, a nice blend of both worlds. Because there are still (cleverer and less happy) songs like “Space Cowboy” on there, with the invisible comma between the words. There’s a little bit of that on there, still, but it’s not the only leg I’m standing on, as a songwriter.

Your visual style has evolved along with the music. On the “Pageant Material” tour, you had a costume that seemed part Western, part Vegas showgirl. That’s not the look you’re going for now.

You know, I grew up playing and singing very country and Western music, in very traditional outfits, hats, fringe, rhinestones — that was my entire childhood. So I’ve always been drawn to that in some kind of way. And with the first two albums, I noticed that in country music, most people were shying away from owning the Western wear or Western aesthetic, and I thought it was something different for me — and something familiar to me, because I actually did have a childhood rooted in that. So it was fun for me to bring it out into the modern [world]. It’s an aesthetic that inspires me. But you don’t want to characterize yourself by getting stuck in a world or a vibe.

How would you describe the aesthetic you replaced that with?

I would say the aesthetic is Zen. There’s a Zen-ness to our show — the flow of it, the way our songs transition and melt together, our lighting. It’s kind of dreamy and not super in-your-face in any way. It’s not a rowdy, crazy production, but it’s chill and it’s fun.

Your theater shows sell out instantly now. Is the next step to move up to arenas?

I’m not sure where I stand on the arena subject. I guess at a certain point you have to acknowledge that that’s an option, if you can. But I’m more inspired to play these big, beautiful, old theaters that have so much character in them. The acoustics are amazing, and you can see the audience, and it’s a little bit more of a conversation of a show rather than “I’m performing for you and you are in the crowd.” Arenas can be a little bit of a vibe trap, because they’re just concrete circles where the sound slaps back and forth, and they all look the same in every city. But there are obviously reasons as to why they make sense. In my mind, I’m like, why can’t you just play the biggest theater or amphitheater in a city a few nights in a row, instead of playing an arena one night? But then I guess you’d be on tour for the rest of your life. [Laughs.] I don’t really have the answer.

How do you do the Zen arena tour?

It’s a good question. I would die trying to figure that out.

It seems like people sometimes equate feminism with feistiness, and maybe especially so in country music. But you have never felt like you had to have a lot of rave-ups or female-as-spitfire songs.

For a while there in country music, the trend for females was up-tempo songs that had an angry edge, particularly about cheating or something like that. It was a trend as I was getting started, and I was really adamant I didn’t really align with feeling like that … that there were a lot of other sides to me as a human that I would rather focus on. Not that I don’t have songs loaded with sarcasm, because I do. But that just wasn’t really my thing.

You’ve talked about how the question of tempo has come up when it comes to radio not having always taken to your songs. You even said when the record company told you your songs were too slow, you did a beats-per-minute comparison with some big hits and it came out the same… and then you were introduced to the concept of “perceived tempo.”

I think that’s a mistake that labels tend to make a lot of times when choosing what to send to radio, being scared of tempo. I think they underestimate the taste of radio station listeners a lot, because I personally don’t want to be beat over the head by high-tempo songs every single day all day. I just want to hear good songs. But unfortunately, it is the deciding factor when it comes to choosing what is on the radio in the world of country. So I had to stop and take a look at what has been and is popular in country music, and when it comes to the beats-per-minute of all those songs, mine are faster in some cases or right along the same lines. So that can’t be used as an excuse as to why mine wouldn’t work anymore.

Your manager, Jason Owen, has always made it very clear that you have all sorts of opportunities to get media attention that don’t involve country radio, and clearly that’s the case. But is it still important to you? Because when “Golden Hour” came out, there were two singles sent to radio at once, and it seemed like there wasn’t a concentrated push behind either one, so it appeared that it had already been decided: No, we’re gonna break her through other means.

It’s frustrating for me, because when I turned this album in, I made it very apparent that radio was very important to me, kind of more than ever with this record, and that I was willing to work as hard as I could in that lane to see it grow there. Because I think that it sounds like songs that you could hear on the radio. And I don’t think that radio did have a fair chance to be included in this album, especially at the beginning with the singles. It’s been great to see it reach a lot of people outside of country music and cross a lot of boundaries that I didn’t think that it would, largely in part due to streaming services and the wonderful press and just the people who have loved the music. But, I don’t necessarily think that was the most brilliant plan on their part. I would have loved for radio to be included in this album from the beginning, and I actually voiced that. But, you know, it is a partnership and you can only do what… [Pauses.] I create the music and I turn it in. Beyond that, I don’t have expertise. All I know is that I did really, really believe in this as a radio album, even though I didn’t create it to be one.

I wondered if that was your call or not. [She shakes her head.] But now there is a radio push, with “Rainbow.”

I think it’s serendipitous and perfect timing that “Rainbow” found its own moment on the Grammys and then is finding its moment at radio in different genres. It’s funny that it’s that song, of all the songs off the album, that is catching wind there. But it makes sense, because that song doesn’t sound country to me necessarily, but it doesn’t sound pop either. I was trying to picture myself as someone who had never heard it driving in my car and hearing it come on a station, and I feel like it’s something that I would turn up purely based on the fact that it’s different than the songs around it. It’s a piano ballad, almost. But I think that people are looking for something positive right now, and really responding to things that are positive versus things that are kind of ruminating around the same frustrations that we all have politically and socially. I personally am feeling myself gravitating more toward positive material in these times than things that kind of run in circles subject-wise over the same old stuff, and bitching about what we’re all not happy about. We can get that when we turn on the news.

“Rainbow” is kind of ambiguous too. It’s not a gay anthem (as some have wondered). It was a song written as a little memo to myself. It’s really just for anybody that’s got a weight on their shoulders. That song is very personal to me. It was the last song that I had written before my grandmother unexpectedly passed away in a house fire. She loved that song, and then we played it at her funeral. It makes me smile that that’s the one after all these years that’s finally finding some traction at radio. I’ve been a cynic before, as a songwriter, and taken my soapbox as far as you can go with political opinions. And I’ve had love songs now about this wonderful marriage that I have. But “Rainbow” is different than all those things.

Are there other formats besides country you want to hear these songs in, too?

Definitely. I feel like any of these songs on the record could work in the hot AC area. “Slow Burn” seems like a perfect Americana fit to me. Then I hear “Lonely Weekend” and the way I see our youngest fans at the shows screaming the words, and it makes me think that it could be really successful in that pop lane. The whole record was maybe inspired by a more classic side of pop — I mean, there’s a little bit of R&B in there, some ‘70s yacht-rock, some soft rock. I love Sade; she was a big influence on this album. So were the Bee Gees, and Imogen Heap. I remember thinking, “What would it sound like if Daft Punk made a country record? I want to play with that.”

How would you describe what you’re wearing right now? It looks like a track suit, but with those stripes up and down the sides, it’s not just any track suit.

[She laughs.] This is my best Elton John homage. No, this is a rainbow rhinestone track suit. My favorite culmination of style is when something very comfortable meets an element of very… extra. So I think that’s why I liked this — two opposite worlds coming together.

Was there a moment early on you embraced glamour? I remember talking with Katy Perry about you, and she said, “I love her because even her banjo and her capos are bedazzled.”

It’s ridiculous. I think I have an addiction to sparkle. I think it’s actually a condition. Like, I’m curious if that’s a thing. But yeah, as much as I love just like a T-shirt and jeans, I love assless denim chaps and a denim bodysuit and giant hair for “RuPaul’s Drag Race” [on which she signed on as a judge].

You said when you moved to Nashville from east Texas, it was an education for you to start hanging out at drag bars. Was that a big visual influence?

I love drag queens so much, and I kind of feel like I look my best when I feel like I’m borderline drag queen. But when I started going to gay clubs and getting to know the gay community more, I just fell in love with them and their confidence and their acceptance of any range of person — big, small, black, white, glittery, non-glittery, masculine, feminine, all of it. Anything goes, and I think that’s a really admirable quality about the community. I like it. And I can steal some makeup tips.

You’re working on a Christmas special, right?

It’s almost like a variety show-type format, classic Christmas special. It’ll be kind of an expanded version of the Christmas album that I put out a few years ago, brought to life with some special guests and some fun moments. My one wish is for Willie Nelson to be Santa Claus.

Anything else on the immediate agenda?

I just finished a coloring book with my mom. She illustrated all of it by hand, a coloring page for each song on the album, and it’s called “Oh, What a Colorful World.” I’m working on a video right now that’s all digital. It’s a music video for “Oh, What a World” and I’m not in it at all, as me, but as a digitally rendered version of me. It’s this really wildly trippy, beautiful visual world that makes no sense, but also makes a ton of sense when you watch it. And that’s been really fun to put together.

So you are represented by different avatars of some sort in this video?

Basically. Let’s just say I’ve always wanted to be a centaur, and I might be one.

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