Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Margo Price's Breached Paradise

Margo Price's Breached Paradise
Graphic: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock, Margo Price/Facebook)
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When country singer Margo Price ascended to real Nashville stardom around late 2017, isolation was the gift she bought herself. Her second album in two years, All-American Made, had by that point met every conceivable marker of Americana success, from a Willie Nelson duet to a three-night coming-out residency at the Ryman Auditorium that was being planned for spring 2018. So Price and Jeremy Ivey, her husband and guitarist, bought a place in the Tennessee hill country and moved out there with their preteen son, Judah.

“I’m pretty excited,” she said at the time, then she quoted her friend and mentor John Prine: “blow up my TV, plant a garden, eat a lot of peaches, look for Jesus.”

The new homestead was a place that one of Prine’s overworked, goodhearted characters would have cherished—an older farmhouse with tall windows, a wide porch, and a short walk to a river. Five acres humming with bees, lush with flowers, surrounded by forest. Price and Jeremy’s new daughter, Ramona, was born into this idyll in summer 2019. They call her Mona, and the only home she’s ever known is a cozy, art and instrument-filled incubator of creativity inside a private piece of paradise.

Creatively, Price had achieved the right to self-isolate. Her first two albums, released on Jack White’s Third Man Records, were recorded in three and 10 days, respectively, not uncommon for up-and-coming rootsy songwriters. But with her contract up, she wanted to take her time. Before her daughter was born, Price self-financed sessions in Los Angeles with an unimaginably powerful studio band including Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and soul drumming god James Gadson. Late in her pregnancy, she was back home recording vocals in her producer’s Nashville studio, finishing up music that was simultaneously more lush and direct than any she’d ever made. The plan, when it finally came together, was for That’s How Rumors Get Started to be released by Loma Vista Records in May 2020, and for Price to spend the rest of the year touring with her children and her long-serving, dearly held band. Rumors was to be her first new record in almost three years, and she was eager to reembrace her audience and her co-conspirators. Needless to say, things have not gone to plan.

After a delay, Rumors is finally out, and Price has spent 2020 in a more difficult kind of isolation. Illness, destruction, and death have breached the paradise walls. There’s a line from one of the new record’s greatest songs, “Heartless Mind,” written nearly two years ago, that now feels eerie: “You needed shelter that’s what I gave/ Until my comfort became a cage.” Speaking on the phone over the last few months she’s sounded stunned at her cascade of personal crises and defiantly angry about the global ones.

It’s been a year that make new records and tours feel meaningless and desperately necessary all at once. These are the kind of days that John Prine’s characters suffer through while dreaming of that warm, woodsy porch. In early April, about 10 days after That’s How Rumors Get Started was delayed, Prine died of covid-19 in Nashville’s Vanderbilt Hospital. “One day you’re up, the next you’re down,” he once wrote. “That’s the way the world goes round.”

People come to EastWest Studios on Sunset Boulevard for the ghosts. Frank Sinatra recorded there in the 1950s and Lady Gaga made her most recent album on the premises. Price knew exactly what she wanted when she purchased time in EastWest’s Studio C, the very room where the Beach Boys recorded Pet Sounds.

It’s no insult to her earlier, country-indebted albums to note that they don’t sound like they belong to this lineage. There’s nothing lo-fi about them, but they aren’t fussed over. The songs are plainly autobiographical (her debut is called Midwest Farmer’s Daughter) and the arrangements have all the touches of 21st-century Nashville prestige, from tremolo guitar to pedal steel and lyrics about destructive drinking. What elevated them is Price’s band, who sound as empathic and road-tested as any young backing group could, and her voice, which can sigh or soar but never loses its disarming intimacy. She never over-emotes, never rests on country performance clichés, and always sings with a beguiling directness, like she’s incapable of faking her experience of a song.

Price arrived at EastWest in December 2018, the day it was announced that All-American Made garnered her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination. She had brought a notebook with 16 new songs and a playlist of inspirations for her studio band, which also included Pino Palladino, bassist for dozens of artists from D’Angelo to The Who, and guitarist Matt Sweeney, whose own deep CV stretches from Bonnie “Prince” Billy to Adele. It was the first time Price recorded her own music without the band she’s led for a decade, though she still had Jeremy and their old friend Sturgill Simpson, the cantankerous country rocker who was on hand as producer.

“We’ve done SXSW with our bands sleeping on the floor,” Price says. “Both me and Sturgill got our foot in the door with old-school country but neither of us want to be boxed in.” At the time, Simpson was finishing Sound & Fury, his 2019 psychedelic synth-rock album that also soundtracks a full-length anime movie he wrote and produced. Price’s sonic touchpoints for her new record included the harder-edged side of her tastes, like Tom Petty and Neil Young, but she also wanted to channel the aggression and glamour of Blondie and the Pretenders. “Watching our live shows, there’s a lot of rock and roll,” says Price, whose relationship to that music is at least as deep as her relationship to classic country. Like Simpson, she felt the entire point of being a career musician was to try new approaches every time out. “That’s why our relationship works. We don’t do things to be successful.”

She didn’t make any demos of the songs, so she just sat on the studio couch and played each one for the band, then they got to work building their arrangements. Jeremy co-wrote some of the songs and came up with certain melodic figures, but other than that, “the musicians took it from there,” she says.

“Margo has this unique charisma that made me not just understand what she wanted but, like, root for her,” says Matt Sweeney, who first met Price when he was touring with Iggy Pop and they shared a bill in England. “Her and Jeremy have a deep team dynamic as well. They knew what it meant to have James Gadson, Pino Palladino, and Benmont Tench playing their songs and they made the band feel great, empowered, and ready to stretch.”

It took less than a week to track all 16 songs. “All momentum,” Sweeney adds. “All live in a very tiny studio. My hands were hurting for all the playing, which doesn’t often happen.” By the end, Price was lit up by the new ground she’d reached: the new levels of theatrical emotion in the closing ballad “I’d Die for You,” the depth of Tench’s rich keyboards and piano. “Heartless Mind,” which she had envisioned as a mid-tempo rock song, had evolved into a breathless rave-up that now sounded like early Pat Benatar. Sweeney added a triple-tracked guitar solo without a hint of twang.

Back in Nashville, Price took the L.A. tracks to her engineer’s studio, the Butcher Shoppe, where she spent the final trimester of her pregnancy recording vocals.

“I had months to make it sound the way I wanted,” she recalls. “Sturgill was confident that he could capture my voice the way it is live. We recorded the vocals with no headphones. That was a big piece of it for me.” Her friend Ashley Wilcoxson added plentiful harmonies as well, and soon the initial goal of releasing an album in spring 2019 was a lost cause. By the time her daughter Mona was born, however, Price felt that she’d successfully made a record that balanced L.A. professionalism and homegrown emotion. The autobiography was still there, but it was cloaked and crafted.

“This album is more about what I’m feeling than the outside world,” Price says. “This time around the songs were more about my interpersonal relationships, my relationship with my husband and the challenges we’ve had.” By October 2019, she was rehearsing regularly with her old band, working up the new songs and some exciting covers to play. 2020 was looking grand.

The first sign of trouble came in February when a massive fire destroyed the storage facilities for Apollo Mastering in California; the company supplied an estimated 75 percent of the materials for vinyl record manufacturing. Worries of “vinylgeddon” spread through the music business, and Price, an LP devotee with a new record coming out, was suddenly worried that her big year might have started with a hiccup.

The worries of industry collapse turned out to be unfounded, but a new nightmare gripped Nashville in early March. A series of tornadoes cut a 100-mile gash through central Tennessee, devastating East Nashville, where many of the city’s musicians live, including Price and Jeremy before their move. They had been in town just that night and returned home as the wind and rain began; a friend, following behind them, was approaching their house when a tree toppled and nearly killed her. Twenty-five people died from the event, five of them children.

The announcement for That’s How Rumors Get Started came barely a week later, when Music City was still calculating the damage done and the world hadn’t yet come to a standstill. She sang at a few rebuilding benefits throughout the month, unaware that these would be her last performances in front of an audience for the foreseeable future. A health crisis was growing but there wasn’t yet clarity about the response. “We live in strange times but I hope this brings a little light to the dark corners of the world,” Margo said on Instagram, announcing the May 8 release. Four days later, in another post, she begged people to stay home.

By April it was clear that her return to the spotlight wouldn’t be anything like she expected. The overlapping calamities affecting her home city and the greater world had sapped Price’s interest in promoting her record or asking anyone to care about her artistic reinvention.

“Something felt very phony about going through this pandemic and being like, ‘Hey, here’s my song!’” she says. And her worries weren’t limited to the outside world. Mona got a fever in April, sending Price into an understandable panic. It turned out to be nothing serious, but like many working parents, she and Jeremy suddenly had to put their own plans off in order to meet their kids’ needs and keep their home life somehow stable.

Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion concert came early during the shelter-in-place orders, and it was one of the first multi-artist livestream events to attract a wide audience. Price and her husband performed on two acoustic guitars after the baby’s bedtime, in front of their living room piano, amid a setting of candles, a Bob Dylan self-portrait, and a bobcat skull that their son found in the nearby woods. “Wish the band was here,” Margo said at the beginning of their 15-minute set. Between songs she hit a button that played canned applause.

“Love to Fiona Prine,” Margo announced before their final song, referring to her mentor John Prine’s wife. “She’s getting her test back this week.” She ended the set with a kiss for Jeremy and a blessing to the audience that would soon become familiar to us all: “Stay safe out there.”

Fiona Prine recovered, but the news of her husband’s hospitalization came shortly after. John Prine’s death shook an already shaken Nashville, and just like covid-19 had swept the tornado out of national news, Margo’s mourning was interrupted by a fresh, somehow more urgent crisis: a week into the stay-at-home order, Jeremy had all the symptoms. With her husband quarantined in the bedroom, Margo spent May, her original album-release month, tending to a needy 9-month-old and a terrified middle schooler as their father breathed through a nebulizer and slowly, mercifully regained his strength.

“It’s really difficult to just be a parent 24 hours a day and even get an email done,” she says. “When everything really hit in March and April, I thought I needed a plan of attack and a focus on how to make this work.” But that proved impossible. Soon she had nothing to fall back on—no live music to play, no friends to see, no husband to hug, not even a band to practice with.

That’s How Rumors Get Started is an album about making fresh starts and settling old grudges. It brims with the energy of starting anew: “I got a restless feeling/ That I’m wasting my time,” Price sings at one point. So it’s no surprise that the sudden change in plans led her to new creative avenues, even if her old ones didn’t feel appropriate yet.

“It’s therapeutic to write, but I haven’t had the urge to write songs yet,” she told me in May, after she’d started sharing uncommonly personal dispatches from her quarantine experience on social media. On Instagram and in a revealing essay for Vogue, she wrote about her postpartum depression, the loss of Judah’s twin brother as an infant, and her anxieties about being “basically unemployed for the unknown future [and] consumed by the constant news updates on the death toll.”

Her new music, years in the making, was forceful, but in these dispatches and in her new online radio show, Runaway Horses, she was embracing old comforts and doing what she could to keep up with the huge shifts both in her life and the country. She dedicated an episode of the radio show to Black artists following the George Floyd uprisings and donated her merchandise proceeds to bail relief organizations. After the announcement of her record’s delay, she released the digital live album Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman, drawn from her 2018 shows. The title reflected her feelings about the show, which is raw and unpolished, showcasing another new angle on her sound—loud, triumphant, and in-the-moment all at once. She’d spent years putting together a record and now could only manage to communicate day to day. “This news cycle,” she tells me, “you write something one day and the world changes by the next. This kind of communication is what needed to happen to be honest with myself.”

It took months but Jeremy is recovered now. The kids never got the virus and neither did Price. She won’t be playing the songs live for god knows how long, and that’s painful. “You learn something new every day when you’re traveling. I’m missing that for sure, it was such a huge part of my identity,” she says. “These livestream things don’t really get me off, for lack of a better word. You’re playing alone to a phone. Is there anything more sterile than a phone?”

But she’s found a way to make the slowness work. The time with her kids and without her band has only deepened the feeling that her work and family are intertwined. Pointing to Nelson, the Prines, and another mentor figure, Loretta Lynn, she recognizes, “there’s a family element to what they do. I’ve known my band for a long time, they’re family to me.” Bringing the kids back on the road and re-immersing them in a community of musicians will be more than getting back to work, it’ll be a reunion.

And for someone so committed to collaboration and so attuned to the rhythms of album-making and live performance, the forced solitude has naturally changed her artistic approach. The decision to change directions with Rumors was inspired by Price’s heroes, like Linda Ronstadt, who started in country-rock and brought her audience along as she explored Gilbert & Sullivan, big-band jazz, and mariachi. “I’ve always been drawn to people who can reinvent themselves,” Price says.

For now, the adoring bandleader is working from home. She’s finishing up a makeshift studio, singing old folk songs to the baby at bedtime, and listening to the great tragic voices: Joni, Sandy Denny, Joan Baez, the ones who summon “triumph and sadness all together.” She’s wondering if this will all result in a homemade emotional breakthrough, her own Fetch the Bolt Cutters, the recently released Fiona Apple album she’s also been addicted to.

But That’s How Rumors Get Started is finally here too, and not a time capsule. The songs may be years in the making, the world may be changing by the day, but the sound of a person fighting to discover their own power calling will always feel right on time, even during multiple crises. That’s what makes the world go round.

John Lingan is the author of Homeplace: A Southern Town, a Country Legend, and the Last Days of a Mountaintop Honky-Tonk.

Update: The length of Price’s residency at the Ryman Auditorium has been corrected.