Natalie Hemby, one of the most well-liked and acclaimed songwriters in Nashville, has put her toe into the waters of being a recording and performing artist before, notably as a member of the alt-country supergroup the Highwomen. But now she’s jumping in whole-heartedly, having inked a deal with the Fantasy label that will see a solo album coming out later this year.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Hemby tells Variety. “I’m a 43-year-old woman who is signing her first record deal. So that’s a pretty big deal. I don’t know if I’m crazy or if I’m just lucky — I think maybe a little bit of both.”
Hemby is nominated for two Grammys at the moment — one for “Crowded Table,” a song she co-wrote and shared lead vocals on with the Highwomen, and “Bluebird,” a No. 1 country hit she co-wrote for and with Miranda Lambert, which between them having her competing with herself for country song of the year. It’s not her first time at bat at the Staples Center: Last year, she won in the category of song written for visual media for “I’ll Never Love Again,” a song performed by Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born.”
Her chosen genre? It’s not country, per se, though that’s where she’s had the greatest success as a songwriter. Her genre is… Lilith Fair?
Says Hemby, “I have always wanted to make, because this is really deep down who I am, like — and I’ll just unabashedly say it, just because Sheryl is a really good friend of mine now, which is strange to me — a Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole, Lilith Fair, 1997-sounding record. That’s kinda what I’ve been always wanting to do.
“I’ve just been lucky in country music because I’m from Nashville and there’s a lot of artists that I love, and I would say probably a lot of artists that I’ve had success with have been a little bit more outside-the-box thinkers as well. But no, I grew up on Lilith Fair and I grew up on Sheryl, Paula, Sarah McLachlan, K’s Choice — all of the good ’90s women bands. Boy, that just runs in my veins pretty deep. I just haven’t had the opportunity to display it. So It’s awesome to be able to take your old influences and put ‘em to use and make them your own sound, if you will.”
Hemby only performed a few shows and TV appearances with the Highwomen (also including her friends Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris) before the pandemic put a lid on that. But it did lead to having an old itch scratched.
“Through the Highwomen I met with Adam Sensenbrenner with Mick Management (who also manages Jon Batiste, among others), and I just said, ;Look, I have a very unconventional career. You know, everything has happened for me much later in life, and kind of in a backwards way. And I just want a place I can be where it’s sort of outside the box type thinking.’ And he was like, ‘Well, why couldn’t you put this out on a record label?’ And I said, if it was the right one, I guess I could. Because I’m also very opinionated about what I want at this point in my life, being 43 years old.
“The good news is that I had a pretty deep well of songs to pick from. And so Adam said we should talk to some labels, and the first person he went to was Mark Williams, who was overseeing all the Concord artists and putting each artist at the right place that they should be. He had mentioned Margi Cheske over at Fantasy, and she and I completely hit it off. I love their roster over there, too. It’s very eclectic and just all different types of artists, and some have been around for a long time, and some are newer — like me. Or some have been around a long time and they’re new!” she laughs.
This year’s solo release, which is being produced by her husband, Mike Wrucke, won’t be her first solo album. That was “Puxico,” an independently released and little noticed (except by critics) 2017 release that was conceived as more of a concept-album soundtrack for a documentary about her grandmother’s small town than something she planned as a full-on entree into the world of officially tagging singer onto her singer-songwriter status.
“This has all been kind of a backwards way to do it, but there’s been absolutely nothing conventional about my musical career. But I like it that way. I like being able to do what I want to do on my terms much better than being thrown into something where it feels like I’m just by the seat of my pants.”
As a songwriter, Hemby has had No. 1 hits not just with her frequent collaborator Lambert (also including “Automatic” and “White Liar” in addition to the recent “Bluebird”) but with Little Big Town, Jon Pardi, Lady and Justin Moore. She’s also had songs cut by Crow, Morris, Kacey Musgraves, Kelly Clarkson, Dierks Bentley and Labrinth, among many others.
Although she doesn’t see her upcoming album as necessarily a straight country release, that doesn’t mean that it won’t include tracks that she co-wrote with Lambert, Brothers Osborne and Little Big Town that were at least ostensibly being written at the time for those artists’ projects. “I wrote them for them at the time,” Hemby says, “but I’m like, really, they’re for me. I mean, they were my sound.They were kind of my aesthetic, and it’s pretty obvious too whenever you hear it. I was like, ‘Damn it, I’ve always loved that song.’ It sounds more like me than it did, say, Brothers Osborne per se. People always say, ‘You have years to write your first record, and your second record, you only have a few months.’ Well, I had a lot of years to write my second answer,” she laughs.
Hemby reveals that she nearly signed a deal with Sony when she was in her early 20s, only to have her champions at the label laid off before she could put ink on the deal.
“I feel like God sometimes hears the prayers of your youth,” she says. “I had always wanted to be an artist and always wanted a record deal and it just didn’t work out for me back then — and I’m really glad it didn’t. If I had been signed back then, I probably would have been dropped into who knows where I would’ve been now. This is my young childhood dream coming true, finally. And honestly, I would not trade 43-year-old me for 23-year-old me right now.”