Margo Price :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview


It might have seemed like country singer Margo Price emerged out of nowhere with her 2016 album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. But the real story is more complicated than that. Price kicked around Nashville for about a decade, working odd jobs and playing with her band Buffalo Clover before signing to Jack White’s Third Man Records. Those years of experience contributed the fully formed sound of her debut, and are why her second album,  All American Made, feels like an such a sure  step forward. The usual lyrical suspects of drinking, trouble-making, and wrongdoing are all here, but the album also finds Price engaging her civic voice, addressing income inequality, American history, identity, and loss. It’s not entirely a reaction to the Trump Era — she wrote the songs during the Obama years — but it’s hard not to hear the voices of the disenfranchised when Price sings, “I don’t need ten million/baby, just give me one that works,” on the title track, a revisited number from her past, or to apply her words, “I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night,” to the current man holding the office.

Margo Price :: Weakness

The lp also furthers Price’s skill as a conduit of American music. Though the echoes of Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Jessi Colter on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter earned praise from traditionalists, Price’s definition of Americana is a generous one. Threads of soul, gospel, and loose R&B run through All American Made. It’s not entirely Price’s country funk record, but songs like “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Do Right By Me” dig deep into that aesthetic. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t embody pure twang singing alongside Willie Nelson on the heartbreaking “Learning To Lose,” a song that would dominate country radio were there any justice in this world.

AD reached Price at her home in Nashville, where she’s preparing for the release of  All American Made,  which hits record shops Friday, October 20th. We discussed the continuum of American music, the enduring majesty of Nelson, and figured out how her strident songs fit into our current moment.

Aquarium Drunkard: You worked on the songs for Midwest Farmer’s Daughter for a very long time. Did the new songs for All American Made come fast?

Margo Price: Well, my husband [Jeremy Ivey] and I are always writing all the time. We’ve just made it our mantra throughout life to write as much as possible. I look at writing songs almost like people would look at practicing guitar: the more you practice, the more songs you write, the sharper you are going to be at your craft. I think these songs came pretty naturally because I was so thrilled to finally have an audience. It didn’t feel like, “Oh, I have writer’s block” or something like that. It [finally] felt like my work would be discovered before I’m dead.

AD:  That’s always a good feeling.

Margo Price: Yeah, we had been working on some of these songs even back around when that album was finally being released, because it took a while from when the Midwest Farmer’s Daughter was recorded to the time it was actually put out. We were just still writing that whole time. Even on tour, we were making a point of keeping up with it. Jack White actually gave me really great advice. He said, “I know you’re really busy right now and playing a lot of shows and on the road constantly, but keep writing because you are going to be experiencing a lot of new feelings that you’ve never had before, so you want to document that and encapsulate it.”

AD: It feels like a very live record. Did you work a lot of these songs out with the band on the road before going into the studio?

Margo Price:  We had. We were playing them during soundcheck. For a while, we were playing them even during the live shows. I remember playing at Union Pool in New York and I played “Cocaine Cowboys” and “Wild Women” and then it got written about in The New Yorker and I was like, “Well, I guess I’m going to have to retire these from doing them live.” I didn’t want YouTube versions everywhere of our songs.

AD:  It’s a political album. The title track begins and ends with political chatter. You’ve got a song called “Heart of America” on here, you’ve got “Pay Gap.” Clearly, you’re grappling with the themes of 2017, but also our history at large. Was there was any part of you that wanted to resist the urge to address that stuff at first? Or did you always feel comfortable knowing you wanted to dive into that?

Margo Price:  When I first started writing, my husband and I, before we started Buffalo Clover, [we] started a band called Secret Handshake. And we only wrote political songs. I’ve always loved music that had substance. Bob Dylan is my favorite writer. When I hear songs like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “The Times They Are A-Changing,” those songs are amazing. But it’s very hard, I think, to write political songs and have it come off in a way that’s not cheesy or just bad. I think for a very long time we’ve been trying to write songs that dealt with the meaning of life. The common man versus the rest of the world. I come from a very working-class family and a very working-class town.

I’ve always loved all art that paints the pictures of the struggling working class. Van Gogh loved farmers and he loved painting [them]. I think it’s important to give the people without a voice a voice, especially in these times. I’m sure I’m going to get some backlash from it, here and there, but for the most part, the fans that I have…are in it because I speak about real experiences. I’m hoping people will see that I’m coming from a good place and definitely not trying to shove my opinion down anyone’s throat. With my first album, I was working out the way that I felt in my head about what I had been through. Now, I’m human and we’re all feeling these things. I think it’s just a really scary time right now.

AD: You’ve got a line about Reagan selling weapons to Iran. It’s kind of a startling line in how straightforward it is. It’s such a hard thing to grapple with, the full scope of our country’s history. It’s not something that gets discussed a lot in most music. But in country music, American identity is sometimes reduced down to an incomplete, or partial, image. American identity is far more complex than any one single definition. Did you feel like you were hinting at that with the title of the record?

Margo Price: I think the title felt really natural. I am proud of being an American and I love my country. I think that’s been the thing throughout history: the people who are the most patriotic sometimes get painted as these people who don’t care about the country. [Laughs] For me, it’s like “Born in the USA,” or something that’s just saying who I am. It’s the good and the bad and everything in between.

AD: “Born in the USA” is one of those songs where people completely miss so much of what Springsteen is talking about in that song.

Margo Price: Totally. And even “Keep on Rocking in the Free World” — people don’t listen to the verses. They’re just like “sing along to the chorus.” [Laughs] I keep talking about this, where we played “All American Made” at a faster tempo and have the full band play it. I need to make a more kickin’, soul band version.

AD:  I love that ambient, weird guitar that closes the album.

Margo Price: Yes, that was my producer Alex Munoz who worked with me on the last album. When we went to do the last album, we weren’t even going to have a producer. He was like, “I really want to come along,” and I told him, “I don’t have the money to pay you.” We didn’t have a very big budget. We decided on an IOU. He was there for both albums. He had just actually battled cancer in between the two. He went back to Spain, he’s from Spain, to beat testicular cancer and came back and got into the studio. It was just me and him in the tracking room and Matt Ross-Spang, who was in the control room, and we did that recording about two or three o’clock in the morning. [Laughs]

AD:  It has that three in the morning feel. I really like what you’re doing on “Pay Gap,” too, basically singing about forces ripping your dollar in half. What I love about it is how articulated that point is. I can’t imagine anybody arguing with the logic of what you’re saying there. Country music is so often about individualism and liberty; what you’re talking about there is a really blatant, concrete, and easy to understand sentiment. You’re singing about your liberty being infringed on, about not being paid what you’re owed. That’s such a great way to put, because who the fuck could argue with what you’re saying there?

Margo Price:  I know. [Laughs] Well, you would think that nobody could, but there are people out there…There are websites that are [calling the pay gap between women and men] “fake news, fake news” or whatever. It’s crazy. Obama [introduced the Equal Pay Act] and that was one of the first things that Trump [halted] and said, “No, we don’t need to do that. We’re not going to do that.” It’s so frustrating. If I think about it for too long, it makes my blood boil.

People want country musicians to be outlaws, but really, there are so many of the traditionalists out there, even in the mainstream, that aren’t going to talk about these things. Because it scares them and they’re afraid they’re going to lose fans. I don’t care. What’s more outlaw than speaking your mind? I don’t know why when you’re talking about music business it’s [okay to] shove a finger to them, but it’s [another] thing to be like fuck the man, too. It’s always been corrupt. I wrote All American Made during the Obama administration, which I’m sure a lot of people are not going to know, but there have always been problems. Obviously, we are at a point right now that it is just the worst. I feel like we’ve [been pushed] back to the ’50s with white supremacy coming out of the works. I just don’t see the morality in people to have the guts to say something like, “Hey, this is wrong” or “The KKK is wrong.” I just don’t see how people can’t be more fired up about it.

AD: You talked about the pay gap and how it makes your blood boil. When you sing that song live do you feel angry? Or does something else happen when you’re actually singing the material?

Margo Price: No, I don’t feel angry when I’m singing it because that song is in a major key. It’s happy. It’s disguising the message with something a little more digestible that’s pumped full of sugar because of the medicine that no one wants to take. I think it actually makes me feel calmer when I sing that song because I feel like, “Okay, I’m doing some small part to make people aware.” I feel like I didn’t realize there was a pay gap a decade ago. I wasn’t aware of that. Even now, in the music business, I’m like, “Well, I’m sure I’m getting paid less for these festivals.” I’m curious to see what the breakdown and differences are if we compared someone who had my same resume but is male. But when I sing that song, I feel calm. It’s a good one to sing; it’s a good feeling.

AD: There was a lot of soul on the last record, but I feel like there’s even more on this one.

Margo Price:   I’ve really been into the country funk sound. I feel like our band really drives on those time signatures. My keyboard player [Micah Hulscher], is  a jazz musician predominately. I think it was really fun for us to say, “We don’t have to play everything totally straight country. We can change this or do whatever we want really.” For a very long period of time I wanted to be James Brown. I didn’t want to be a white girl; I wanted to be a soul singer. I’ve covered Etta James’ songs. I think it’s good to throw [some of] that in there with your other influences and see how it comes out.

AD:  You’ve got the McCrary Sisters singing with you on “Do Right By Me” which is one of the funkiest on the album.  Did you grow up singing in church?

Margo Price: I did, I did. The first time I performed was in a church, for sure. My boyfriend’s mom would play piano and I would sing. I grew up singing in choir in school. I love harmonizing and the McCrary Sisters sang with me at the Ryman when I played there for the AmericanaFest. They did the background vocals on “Tennessee Song,” so I knew being around them that I wanted to get them in and have them sing on [the new record]. It’s just amazing to watch them work with each other and read each other and just how quickly they come up with parts. They’re just a joy to work with.

AD: You also worked with Willie Nelson on “Learning To Lose.” What’s it like singing with Willie Nelson?

Margo Price: Amazing. He’s just the coolest guy, hands down. It was incredible go in there and hear him sing our words and play killer lead guitar on Trigger.

AD: That guitar and Willie are  institutions. You just have to admire the way they’ve hung together. Willie feels elemental. We don’t have a lot of those elemental figures left, and we’ve lost so many over the last couple of years. There’s this absolutely ridiculous part of me that sort of feels like “Well, at least Willie Nelson will live forever.” Like, I’ll die before Willie Nelson. There’s part of me that actually feels that way.

Margo Price: He is so smart. He’s in great health, great shape. He’s so witty. He always — every time I see him — has a new joke to tell me. His wife, Annie, is just amazing. And their kids…we’ve got all close with Lukas Nelson and Micah. It’s been a really incredible year getting to know that family.

AD:  You have a broad view of what constitutes American music. Do you have a weird stylistic itch that you feel like you might need to scratch at some point?

Margo Price: I do. I already know who I think I want to produce my next record and where I want to do it.   I have a lot of songs written for it; we have about eight or nine right now. We’re going to keep writing. I don’t want to give away the scene [but] I’m really excited. I might go back into the studio again in December. Actually, we recorded another album about four months ago. We’ve got a lot of material right now. Both the album that I’ve already recorded [feature styles of] American music that I haven’t totally explored yet.

AD: Can you give Aquarium Drunkard readers a hint?

Margo Price: Yeah. Let’s see…desert.

AD:  Well, we’re looking forward to hearing how that plays out. Margo, it’s been a pleasure talking to you and I appreciate your time.

Margo Price: Yeah, you as well. words /j woodbury

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