Gwen Sebastian’s latest album Once Upon a Time in the West: Act 1 opens with the dramatic flourishes of the title track: a vaguely Latin, minor-key progression and eerie spirals of pedal steel adorn a story of two ride-or-die lovers on the run that concludes with the cinematic instructions “Fade to black.” It’s a scene-setting intro worthy of the guts-and-glory Westerns it evokes in lyrics and spirit (like the 1968 Sergio Leone masterpiece that shares its title) and one of the most engaging, yet sadly overlooked, albums to arrive in late 2017.
The connection to film is important, because Once Upon a Time in the West: Act 1 draws as much inspiration from Quentin Tarantino’s blood-spattered, Ennio Morricone-soundtracked genre epics as it does from contemporary country songwriting. Sebastian, a North Dakota native who may primarily be known as a former Voice contestant and current backing singer for Miranda Lambert, resisted the impulse to record obvious singles for radio and thought instead about a cohesive narrative and theme, one that conjures the “cowgirl funk” of her imagination and ends with “Way to Go,” a plaintive meditation on death.
“I wanted it to be more of a movie soundtrack kind of thing and not just go in there – just do another single, try for another single for radio or whatever it is,” says Sebastian. “I wanted it to be one encompassing work.”
Sebastian released her first recordings as a Nashville artist nearly 10 years ago, including a pair of albums for the independent label Lofton Creek (run by Mike Borchetta, father to Taylor Swift impresario Scott) and a handful of singles geared to country radio stations in secondary markets. Those include “Hard Rain,” “V.I.P. (Barefoot Girl)” and “Met Him in a Motel Room,” the last of which – about Jesus, not an illicit affair – was issued via the Flying Island label. She gained some much-needed visibility when she appeared as a contestant on the second season of The Voice in 2012 and joined coach Blake Shelton’s team. She was eliminated in the Battle Rounds, but it worked out for the best: Sebastian scored a gig as a touring vocalist with Shelton (with whom she recorded the 2014 Number One “My Eyes”) and his then-wife Miranda Lambert, before that celebrity union went up in smoke.
Sebastian’s relationship with Lambert – who first appeared as a background singer on the attitude-heavy “Annie’s New Gun” from Sebastian’s self-titled 2013 album – has continued into the present day, where Sebastian tours with Lambert’s band and enjoys a productive writing partnership with the superstar. Lambert’s ambitious double album The Weight of These Wings features three songs co-written by Sebastian (“Runnin’ Just in Case,” “Dear Old Sun” and “I’ve Got Wheels”), and Once Upon a Time in the West: Act 1 includes three Lambert credits, plus a guest appearance.
One of those three, “Cadillac,” is bleary-eyed California escapism (emphasis on escape) that came out of a trip west where Sebastian, Lambert and their friend April Lewis were writing in a hotel room. It turned into a vision of a woman seeking peace and liberation on the road in an American land yacht. Lambert, who sings backup on the gentle ode “Oh Cowboy,” also wrote the weepy “Wing and a Feather” with Sebastian and her Pistol Annies bandmate Ashley Monroe.
“They tell stories like nobody else does, because they’re clever, they’re very clever, but they tell it in a beautiful, normal way,” says Sebastian. “So how do you do that? I’m still learning from them.”
Gifted with a high, malleable soprano, Sebastian is a dynamic enough singer to switch between wispy tenderness or forceful belting, sometimes in the space of one couplet. On Once Upon a Time in the West, she’s foregrounded in the mix, her bell-clear tone cutting through the instrumentation or creating a sinister, disorienting feeling with the use of hazy effects as on “Drunk or Stoned.”
“It’s still hard for me to listen to myself but I’ll be honest with you, this is the first album I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll listen to it,’ she says. “It’s almost like I’m hearing somebody else, it’s like I’m hearing my other personality – my twin or whatever. It’s easier that way when it’s put through a filter or a different sound.”
“It makes you feel a little cooler even though I’m not cool,” she says, laughing self-consciously, “but it just makes me feel a little bit more.”
The idea of the album as a soundtrack also leads Once Upon a Time in the West to offer interesting variations on some of country’s shopworn themes, blowing them up to cinematic proportions. In the groove-driven songs “Blue Flame” and “Quicksand,” Sebastian depicts a woman in over her head – drawn to the danger, aware of the risks. It doesn’t sound like there’s any positive resolution that will come out of it, but she’s not going in blind.
“I like dark comedies versus just slapstick kind of humor. I think that’s an element I’ve always had,” says Sebastian, citing Showtime’s Shameless as a favorite. “I’ve always liked reading about things like that too over the years. I’ve always liked a twist in things. That element, those songs are probably least like me, per se, but they’re what interests me. That’s what I want to learn more about.”
On the other hand, “Cry to Jackson” and “Losers and Lashes” feel like scenes from the aftermath, the brokenhearted heroine alone again, spurned by the bad boy who drew her in. In the former, she’s hoping that some literal distance will give her a little clarity; in the latter, she wryly notes the similarities (and fleeting nature) of no-good dudes and cheap eyelashes.
In both cases, a woman steadies herself and summons the strength to push on. Not exactly a happy ending, but something resembling hopeful.
“I always want the girl to come out ahead you know,” says Sebastian. “You always want somebody to have it back in control and have the power back and be confident in who she is and be fine and be okay.”
These characters, resilient and unbroken, self-aware and clear-eyed, are a dramatized version of reality, while the dust and chaos of the Wild West is an appropriate metaphor for modern love. These are women who make their own decisions without regret, much like the woman who wrote them into existence.