The queen of “galactic country” is following up a career-defining album (and a divorce) with a little help from Bach, Greek tragedy, and magic mushrooms
It’s exactly one week after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and her nerves having been frayed like a rodeo rope, Kacey Musgraves is today opting for some self-care. This is how she finds herself, raven tendrils piled carelessly atop her head, pale cheeks slightly flushed, in a floral and fetching Dolce & Gabbana swimsuit and up to her armpits in steaming hot water in a private session at Nashville’s Holiday Salon & Bathhouse (“Sweat Out Your Sins,” its bumper sticker beckons, with a cheekiness that could easily find a home in a Musgraves lyric). “I just felt like starting the day off on some kind of therapeutic note,” she explains, as if — that week of all weeks — an explanation were necessary.
In truth, her day started a few hours earlier, when she had been woken up by the light streaming through the large windows of the one-room guesthouse in which she’s currently living while the many-roomed real house she moved into back in the fall is being transformed from the type of place that would be featured in design magazines to a different type of place that would be featured in design magazines. Lots of plaster is involved, as well as lots of fleshy-pink paint. There will be heated blond floors, and linen pillows in various soothing and complementary hues. There will be an art room to house the clay sculpture of a camel she made in an art class this summer (“It was me and a bunch of old ladies, and it was so fun”). There will be a picture window.
But honestly, Musgraves has come to realize she has everything she needs in the “gnome house” out back by the pool. She has a minifridge filled with sparkling water and cheese. She has her Califone record player, upon which elegantly sits 1957’s Havana at 2 A.M., by a bygone Afro-Cuban group called Jose Madeira and His Orchestra. She has a book on love signs and another called Cosmic Coupling, as well as The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, which she only just started but can’t recommend enough. She has her journal, in which she’s been writing compulsively of late, and an impressively large flatscreen TV upon which she’s been watching Pen15 (“It’s exactly like middle school”) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. What she does not have in abundance is chairs, or really anywhere good to sit besides the bed, but that’s mostly OK because it’s mostly just Musgraves here, living out a pandemic and reverting to the homebody she would have been had she not, at age 24, released Same Trailer Different Park, the album that in 2013 set her Texas star into ascendancy.
It did so for any number of reasons, among them her biting wordplay, her uncanny ability to layer meaning, and her masterful embrace of the down-home sounds of pedal steel and banjo. It also ruffled plenty of feathers in the conservative country-music establishment by daring to advocate for a live-and-let-live LGBTQ+ inclusiveness and (horror of horrors) a casual acceptance of pot. “So, make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into,” she sang in “Follow Your Arrow,” along with “When the straight and narrow/Gets a little too straight/Roll up a joint — I would,” thereby ensuring she would never become a darling of country radio, while also endlessly endearing herself to music critics and country-music detractors alike.
This was followed in 2015 by Pageant Material, in which Musgraves crooned that she was not, in fact, pageant material because “I’m always higher than my hair,” railed against the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” in a song of that title (“Cigars and handshakes, appreciate you but no thanks”), and otherwise turned her clever side-eye from the small-town social commentary of Same Trailer to the country-music establishment that had only tepidly embraced it. It was a neat trick, attacking country music from within, wielding its own tools against it with skill and precision. But none of this quite prepared her critics or her fans for 2018’s Golden Hour. “What would it sound like if Imogen Heap made a country album?” she asked herself, before unleashing unto the world — without preamble or pretension or any mention of “crossing over” — a work in which her country twang and Americana roots mingle seamlessly with vocoders, disco rhythms, Eighties synths, and reverb.
Though Musgraves referred to it as “galactic country,” the album had such pop bona fides that she was soon touring with Harry Styles, and winning Album of the Year not just at the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards, but also at the Grammys. “I don’t hear a whole lot of stuff in contemporary country that has to do with the history of country music, [but] Kacey knows that music,” none other than John Prine told this very magazine at the time. “I think what she’s doing is really good.”
Meanwhile, she could be found partying on Willie Nelson’s bus with Gigi Hadid or hanging out in a barn with Reese Witherspoon. She racked up not only a fervent LGBTQ+ fan base, but in fact the same intersection of fans as Dolly, a group able to encompass both conservative country-music purists and the drag queens she sometimes brought up onstage. Her 2017 Christmas gift to her grandpa Darrell was a buy-in at Nelson’s holiday poker game at his home in Maui, where grandpa apparently cleaned up pretty good (“Nana said he told all his friends that he beat Willie Nelson in poker”). She bought her childhood home and painted it pink.
Having accomplished all that, Musgraves is today forgoing her usual morning workout to -indulge in the Himalayan salt dry sauna and the hot tub, where she flutters her feet and wishes that she could be the type of person to “be here every morning, just Zen out, do your meditation, say your intentions for the day.” But, alas, she is not. Her Enneagram is 3 Wing 4, which is the Achiever (“child performer, high drive, knows what they want: that makes sense”) and the Individualist (“the need to be different”). Four days ago, she did a guided mushroom trip, which might sound like an oxymoron but is something one can do if one wants to achieve a sense of compassion and calm the hard and fast way. “It was not recreational at all,” she tells me. “It was like mental and spiritual labor. Like, 10 years of therapy in one sitting.”
It was also overseen by a doctor and timed to a seven-hour-and-40-minute playlist developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins for this very purpose. The most intense part lasted four hours, during which time the whole point was to flood Musgraves’ brain with so much psilocybin as to fritz out the well-worn synapse connections of habit and personality and create a kind of neural tabula rasa. “The idea is learning how to kill your ego,” she explains. “The ego wants control. The ego can misinform you, as a person, your outlook and your inward feelings toward yourself.… The idea is you can embrace your shadow self and your shadow emotions, almost as if it’s a character that needs love as well.”
Indeed, Musgraves encountered just such a character, when at one point, deep in the trip, she came upon herself as a child. “I was probably nine or 10. And I saw myself as clear as possible. I told myself, ‘I love you.’ I told her, ‘I love you.’ And I felt this immense, overwhelming sense of empathy for her, and compassion. I hugged her. And it felt like that was the whole pinnacle reason that I was there doing that experience.”
What happened at age nine or 10 was this: Musgraves started performing. And what was happening when she signed on for the guided trip was this: the emotional fallout from her divorce from musician Ruston Kelly, for the love of whom she had written Golden Hour. Whether those two things, the performing and the breakup, are related, who’s to say? Certainly not Musgraves, who vaguely explains that her marriage “just simply didn’t work out. It’s nothing more than that. It’s two people who love each other so much, but for so many reasons, it just didn’t work. I mean, seasons change. Our season changed.”
But there are other things she says that day that are perhaps more illuminating. For instance: “Part of me questions marriage as a whole, in general. I mean, I was open to it when it came into my life. I embraced it. I just have to tell myself I was brave to follow through on those feelings. But look at Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell. They’re doing something right.” And: “I think I live best by myself. I think it’s OK to realize that.” And: “I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on growing up as a woman in the South and being a performer from a young age — we were told to please, to make this person happy. That has to imprint on your code. It kind of erodes boundaries. So I’m trying to examine things that may not be useful anymore and maybe unlearn some things.”
Musgraves was raised in the tiny East Texas town of Golden (population 200 on a good day), in the two-bedroom house she shared with her parents and her sister and, for a time, a flying squirrel named Icarus. Her parents owned a copy store called MPrints, and her mom made art on the side (“She’d make a fucking life-size horse out of sticks one day and a stained-glass guitar the next”). Once a month, the Musgraves girls would throw on jeans, white button-downs, red bandannas, and cowboy hats and hightail it to the stockyards in Fort Worth to perform with a kids’ group called the Buckaroos, run by a herd of old-timey, old-school country & western aficionados. Musgraves learned to play mandolin and harmonica, and won national championships in yodeling under the tutelage of “the yodel queen of Texas, Janet McBride. The scene we’re talking about here is very menial, but, yeah, man: I was a yodel gangster.” She also made up half of the childhood duo Texas Two Bits and, at 12, got a guitar for Christmas, as well as lessons from the same dude who taught Miranda Lambert. She was a proficient plucker, but where she really excelled was songwriting, so much so that her parents paid a few hundred bucks for her to record an independent album when she was 13. Her grandmother worked as her booker, calling up stops on the Texas Opry circuit and proclaiming they just had to hear her grandbaby sing.
Musgraves was an achiever, but not, by nature, a pleaser, which makes for an interesting combo in the Venn diagram of personality. In school, she did well enough in classes that interested her, but shamelessly blew off those that didn’t. She managed to get in trouble “just for dumb shit. I would talk back a lot or be late, just classroom disruption, always had to have the last word. I would cheat on papers. I would sneak out, get grounded. There was nothing to do in Golden, it wasn’t even worth sneaking out for.”
After high school, she moved to Austin, and then to Nashville’s east side, living in a downtrodden house below an old woman everyone called Mama Sophia, with whom she would kindly share her weed. She wrangled work as a demo-tape singer after quitting a job performing at kids’ birthdays when, she says, the kid in question turned out to be Blake Shelton. “Actually, I found out later it was Blake Shelton,” she qualifies. “But the guy was like, ‘Yeah, there’s a birthday party at the Palm restaurant and it’s a famous person, and they need a French maid to deliver balloons and sit on the birthday boy’s lap.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, no. I’m not doing that.’”
She also turned down the first record deal she was offered. By then, she’d gotten a staff position as a songwriter, and had realized that “there’s a lot to being an artist that’s pretty daunting. And you only get your first shot to say something to the world once, so it better be what you want to say.” A year or so later, however, she’d figured out what that was, having rounded up a cache of songs she didn’t want to give away to other artists. A few years after that, she was covering “No Scrubs” in London’s Royal Albert Hall, and a few years after that, she was being heralded as “the world’s preeminent country-pop starlet who can fuck up a banjo lick real good and simultaneously know who Trixie Mattel is.”
Her rise might have felt like a “Slow Burn,” as per her song with that title, but looking back she realizes that it all happened in a blur of momentum. In the unexpected months of reflection the pandemic has provided, Musgraves has been working to unblur things: the divorce, yes, but also the years of living on the road “like camping at full speed,” the decades of eroded boundaries. “I’m someone who deals with anxiety by making sure I stay busy and moving,” she says. “And I haven’t had that luxury this year. So I’ve been forced to sit with my sadness, sit with my anxiety, sit with my anger, sit with all the things that you normally can outrun.” She pauses to consider. “I think that’s kind of a beautiful thing.”
That expansive perspective sure comes in handy in the parking lot. Towel-dryed and wearing high-cut jeans and a fuzzy sort of jacket, she’s behind the wheel of her Audi and apologizing for the tumbleweed of hair left behind by her dog, Pepper, when — “Shitballs!” — she backs right into the bumper of a nearby Honda SUV. She looks at me wide-eyed, mouth in a capital “O,” the blissed-out glow of the spa eroding in nanoseconds. A scrape runs along the Honda’s bumper, one that can’t be buffed out by a spare Covid mask, try as Musgraves might. “Shit, what do I do?” she asks before sticking a note under the Honda’s wiper with a fake name, her phone number, and the promise to “make it right.” Only then does she check her own bumper, which is scraped in a similar fashion. This seems to concern her much less. “Jeez, I don’t deserve nice things,” she says wryly before gingerly pulling into the traffic circulating through Nashville’s low-slung environs.
On the way to producer Daniel Tashian’s house to work on her new album, which is set to be released this year, she explains how two days ago she was in the process of sitting with her sadness, listening to Bach’s “Komm, süßer Tod, komm selge Ruh,” when suddenly the word “tragedy” sprung to mind. This got her thinking about Greek tragedies and the classic three-act narrative, which got her thinking about her divorce and also about the state of America and also about the state of the world at large, locked down and fearful. “This last chapter of my life and this whole last year and chapter for our country — at its most simple form, it’s a tragedy,” she figured. “And then I started looking into why portraying a tragedy is actually therapeutic and why it is a form of art that has lasted for centuries. It’s because you set the scene, the audience rises to the climax of the problem with you, and then there’s resolve. There’s a feeling of resolution at the end. I was inspired by that.”
Soon she was thinking of Romeo and Juliet and the idea of being “star-crossed,” and the revelation that, of the 39 songs she’d thus far written over the course of the past few years, she could figure out which ones to use if she structured the album like a tragedy, grouping the songs into acts. Suddenly, the album that had seemed fairly nebulous began to take real shape in her mind. “It’s crazy because you have to just wait on it,” she says of that moment. “You can’t ask for it.” The conceptualization also showed her that she still needed one more song, the one that would be the “crescendo of the climax. And that’s what we’re going to play around with today,” she says, rolling the car to a stop in front of a white, brick house.
She finds Tashian and fellow producer Ian Fitchuk — the team also behind Golden Hour — in the backyard, sitting around a fire pit, near a trampoline and a plastic slide and a couple of large storage pods, out of which Tashian’s wife sells vintage books. In front of the garage, which has been converted to a studio referred to as Royal Plum, there is a tangle of pastel bikes. Placidly moving about all this is a yellow dog named Pippi.
“I freaking hit a car!” Musgraves announces to not an iota of astonishment from the guys. In fairness, they seem of a hippie-dad (Fitchuk) and hipster-dad (Tashian) ilk that may be immune to perturbation. Much of the next few hours is spent chilling around the fire pit, drinking “Tennessee tea” (made with a saucepan of water and chamomile flowers over the open flame, then sweetened with honey) as the conversation meanders from the CBD gummies Musgraves brought (Fitchuk: “Wow, this is so sacramental; I feel blessed to be sharing this”) to the ongoing vote on Trump’s impeachment (Musgraves: “Upset about Twitter? Imagine Twitter is a Christian bakery refusing gay-wedding service”). At some point, it lands on the concept of being “star-crossed,” engendering a lively debate about Calvinism and predestiny and astrology and numerology and the belief that some things are just “misaligned,” as Musgraves puts it, “even though your heart and yourself want it to not be the case.”
“What you were saying about your experience was you realized there was a peace in that, though,” Fitchuk points out. “Realizing that just because somebody doesn’t stay physically in your life, romantically or unromantically, doesn’t change your connection or the purpose you serve in each other’s lives.”
“Right,” Musgraves muses. “That it’s on such a deep spiritual plane of existence that it almost doesn’t even matter that you can’t be together in this realm. It’s going to live on, you know what I mean? And that it still means something really beautiful.”
“The stars are going to do what they’re going to do,” says Tashian. “I think it’s a Shakespearian way of sort of saying ‘unlucky.’ And I think on another level, a third concept is that some part of ourself knows something, but the other part of ourself doesn’t want to admit it. So then we assign the meaning of the causality to these different things.”
Musgraves nods: “I mean, it’s like seeing red flags, but not wanting to acknowledge them because something else is making you feel good about it.” She leans back in her yard chair. “It’s interesting.”
By the time they move inside the Royal Plum, the group has availed themselves of the Radiooooo app in which one can input a country and a decade and roll the dice on what music comes up (Musgraves: “Can we try Seventies Argentina?” Fitchuk: “Yeah, let’s go”) and cast about for a tempo that might not be covered by the flowchart of songs drawn out on a piece of poster board. Musgraves plops on the sofa to study it.
“I mean, looking at the list of songs, we have some that venture into, like, a Bill Withers land,” she considers. “We’ve got that synth stuff that we always loved. And we’ve got some Eagles or America territory. There’s a little bit of a dance vibe.”
“When you see that title, ‘Star-Crossed,’” says Tashian, “you almost want to hear — I don’t want to say Coldplay, though I love Chris Martin — but you almost want to hear a bit of an epic kind of feeling. Not tribal, but—”
“Anthemic? Kind of?” Musgraves asks. “Well, OK. ‘Star-Crossed’ could be the easiest, laziest thing: It could be a ballad. But what if it was an uptempo, sad dance song? What would that be like? Or what if it was kind of that Nineties, midtempo laid-back…”
“Yeah,” Tashian ponders, unconvinced. “Yeah.”
“Or more of a bossa nova, waltz-type vibe?”
Tashian perks up. “Oooooooh!”
“Wait, we do have a waltz,” Musgraves remembers.
“Hmm. We can’t have two waltzes. That I know.”
“It’s a waltz album!” Tashian jokes. “It’s a Waltz in the Park!”
Musgraves laughs. “Imagine if I turned that into the label?”
“OK. We got to chip away at it from the words,” he tells her. “’Cause that’s what’s going to guide us, I think. Here, let me get some real paper for you.”
Tashian hands her a spiral-bound notebook. She takes up a bright-green marker. Then she gets to writing.
Today, the problem is the pool — or it might be the pool, should the pool continue to act as it is wont to. “It’s been the bane of my existence,” Musgraves had told me. “Like, it’s the world’s most unrelaxing pool. I might as well be filling it with dollars because it never works.”
She’s back at her gnome house, again bathed in the morning light. The pool outside the door is set to be heating, but seems to have other ideas, which is a problem because later on this nippy January day a famous photographer is coming to take pictures of Musgraves floating around in it. She doesn’t want this photographer to get frostbite. She doesn’t want to get frostbite herself. That would be therapeutic for no one.
“I just want to continue to make healthy choices for myself physically, mentally,” she says, perched on the yellow duvet. “Even when the world starts ramping up again, I want to keep the things I’ve found useful this past year.” This means riding her horse more “because that’s what makes my soul really happy,” doing more pottery, doing more journaling, especially while listening to the Johns Hopkins playlist, which is meant to evoke moments from her trip. It means trying to be OK with the fact that catharsis “is a moving target,” and that “doing the right thing just doesn’t feel right sometimes.” It means recognizing the golden hour never lasts, and that it’s always inevitably followed by night. “I’m in a night period,” Musgraves had said. “But what’s great about that is that next is another light period. It will come again.”
In the great pantheon of star-crossed tragedies, none of this is so extraordinary. But watching “Star-Crossed” take shape proved that it could be:
Let me set the scene
Two lovers ripped right at the seams
Woke up from the perfect dream
And then the darkness came
Signed the papers yesterday
You came and took your things away
I moved out of the home we made
And gave you back your name
A simple, crushing story, simply and crushingly told. Tashian’s guitar accompaniment had started as a mere flittering of notes, then grew with Latin-inflected drama. Musgraves had sung the words quietly, her voice like a gossamer thread unspooling. The song ended with an outro, the word “star-crossed” repeated until it trailed off, without resolution. At least, that’s how it ended that day; nothing was yet set in stone. “With Kacey, there’s a terrific amount of exploration sonically that goes on, searching and searching for new sounds. That hasn’t changed,” Tashian tells me later about the direction of the new album, especially in relation to Golden Hour. “But, you know, these are different phases or different seasons. It’s sort of like saying, ‘How will spring be different from autumn?’”
Musgraves doesn’t even know if she’ll tour this next album. The season when she wants to say what it will end up saying might pass, and she’s OK with that. The important thing is that she’ll have said it. “I mean, it’s a therapeutic outlet for me, you know? I can’t help but to write about what I’m going through. I want to honor the huge range of emotion that I’ve felt over this past year, past six months. I also want to honor the relationship we had and the love we have for each other. Because it’s very real.”
Next week she’ll get in the studio with Fitchuk and Tashian and keep figuring out how to do that, how to record the story of her unfolding tragedy in a way that might bring about resolution. She’ll surround herself with salt lamps and good energy and maybe some fat joints, and certainly with musicians who feel “almost like my brothers at this point.” The songs are all there, in her brain and her Voice Memos app, ready to be actualized. Just in the past day, she’d gotten the idea to have Carlos Santana play on “Star-Crossed,” and heard that he may very well be game. So much was possible. There were many paths to healing. Oh, and one more thing: The owner of the Honda had called to report that the scrape was no big deal. She doesn’t even like that car anyway.
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