"Puxico as a record is sort of a love story, not only to the town but also to my grandfather" In conversation with Natalie Hemby
It's not often that we turn into fanboys at TDF, but every once in a while there's simply no other option. Meeting Natalie Hemby just happened to be one of those rare occassions. The (co-)writer of Little Big Town's Grammy-winning 'Pontoon', Miranda Lambert's brilliant 'Automatic' and 'Platinum', Kacey Musgraves' recent single 'Butterflies', and Kassi Ashton's current single 'Taxidermy', amongst songs for the likes of Toby Keith, Brett Eldredge, Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson, Sunny Sweeney, the list is nearly endless. Topping all of that though is her own debut album, Puxico, released in 2017 it's a terrific nine tracks of small town America. We had the chance to sit down with a slightly jet-lagged Natalie on her first visit to London.
So I was going to ask first of all about the album’s pronunciation. Pux-i-co?
What’s the story behind the town, then?
Okay. Puxico is a small town of about eight hundred people. It’s where my grandparents are from. And basically, I was going to a festival they have here. It’s like eight to ten thousand people, but it’s basically what keeps the town alive. And my grandparents have lived there all their lives. To me, I grew up in Nashville, but I kind of grew up in Puxico. That’s why I talk about, I put it on the record, that my grandfather gave me a small town. So it’s actually, Puxico as a record is sort of a love story, not only to the town but also to my grandfather. I did a documentary about the town.
And basically I wanted to showcase what keeps the town alive, and how do you keep tradition alive? I mean, the United States is still relatively new compared to London, let’s say. But I’m saying tradition keeps a lot of things alive, and if I can keep this tradition alive, if I can keep Puxico the town alive, maybe I can always keep my grandfather George alive. And he’s still living right now, and I’m so grateful that he got to see the film. He’s in the film. He also got to listen to the record, come to the Grand Ole Opry and see me shout out his name.
That’s really cool.
It’s really so cool. You know, if I’m honest, when I first had dreams growing up I wanted to sing on big stages. Those doors shut for me and I’m so glad they did because it’s so much more meaningful bringing out my first record at forty, and doing something so honest and sincere about someone I love so much.
And so that’s a good point. Does it make an impact when you’re making your first record later? And it wasn’t a record label trying to get it in the charts, it’s something you’re really passionate about?
It’s so much more gratifying. It’s also terrifying in a way. Because whether you say it or not, you want people to like it. I didn’t know whether people would, I just wanted them to relate to it, you know? And maybe when they listen to it when they’re going home to their small hometowns they put on the record. They go home and love the people who made them. And that was honestly my full intention.
What came first? Did the documentary come first, or did the idea for the songs come first, or did they all kind of happen at the same time?
Well you know what? The documentary came first. The reason why I do this is because I noticed attendance was down at this festival. And so I say “I hope this isn’t dying”. At the time, I didn’t have a lot of things going on musically. So I did the film and, no lie, my career just blew up. And I had a lot of things happen and it got put on the back burner. After I finished it, I was like, “This is a soundtrack. This is the soundtrack to my life.” And so I started playing it for some good buddies of mine. They called me and said “Can we have a document of the soundtrack?” And I said “I don’t have it, but I’ll just sing you the songs.” And they told me “you have to put this out, it’s beautiful.” And I kind of already had that urge to do that, but with a couple of nudges from friends that made me cross over.
So it was almost by accident that it came out?
It was very serendipitous, absolutely. Because I mean, you probably can’t tell so much on this record, but I actually like Sheryl Crow. That’s what I love. And I always thought I’d make that sort of record. But it ended up being this very almost more Gillian Welch, more Alison Krauss-ish record. Maybe without the amazing voices! [laughs]
I think you do yourself a disservice!
So the record is very nostalgic, and I was thinking about some of the other songs you’ve written like 'Automatic'. Does that plays to I guess who you are and what you’re interested in.
Absolutely. You know what? There’s nothing I love more than tribute songs. I love songs that are so intense. I love Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. I just love when I hear a song and there’s a true story behind it. So yeah, I get a great kick out of that. [laughs] You know? Writing songs about people that I once knew, or maybe songs of stories of somebody else. I am quite nostalgic. And I kind of teeter between that and also very ballsy and in your face. I don’t care what you think kind of thing. [laughs]
A couple of your other songs like 'Pink Sunglasses' and 'Priscilla'. They’re very different sort of songs, aren’t they?
They are. You know what? I grew up in the ‘90s. And it was grunge rock, it was rebellious, in a different way. It was Nirvana, all that kind of stuff. I loved all those. I always had that fiery side of me, I guess you could say. I’m at two opposite ends of the spectrum.
The songs on Puxico, are they based on your experiences some of them, or are they stories about people?
NH: You know, some of them are my experiences. 'Cairo, Illinois'. It’s actually pronounced “Cay-ro” in the region. I have driven through Cairo ever since I was just a little girl. And it was that feeling of sadness when you were leaving Puxico. I knew it was going to be sad, but I was excited I was going there and travelling there. So that was a very true to life story. 'This Town Still Talks About You' also, actually. My friend Jen wrote that line. She went back home to Minnesota. Dad had passed away about ten years ago. And she said “It’s like he’s still here because when we go home the town still talks about him like he is”. That’s where that song came from. And it fit perfectly in the documentary. But it’s not so much my story. That’s hers.
That’s a fantastic song. That was definitely one of the ones I was going to ask you about. It’s kinda melancholy as well.
It’s bittersweet as well. It was more about trying to write from an emotion. 'I’ll Remember How You Loved Me'. I started that song right after the documentary. I was exhausted. My grandmother was there. On the last day of filming I absolutely started bawling because I knew it would be my last homecoming tour and it was. And so I went home and started writing that song. I finished it with my friend Jon Randall. And he painted some of the most beautiful imagery in the verses.
Songwriting... have you always been a songwriter first, or a singer-songwriter, or a singer first?
You know, I started writing when I was about eighteen. And I wrote terrible songs. [laughs] I thought they were really deep and brooding and mysterious and wonderful, but they were terrible. But I got my first publishing deal when I was nineteen. And I didn’t really understand how important it is to write your own songs. I liked doing it, but I was like “uh, I might cut someone else’s songs.” And I fell in love with it, and I wanted to write all the time, even though I might have written some absolutely horrid songs. But some amazing songwriters helped teach me how to write some amazing songs.
Are there particular people who you really like working with?
Oh yeah, I have a long list. But right now at the top of my list is Luke Dick. He hails from Oklahoma. He is a quirky…he’s kind of a mysterious guy. I call him “the Beck of country”. [laughts] I wrote 'Pink Sunglasses' with him. And 'Highway Vagabond'. He’s very left of centre. We wrote a song together recently called 'Taxidermy' which Kassi Ashton is going to put up on her record.
She’s very good.
She’s amazing. And she’s the real deal; balls to the fire. When she’s in the room, you know it… you’ll love her.
What's the song about?
Basically, I wrote it with my friends Luke Dick and Rosi Golan. The lyric is [at this point Natalie sings the chorus to the song] “Taxidermy, taxidermy / I’ll keep you hanging on my bedroom wall / And if I move to Albuquerque / I’m going to strap you to my Chevy Impala / Don’t gotta say baby, I don’t mind / I’ll keep you best, I’ll keep you looking around / I’ll keep your taxidermy, taxidermy / If you ever hurt me again.” [laughs] So there’s the angry side. Not so much nostalgic. I had a blast writing that.
Sounds like you really enjoy writing songs.
I do love it, yeah. You know what? I feel like there’s a lot of amazing songwriters in the world. And I feel like the world always needs a good song. And you don’t know who that is. That person could be so unhappy and be an amazing songwriter. I just feel like our job is to write the songs, and where they land is up to them, in some sort of way. In a divine way.
I can see your PR hanging around behind you, so I’ve got a feeling that I’m going to be kicked out in a second. So I wanted to ask you about 'Worn'.
One of my best friends - her name is Lindsay Chapman - she and I were doing a song with Kelly Clarkson. She had an idea. Just the imagery of that. Actually, it’s quite interesting. Lindsay is a jeweller. She sells just beautiful old diamonds. She loves old things. So it was appropriate. She brought that song into my home. It’s kind of where that stemmed from. I mean, everything in our house is antiquated in some sort of way. [laughs]
And that was it, with a bit of chat about Natalie's buried ancestors and whether I have a DVD player to watch the documentary we were wrapped up. So many things left to talk about, the Grand Ole Opry, working with Miranda Lambert and Kacey Musgraves, winning a Grammy, pink sunglasses. Another time maybe.
It's tough to find any presence for Natalie on the internet, but you can try to follow her on Twitter (her account's locked). You can buy the Puxico documentary, and the fantastic record. You can also stream Puxico the record from any decent streaming platform.