To those who follow Kacey Musgraves on Instagram, the Grammy-winning country singer is simply "@spaceykacey." She fully grows into that moniker on her latest album, the lush Golden Hour, a collection of country, folk and dreamy electronica that she sums up as "space country" or "galactic country."
For Musgraves, who established herself as a more acoustic-based, traditional-country force on 2013's Grammy-winning Same Trailer Different Park, it's a record that boldly goes where she hasn't before. After two albums that leaned heavily on country sing-alongs with clever, often cute turns-of-phrase, the 29-year-old takes a more mature and sonically diverse approach on Golden Hour. Think less campfire kumbaya and more late-night soundtrack for getting stoned – she even wrote the album's vulnerable stream-of-consciousness ballad "Mother" on LSD.
"As much as I do love those clever, witty type songs, even I can get a little tired of that," Musgraves tells Rolling Stone Country. "This was exploring a different side of what inspires me." Including artists far removed from Nashville, like Sade, Imogen Heap and the Bee Gees.
The stylings of the Brothers Gibb are well-represented on "High Horse," an unabashed disco jam that calls out the too cool for school. On "Oh What a World," Musgraves adds computer effects to her palette, including a Daft Punk-style vocoder. And on the immersive "Lonely Weekend," a loner's diary entry, she evokes the swoon of Beach House.
All of those influences were easily discernible when Musgraves hosted a recent listening party for the record inside a Nashville planetarium, setting the tracks to dizzying images of the galaxy that included a light-speed visit to the surface of Jupiter. "Did anyone throw up yet?" she quipped.
"It would be really hard for me to label this as just a country album," says Musgraves. "The goal for this record was to sound great when you're sitting there at 2:00 a.m. thinking about everything. It's a melting pot of many different influences that have come together. I've always loved Sade, but I also love Dolly Parton and traditional country music. I thought there's got to be a world where all these things can live together harmoniously – a place where futurism meets traditionalism. I still love steel guitar and banjo, but I thought it would be dope if we put that with a vocoder and explored that world."
Musgraves recorded the album at the home studio of friend Sheryl Crow, a woodsy 50-acre retreat with horse stables and Guinness on tap that is a world away from the Music Row seen-and-be-seen. "It's kind of like fucking heaven. To get to go there every night or every day and just take our time recording, it was like I had been walking in the Sahara Desert for nine years and finally got to take a drink of cold water."
During the writing process, the Texas native – who married fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly in October – realized that she had been living in a shell. Like the titular creature in the Golden Hour track "Butterflies," she emerged into a different being after embracing an expanded worldview. "It really was an all-around metamorphosis for me. I took a year to put everything on pause, get off the road, get married and work on my personal life," she says. "Then the songs naturally just started pouring out."
Musgraves may call her new music "space country," but the subject matter of Golden Hour, produced by Musgraves with Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, is rooted firmly on earth. This is a record of humanity, and, for Musgraves, that means a full spectrum of color. She preaches acceptance and better days to come on the album's stunning closer, a ballad titled "Rainbow."
"There are some things that are uncomfortable for other people to talk about, and I just think it goes within the spirit of country music to keep those alive in song," says Musgraves, who, like one of her heroes Dolly Parton, has become an icon in the LGBTQ community. "All I can do as a songwriter is look at things through my lens and write about them, and if that happens to make people happy, cool. If not, then you don't have to listen."
She has a similarly you-do-you approach to the "what is country" debate. "It's such a tired convo," she says, exasperated. "I grew up singing all that traditional country & western music and wearing the outfits. My entire childhood was comprised of that, so I can't get away from it, but there are all these other things, too, that have made me who I am. These days, genre lines are so blurred."
Musgraves was dabbling outside of country music well before Golden Hour. In 2015, she provided one of the highlights of Brian Wilson's No Pier Pressure album in "Guess You Had to Be There," and the following year collaborated with R&B singer Miguel on the overtly sexual remix of his song "Waves." It's a mesmerizing listen ("Body surf on me," she coos) and perhaps the first real indicator that Musgraves was ready to switch gears.
"From day one, it's been imperative for me to be the kind of artist who can go [do something like 'Waves'] and then turn around and play Stagecoach [country music festival] if I want to. Both worlds are equally as important to me. It's not either or. I have to do it all," she says, going on to compare Golden Hour to her last album, the more folksy Pageant Material.
"It's a stark contrast," she says. "But this is what I was inspired to make at this time. There's a lot more synth. There's a lot more keyboards. I've never had a lot of piano or keys used in my music – it's been pretty bare bones, so production-wise, this is a lot more lush. I was willing to dip into some different territory, but also be mindful of not letting my spirit or my character get too lost."
For all of her artistic wandering, Musgraves is decidedly tuned in to life's mysteries. As she points out in "Oh What a World," she's making time to celebrate phenomena like jellyfish, snowflakes and the Northern Lights.
"Where are our souls from? What are we?" she asks. "It's a crazy world that we live in and the climate that surrounds us in this day and age, politically and socially, can be really easy to fixate on. As much as a social commenter as I have been before, I thought that it would be really beneficial for my brain, and maybe for everyone else's too, if we step away from that and focus on the beautiful things that are around us."
Beautiful things that don't always come from nature. Before the interview ends, she wants to tell a story about a drive home from the studio, where she had just finished recording the Golden Hour track "Wonder Woman," a love song about the limitations of being human. With the mix playing on her car stereo, she headed over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge into East Nashville, with the sun setting to her left over the city skyline.
"I looked up above my car, and floating randomly was a lone balloon that was star-shaped and red, white and blue metallic. It was very Wonder Woman-ish," Musgraves says, pausing to remember the image. "It was a little, tiny present."