Miranda Lambert is finally breathing again
The country singer on being an introverted superstar, getting life advice from Loretta Lynn, and her sparse new acoustic album The Marfa Tapes.
When Miranda Lambert appears on screen from Nashville in late March, she's got a giant smile on her face and her "dishwater blonde" hair tied up neatly with a bright red bandana. The 37-year-old superstar certainly has a lot to be happy about, including her recent Grammy win (Best Country Album for 2019's return-to-form Wildcard), her sixth No. 1 record on the Country Airplay charts ("Bluebird," from the same album), and her soon-to-open Nashville honky-tonk, Miranda Lambert's Casa Rosa (the first Broadway bar owned by a female country star). Next month, she'll release The Marfa Tapes, an intimate new album written and recorded with longtime friends Jack Ingram and Jon Randall.
The record was, fittingly, made in Marfa, Tex following a series of songwriting retreats the trio had taken to the quiet town, yielding prior Lambert hits like "Tin Man" and "Tequila Does." When they returned, in Sept. 2020, they wrote a new batch of songs around the campfire with nothing but an acoustic guitar; later, during recording, they took special care to stay true to the organic quality of each track. Throughout the project you'll hear animals rustling, banter between songs, gasps of wonder at the sight of the night sky, and even a border patrol plane circling overhead. It's an album both familiar and new in equal measure, and one of the most inspired projects Lambert has ever released.
With The Marfa Tapes (out May 7), Lambert is once again bringing her longtime fans somewhere new, trusting her gut that they'll always be willing to follow her wherever she goes. It's a journey that's taken her from the singing competition series Nashville Star to the top of the charts (seven times over), earning her several sold-out arena tours and a record-breaking 34 ACM Awards along the way.
Over the course of an hour over Zoom, Lambert turned back the clock on her own historic career, touching on everything from her early days to the path she's blazed, the new album, and everything in between.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You released your last album, Wildcard, in late 2019. Had you thought about new music in between that project and the pandemic?
MIRANDA LAMBERT: Wildcard had a life ahead of it [the tour supporting the album was canceled], so I was not planning a new record. But Marfa is a place we've been going for six years, just disappearing and letting songs come out however they come out and not really caring about writing for hits' sake, you know what I mean? We went back in September — about every two years, we go — because it was time to start a new project. Also, we couldn't go anywhere else, so why not go to the middle of nowhere?
We listened to our voice notes through the car speakers after we wrote. That next morning, we were drinking coffee and I was like, "I think we should just put these out." I'm a little scared. There's nowhere to hide behind them. They're exactly one take; they went down outside, with one microphone around the fire, and that was it. Somebody said that people usually wait until they're really old or gone to show behind the curtain. I was like, "Well, I'm still very much in it. I'm just going to do it now."
As a Texas native, what is it about Marfa that connects with you and your Marfa Tapes cohorts?
When we came together in the first writing session [six years ago], one of the first songs we wrote was "Tin Man." It was pretty epic. I was like, "If it works, it ain't broke!" There's something magical about going to Marfa, specifically. Part of that is, you're not worried about your daily life. As a creative, it's so important to let all the noise go away so you can actually hear what's coming in. It gets harder the more successful you are. Family and friends and work and everything else gets involved. Sometimes, the ideas get lost. Going somewhere where there's absolutely nothing else to do but stare at the sky and sit around a fire and drive around in the middle of the desert… there's so much room for melodies and songs to come in.
Did it feel like a blessing in a roundabout way to have the space to create and be inspired again?
Yes. The first six months of 2020, I didn't write anything. I didn't do anything. I painted and cooked. Like everyone else, I ate too much and tried out all the wine and found all the places we had it hidden. I was a little panicky about the state of things. You know when people say when you go on vacation, it takes three days to wind down? It took me three months to wind down from a life of all of that. After about six months, I started to miss it so much I was like, "I need to create. I don't feel like myself." That's where Marfa came in. It was my burst of creativity. When you slow down that much, you're like, "Wow. I was really going 100 miles an hour, not only physically but mentally." It was nice to just check out.
It's the best job in the world, but it's such a weird job. I love to be on my farm and hang out with my friends and go camping. I don't consider myself an extrovert.
Are there moments in your career when you think, "Introverted me now has to put on an extroverted personality because this has grown beyond just getting on a stage"?
I think I learned once I hit a certain level and it became bigger, around the time of Revolution. I was married to someone that was very much in the public eye [Lambert was married to fellow country star Blake Shelton, from 2011-2015], and that was an eye-opening experience, to go from being just a country singer singing her songs. I grew up a shy kid.
In my 20s, I feel like I thrived on the energy of people. It kept me going. And then in my 30s, I found that I really need quiet moments to recharge instead. I used to just say, "The more the merrier, keep rolling!" I was doing 200 shows a year, not including press and all the other stuff. I lived on a bus with 11 dudes for five years. I kept thriving on the energy, and then I learned that I needed to find some Zen moments to continue on that pace. I moved back to Nashville in 2015 and I bought a farm an hour from town, and that place has been one of those safe havens for me to go and completely decompress. I get my feet on the ground again, and then I'm ready to go.
Now that you know you need those Zen moments, how do you ensure that you're striking a career balance between successful and sustainable?
I always said I wanted longevity. I wanted the art to matter enough that I could play until I couldn't anymore. I feel like I've reached that to some degree, but in the same breath, I'm a driven person. I keep thinking, "Okay, it's a good thing when you have a list of goals and you meet them." But then you're like, "Now what? What do I want to do?" A lot of my goals have changed from strictly career things to life things. I really want to take my Airstream to California and back.
Since I was 17, I was like, "I'm on this train. This is what we're doing." I've learned over the last five years to really balance life too, because when you've been on the grind and you come home, you're like, "Where am I? What's going on? Who am I?" You know what I mean? I think it's really important to keep your feet on the ground in those relationships while you're still trying to achieve something huge.
And I have to imagine having that day-to-day life stuff baked in yields inspiration in a way that being on the road for 200 days in a row doesn't.
Loretta [Lynn reminded] me that in person one time — I get my inspiration from life, so if I don't live any, then what am I writing about? Good, bad, or ugly, you have to have some time to go sit on a dive-bar stool and listen to a cover band and gather stories, or go through a breakup, or go through a really happy relationship, or just see things and do things because you're removed when you're on tour.
How do you find the middle ground between "this is who I am, this is who I always said I was going to be" and growth as an artist?
I'm trying to figure that out myself. I think it's going with my gut, man. I was with [producer] Frank Liddell on every record I've ever made, including Pistol Annies. He and I had a couple bottles of wine on a porch one night and he was like, "I think you should just go do something else for a while and I love you and it's okay." It was like the sweetest release because we realized we were in different places creatively.
[With Frank,] I got to make The Weight of These Wings, and I needed to make it. I needed to get that all out, and then I was ready to have fun again. I was ready to put on some colors. I feel like my life was sepia-toned, kind of like the record. I was missing new, kitschy fun stuff that has always been a part of my career. Wildcard had all that on it. [That album's producer,] Jay Joyce, I've known him forever and I knew that he had that rock punch that I was ready for again. And it worked, thank God.
Was Wings something that felt necessary to you because it gave you the chance to reclaim your own stories?
Yeah. It was my way to tell my side of the story and just be truthful about moments that had happened. I felt like I wanted to tell it my way because I'm a songwriter and I get the right to do that. I was writing a ton. I moved back to Nashville, and I got to really explore my songwriting. I had been missing that over the years; sometimes there's no time or inspiration because you're tired. The last thing I want to do on a Sunday after a two-week run is pick up my guitar, play around, and try to write a song.
But I just had fun. I was writing a ton. I was so excited to see all my friends — every night, I'm like, "You all want to come write and hang?" Then it was, "Well, I have all these songs. No one says I can't put them all on a record." There's no rules, so we did — and I'm so glad I did because I felt like it gave the whole picture. It was that closure for me for that whole chapter. I think that's what made room for Wildcard. Wildcard's not a very long album, but it packs some punch.
You said there are no rules for you, and you have built this legacy of always being the one with both hands on the wheel. Are those conversations ongoing? Or do people get it now?
I pretty much feel like I'm there. Like, I don't know that I would have put out The Marfa Tapes a decade ago. Maybe I would have. What I will say is that I'm so willing — more than when I was younger — to hear what the label has to say. I want to hear what the promotion team who has to work this every day has to say. I've had enough experience with singles being cold or picking the wrong one that I'm open to suggestions for anything creative. But when it comes down to, "What song? What's the look? What's the vibe of the tour?" and all the fundamentals of the music industry and my imaging and my brand, I just trust my gut every time. It's this fine line of wanting to evolve and change and be new for the times but also being completely true to what people expect from you. I feel like I've walked that line pretty good throughout my career.
You're often praised for the way that you champion women, behind the scenes and elsewhere. What do you feel like you've achieved with your platform?
I grew up on the classics, with Dolly and Loretta and Tammy and Patsy. And then there was Reba, and then there was Faith and Martina and Shania. And then… there was a gap — and it was a big gap. I didn't really have a lot of help — like, no one. I only went on tour with men because the men were touring. I didn't have anyone who I could call when I was having a meltdown or having PMS and having to go on stage. I wanted to talk to somebody. I didn't have that, so now that I've gotten to this place, I want to be that for anyone that might need it. It's a different game out there for girls, like, "You can try to find a decent shower to wash your hair every three shows." Sometimes, no one understands that but a female artist. I take it close to the heart to be there.
You don't strike me as someone who likes to celebrate your own legacy. Have you gotten more comfortable doing that as you've grown these past 20 years?
When I was making Four the Record, I drove around and listened to some of my past albums, which I hadn't done in a long time. I was like, "Where have I been and where do I want to go?" I needed to get perspective. When I was writing for Wildcard, I had all my stuff at my [then] house — my awards and gold records — in a room on shelves. It was a pretty small room. I used to write outside on the porch, but when it's cold, I would sit in there and write. I was like, "This is all great and I'm so proud of it." But I hung tapestries over everything. I don't want to look at all this stuff when I'm trying to create something new because I need to keep that ball rolling.
So if you've covered up the awards that celebrate your past, what are some recent things you've been proud of? Or do you not allow yourself to do that?
I don't do it a lot. I just need to sit down with Dolly. I have so many questions. She seems to know it all. I do think her saying, "I'm not ready for a statue" made me realize she's doing the same thing. She's like, "Okay, I've done all this stuff but I'm still really rolling. I'm not ready for closure."
When I won the Grammy the other night, we went back to the hotel and changed into jeans and went and ate pizza because it was a weird Grammys. My husband stopped me in the hall, and he's like, "Do this." [She lifts her arms in a celebratory pose.] He's like, "You just won a Grammy!" And I'm like [feigns it sinking in], "I just won a Grammy!" It's good to be reminded that, hey, you worked your butt off so it's okay to acknowledge yourself. But don't get stuck in it because somebody out there right now is writing a better song, so you've got to remember that too.
This interview has been edited and condensed
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