Natalie Maines on the Insecurity of Going Solo, Dixie Chicks' Future (Q&A)
The singer, whose new album "Mother" is out this week, also discusses her break from the business, how she got Ben Harper to work for spec and her devotion to the West Memphis 3.
Has there ever been a less careerist pop star than Natalie Maines? After the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 release Taking the Long Way won five Grammy awards -- including a rare sweep of the best album, song and record categories -- Maines’ idea of following up that acclaim was to take the short way home. Over the last six years, the Chicks have been inactive except for a few isolated concert dates, as Maines devoted herself to being a parent, seeming to pay no heed to pressure for a follow-up from her label, management, bandmates and fans. Mother knows best?
But now there’s Mother, a solo debut that shows David Bowie wasn’t the only would-be retiree plotting a secret comeback in 2013. “Plotting” is probably too strong a word for it, though, as Maines fell into making an album after setting up some tentative sessions with pal and producer Ben Harper. What Maines’ remaining country fans after the George W. Bush brouhaha will think of it is anyone’s guess, since there’s hardly a hint of the Chicks’ chosen genre on it. But reviewers, at least, are lining up behind it, with USA Today rewarding it three-and-a-half out of four stars. The New York Daily News’ veteran critic Jim Farber went so far as to give it five out of five, writing: “Mother is a flat-out masterpiece, an ideal match of singer and songs that moves Maines from being a skilled and decorative singer into one of the most emotive vocalists of our time.”
While keeping her dog, Banjo, at bay, Maines sat down in her dining room recently to talk to The Hollywood Reporter about the self-imposed hurdles she faced in making this decidedly banjo-less album, and whether the Dixie Chicks have a future.
The Hollywood Reporter: You take pride in being a mother, so if you were going to pick a song about motherhood to sing, we might have guessed you’d choose something pretty maternal. Instead, you picked Pink Floyd’s “Mother,” which is just about the most anti-mother song in the world.
Natalie Maines: I know! But you know what, being a mother, I relate to the mom in that song, even though she’s not painted so great. I hope I think of it enough to avoid it and not do what’s being talked about in the song. I’ve heard that song my whole life. But when I went and saw Roger Waters perform The Wall live, we had just started in the studio, and for some reason that song struck me differently. I think something happens to us biologically when we have children where the worry sets in immediately. And I don’t think that ever goes away. But you have to fight your instincts to build walls up around your children, or to want to shelter and protect them from everything. So when I hear that song, I think of myself as a mother and what I don’t want to be like.
THR: Why make that the title song?
Maines: Naming the album Mother was more than just it being a track on the album. You know, everyone has one. [Laughs] And it brings up emotion one way or the other, whether it’s positive or negative … And it also answers where I’ve been for the last six years.
THR: Was your staying out of the spotlight all this time as simple as that?
Maines: A lot of it is that Adrian [Pasdar, Maines' husband] is an actor and never knows where his next job is going to be, and in that world, you have to take whatever jobs come your way. It’s important to both of us that our kids are raised by us and not other people. Working seems more important to him, as far as completing him, and I don’t have that same thing. I like being a mom and taking care of the house and doing all of that, so it doesn’t feel like a big sacrifice. If I’m working and then he gets a job and leaves, that doesn’t work for me. If my kids end up really messed up, I want to make sure I only have myself to blame.
I didn’t arrange that time off to do some self-discovery, but it just turned out that I needed to. You know, you don’t realize when you’re in it [being a celebrity] that it’s a spoiled lifestyle. It just seems fun -- and it is fun. But you can lose perspective or connection with everyday life. You realize you don’t have a whole lot in common with the everyday person. I didn’t know how much milk cost. Now I do! But also, I think when the controversy was happening, I just plowed through it and didn’t do a lot of reflecting or self-protecting, emotionally, so I think that all kind of hit me a few years after the fact, and I had some figuring out to do.
THR: But when the Dixie Chicks put out Taking the Long Way in 2006, it seemed like you had processed a lot of thoughts about the controversy, because the album implicitly dealt with that aftermath.
Maines: Yeah, but I was in fight mode then. And then you sit back and realize how it did affect you emotionally. And I’m more of one to push my feelings down, like any good Southern girl does. So I definitely still had some talking through it to do. And just maturing.
THR: When we saw you disappear from sight for six years, it seemed like there were two explanations, psychologically. Maybe you had no ego at all, and none of this mattered to you, which seemed unlikely for someone who’d had two 10-million-selling albums and won five Grammy awards in one year. Or, you had so much ego that you had trepidations about coming back and not being able to repeat that same level of success and acclaim.
Maines: Like, if I can’t win five Grammys, I don’t want to do it at all? [Laughs] Well, I hope I don’t have a big ego. I try to keep that in check. But I am a prideful person, I will say. So nothing was on purpose to not go back to music out of fear of that stuff. But I will say the pride part of me is a little bit like … I mean, music is art, and music is fun, and it’s always been this wonderful, creative outlet for me. And then when it got turned into something so political or so about something else … it’s too precious to me to put in someone else’s hands.
And I just feel like people are out to get the Dixie Chicks, in a sense. Off course we have wonderful fans and lots of people who support us. But they’re not the ones that can stir up so much … The music feels less pure now, in a way. It feels like all this other stuff comes attached to someone’s opinion of it. Which is just kind of a bummer. And so I feel like I don’t want to put my fate in these people’s hands, and I’m not going to allow these people to judge me or tear me down or rip me apart. Is that ego? I don’t know. Maybe. Or just self-protection. I just know I don’t want to do it!
THR: You told Howard Stern you ended up “begrudgingly” doing this album, like you almost had to trick yourself into doing it.
Maines: I didn’t even know I was making an album, but it turned into that, because it was fun. There were a lot of unknowns -- working with Ben Harper’s band, I didn’t know what we would sound like together or what it would be like in the studio, so I didn’t want to make any commitments in the beginning. Also, I get really used to routine. And I wasn’t walking around in my life feeling like I was missing something or yearning for something. I can really dig the mundane and the humdrum.
Then we did the first song, and a lot of fears were laid to rest. But there was still no need for anyone to know. If Sony knew, then they would just be asking where it was, and if Simon [Renshaw], my manager, knew, he would be doing the same thing, so I didn’t tell anyone I was even in the studio. And Ben and his band made that possible as well, because they did it all on spec, and they weren’t paid for months. It was cool to have this secret that we all had. Maybe it helped with the bonding. I’d say we were seven songs in before I told Simon. But that’s a good surprise -- to get to say, “I haven’t worked in six years, but I’m seven songs done with an album.”
THR: When you last came out with the Dixie Chicks, the first single, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” was an attitude song. Now the first song from your new album, Eddie Vedder’s “Without You,” is a love song.
Maines: It does feel good. There’s some depressing stuff on the album, but I don’t feel political and I’m not fighting any battles on this album.
THR: This is the second time you’ve released a single called “Without You.” [The Dixie Chicks had a hit by that title in the late ‘90s.] You must like that title.
Maines: How did I not even think of that? I knew I wanted to do an Eddie Vedder song, just because Eddie’s ukulele album had been the forefront of my life for the last couple of years. I also have a great connection with Eddie because of the West Memphis Three stuff. When it came to “Without You,” I could just hear what I could do to it to make it fit on my record and make it fit me, as far as adding riffs and hooks and the groove. It was between that and “Free Life” for the first single.
THR: Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” is a youthful sort of song, asking the question, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? That might be a question you’ve been facing lately yourself.
Maines: Maybe. But for me, that song is about the West Memphis Three. The words to me speak to their first year of freedom. I sang that song at a rally for them in Arkansas when they were still in prison, and Damien Echols’ wife Lorri said she listened to the board tape of that song every day until his release. So I put that song on there for her and for them, and to speak to that time of my life. The day they got released was the greatest day of my life. I hate to say even more than the birth of my children. Don’t tell them that! But it’s something else to witness people get their lives back after 18 years of false imprisonment.
THR: Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should Have Come Over” is the epic of the album.
Maines: I put that on there because it reminds me of the first year that Adrian and I were together -- that year before all the responsibilities and worries of children. That song was set on the CD alarm clock, and we woke up to that song, every day. So it’s just nice to go back to that time. But I didn’t realize that Ben [Harper] and Jeff were friends. So it was interesting to bring that song into the studio as a suggestion, and he was kind of taken aback by that -- in a good way, but I think it was heavy for him. That song took the longest for us to track, but when we got it, the energy in the studio was something I had never felt before, and I don’t think any of us had. Then that night, when I went home, I looked at HuffPost just to see the day’s news, and I saw that it was the anniversary of Jeff Buckley’s death.
THR: The hardest rocking song on the album is Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell.” If my math is correct, this is the fourth time you’ve recorded one of her songs.
Maines: I believe you. Yes, I want to do an entire Patty album. I wish I was Patty. “Silver Bell” I picked just because it was a song I could have never done with the Chicks. I just love the way it rocks. I just found out she and I have our albums coming out the same day, which is cool. Buy mine first, of course.
THR: You didn’t do much writing for this album, but it’s not a “covers album” per se. Of course you didn’t write much on the first couple of Chicks albums, either.
Maines: Because I wasn’t “making a record,” I didn’t go out and do a lot of preproduction and write a bunch of stuff. Also, I just wanted to have fun. Writing for me can be homework. I do get a lot from it, in the end. But I hate doing it. [Laughs] I don’t know why it’s not my favorite thing to do. It just seems so daunting. Early on, when I had maybe four or five songs, I went out and played ‘em for Rick Rubin, just to get his opinion. Because on Taking the Long Way, he was very insistent that we write everything, because he felt we had a lot to say. So I wanted his opinion on me not writing a lot for this. And he said it doesn’t matter -- it’s always just about the song, and in the end nobody really cares. [Laughs]
THR: When you debuted as a solo artist at South by Southwest, you didn’t talk to the audience, and some people thought you seemed nervous.
Maines: It was a very weird environment. At that first show, I felt like a lot of people weren’t there to see me, and there was a lot of talking going on. I was bothering some people’s conversations. But also I feel like I’m still trying to figure out who my audience is and what they want from me. Do they want me to just shut up and sing, or would they like to hear what I have to say? But also, I was super nervous. I didn’t know it would feel weird to be up there by myself, but it does. I am a little insecure about it. But that’s slowly dissipating.
THR: You said at one point that you felt like you were cheating on the other Chicks by going solo, even though the others had done their own thing as a duo, with Court Yard Hounds.
Maines: That freed me up a little. And listen, they always wanted me to do something and never would have said anything else. All my issues are usually self-imposed. [Laughs] But I’ve never done anything without them musically, aside from college gigs and talent shows and singing for my friends. I think I liked knowing that we would fail together or succeed together.
THR: Some people are calling this your debut as a rock artist, but the Chicks’ Taking the Long Way was also characterized as a rock or post-country album.
Maines: I love if people think Taking the Long Way is a rock album. It’s definitely my favorite of our [Chicks] albums. But this one doesn’t have three-part harmonies or banjo or fiddle. [Laughs] This is more what comes naturally to me. Not that anything with the Chicks didn’t; all my musical instincts still fit in in that configuration and that music as well. But I didn’t grow up listening to country music. I pretty much grew up rebelling against country music. So I’m right back where I started! It feels perfect.
THR: When you cut your hair short and let it go dark, some people wondered if that was a way of making a distinction between your past and present.
Maines: Howard [Stern] was afraid I was having a mental breakdown, [but] I think I’m overall just crazy. I like drastic changes with my hair. I always have. But also, there was something so fantastic about how easy no hair is. Oh my god! Shaving my head was just awesome. I got to feel a bit what it’s like to be a guy -- to not have to waste that kind of time on your hair and what you look like. If only we could pee standing up.
THR: Some people think of you as the domestic type who put a career aside to be a mother, and other people see the rebel/firebrand who pissed off a nation and delights in being candid with Howard Stern. Do you care which side people think of when they think of you?
Maines: I don’t know that I can control what people see me as. But how I see myself or how I want people to see me hopefully is: funny and kind. I think you can be both. But probably more funny than kind. [Laughs]
THR: You corrected Stern recently when he introduced you as “formerly of the Dixie Chicks.” It’s not a priority for you, obviously, so why not leave it behind? Is it just to go out there and do some gigs once in a while and have some nostalgia and make some cash and make people happy? Or something else that keeps you connected?
Maines: I just always thought that when bands released the official breakup press release, “Why? Why is it so important that we know if you’re broken up or you’re not? You’re just not making music. But you’re still a band, unless the lineup is changing.” The Dixie Chicks still exist. The music still exists. I am open to playing live shows. It’s fun. You know, I remember Glenn Frey told me once that he wished the Eagles had never officially broken up. He looks back at that as kind of a silly thing to do. I always thought people broke up so they could make money on their comeback tour. [Laughs] That just always seemed like kind of a shady show-biz move to me. So unless they want to get a new lead singer or there’s some big change, I don’t see any purpose in that. To me, we’re the Dixie Chicks. We’ll always be the Dixie Chicks.
THR: The Chicks are doing some Canadian festival dates this summer. Do you feel safer as a Dixie Chick in Canada?
Maines: No, they’re just the ones that offered! They feel more comfortable with me.
THR: But as far as going into the future as a recording artist, it would just be Natalie Maines?
Maines: You know, I have no idea. I don’t project. But it is hard to imagine. I did get used to just being the boss and not having to have group decisions all the time. “What do you want to name the album?” It was nice to just get to say what I want to name the album. But I can also see making another Chicks album. I have no idea. And people always look silly when they try and predict, and then it happens totally different. So you never know.