Miranda Lambert: What The Heart Wants

Photos by Daniela Federici

If you’re friends with Miranda Lambert — which often means you are someone she writes songs with — then you have to be prepared for middle-of-the-night texts which, as she puts it, “could either be a grocery list, or a lyric.” Lambert, sitting 13 stories above Nashville the afternoon before the CMT Awards in a cushy conference room at her label, is recounting how she and one of her closest cohorts, Ashley Monroe, have been known to send each other their phone notes, in which they both jot weird or unusual snippets of things for future music.

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“At three in the morning, we’ll send a note to each other that could say, like, ‘chicken,’” she says, laughing. Lambert’s phone is filled with phrases like this: random words that catch the ear, conversations overheard. “I feel like that’s how a song starts,” she says. Maybe it’s an idea that pops into her head while behind the wheel of her newly acquired 1983 Wagoneer, which she’s stocked with a Bob Seger CD in the stereo. Maybe it’s while she’s riding a horse at her farm, or sitting on her “magic porch” at her Nashville-area home, a place where so many lyrics have been written as the valley unfolds below. 

There were many phone notes — scrawled notes, pencil and paper notes, notes on scraps and legal pads – when Lambert started writing the songs that would become The Weight Of These Wings in 2015. For the 24 that ended up on the final double album, she created somewhere around three times that, privately working through the trials of her personal life — namely, a divorce from fellow country superstar Blake Shelton and a new relationship with boyfriend Anderson East. “I guess emotions were the theme,” Lambert says, her hair in braids with a bandana wrapped around her forehead, dressed casually in jeans and a black t-shirt. “All the feels.”

Lambert didn’t do any interviews when The Weight Of These Wings was released — she decided to step back and let the songs speak for themselves. This was a little frustrating to the gossip outlets, which all wanted to know: which song was about which person? Who’s the protagonist? What, exactly, did Shelton do? But listen to The Weight Of These Wings a few times, and those questions seem silly: it’s all there. It’s better and juicier than any issue of Us Weekly, except these stories give something back; a lesson or a mantra to keep in the back pocket. One could try and piece together the personal details, but to do so is almost a mistake, anyway. There’s just so much complexity to how she tackles love, loss and the quest for independence that it’s far too limiting to condense the album into a simple reference to this or that romance. They’re all universal stories, just told in the key of her life.

“I’m living transparently,” says Lambert. “I’m a pretty private person, and I don’t like cameras. But not when it comes to my music. I’m using my life for my art, and I’m hoping it will help someone feel less alone. Those are my favorite kind of records and my favorite songs, the ones where I am like, ‘How did they know?’”

There are so many of those “how did they know?” moments on The Weight Of These Wings. The comfort in the touch of a stranger on “Vice.” The slow-to-mend heart that’s eager to beat again on “Well-Rested.” The fear of disappointment coupled with the awareness that days are passing fast on “Pushin’ Time.” It’s rare to find an artist who can pull insight, advice and tender confession all into one song, and even more rare to find it in modern country music: a tragedy, really, for a genre that’s supposed to be about the truth. Lambert’s got it in spades. “Happiness ain’t prison, but there’s freedom in a broken heart,” she sings on the concluding line of “Runnin’ Just In Case.” Few lyrics can cut that deeply into what it really means to let a love go and, like the best Lambert lyrics, they’re never quite black or white. Because nothing real ever is.

Lambert took a year to write and record The Weight Of These Wings, a process that was supposed to shift Lambert and her producing trio of Eric Masse, Glenn Worf and Frank Liddell (her partner since the very first record, Kerosene) to some far-off location, where they could escape and hole up creatively — maybe Texas, maybe Asheville. That never happened: East Nashville did, instead. Masse, known for his work with Rayland Baxter, Caitlin Rose And Robert Ellis, has a studio a short drive — but a million metaphorical miles — from the machines of Music Row, and, at first, Liddell took Lambert there to work casually on some songs with no real aim in mind. They ended up making every note of The Weight Of These Wings in Masse’s converted garage, with the most glamorous nearby culinary offerings restricted to a couple of gyro places and a deli.

“We thought about going out of town,” says Masse, “but I think she felt that being in a random fenced-in backyard in East Nashville was essentially off the grid at that point. I think we wanted to just get off Music Row and lock the doors.”

The Casino, as it’s called, sits down a small gravel driveway in back of Masse’s home, on a residential street. Wood-paneled with black and white floors, it looks nothing like the pristine studios most commonly used by modern country stars — it has life and character with Mezcal on the shelves, vintage toys and an upright piano that once belonged to Masse’s grandmother. In the small booth where Lambert recorded her vocals, she hung a string of violet Christmas lights, put a few flowers in a vase and rotated photos of her idols, like Guy Clark, to stand behind her: Masse still has the bouquet there now, which has somehow dried into beautiful, preserved perfection.

The days were filled with emotion — mistakes were made and encouraged, and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone pacing in the yard out of frustration outside of the studio, where they’d light bonfires every evening (the next door neighbor, a taxi driver with a night shift, never seemed to mind). Lambert and her assistant brought in a cooler of beer and her beloved Tito’s vodka, and sometimes things would get so intense that she’d end up on the couch in tears — but they’d crack open a drink and laugh again once the song, and whatever was brewing inside her, had finally been settled and put to rest.

The Weight Of These Wings wasn’t meant to be a double album — that wasn’t something they set out to do, to make some sort of massive magnum opus. There were just too many songs. “When we determined it was a double album we had already cut 32 songs,” says Masse. “Either Frank or me said, ‘I don’t know how the fuck we are going to cut it to ten.’ And it was Miranda who was just like, ‘Fuck it, it’s a double album.’”

Masse and Liddell had worked as a production team before — most recently on Charlie Worsham’s Beginning Of Things, a fantastic, criminally ignored (by country radio, at least) album — and Masse “already knew [Lambert] was talented and a bad-ass.” But he’d never seen anything quite like the command that Lambert had over her decisions, whether it be some sort of sonic tweak or even the intricacies of the recording process.

“It wasn’t like she showed up with poetry and asked people to make her record,” Masse says. “She was hands-down an active participant. It was so beyond anything I had ever seen. She just knew. She knew what was right and what was wrong, always. Every artist has opinions, but I don’t mean opinions. She was doubling down on the actual emotions, and really living inside them. She didn’t have opinions. She just knew the answers.”

Lambert has known the answers for years, since she got her start as a young girl in Lindale, Texas, fascinated with songwriting — and that’s simply because she’s always been actively looking for them. Music was constantly a part of the Lambert house, and her parents — private detectives — wholeheartedly encouraged her as an artist and a performer. Lambert’s father, Richard, was and is a writer, too; he’s the one responsible for the title of The Weight Of These Wings, which he actually proposed to his daughter as a possible name for a song during, of all things, a family spat. “My dad and I are going to write ‘The Weight Of These Wings’ someday,” she says. “Maybe in the next phase of music.”

And though Lambert feels like a presence that’s always been here in the mainstream sphere, she didn’t have a number-one hit at country radio until her third album, Revolution. But her choices along the way have constantly favored the song itself over anything else: Lambert doesn’t chase trends, or programmers. Case in point, in 2007, she released “More Like Her,” from her sophomore LP — a track so gorgeously simple and acoustic driven, it would be almost guaranteed to fall on the Americana scale if it were to be released in today’s market. 

There are a lot of words that tend to circle the idea of Lambert since that time. “Sass” is one of them, various permutations of “crazy” are another (if you’re a woman, and you name an album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, like she did, that’s generally all anyone will remember — despite the fact that said album contains delicate, completely self-aware ballads like “More Like Her”). Even country bro Canaan Smith incorporated her “craziness” into a lyric recently: “Like You That Way” refers to a woman who is “Miranda Lambert crazy,” but Carrie Underwood somehow still gets to retain her purity after smashing a dude’s car to bits in “Last Name,” probably because everyone became a little more comfortable when she became a mother.

But to study Lambert is to know that there is really only one word that encapsulates her better than them all, and that’s simply “songwriter.” Seems obvious for any performer, but Lambert could live without the bombast if she could just keep the songs — in her off time, she’s more likely searching out a John Moreland show with a beer in hand than frequenting a non-essential red carpet or flashy new restaurant. 

“I think she enjoys writing music more than making it,” says Natalie Hemby, who co-wrote many of The Weight Of These Wings’ tracks with Lambert. “I think she would agree with me on that. Writing music for her is the all-time high.” Lambert confirms that herself. “A lot of things in life are exciting, but nothing in life makes me feel on fire more than having a finished song,” she says.

There is also a tendency to align her ideas and her songs explicitly with the experiences of women: for whatever reason, numerous critics, in their reviews of The Weight Of These Wings, just assumed she was speaking to women in particular, or the female experience. That couldn’t be more distant from reality: “Pushin’ Time,” one of The Weight Of These Wings’ most stirring tracks about that swiftly passing hourglass, isn’t for a man or a woman. It’s just for the human experience.

“She’s never gone like, ‘Hey, this is a song for all the girls,’”says Hemby. “But her songs are about heartbreak and pain and falling in love again. There are so many men who are writing about that, but Miranda has bigger balls than most men in country music.”

Hemby is a frequent guest at the magic porch — she even has a favorite spot where she returns to write, out of superstition. And she’s also another participant in the Lambert tradition of late-night texts: they hashed out some of “Keeper Of The Flame” that way. “One time, [Lambert] sent me a text in the middle of the night. It said, ‘like fireflies in the rain.’ I think she was watching a storm. I texted back, ‘I’m the keeper of the flame.’” A lyric, and a song, was born from there.

Watching for the flicker of life in a tumultuous storm: that is Lambert in her essence, and it’s what drives so much of the soul of The Weight Of These Wings. She boils it down to two essential entities: pain, and love, and finding a balance between them both.

“That’s what most people in the whole world have in common, pain, and love,” she says. “Whatever way you display that or describe that: it could be for a kitten or a lost grandparent or loved one. Love is at the center, and with love comes pain. I like to have a balance in the music I write, and the music I listen to, of both. Pain and love. Those two things are tangible things, and they are center of the universe. At least of mine.”

Pain, love and the relationship between the two ended up furnishing the names for the album’s two disks: The Nerve, and the Heart. The idea came through via a text from Liddell at 1:00 a.m. — remember, in Lambert’s world, it’s never too late or too early for a good thought.

“He just said, ‘the nerve and the heart,’ and I said, ‘that’s it,’” she recalls. “Some of these songs take nerve to say. The actions of these songs take nerve to execute. The heart is driving all of that. It takes nerve to stay, it takes nerve to run, it takes nerve to follow your heart. And I think it all comes back to what the heart wants is what the heart wants.”

Lambert, Liddell, Masse and Worf all had sequence meetings “getting hammered on wine” and trying to figure out which song belonged on which disk, but, ultimately, it was Lambert’s call. When it came time to make a final decision, she sat down on her magic porch and picked the tracks and the order, handing the whole thing in minutes before her label was ready to lose their final lick of patience.

The first taste of The Weight Of These Wings that the world got was “Vice,” a song that opens with Lambert’s voice bare against the crackle of a record player. It’s a sultry and intimate track about indulging in lust instead of love. “Another bed I shouldn’t crawl out of at 7 a.m./ with shoes in my hand,” she sings. Considering all the attention placed on her personal life, it’s a bold way to come out of the gate. That bed she’s singing about crawling out of? There probably wasn’t any actual sleeping done there. It was a brave move for a country star — and a female one at that — to speak so openly about sex, but Lambert was just being honest. 

“No, you aren’t supposed to say, ‘waking up, shoes in my hand,’” she says. “But people have done it. And they’re going to continue to do it, so I might as well talk about it.”

“We Should Be Friends,” a shit-kicking anthem about embracing those who celebrate their imperfections that Lambert wrote solo, was the next single. It was brassier and more mischievous than most anything on the charts, but it didn’t crack the top 20 on Country Airplay.

“I was in my music room,” Lambert recalls of the day she conceived the track, which was the last one she wrote for the album. “But I didn’t have that one song that I wrote alone, that I feel speaks directly for Miranda Lambert, and who I am. I’m a huge believer in writing by yourself. It’s fun to be pushed by songwriters better than you, but it’s important to keep it close and remind you of the grind of songwriting and the reward.”

On Platinum, that song was “Bathroom Sink,” a devastatingly honest admission of her insecurities with the person looking back at her in the mirror, and “We Should Be Friends” is almost a way to make peace with that image, and invite others to come along for the ride. “It’s accepting of the other side of the bathroom sink,” she says. But it’s the third single, “Tin Man,” that truly sets the bar for how to make a modern and mournful country ballad: in it, Lambert offers the painful retort to the Tin Man’s “If I Only Had Aa Heart,” responding that missing that vital organ is actually a blessing in disguise. If there’s nothing to break, you can’t ever feel heartbroken. Listening to it, it’s impossible not to think: how did she know?

The Weight Of These Wings is packed with those moments: meditations on love, loss and what comes next. The follow up to 2014’s Platinum, it arrives at a time when the rift on country radio has only seemed to widen: Chris Stapleton, a commercial success, is barely getting spins, and solo female singers like Lambert are lucky to snag six slots out of sixty on the Country Airplay charts, still dominated by men singing about their “girls” (Masse describes it as a “civil war”). And artists who veer more into the Americana realm, like Jason Isbell, are slotting number one albums without even bothering for airplay at all. The Weight Of These Wings defied all of that in terms of sales, finding itself certified platinum in June. But “Tin Man,” with that sort of Hank Williams-era honesty that everyone in country praises, is nowhere near close to fetching a number-one in favor of vapid tracks like Dylan Scott’s “My Girl.” Apparently the genre that was once born out of the truth is now more interested in cowardly escapism than actually facing it.

“I don’t know why she’s being shut out, and I think it’s complete bullshit,” says Angaleena Presley, one third of the Pistol Annies with Lambert and Monroe (Lambert hopes that, come next year, the trio will be able to work on another album). “She’s done the work, she’s paid the dues, she’s proven herself time and again. The only thing I’m sure of at this point is that commercial country radio is a joke and a corny joke at that. It’s like a wax figure of the living, breathing entity that it once was.”

Lambert doesn’t seem to spend too much time worrying about radio — she certainly doesn’t worry whether or not a particular song is viable within its very rigid walls. “She makes music for herself and her fans,” says Masse. “Radio needs her to pander to them. I think she’s just one of the last artists in this town.” Lambert also doesn’t bend to other genres in hopes of making something more appropriate for the airwaves.

“She’s a country artist,” says Liddell. “There have been opportunities to remix her songs for pop radio, sometimes as simple as pulling the steel [guitar] out of ‘The House That Built Me’ so we could send it to adult contemporary [radio]. She always said, ‘I’m not remixing anything for anybody.’”

That dichotomy couldn’t have been any more clear than at this year’s Academy of Country Music Awards back in April, a night that saw Florida Georgia Line join up with the Backstreet Boys for seven minutes of acid-washed escapism — which was sort of like watching a video of a sweet sixteen from 1997, only twenty years later with the information that all the cool kids out front dancing now live in their parent’s garages. It’s a good time down in that basement, but where was reality?

Lambert? She appeared on stage solo, just alone with her guitar, to play a version of “Tin Man” that served to remind anyone, anywhere, that if they’re hurting, they’re not alone.

“By the way there, Mr. Tin Man, if you don’t mind the scars,” she sang. “You give me your armor, and you can have my heart.” Pain and love, freedom and sacrifice: Lambert knows they both weigh us down and lift our wings.   

“You don’t see birds flying through a rainstorm,” she says before heading out into the grey Nashville afternoon. “But when there are blue skies, they can fly.”

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