When she was an infant, Lola Kirke had a nurse who would sing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” to her as a soothing gesture. She would later encounter the song in a new way in Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Country music book, which she received as a teenager learning to play the ukulele.
“It was my first instrument, because I’m a white girl who grew up in the mid-2000s — we all got ukuleles,” Kirke jokes during a Zoom call with Rolling Stone. The singer-actress, who’s starred in Mozart in the Jungle and Gone Girl, is currently in New York, but has also been spending long stretches in Nashville over the last couple of years.
Kirke’s time in Nashville and deepening interest in country music is reflected in her new album Lady for Sale, which arrives this week via Third Man Records. Rather than a slick country-pop affair or sparse singer-songwriter project, Lady for Sale finds a third path, one where the aesthetics of Eighties country and synth-pop collide in tightly written, clever songs. There is the icy melodic flourish in the chorus of “Broken Families,” which features Courtney Marie Andrews, and the softer palette of steel and guitar that undergirds “Pink Sky,” and then there’s the Madonna-meets-the-Judds bounce of “Better than Any Drug.” Keen music listeners will recognize some of the reference points, but they’re also employed as ways for Kirke to frame her smart examinations of unhealthy relationships and show-business pitfalls.
“We wanted to make archetypal Eighties, Nineties country music,” says Kirke, the daughter of Free and Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke. “Through that, you would be like, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m entering into,’ and then get to these more complex ideas through what might seem like a simple exterior.”
You grew up in a family of musicians. Your dad is a well-known rock drummer. What spurred your interest in country music?
I think I was just drawn to how easy the songs were initially because there were three chords or whatever. Literally, I was like, “Oh, I can play these.” And through that ease, discovered a deeper love of country music. Also, there’s a lot of parallels with being an actress and being a country singer or singing country. So many of the women in country music, they’re telling these stories and embodying characters and also wearing costumes in a really incredible way. There was all this room for drama within country that was really exciting to me as an actor.
It’s almost like doing drag in some instances, when you think about Dolly Parton or Reba McEntire. The presentation is very dramatic and campy.
It’s great! And that is actually a greater way that you can be truthful. It’s this concept of, through the mask, you can reveal the truth. And I think that there’s something so earnest and authentic about the songs that these women who are in drag, as we’re saying, I’m so moved by so much of this music. That really appealed to me.
Your new album Lady for Sale nods to the neon hues and synth sounds of the Eighties, with touches of disco in the mix. It’s very different than your previous album Heart Head West, which had a dreamy, shimmering quality. When did the transition start to happen between those sounds?
A lot of it really started with Austin Jenkins [White Denim], who produced and co-wrote the record with me. He reflected that I’m actually a lot more fun than I’ve ever really let myself be in music, and I was like, “Huh, that’s true.” I spent a lot of time at the beginning of my music career trying to appear cool to other women, my peers — earnest and cool and serious and I’m just really not that. It wasn’t authentic to me. I also, over the course of the pandemic, really got interested in the Judds and Tanya Tucker and that period of music, which I really wasn’t familiar with prior to then, because growing up in New York City, that’s not really what I heard. I think Faith Hill and Shania made it onto the radio where I grew up, but country radio other than that was just nonexistent to me. So hearing Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache and a bunch of other music of that time, I was just opened up to a new world.
The idea of trying to be seen by people as being serious or cool reminds me a little of the album’s title track, where you seem to be examining that idea or really taking apart what it means to make it as a performer.
Being taken seriously is something that I have wanted my whole life. In a way, having as much fun as I let myself have with this record just didn’t seem viable to me. Being taken seriously as a woman is something that we all strive for, because the idea is that you’re not initially — you have to earn this respect. I wrote the song “Lady for Sale” after a period of not getting any work, even though with the pandemic that just felt like such a weird turn in my life. I had started working really young and I hadn’t stopped working. And then suddenly I wasn’t, and I was beginning to see my peers work again, and I was like “What the fuck?” I was really confused about what was happening. I had put on weight during the pandemic, and that was kind of identified to me as the reason that I wasn’t being able to work and that was incredibly painful to hear. And then I was being told that my music wasn’t taking off or getting picked up because I didn’t have this foundation on TikTok and I needed to go viral. It was just being revealed to me that the talent and integrity that I thought I possessed wasn’t as valuable as I thought it was.
It’s a cynical and sardonic song in a way that looks at just a character, which is a woman who is singing in a bar and has this other life. She’s making more money on the internet, on OnlyFans, on TikTok, than she is through music. That is a sad reality right now for so many artists. Being a musician is just not viable. Even though the song is about a character, I very much relate to that. What is it like to put yourself up for sale? And what’s it like to have nobody buy you, and how much of your worth is derived from being consumed?
Many people have an idealized version of what it’s like coming to Nashville. How did your experience compare to what you imagined?
I had kind of first gotten to know Nashville through the movie Nashville, the Robert Altman film, which was one of my favorite movies growing up. And then The Thing Called Love, the Peter Bogdanovich movie that was River Phoenix’s last, which is all about songwriters. And when I moved to Nashville, I fell in love with the show Nashville, became so obsessed I would have dreams about the characters, which was funny because I was very much watching it during lockdown. I’ve heard people say “Oh, people started moving here because they loved that show so much.” And now it’s not as local as it once was. But it comes pretty close to what I dreamed of it being. I also think that as I get older, I see that the world as I imagined it would be when I was older just doesn’t exist. I remember going to San Francisco and being like, “And at any moment Jerry Garcia will round the corner,” and it was actually “there’s a Google Bus.” I don’t think this local quality that the world once had exists in quite the same way. But I do think that Nashville, as a smaller city, kind of keeps that alive.