Margo Price Can’t Be Boxed In

On July 8th 2020 » By Carrie Courogen

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Margo Price and I picked a very bad time to talk about music. In the middle of a seemingly endless pandemic, and at the end of the first explosive week of protests sweeping the country, we both admit it feels a little strange to focus our attention on anything other than the news and efforts to help, no matter how briefly.

Not that things were necessarily great early this year, when Price’s third album, That’s How Rumors Get Started, was first announced. But in the time between then and now, things went from bad to worse. Of course, we didn’t see any of this coming: not the tornado that devastated Price’s current hometown of Nashville, not the virus that killed John Prine and sidelined Price’s own husband, Jeremy Ivey, not the current racial reckoning in America.

It’s in the midst of this wreckage that Price releases her long-awaited follow up to 2017’s All American Made, one that broadens her sonic palette even further to include fuzzed-out guitars, drum machine flourishes, and soulful backing choirs. A shimmering bright refuge that bridges country, classic rock, and blues, it is both a time capsule — with nods to well-worn albums from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, and Neil Young — and uniquely current in its eclecticism and Price’s exacting, no bullshit lyricism.

Where Midwest Farmer’s Daughter focused on Price’s backstory and All American Made spoke to a country currently in disrepair, That’s How Rumours Get Started finds a spot in the middle. Notes of autobiographical storytelling abound, though they speak more to the recent past than distant, with tracks like “Twinkle Twinkle,” “Gone to Stay,” and “Prisoner of the Highway” capturing the joys, frustrations, and heartbreaks of navigating the world as a successful touring musician on the rise. Though notably not explicitly political, the album still has its subtle moments that remind the listener of Price’s fearless commitment to speaking her truth, criticism be damned. “You don’t know me. You don’t own me,” she sings on lead single “Stone Me,” fiercely independent as she’s ever been.

From our respective quarantines, we spoke to Price about her most ambitious album yet, her refusal to paint herself into a corner, and trying to create in ever-changing times of crisis.

The sound and the vibe of this album are such a progression from your first two. What influenced the decision to branch out a little bit sonically with this album?

I just knew that I didn’t want to keep making the same record over and over again. I’ve played in rock bands before and I knew it was kind of only a matter of time before I would do something different than just, you know, more rooted in country. And also, the country music industry hasn’t exactly been the most welcoming to women or minorities. I’d like to branch out of that small kind of mindset of thinking, you know? I love country music, but I don’t love the organizations that run it.

I think one of the things that draws so many listeners to you is that you’re not afraid to call them out. The first two singles you released off the album, “Stone Me” and “Twinkle Twinkle” — you take nuanced, well-deserved shots at the nature of the industry and how, even when you become successful, it can still be unfair.

Yeah, just kind of a different set of problems. I mean, obviously I’m really grateful for my career, but there’s a lot of hoops that people expect you to jump through and expectations and a lot of things that I’m not personally willing to compromise on or do. It’s been good in a lot of ways, but in other ways I’m just kind of ready to branch out musically, too. I want to explore other genres — and I’ve always done that. Over the past 15, 20 years of playing guitar, and even longer playing piano, I’ve had a love for all different kinds of music and folk and blues and soul music…gospel and punk rock and just classic rock and roll. I think you can’t really be well rounded if you just stick with one thing over and over.

The album reminds me of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Southern Accents in a way — there’s a thread of your sound running through it, but it’s so eclectic. There are some country leaning songs, classic rock tracks, soul, new wave…Did you consciously want this album to be not only be more rock-leaning, but more well-rounded overall in incorporating your different influences?

I wanted to paint a different palette, for sure. I had done the last two albums with the pedal steel and fiddles and mandolin and dobro. I wanted to do more like organ and piano driven stuff, and there’s some synths on there. There’s a drum machine on one song — there are organic drums on it, too — but on “Heartless Mind,” it’s my first time incorporating drum machines.

I wanted to change before the game changes. You see these genres that become really popular — I kind of equate it to Alabama Shakes and the soul explosion that happened during their time where everybody was kind of chasing that sound and people wanted to sign bands that were like them and it kind of became trendy to do that — like, even white people doing blue-eyed soul. But after a while, there’s something else that becomes in style. I think it’s important to branch out, and I needed to mentally. I needed to step away and write differently. I’d been doing a lot of autobiographical kind of storytelling, so it was good to get a little more abstract. Some of it, obviously, is based off of my personal experiences, but I don’t think it’s quite as easy to always tell exactly what I’m talking about on this album.

In addition to more abstract storytelling, there are a lot of songs that are more immediate than your previous albums, documenting and taking stock of the ways your life has changed over the past few years. Do you have a preference between writing about things as they’re happening or writing about the distant past when you have more space between yourself and the subject?

It does help to have space and reflection in what you’re doing. Like, “Letting Me Down” was kind of written to an old high school friend of mine, and my husband wrote a verse to an old high school friend of his. It was something that I hadn’t thought about in a while, but it was very therapeutic. I’m even finding myself now, when I’m sitting down to write during this crazy time in history — it’s hard to know what’s going to happen. Day to day, things change so quickly and you don’t really know how it’s going to end. So, it’s kind of hard to write about something when you’re right in the moment of it. Three days will go by and some new news out of the blue hits and what you wrote isn’t even pertinent anymore.

You had an incredible backing band on this album — Benmont Tench, James Gadson, Matt Sweeney, the Nashville Friends Gospel Choir, to name a few. What was that recording process like, and how did they influence the direction your songs took as you were all tracking?

I had so much fun playing with Matt Sweeney and, of course, James Gadson is a complete legend, back to Aretha Franklin and Bill Withers, and he played with D’Angelo. He was just so professional and so positive and fun to work with. He just sat behind the drum kit and did not get up unless we were going to eat lunch. He was back there, committed, driving the train.

And it was really fun to be in a space at East-West Studio because it was like we were just playing in a small room together. I felt like everything just glued, even though they had not heard the songs before — I didn’t send them a lot of demos or anything. We did a little bit of pre-production and there were a couple of things, but mostly I would just sit down with an acoustic guitar in the control room and play it, and then I’d be like, “This song I want to have like a Springsteen vibe.” Or, “This song I want to have a Fleetwood Mac vibe or Neil Young” — whatever the reference was. Then they would just completely nail it. It was really effortless, and the recording process was natural.

There are songs on the album that seem like homages to those classic bands. “Stone Me” feels reminiscent of Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down;” “Prisoner of the Highway” feels like an update on Trio’s “Wildflowers” — all through your own lens. Did you go into some tracks with the intention of referencing other artists, or did you just write and, as they were unfurling themselves, discover they were taking on similar shapes?

I’ll usually write down three or four reference tracks. I don’t want to just completely take one song and rip it — although, good ear on “Stone Me” and “Won’t Back Down.” That one, actually, I was playing more heavy hitting with my band and then it came out a little more subdued and I was like, “I don’t know…” Most of the tracks turned out how I imagined, but some of them came very differently. “Heartless Mind” — I thought that was just going to have a straight-up, guitar-driven Heartbreakers vibe. When we got everything on it, I was like, “Oh, this is like Blondie or The Pretenders.” It was so not what I expected, but I really, really loved it.

But, yeah, I would just think of a few just as a reference for them of what I was going for. I felt it was helpful to give some kind of like, “Okay, this is what I want you to sound like.” I hope that I’m not being too derivative. That was a good thing, too, with having Sturgill and Bryan David R. Ferguson, to say this is sounding a little too much like this and we’d switch things up, just to make sure that nothing was too much of a throwback or too derivative.

You’ve played with Sturgill before, but what was it like having him produce the album?

It was great. I had some trepidation like going into it. I didn’t know if it would ruin our friendship because I can be pretty opinionated and I have a very clear vision for what I want to do. But Sturgill just kept saying, “Let me do an album of yours. I promise that it’ll be the best thing. It’ll be the best sounding thing you’ve ever done.” He just was so eager to do it, and he was great to work with in the studio. He brought in David R. Ferguson, an engineer who was good friends with Johnny Cash and Jack Clement. We all had a great time, just shooting the shit and laughing and eating a lot of food, ‘cause I was pregnant. It was really good to get in the room and just kind of give a little bit, give them the reins, in a way, to say, “Hey, what if we wrote a little bridge in here?” or, “Do you need eight verses to this song?” And sometimes the answer is yes, but sometimes I was like, “Okay, I guess we can make it a little more concise.”

You’ve spoken a little before about how the recording process while pregnant was such a different experience, especially in the sense of having a very clear vision.

I definitely wasn’t expecting to get pregnant. It was like right as we were having talks about going in. We’d been talking about recording for awhile, but as soon as I really made the decision to go in there and start all in, that was when I found out my husband and I were expecting. I had been sober for a couple of months just because I wanted to; my husband turned 40 and we were like, “You know what, we should take a break and just get really clear headed for awhile.” So I had been sober for two months, and then I found that I was pregnant. I already kind of had this very clear-headed new thing going on. And then of course, the pregnancy just really amplified that.

I feel like there’s a huge connection between the creative process of recording an album and carrying a baby. The process takes so long, it starts small and then everything kind of grows and builds and it becomes your masterpiece by the time it’s done, hopefully. It was great. I didn’t have trouble singing. Of course, at the very end, when I was like over nine months pregnant, then I was having a little bit of trouble getting a good breath, but I had nothing but time. We just worked on this. There was just no deadline, and I felt like I could get everything perfect. It’s kind of like nesting, too, being pretty specific about mixes and all that.

Your music has always been political, especially in framing ways the personal is political. With the state of the world what it is right now, where do you see the role of art and music as a means to make change for good, or at least as a refuge of sorts for people?

I definitely have been listening to a lot of music myself, so I can relate as a listener and as a music fan that it does ease stress in really uncertain times. It gets hard to think about how I have to share and promote this record right now when there’s so many other things to talk about. But at the same time, I know that more people are listening to music now than they have for a really long time. I think we haven’t had the space to even do it. You know, everybody was so distracted, living in this 15-minute world. It’s good to know that the arts are helping people. I just hope that folks realize that artists need their help right now because it’s hard to make a living when everybody can see your media for free. It takes a lot of money, and we have to take care of our artists in this day and age, for sure.

Photo by Bobbi Rich

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Carrie Courogen

Carrie Courogen is a New York-based culture writer whose work has been published by NPR, Pitchfork, Vanity Fair, Paper Magazine, and Bright Wall/Dark Room, among others. Follow her on Twitter @carriecourogen.

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