"To a New Level": An Interview with Natalie Hemby of the Highwomen
Prolific singer-songwriter Natalie Hemby traces her path to becoming one of the Highwomen and hints at a new solo album during the Newport Folk Festival.
Low Country Sound/Elektra
6 September 2019
Natalie Hemby has numerous songwriting credits (and hits) for artists like Miranda Lambert, Sheryl Crow, and Kacey Musgraves under her belt. So Hemby should not have been surprised when producer Dave Cobb called her up to write some songs for a new project with Amanda Shires and Brandi Carlile. But she was genuinely surprised when the ladies asked her to join them (along with Maren Morris) in their supergroup the Highwomen.
When the group's first single, "Redesigning Women" dropped a few weeks back, Rolling Stone was one of the first to share the track and provide some background about the group of women hoping to break down gender barriers in country music. In the music video, the ladies torch a pile filled with things typically attributed to the female gender. And a few weeks after the article, the Highwomen were at the Newport Folk Festival making their highly anticipated live debut.
In the midst of a heavy press push, Hemby took some time to speak with PopMatters the day after that performance but before Saturday's all-female finale which surprised Newport with an appearance from Dolly Parton and Judy Collins amongst many other talented artists. In our chat, briefly paused when Ruston Kelly passed by, Hemby discussed the Highwomen, her follow-up to Puxico and told us a joke.
Photo: Sachyn Mital
The press push also included studio time at SiriusXM in NYC where the Highwomen performed their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain" for Howard Stern. Check out a video of that performance below our interview with Hemby. The Highwomen's self-titled debut record comes out on 6 September via Cobb's Low Country Sound/Elektra Records. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Congratulations on having the Highwomen perform their first live show at Newport yesterday.
Thank you so much.
How did it feel to play in front of that audience, first off?
Well, you know Amanda [Shires] and Brandi [Carlile] performed at Newport several times, and Maren [Morris], it's her first time [here], and I have never been in front of an audience that is standing with anticipation and cheering before you even get on the stage because it just felt like they were waiting for us.
And as we kept talking about it, it was like there was electricity in the air. It was like everybody was waiting with bated breath to see what we would have to say. You know what I'm saying? I was having sort of an out of body experience because I was like, how did I get here? It's so funny, I wrote for the A Star Is Born soundtrack -- I wrote two songs in there -- but that was sort of like my Lady Gaga moment when she goes out on stage with Bradley Cooper.
I know it's cheesy.
It's literally all of a sudden. I just got escorted to the front of the line with these beautiful women. And I'm proud to say that my songwriting is really what got me escorted to the front of the line. So I wrote a couple of songs on [the Highwomen record] and then that's when they asked me to be in the band.
It was after the fact and Brandi had never heard me sing and she was like, "I really dig your voice, and god, you're such a great songwriter. Would you want to be in our band?". She and Amanda both were that way together, and at first, I was like, "what does that mean?"
Well are you hesitant to tour? I know you didn't tour Puxico though you play occasional gigs down in Nashville area.
Yeah. Just one offs.
Have you ever toured?
I've never done a big tour, no. You know, because I'm 42 and I have a family and that sort of thing, I don't really want to necessarily slum it in some bars where there's like five people. So in that respect, if I don't have to do that, I would skip all of that. But I know I love to play live. Puxico was like, let's see what happens. I didn't have a label. I didn't have management. I did have a great publicist. But the Highwomen has taken me to a new level. I'm actually in the making of, the process of making a new record right now. And, and it'll be definitely amped up. Let's just put it that way. Class.
Are there any proper plans to tour the Highwomen?
We don't have any at the moment. What we were doing was we wanted to see how everyone would respond at Newport, how radio would respond, how our sales would be and that sort of thing. All that and all the press and so far it's going really well. We are getting asked to go and play some different venues and that sort of thing.
Really what it boils down to is everyone's schedules, right? Obviously except mine. But even with parenting, I'm a full-time songwriter. I write like five days a week. So it's almost like one of those things where I felt like as long as our schedules can align. But also Maren's funny. She was like, "If Saturday Night Live called us and asked us to play, I'd drop everything." I was like, "of course". So yes, we, we want to play it. We're definitely playing more shows. We just don't have any current tour plans.
"Redesigning Women" was the first single. How do you feel the response from country radio has been, has the song taken off?
Not quite yet. You know, in country radio, you have to do radio tours and that sort of thing. We are going to be going to a few stations. We have gotten a great response from Storme Warren, who is on [SiriusXM's] the Highway. He's played our stuff several times, and we do get a lot of support from that end.
It hasn't been out for very long. I'm curious myself to see how that's been going.
Yeah. I don't know how quickly songs pick up. Hopefully, it picks up. I'm not trying to say it. But I mean, you'll be fine though if more mainstream radio picks it up too.
Oh, for sure.
Because it's not necessarily a country song, I mean it is country-rooted but it's bigger-
Yeah, it is. And also I feel like we didn't really, we did this as a pure intention of like, hey, we want to open more doors for women, whatever the way that looks. And, and maybe it's not through radio, it could be through so many different happenings, but if we do get radio, then that would be a bonus.
You did "Redesigning Women" as an encore.
We did. We totally did.
I didn't see. Was there anyone else with you on stage for the second take?
Oh yeah. We had Yola onstage. We had Sheryl [Crow]. She came by the middle of the set. The song hasn't been out very long, and people were singing every single lyric.
How did the group select [Fleetwood Mac's] "The Chain" to cover on the record?
Well, that was through Brandi. [The producers of the film] The Kitchen asked her to do the song, and she was like, "I want to get the Highwomen to do 'The Chain'." And so we went ahead and recorded it. It was just so much fun. Fleetwood Mac is all our favorite band.
Yeah. That's fantastic.
Yeah, it's a great song, and it's fun to play too.
I was in the photo pit for the first song and then in the back watching for a bit before running over to photograph another set, then coming back. But I rarely saw all of you together, except for like one moment. I wanted to get a photo of everyone, especially as you all have the great jackets.
We had to work on it. It was like I kept telling Brandi. I would see her over in the middle of the stage, and she'd be looking at Marin, and then I'd walk over and then she'd walk over towards me as I was walking away from it. It was so funny trying to get the dynamic down, but it was a lot of fun though. It is something I'm still processing. It's something I don't really want to wake up from. It was so awesome.
Yeah. Most of the band was Brandi's band, right? The [Hanseroth] twins and the-
Actually no, a lot of it's Amanda's band too.
Yeah, Jason Isbell -- so it was a good combination of the two.
It was a really good combination. And we have Bennett [Dean Lewis], who is in Marin's band playing pedal-steel.
Did you feel at ease with this band?
Oh, well this is the band that played on the record. So it was very easy, and I felt very lucky that I got to have that sort of band play and they know all the songs. It was just one of those things where I wasn't even worried about the band at all. What I was worried about was me singing the right parts and smiling and banter and all that stuff.
You said you were working on a new record of your material. Is that something that you're expecting put out after the Highwomen touring?
I'm going to put it out in the winter probably. It's so funny because Sheryl's like a close friend of mine. But it is a 1998 Sheryl Crow, Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole -- all my greatest influences record that I am intentionally making for that reason. You know, I almost got a record deal in 1998, and in the 11th hour, it just didn't happen. But I feel like this is the record I've always wanted to make, and I'm so excited about it.
Would you then consider sharing those songs with Sheryl? Would you say, "Hey, Sheryl, would you want to sing this?"
I mean, she would do it in a heartbeat. I think it's more personal. I wrote a lot of songs with a lot of different artists on there, and that was not intentional. These people are just my buddies. I wrote a song with Marin on there I'm going to put out. And Brothers Osborne. Miranda [Lambert]'s got a couple of songs. But these are songs that are just more me than them.
Well that's exciting news. Now I don't know what to ask you about a record that's still in development.
Well, you know what? You're probably the first person I'm talking to about it.
So do you have a title or you're thinking of a title?
I'm thinking of a title. I don't want to give it. I'm not going to tell you yet, but-
It's not a small town.
Yeah. It's going to be a little bit, a little ballsier, a little more fun, a little darker maybe. I'm excited.
For songwriting for the Highwomen record -- I heard Jason [Isbell] say he wrote a song ["If She Ever Leaves Me"] -- how did the rest of the record come about. Did everyone come together, come into the process with a song or two?
The Highwomen really started with Amanda. It was her idea and her baby. She asked Brandi to be in the band with her, and they started writing some songs together. Then [producer] Dave Cobb called me and was like, "Hey, you need to write a song for this." And I was like, "I would love to."
But the thing that really got me on board was that he said they rewrote "The Highwayman" -- the actual song -- they rewrote it for women. And Jimmy Webb, who was the original writer of that song, absolutely flipped over it. He changed just a couple of things, small things, but he absolutely loved it. And so that song just set a precedent. I was like, wow, this is a really, this is really special. So I was just excited to write for it.
Then they asked me to be in the band and then I was like, "Oh my gosh."
Photo: Sachyn Mital
What's your favorite song in the record?
Wow. I honestly really love all of them, but I'm going to say my favorite one is "Highwomen". That's what it is. It was so moving the first time I heard it. I love all the other ones on there as well. But that one, to me, defines who we are.
Excellent. In our "20 Questions" that we did a couple years ago, you said you were a good joke teller. Do you have a favorite joke off the cuff? You set the bar for yourself.
Yeah, I really did. Well, these three mice were sitting in a bar one time, and the first mouse takes a shot of whiskey, and he set the glass down on the bar. He goes, "I'm so tough. Whenever I see those D-Con tablets, I just chop 'em up, and I snort 'em for kicks". The second mouse takes a shot of whiskey, and he sets the glass down. He goes, "Oh yeah. Well, I'm so tough. Whenever I see a mousetrap, I just dive right into, and I bench press it like 50 times." The third mouse takes a shot of whiskey. And he throws the glass down on the bar and he walks away. And they said, "Hey, where are you going?" He said, "to screw the cat".
That's good. Thank you. Is there anything else you'd like to add? I haven't heard the Highwomen record--
It's so awesome to chat with you, and thank you so much for reaching out to me. It meant the world to me.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I would also like to add that I'm the luckiest person in the world.
I'm kind of like Cinderella meets Forrest Gump. Like, what am I doing here? But I'm enjoying every second.
Would you like to be back in Newport next year playing your own material?
Oh, I hope. That would be... Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I am a Newport fan now, a Newport snob. This is the best festival.
Yeah. It's my seventh year. It's amazing.
It's amazing. The people are amazing here, and I love it. It's run well. There are great acts here. I'm just a fan of all the other bands playing right now. You know?
Planning any secret collaborations or playing with anyone tomorrow?
Tomorrow's my day off, and I'm going to go hobnob with everybody. I want to see Lake Street Dive. I want to see Hozier. I just want to be a fan.
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