Interview with Natalie Hemby

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 Photo Credit: Kate York

During the making of her 2016 documentary titled “Puxico” which followed the Homecoming parade in her grandfather George’s hometown, Natalie Hemby decided that the film’s soundtrack could be released as a standalone album, celebrating a year since its release this week. The film and album both follow similar themes: small town life, the importance of memories, family and an exploration of love for all things ephemeral. They also share a namesake, that of her grandfather’s birthplace, population: <1,000. Very little other media exists to document the settlement, so it’s lucky the multi-talented Natalie Hemby approaches the task with her characteristically elegant manner.

“It’s my modern take on an old town. I made a documentary of my grandparent’s hometown in southeast Missouri and basically wrote it as the soundtrack.”

While she realises such towns are not uncommon, neither in the US nor the world over, her fascination with small-town scenarios is readily apparent.

“There’s a lot of places like that in the US. Don’t get me wrong, we have some crazy people that live in small towns, and country music loves to write about them. But there’s some amazing people who have done amazing things that nobody knows about, from these little tiny towns just dotted around America. I wish I could tell each one’s story, you know? It’s just that interesting to me.

As I was putting it together as an album, I realised it’s such a part of who I am. I always thought my first record would come out guns blazing, like ‘I am woman, hear me roar!’ Literally, this record is who I am today. I go back to that thing of authenticity, I just felt like rather than try to do something to impress everybody and everybody will understand, I just needed to go with my gut and do something authentic to me. People will get it, or they won’t.”

She need not have worried. The refreshingly uncomplicated album was immediately dignified as long overdue by an ecstatic music press. Its mid-January release saw it arrive as the first great album of 2017.

'Puxico' Album Review

‘Puxico’ Album Review

Chances are, given her small following, that if you’re reading this, you already know who Natalie Hemby is. You most likely know of her many Billboard #1 singles, recorded by superstar acts like Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Miranda Lambert

Read the review here

“This is an album that’s so personal to me that I didn’t know how it would be received. It is a record about Puxico, but it’s really more of an emotional record about holding onto the things that are dear to you. Going home and loving your parents, your friends, whoever helped raise you all those years. It’s me paying homage to a community who did that for me, and really my grandfather. I wanted to put this record out, and so far I’ve been so surprised about how well received it’s been. Especially avenues like NPR, like the professor you’re always trying to impress in college. You don’t want to admit that you really want them to like your paper. I don’t know that it’s something everyone will understand, but even if there’s a few thousand who’ll like it, that makes me happy.”

The first song we heard from the album was ‘Return’, quietly released to Spotify before any buzz was built around the album’s release. Yet, it endured and proved a magnificent closer, its ethereal production pushing the genre’s tightly-curled boundaries. It made me thirsty for more, and it’s an avenue I sure hope she pursues on any future releases.

“I had just come off filming Puxico for two weeks, the hottest week in summer on record. Exhausted, overwhelmed, I had all this film footage and no idea how I was going to piece it together. So I came home, and I talked to Trent Dabbs, an amazing songwriter here in Nashville. He is so great at carving out what you want to say. I was at a loss for what music I wanted to write for Puxico. I knew sonically, but I didn’t know how to put it into words.

He told me he’d just lost his grandmother. We started writing this song and it was the first song I wrote for the documentary. I just wanted people to go back to where they’re from, to go home and love on those people. So we wrote it from that viewpoint. Musically I wanted it to be a little bit different because it’s the rolling credits. I wanted it to be a little bigger, a little more emotional. I wanted the electric guitars and massive double vocals, but I didn’t want it to sound like I’m a big melisma singer. I wanted it to sound like one tone, several voices. It’s one of my favourites.”

Halfway through the album is a song with such stark and engaging imagery, it feels like a passage from a John Steinbeck novel; Hemby passes through ‘Cairo, IL’ on her way to Puxico from Nashville, a ghost town sitting on three state lines: Illinois, Missouri and Kentucky.

“The residents of Illinois pronounce it CAY-ro. I have been passing through this town since I was a child and it has never really changed. Literally, it’s a relic of itself. Beautiful buildings built in the late 1800s, early 1900s. It’s such an interesting place because it’s where three states meet and two rivers converge, and it’s the halfway point to the place I love. I wrote this with two friends who are actually from Missouri. I’d always wanted to write a song about Cairo, IL. I wanted it to be haunting. The line that gets me is “where the longing for the leaving and the welcome home receiving joy.” That’s truly what it is. It’s a sad but beautiful place, and it gives me that same feeling every time I pass through. There are still people living there, not many, there’s a high school there and that sort of thing. I wouldn’t say it’s the safest place in the US. I wish it could be rebuilt, but it’s also beautiful like a ghost. I’m so proud of that song.”

Alongside Hemby’s considerably brilliant output as an artist, those in the know recognise her name as the writer of some of the past decade’s biggest hits. Little Big Town’s ‘Pontoon’, Miranda Lambert’s ‘Automatic’ and Lady Antebellum’s ‘Downtown’ are just three of the six #1 singles she has under her belt. Most recently though, she’s written with Nashville’s young hotshots Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, for whom she has high praise.

“Maren Morris is phenomenal. She, Kacey and Miranda, all the girls I’ve written with here in [Nashville] town, they have this unique approach to their music. Kacey’s melodies are so beautiful and she’s so great with coming up with those zingers. Maren is the same in a different way, almost an indie rock sort of way. Some of her stuff is more pop country, but Maren’s just cool. She’s a lot of fun to write with and she can write in any genre. It’s nice to have artists who are like that, and not just writers.

Kelsea Ballerini, I wrote with her and I thought it was gonna be more mainstream. She is a phenomenal writer, and I didn’t expect that we would write the songs that we did. She is so creative, and she would throw out these lines that I was like “yes! Oh my gosh!” Whether or not she chooses to cut the songs that are a little more left of centre that we wrote is totally her prerogative. Every artist is different, they have to make the record that’s true to who they are as an artist. I was just really impressed by her writing.

Miranda [Lambert] goes for the oddball moments as well. She’s not afraid to go and push the boundaries, and that’s why I’ve loved writing with her for so many years. She’s unabashedly herself and just goes for it. I just respect anybody who does that because to me that’s real music. That’s being real. I feel like you can be creative and commercial in your writing approach. It maybe just takes a little more time.”

Such songwriting prowess refuses to stay confined to one genre, and so writing credits with artists like heavy metal band Halestorm, surf rock crooner Chris Isaak, and also Nelly Furtado have materialised over the years. Somewhat unexpectedly, Hemby’s writing talent has also hit the UK top 10 in the form of R&B/Grime artist Labrinth’s most touching moment – the pain-filled ballad ‘Jealous’, which hit #7 in 2014. Rumour has it, it was Adele’s secret crying weapon for the filming of her ‘Hello’ music video. There’s quite an unexpected story attached to its conception, which Natalie took joy in revealing.

“He came here to Nashville to write – this is 2010. It was Halloween, and I’ll never forget. I don’t think he’d established his name Labrinth yet. “Would you write with this guy Timothy [McKenzie]?” Absolutely! I had an afro wig on, Timothy was wearing a Sombrero, and Josh was wearing enormous sunglasses but we were writing such a serious song. Cut to five years later: “Hey, you know that song you wrote with Labrinth, he wants to put that on his next record.” Who’s Labrinth? I always remembered his name being Timothy! I hadn’t listened to the song in five years and I had had a child since then so my brain was so far behind, and Josh was the same way, trying to remember the song. When I heard the song, it was at my new publishing company, and his A&R people were coincidently meeting with my publishers. They played me the song, and that bridge… that was all Labrinth. I was just dying! I was flipping out in my mind, because I would have loved to have written a bridge like that! I remember him talking about the song being more about the emotion of his family being torn apart from divorce. He did such an amazing job with the song and the tenderness of it, and no overproduction, he really let it be this beautiful artwork. That was a feather in my cap, as they say. I am so proud of that song.

People are starved for honesty and authenticity right now. We all like to party and have a great time, but music is what makes us feel something, when you write music that has emotion to it, it just jumps off the radio waves. When Adele’s song comes on, it’s so pleasing, a breath of fresh air.”

With such an impeccable cutting record, I was interested to know how satisfied she is with her career.

“I’m glad to say I’m proud of my catalogue. It took a lot of years. The last seven years have been the most fruitful for me, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years. There’s been 13 extremely dry years. I’m so grateful, honestly. I love music, and I just got to a point where I was like, I just wanna do music no matter what that looks like. If people cut my songs, or if I go play them and nobody hears them, or if they do… whatever that is, you either love it or you don’t. You’re either in it for the long haul or you’re not.

 “Any time I write a song with somebody, I always want it to be them, but I always want it to have my stamp on it too. I try to find these niches where they haven’t filled in the blanks. I get excited when I hear one of my songs on the radio, or whatever that looks like. People are buying my record, and that makes me happy. I don’t have a label, I don’t have management, but I’m so happy that it’s doing pretty well, not having those things in place. I want to put out more records, and so I wanted to lay a nice groundwork.”

It doesn’t always work out just as you want it to though, in this line of work…

“You show up, do your job, and the rest is in their hands. I’ve had people tell me a song is going to be on their record, we get so excited, and it doesn’t make the record. The important thing is, I always say, the song always has to be written.”


More Information

Birthday

24th March 1977


Hometown

Nashville, TN




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About the Author

Alex

I'm Alex, 21 and from Greenwich, home of C2C! A lifetime lover and player of music, I got into Country during my early teens and I've been hooked ever since. I want to be part of the new and exciting UK Country movement, heighten exposure, and show people just how great the genre can be.