Margo Price on Musical Transitions, Her Memoir, Mushrooms, Marriage and a Career-Best New Album, ‘Strays’

Has Margo Price got it made? That’s a question implicitly asked by the title of her recent book, “Maybe We’ll Make It: A Memoir,” which effectively ends with the singer-songwriter getting a big break as she’s booked on “Saturday Night Live” in 2016, with a nod toward the best new artist Grammy nomination that followed in 2018. Although that serves as a mostly happy ending in the book to a lifetime of personal and professional struggle, she’s put enough tread on her tires over the last few years to more than merit a sequel. Any follow-up could find plenty of fodder in what it’s like to be a heroine to the Americana community on the one hand, and on the other part of a music industry that left most artists feeling like they were playing catchup even before the giant hiccup that was the pandemic.

But there’s no second book immediately on the horizon — Price has a Jonathan Wilso-coproduced new album, “Strays,” her fourth and possibly best, along with her first headlining tour since 2018, to keep her out of literary trouble for a while. Variety sat down with Price in Nashville and again in Los Angeles to talk about the overlapping themes of the album and memoir; how she’s taken a big detour from country to rock ‘n’ roll, and whether she might ever go back to it; how alcohol and mushrooms have been the devil and angel, respectively, sitting on her shoulders as she’s done a reset on her life these past few years; and how she and band member/husband Jeremy Ivey support each other, even in writing truthful songs about the ups and downs of their marriage. A career in which she’s a model for integrity in music, and forward movement? Maybe she’s made it.

You’re putting out a new album just a couple of months after putting out your first book. How did that overlap work out, and did you feel like the two forms of writing involve a lot of the same skillsets?

It’s different parts of my brain. I always go back to Joni Mitchell talking about rotating the crops — she would do her paintings, and after she got done, then she’d start working on an album again. I could very much see myself doing that with writing (another) book, or I’ve been writing a lot of essays. I did have times where the book would get too overwhelming I would get some writer’s block, and it’d be nice to be able to go retreat and write songs for a couple days and get back in that mode.

But I’ve got a lot of respect for people who make their living writing (for the page), because it takes a lot of dedication. Sometimes a song can just happen: I wrote “Lydia” for this album in about eight minutes. It happened like lightning; it was just like I blacked out and the song appeared. But the writing and the editing process — whew, it takes a lot more focus and commitment. You can’t just be all stoned andtrying to write a book, you know. [Laughs.]

Did you finish the book well before the album?

It was going on in tandem. This is the longest I’ve ever worked on an album. During the pandemic I had a lot of time on my hands, so I spent four and a half years writing the book and maybe two years working on the album. They mirror each other, and there’s a couple of chapter titles that are song titles. As the songs were coming together and I had no chapter titles, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got this song, and it’s kind of about this time in my life.” So I have a song called “Hell in the Heartland,” and then there’s a chapter that’s named that. It was interesting to work on ’em at the same time, because I found the themes of burning the past and processing emotions and where I’m trying to go and evolve to. It was weird to do it together, but it was helpful because they feel like companion pieces.

You recorded a lot of the “Strays” album in Topanga Canyon, at producer Jonathan Wilson’s place. Did you feel the Southern California-ness of it all affecting you?

Oh, yeah. A lot of times when you’re in a studio, you’re n this windowless building in a city and you walk outside and you’re just on the street. Jonathan’s studio is at his house in Topanga, so it’s just surrounded by nature. I would go hike up the mountain behind his place, and there’d be rattlesnakes and hawks, and I saw a bald eagle, just all sorts of incredible nature that we saw. And then David Briggs’ old place is across the street, where Neil Young used to hang. So, yeah, we leaned into the canyon life. We also spent a lot of time in Malibu at (Heartbreakers guitarist) Mike Campbell’s house writing some songs and hanging out with him — doing research for the record. [Laughs.]

Your previous album, “That’s How Rumors Get Started,” felt like it had some classic Tom Petty feel to it. “Strays” naturally lends itself to thinking about that, too, because you’ve got Campbell playing a featured solo on one track. But even apart from that, it has a also feels like it has a little Heartbreakers in it — but less the classic sound and more like some of the album tracks they did much later in their career.

We did listen to Tom Petty. When we went out to South Carolina [to first start writing for the album], Jeremy and I took an ungodly amount of mushrooms; we were drinking too, back in those days when we started writing this, and we were partying pretty hard. But we listened to a bunch of albums and we were talking about, “What kind of album do we wanna make?” (We thought of) “Hypnotic Eye” — that album, I feel, isseverely overlooked… And then the next day we woke up and we wrote “Been to the Mountain” [the opening track on the record].

But when we went over to Mike’s house, we had the work tape demos for “Been to the Mountain” and “Light Me Up” and he’s like, “That’s an album right there. You don’t even need to re-record that.” And it was cool to hear him be enthusiastic about those songs and let us know that we were sniffing in the right direction. Mike played on “Light Me Up,” and he laid down that solo in one take. He was in such a great mood, laughing and cracking jokes and giving everybody nicknames, and his energy was contagious in the studio.

And we pull so much from the Heartbreakers. Another cool thing about being in Jonathan’s studio is that Benmont Tench had been in his studio recording his solo album, and he left his grand piano and left his organ in there, the Heartbreakers’ organ. So that’s all on my album. We’ve got the ghost of the Heartbreakers in there.

There are other influences apparent in there …

With “County Road,” my band really took the tempo in a way that I feel has War on Drugs vibes. We all went as a band and sat in the crowd at the Ryman and watched the whole War on Drugs show together. … There’s Zeppelin vibes, or some Grateful Dead influence in there, for sure. It’s such a melting pot of so many things. A lot of times I think, especially because I’m a woman, that if I’m pulling from Velvet Underground or something, people aren’t gonna maybe think that, because it’s delivered in in my voice.

There’s not much that anyone would call overtly country on this album — and really, there hasn’t been on the last couple of albums. Do you feel like people understand at this point that that’s not what you’re doing so much right now? Even this far into a career, it’s easy for people to get attached to the first point of impact.

I think had we been able to tour on “That’s How Rumors Get Started” [released in early 2020], I think that would have blown the door wide open and could’ve been really big. I think it could’ve allowed people to hear where we were growing as a band. So I hope after I get this album out that I can not be pigeonholed and, yeah, that I can just break down a few more doors. Because it’s easy to, like you said, get classified as the first thing you came in on.

And yet you love, obviously, coming back into the country world at appropriate times. I just saw you at the Opry House performing “The Pill” at the Loretta Lynn memorial concert. If they call and ask you to come sing Loretta…

I ain’t gonna say no. But I mean, I’m gonna make country records again, too. It’s just about where I’m at right now. During the pandemic, I kept thinking about Tina Turner, how she had her comeback after Ike & Tina… And I look at musicians like Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, Jack White, Mavis Staples— they’ve straddled the line of country, rock and blues, and all of that to me is good music.So I’ll be making all kinds of records. You’re bound to like one of ‘em.[Laughs.]

It’s been a while since some of us got to see you live, but the last times you were out there headlining, your sets really reflected the different places you’ve gone stylsticially in the last couple albums. But then, toward the end of the set, you’re not gonna deny people “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” [the traditional-country-sounding signature song from her debut album, “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter”].

Sometimes I do, though. It was funny because we put that song away for a long time and then I played it again, at Red Rocks with Tyler Childers. I was like, “I’m gonna play the ‘Hurtin’’ medley,” where we throw in some “Whiskey River” (by Willie Nelson) and “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” (by Merle Haggard). But sometimes you have to put songs away for a while. But then it kind of even felt more pertinent. Jeremy was like, “You’re gonna do a drinking song? You don’t even drink anymore.” I’m like, “I have more license to do it now than ever.”

Obviously quitting drinking is not going to turn you into any kind of puritan.

Right. I haven’t gone full nun.

So you’re probably not worried: “Oh, I’m sending a mixed message if I talk about abstaining but bring back ‘Hurtin’ on the Bottle’.”

No, I lived it for so long. I mean, I drank for almost three decades, and it’s a piece of who I am and it’s been something that I’ve grappled with. And, you know, luckily we live in such an alcohol-obsessed culture, I’m still surrounded by drunk people half the time. [Laughs.] So for me, it doesn’t feel weird to think about or even still write about it because it’s never that far away, you know? It’s always there.

You’ve made no secret of the fact that mushrooms are an important part of your life — and that to you, that is very, very different from alcohol.

Yeah, they have given me so much. And I’m definitely not trying to advocate anything to anyone else. I just want to share my experience, because it’s shaped the whole course of my life. I mean, I thought that I had to follow this rigid path and make my life look like something that was going to please my family — you think you have to go to college, have the kids, get the job, get the retirement and die. And if I had not taken that first mushroom trip, I never would’ve had the premonition to think: “I’m gonna go try to be a songwriter.” Because I had a lot of people around me telling me that it was a stupid idea. The guy that I was dating at the time, he just didn’t get it. There were just a lot of people in my life that were telling me that it wasn’t a path that I could walk.

And then it was while I was taking this big mushroom trip (a couple of years back) that I decided to quit drinking. It was like: Nobody’s going to dislike me or judge me if I quit drinking. And if they do, that’s on them. But I absolutely had been worried about being different, worried about people thinking like, “Oh, I didn’t know she had a problem.” As I’m going back through it, I feel so lucky that the way that (mushrooms) kind of rewired my brain, I have no yearning for alcohol. And that was why it was always so hard to quit before, because I would quit but be like, “Wow, I just wish I could drink.” Now, I don’t even have the want. It’s really weird and very interesting how the brain works, and I’ve been reading about what mushrooms do to your brain and body.

I’ve been very into Michael Pollan’s work and his book “How to Change Your Mind.” I think that if more people opened their minds, we could have a revolution. But instead, everybody’s just numbing themselves with alcohol, and they don’t even know that just three drinks a week increases your risk for breast cancer by 50%, for women. I just think that over the next 20 years a lot of light is gonna be shed on the alcohol business for what it is, for advertising to children, getting people hooked young. And I just feel really lucky that I got out of that trap, thinking that I had to do it.

Thinking you had to drink for personal reasons, or social?

I think a lot of it was social. Last night, after I had a book event, I went across the street to a Mexican restaurant to get some food and hang out with my sister and my best friend. At first I asked for a Topo Chico, and the waiter didn’t have that. So I was like, “Could I get a soda and bitters?” But then he just kept coming back over, asking, “Are you sure you don’t wanna have a drink? Are you sure?” I’m like, “Man, I’m driving.” But also, I’m ordering food — can I just not have a margarita with 500 calories of sugar? [Laughs.] It’s just funny how it’s framed and how it’s the only drug that we have to explain ourselves for not taking. I feel like I’ve been brainwashed myself. I mean, the amount that the alcohol conglomerates spend on advertising is more than anything else, and when you stop it, you really start to notice. Because it was always there before, it was always kind of something I thought I had to do, and now I don’t even think about it. I’m getting a coffee right now, though, speaking of mind-altering substances. [Laughs.]

And I’m still eating weed mints, and been experimenting with the microdosing. That’s been incredible for my depression. The mushrooms have really helped me with dealing with my insecurities and body dysmorphia and eating disorders that I’ve struggled with for years. I worry about people judging me for being open about this, but people have to be talking about it. Had it not been for that mushroom trip, I really don’t know that I would have actually been able to quit drinking. I know that sounds weird, but it was a combination of reading all these books, getting this knowledge and, because I’d tried a million times, I thought about checking myself into rehab because I thought something was wrong with me, like maybe I had severe depression or bipolar disorder. You know, whatever it was, it was not being helped by pouring something down my throat, that’s for sure.

Knowing that it was while you were on mushrooms that you had the revelation to stop drinking — you’re aware that can sound a little funny to some people.

I know it does. Right? Where I’m like, “I took another drug to quit this drug.” But mushrooms aren’t something that you want to do every day. They’re not addictive. With drinking, it just was such a pattern. And it was helpful with insomnia. Being able to fall asleep at night after a big show — I get why people do it. Sometimes it’s hard for me to get down after the shows, but now I’m like, I’m gonna have a gummy melatonin and a weed mint.

You have songs on “Strays” that are very much about you. But then you have a character song in “Lydia,” which comes partly out of your advocacy for reproductive rights, even though it’s a sketch of a pretty down-and-out character.

I think that there’s pieces of me in that character, but it is more of a fictional study. We’d played at this place in Vancouver and there was a needle exchange at a methadone clinic nearby. I was looking into the eyes of strangers I was passing, seeing people that were struggling with addiction and seeing women that were living out on the street, and that song came very quickly. Especially with everything that’s going on with women’s rights and reproductive rights right now… I think we don’t see what individual people are struggling with, when it comes to having health care, having all the people that we’ve lost to fentanyl, and all the homeless people. And then, on top of it, what must go through a woman’s head as she has a very difficult decision to make. … I just wanted to write songs that I didn’t think anybody else has been writing right now.

I think about Townes Van Zant and a song like “Marie.” I didn’t really have that in my head when I was writing “Lydia,” but Jeremy made the comparison to that later. And I was in that vein where it’s just me and an acoustic guitar and it’s just about the song.

You have a song on the album written solely by Jeremy, “Anytime You Call,” featuring Lucius. That one has a bit of an early ‘70s John Lennon vibe.

Definitely Brit-rock influenced. I think Jeremy was definitely pulling from Ray and Dave Davies, but always John Lennon. Jeremy wrote that song when we were having a real rough patch. He’s writing songs all the time; he shows me a song every other day. Well, when he played that one, I just had tears rolling down my face and I’m like, “I’ve got to record that for the record.”

It’s interesting to put a song on a record that’s exploring and going deep into your relationship — written by your partner, and not necessarily all positive.

I know — like “We’re not as stable as we seem / One small gust of wind could knock down every dream.” It was just all hitting me. He’s so good at writing things from my point of view, because he knows what I’m wrestling with.

There are songs on the album about sticking together, either from a point of tension or a point of contentment.

Yep. It’s been 19 years together, and we’ve been through so much. And I think finally being transparent about everything we went through after losing a child… And we were in a band called Buffalo Clover, which I write about in the book. Like I say, it was Fleetwood Mac without the success. You know, I cheated on Jeremy, and I write about that in the book, and now it’s in the songs too, you know? And it always has been. If people were listening, I go back to even “Hands of Time” and I’m talking about a lot of those subjects. But now I’m finally talking about it in a completely transparent light. I remember Joni Mitchell talking about when she first did acid, and she’s like, “I just felt translucent, and I felt like I could see through everybody.” There’s been a lot of that where it’s like: I’m just going to own my truth and own what I’ve been through. And it’s definitely peppered in through the songs.

You feel like that’s magnified on this album? Because you’ve always felt like an honest writer…

Yeah, I don’t know, time, maturity, age… I really have nothing to hide. When I turned in the last draft of my memoir, though, I started having panic attacks. And I was worried about the album, too. “Maybe the album is gonna be too out there for people. Are people gonna accept it?” Or, “Are they gonna look at the book and say, “You’re a bad mother, you’re a bad wife…?” Me and Jeremy were sitting by the fire together, and I was crying, and he’s like, “What are you worried about? You have been working on both of these for years and years, and now suddenly you’re having all this trepidation.” I said, “I’m worried I’m gonna burn all my bridges and I’m not gonna be able to find my way home again.” I was being very dramatic. And he just looked at me and said, “You belong to no one. You don’t even belong to me. You can just do what you want. And that is why people love you.” And so I got that (“You belong to no one”) tattooed on my arm, and that’s in the album art, in a picture of me on the inside when you open it up.

In the first song on the album, you sing, “I just know who I’m not and man, that’s all right with me.” It’s interesting to partly define what you are by what you’re not.

Yeah, man, I’m not a sellout, I’m not a bigot, I’m not a racist. You know, I may be a lot of things — I may have been a reckless drunk, a cheating asshole, at times in my life — but I know what I’m not at this point. And that does feel incredibly empowering. I like that you pointed that out. I felt like that song needed to open the album, because I feel like everybody does have this thing where it’s like, “What are you selling?” You’ve got to build the brand. And I feel like, nah, I just wanna smoke some weed and donate the money to charity.

I don’t care about having a big mansion or a bunch of rewards. I just want to do good work and write good albums. And it took people a while to even recognize the brilliance and the greatness of Joni Mitchell. They finally gave her the Grammy years and years and years later for her stuff. And even now she’s getting this renaissance, and it’s beautiful to see that.

Do you have a sense of where you are in your career right now, and the esteem you enjoy? It may not translate to riches, but to a lot of people, you’re a heroine…

Then you’re sitting here talking to me and you’re like, “This girl’s got no self-esteem!” [Laughs.] No, I appreciate hearing that. There are things, like being on the Farm Aid board, which is a real honor, and those are the things that I really do hold dear. I think it’s hard to see yourself for what other people see you as. I know it sounds cliche and shit, but I really do just want to work to stay grounded.

Actually, this guy came by my dressing room (at the Opry House, after the Loretta Lynn tribute concert in October) and he said, “Hey, you don’t know me, but I’ve been Loretta’s social media manager for the last 12 years, and I have this video I’m gonna send you. Loretta used to talk about you. She said, ‘You know, I got a lot of girl singers that cover my songs, but I think Margo does it the best. I have to tell myself when I’m listening to Margo, ‘That’s not you, Loretta, that’s Margo. But something about the way she does it, I just think she feels it the way I do.’” And it meant a lot. I was real nervous to do her song that night, because I wanted to do her proud, and I think that song (“The Pill”) is still hard for people to hear.

I’m just trying to do the work of people like John Lennon, when I go back and I look at his career, or I look at Joan Baez and see how she marched alongside Martin Luther King and how everybody called her crazy. Things that I’m doing today might seem radical, and they might have got me blacklisted from certain parties or awards shows, but I think that in the grand scheme of things, I’m gonna look back and say that I’m proud I did it the way that I did it.

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