Margo Price Surveys Her Own Destruction
Between her memoir and new album, the singer-songwriter is incapable of telling anything but the truth about years of affairs, addiction, and darkness.EntertainmentMusic
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Margo Price doesn’t give a fuck. At least, that’s what every publication on both sides of the Mason-Dixon has said of her since 2016, when her debut album Midwest Farmer’s Daughter arrived to critical acclaim for its plucky, purposeful take on country music. She’s a “badass,” a “Nashville rebel,” and an “outlaw.” “Unstoppable, unsinkable, and uninhibited,” even. If you judged the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and memoirist by her artistry (a sort of plain-speaking poetry) or latest tattoo (you belong to no one on her forearm), you might make the grave mistake of assuming she couldn’t be bothered by your perception of her. But, by her own admission, she’s a person who reads the comments. And she does give a couple of fucks, by the way.
“I get really frustrated when I’m just trying to be a writer and a musician, and I feel like people are…” Price pauses during our Zoom conversation last week, then references an Instagram post of her recent New York Times interview. “The comments on the Instagram post are just like grenades waiting to be set off. I don’t understand why these people are talking about the way that I look, because I’m a writer. I don’t know how that has anything to do with anything.”
Price has already given people plenty to talk about (and unfortunately, this occasionally includes tired comparisons to Sarah Jessica Parker and barbs about her Streisand-esque profile). It would be an understatement to call her poignant, pulverizing memoir, October’s Maybe We’ll Make It, soul-baring. Price practically plops her heart, spleen, and a couple of kidneys onto the page. Maybe We’ll Make It has been called “brutally honest” and lauded by the likes of Willie Nelson and Lucinda Williams for its heartrending anecdotes of addiction, affairs, and aspirations that cost an already-broke artist a lot more than her car. Then, Price sauntered into 2023 with the self-assurance of someone who’s seeing the fruits of nearly two decades of labor by releasing her fourth studio album, Strays, on January 13. The ten-track record follows the 39-year-old mother of two into newly revelatory territory with her husband and collaborator, singer-songwriter Jeremy Ivey. Strays plays like an auditory upper with its proud first single “Been to the Mountain” (I just know who I’m not, man, that’s alright with me), and a downer, as with the mournful “Hell in the Heartland” (Love gets you hurt, bein’ real gets you hated).
“I wanted the entire album to be like this psychedelic trip from beginning to end that could also just be like a lifecycle of somebody. Through it, there’s going to be incredible high moments and moments of euphoria and bliss and joy. And then, of course, there’s going to be some really dark times,” Price says.
Unlike past records—namely, 2020’s That’s How Rumors Get Started—Strays at its best moments isn’t quite a pound-for-pound reflection on her life, but a fluid rendering of anyone she’s met along the way. On “Lydia,” for instance, Price sings right to a young woman weighing the cost of an abortion: Just make a decision, Lydia, just make a decision/It’s yours.
“That song came to me in a very mystical way, and songs don’t often come to me like that. Most of the time, it’s a lot more work,” Price says. “It was just incredibly dark—I’ve written a lot of dark things before, but they were kind of hidden in this major key. This is just pure darkness.”
I thought for a really long time that there was like, this magic in being a hot mess—like I’m fucking Bukowski or something. I need to destroy myself in order to make good art.
Price sat on the song for three years, then decided to release it in November, five months after Roe v. Wade was overturned. “Living in a red state [Tennessee] and like, raising a daughter in this time when women’s health just seems to be this hot button topic and something that we’re not even allowed, I knew that it was time that it was heard.”
Since her debut, she’s been dubbed a truth-teller incapable of holding her tongue even if she tried, inviting comparison to predecessors like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris. Lately though, Price isn’t just telling the truth, she’s examining it—on Strays, through the narratives of other beleaguered Americans, and in the case of Maybe We’ll Make It, through her own. In fact, Price is so exposed in the latter that it might seem as if she doesn’t mind being the kind of anti-hero who would keep Taylor Swift in her copper-colored coffin. There’s the affair Price had with her bandmate (“the Fleetwood Mac part of the tale,” she says), the grief she’s survived following the death of her infant son Ezra, and her fraught relationships with alcohol, the country music industry, and, pre-Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, gainful employment. Price tests her audience’s empathy, doing what so few artists in country music and the industry writ large do: allowing herself to be thoroughly unlikable. But that hasn’t come without effort. When she gave an early draft to friends to read, those who know her best sensed Price was holding back.
“The first draft just wasn’t as vulnerable,” she admits as her cat slinks into frame. “There were a lot of holes in the story, and I had a couple of friends read it and they all gave me feedback. Some of it was great, you know, super complimentary. But they were like, ‘I just feel like there’s things that are not being said.’”
One of those things was Price’s eating disorder that developed when she was in her first year of college studying modern dance and ballet. “Many of the girls, including me, lived on a steady regimen of diet pills and cigarettes, while others binged and purged, using vomiting and laxatives,” she remembers in Maybe We’ll Make It.
“I left it out because I was embarrassed, and I didn’t want people to judge me for that,” Price tells me. “But then I also started thinking about kids today having so many troubles with anorexia, bulimia, depression, anxiety, and it’s just getting worse.”
Price clearly puts an awful lot of pressure on herself. In the early days, it was the strain to stay thin, keep a job, and get a record deal without selling out in an industry of, as she describes, “500 dudes in fucking backwards hats with a little bit of stubble writing the same song about their truck, or how hot women are.” Being a good wife, mother, and daughter are high on Price’s laundry list of priorities now—all of which, she writes, are easier to manage since she parted ways with alcohol. She decided to stop drinking during a mushroom trip as the world was plunged into pandemic, and Maybe We’ll Make It sees Price both giggling and grimacing at countless nights forever marked by one too many. She says she suffered panic attacks and took up therapy—previously known to her as “privileged people shit”—to cope with the anxiety of sharing it all.
Decades of acclaimed country storytelling have shown that haunted men drink to communicate their pain. These men ask us to see them in their totality, and even at the very bottom of the bottle, we do. For men in Price’s industry, the drink is an almighty ally, a healer of all harms. But for women like Price, it’s too often hamartia. “I thought for a really long time that there was like, this magic in being a hot mess—like I’m fucking Bukowski or something. I need to destroy myself in order to make good art, and it’s got to be this struggle,” she says. “And it’s like, oh shit, it’s so hard to live in that constantly. It’s not sustainable.”
When I ask how she’s faring without drinking, Price responds, “I feel better than I’ve ever felt. It’s almost like a rebirth, and I’m getting to do everything again with new eyes. It’s frustrating that [alcohol] is always around and that I’m seeing other people struggle with it, but that really just reaffirms that I have made the right decision.”
Now, she’s content with weed and magic mushrooms, the latter of which inspired much of Strays. There’s proof of Price’s growth—as an artist and observer—on every track. In the place of familiar drinking songs like “Hurtin’ (On the Bottle)” or “Four Years of Chances” are tender odes to autonomy (the Sharon Van Etten-aided “Radio”) and nostalgia (“Time Machine”). Sonically, longtime fans will still hear Price’s strength in Americana blues and folk, but they might be surprised by synth, drum machines, and an overall more electric sound. “We had an incredible time making that record,” she says, reflecting on the “huge trip” she and Ivey took at the outset of its conception. It shows.
Near the end of our conversation, I ask Price how an artist decides what deserves to be heard and what should be kept sacred. There’s wisdom in withholding, she thinks, even if she’s known for her famously fuckless candor. “I’ve seen Dolly Parton say before that you always have to keep a little piece of yourself, so there are things that I don’t go into,” Price says, specifically of her memoir. “I did skip over some of the stuff in my childhood, because I don’t want to hurt anybody.” She’s keeping other pieces of herself, too. She starts most mornings with a hike, specifically opting not to post the pictures she captures on her path. And sometimes, she takes a beat from the internet altogether.
When Price does sacrifice herself to scrutiny, it’s in ways that feel braver. Take the cover of her memoir, her silhouette snapped in a photograph from earlier, more insecure days as she tried to make it, when she fancied her nose an Achilles heel incapable of commercialization by the industry.
“I feel like a lot of times people photoshopped my face without my permission, or you know, people airbrushed it, and it’s like this Olan Mills—” she laughs and imitates a corny pose akin to a ‘90s-era senior portrait. “Like no, here’s me with like, my every single flaw.”
“It was a very freeing moment to just be like, ‘No, it’s me.’”