Almost exactly one year ago, Miranda Lambert, along with her Pistol Annies cohorts Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley, released Interstate Gospel, an album filled with swampy, unfiltered reflections of mostly down-on-their luck women determined to overcome with will and humor. Today, Lambert re-emerges with her seventh solo project Wildcard.
If Lambert’s celebrated 2016 solo album The Weight of these Wings was a 24-song, Platinum-selling creative tour de force that elegantly plumbed the emotional heaviness and the beginnings of the meandering journey to wholeness in the wake of heartbreak, her latest solo project, Wildcard, feels like a healing coda. On it, Lambert emerges from the darkness with a refreshing uninhibitedness that embraces celebration, freedom, and perhaps becoming reacquainted with one’s truest self.
Throughout a career that has included six chart-topping projects (making her the first artist to have six albums debut at No. 1 on the country albums charts), Lambert has chosen to invite listeners deep inside her struggles and triumphs, through the unvarnished lyrics in her songs.
Lambert’s classic vivid imagery and quirky lyrics shine on tracks like “It All Comes Out In The Wash” and the swampy “White Trash.” She offers knowing soulfulness on “Holy Water” featuring the McCrary Sisters, and is sarcastic and unrepentant on “Way Too Pretty For Prison,” featuring tourmate and fellow country star Maren Morris. But this time around, there’s extra bite in the vocals, an extra boldness in the songwriting.
Perhaps the album’s biggest shift comes with the production. Instead of reuniting with her longtime record producer Frank Liddell for the project, she reached out to Jay Joyce—the reclusive Nashville producer known for his work on all of Eric Church’s albums, as well as projects from Brothers Osborne, Little Big Town, Cage The Elephant, Halestorm, Ashley McBryde, The Wild Feathers, and more.
But for Lambert, it was a natural re-centering on the classic Miranda Lambert sound from her earlier albums, then reveling in both the hard rock and classic Texas country edges. It doesn’t hurt that Joyce was (literally) instrumental in several of her earlier works, having played on an array of tracks for 2005’s Kerosene, 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, 2011’s Four The Record and 2014’s Platinum.
“He’s just a mad scientist,” says Lambert, seated at a boardroom table at her label home Sony Music Nashville, looking out over the city. “He’s really brilliant at capturing a sound and not beating it up, you know. He’s part of the sound that was Kerosene, the kind of fiery sound in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Revolution,” Lambert says. “He sort of added that rock ‘n’ roll vibe to it. I wanted to go back to my roots in that way and have him put his flavor on it.”
She’s at her most self-assured on the new album as she leans further into punk-rock territory, such as the moody bass lines and crisp percussion that pulsate beneath “Mess With My Head.” It was another Joyce-produced project, Patty Griffin’s 1998 album Flaming Red, that served as inspiration on one of Wildcard’s most spirited, uninhibited tracks, “Locomotive.”
“I love the way that album makes you feel when you hear it. Jay texted me one night and was like, ‘I think I have an idea for Locomotive,’ because it wasn’t finding its spot; It wasn’t settling anywhere. But I loved what it said and I thought it was a fun song. And he said, ‘If we approach it with like a punk vibe…’ And I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. I mean, I’m pretty country no matter which way you slice it. But with his kind of punk tones and the band playing like they did, it worked.”
I’ve been down my luck, but I ain’t giving up/I got a heart like a truck, she grinds out the lyrics with a ferocity and defiance that’s been hard-earned of the past few years. Her voice sounds raw, unbridled as she attacks the first lines of “Locomotive,” following a percussion that chugs at breakneck speed, accentuated by Travis Meadows’ blistering harmonica lines.
The “Locomotive” recording session also proved that even a two-time Grammy winner, 34-time ACM winner and artist with more than 10 million albums sold can get still get starstruck.
“Travis, who I’m a huge fan of, came and played on the song, and I got kind of star struck because I’d never met him and I’m such a fan of his writing,” he says. “It was kind of a one-take performance because we were all in the same room. There was so much energy, and you can kind of hear that on the tape, too.”
As with The Weight of These Wings, Lambert decamped to east Nashville—this time, recording in Joyce’s Neon Cross, an old Baptist church-turned-recording studio, with a spacious recording area that allowed Lambert to record the album live with her band.
“Everybody was in a circle, and he’s a big believer in having everybody in the same room so you can feed off of one another,” she recalls.
Meanwhile, that confidence and swagger Lambert is known for is back in full gear, nowhere more blatantly than the playful, quirky album cover for Wildcard, which features Lambert in a yellow negligée over fishnet tights and topped with a pale blue jacket.
“I thought that the imaging needed to match the music, which I felt was pretty bright and airy and with an edge, still. I had a sepia tone in my last project, and that doesn’t mean just the way the photos were taken—it’s just in general. It felt like that was a phase in my life. So I needed some bright colors.”
She sought out legendary German photographer Ellen von Unwerth, whose electric, feminine work has been featured in Vogue, Vanity Fair, and album covers for Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and Rihanna. The album photos were shot at an old house in New Jersey “that has not changed since 1971,” Lambert recalls.
“We weren’t even sure she’d say yes. I knew she was kind of a risqué photographer and she really pushed the boundaries way outside of the comfort zone in her other projects. We sent her the record and I talked to her on the phone and explained who I was and what I was looking for. She would push you to try a little harder and do something a little different.”
Nestled throughout the eclectic album are moments of relatively quieter reflection on her life situation, both past and present.
The breezy, slightly ‘80s vibe of “Track Record” shines with authenticity and a calm sense of self-acceptance. I got a track record/a past that’s checkered/Can’t help it I’m in love with love, she sings.
“I just think it’s honest. I always believed in being really honest. And that song just tells like everybody’s got a past, basically. It’s just accepting it and not getting bogged down in regret or what ifs, you know.”
Wildcard takes its title from a line in the hopeful “Bluebird,” while “Settling Down” ponders the yin and yang pull of touring and playing music, juxtaposed with the pull of a settled home life.
“How Dare You Love” offers a rarity in Lambert’s catalog—a straightforward love song. You show up and put a spell on me/the nerve she sings, an ode to her relationship with husband Brendan McLoughlin, whom she wed in January. If the marriage came as a shock to music fans when she officially announced the marriage via social media in February, Lambert says the relationship initially took her by surprise as well.
“I’m a sucker for sad songs and also kind of built a career on spiteful songs, but I don’t do a lot of love songs. But this time, I did. I wrote this right around the time we got married. But yeah, sometimes love comes out of nowhere,” she says of the track, which she co-wrote with Ashley Monroe and Jamie Kinney.
“We were talking about how it comes out of nowhere, and I just randomly said like, ‘How dare you love?’ Because that’s the emotion you get. Like all of a sudden out of nowhere, when you’re not looking, is when it finds you.”
Over the past several months, Lambert and McLoughlin split their time between Nashville and McLoughlin’s home base in New York City. Parts of the album were written at an apartment in the artsy SoHo district in Manhattan. The change of scenery seems to have offered a creative counterpoint. She brought along several of her co-writers, such as “The Love Junkies” Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, which resulted in songs like “Fire Escape” and the moody album closer “Dark Bars,” which Lambert co-wrote with Rose.
“We just wandered around the city,” Lambert recalls. “There was a fire escape at the apartment we had and we would leave the windows open so the city noise would come in. Just having lunch, having wine. That city, if you’re open to it, as much as you’re allowing to let in, it will come in. And that’s a good thing. From the graffiti to the street art. It’s just like there’s creativity and you feel it. It’s like an energy buzz.”
Though Lambert has spent years selling out arenas, on “Dark Bars,” she recalls and revels in her time spent playing tiny clubs all across Texas and beyond. Last month, Lambert held a private concert to preview songs from the new album; instead of choosing any number of Nashville’s newly-minted, sleek performance venues, Lambert opted for one of Nashville’s own dark bars, Exit/In, a well-worn rock club that seemed to parallel Wildcard’s harder edges.
“Exit/In just felt like another honky tonk almost, you know what I mean? And it is a great venue but it’s also where I feel the most at home because that’s where I started this whole journey. And I miss shows like that. I’m so thankful that I’m on an arena tour right now, don’t get me wrong. But also, I miss just like a random pop up at a dive bar. Because it just kind of takes you back to that first feeling you had when you started to love this. But also once you get to this level where you have all these people to pay and buses and everything else, it’s hard to go, ‘I’m going to go play dive bars.’ And plus, there’s also radius clauses. It’s funny to me because that’s all the stuff that I’m like, ‘I don’t care. I just want to go play music.'”
For much of 2019, Lambert used her headliner status and those arena shows to promote emerging female country artists such as Kassi Ashton and Tenille Townes. Next year, she will bring a string of mostly fellow Texas artists on the road with her, including Cody Johnson, Parker McCollum, and The Randy Rogers Band, as well as labelmates LANCO.
“I am a Texas artist, that’s where I started so I’m drawn to them anyway because it’s a certain kind of sound, a certain kind of scene that only is there. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve done an all-girl thing, let’s do a Texas boy thing.’ And I always like to keep a younger band or artist out on the road, because it reminds you of that fire and helps keep that ignited.”
On Wildcard, Lambert finds magic in the transitions—from heartbreak to hope, from familiar surroundings to unexplored landscapes—both physically and sonically.
“There’s something to be said for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. So I’m thinking about for the next record, whatever the next project is, maybe choosing to go write in a few different places. I have a house in Austin, for instance. Spending some time somewhere else gives a new energy.”
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