NPR | By Olivia Hampton / Published January 17, 2023 at 5:12 AM ET
Nashville artist Margo Price‘s fourth album, released earlier this month, began as a psychedelic trip with her husband and musical partner Jeremy Ivey in 2020.
Price and Ivey wrote a total of 20 songs, half of which made it on Strays. The eclectic album takes wild leaps from indie country to honky-tonk, psychedelia and expansive rock and roll. “I didn’t want to get stuck in thinking like, is this country, is this Americana, is this rock and roll, is this psychedelic?” the alt-country singer told NPR’s Leila Fadel. “Yet everybody wants to label things and put them in a box. I wanted this album to be feral and free.”
It’s packed with the raw joy and pain of a rags-to-riches story that saw her pawn her wedding ring, lose a newborn baby but also find love and win a battle over alcoholism.
It’s raw and it’s real.
“Used to be a waitress but now I’m a consumer / I’ve been on food stamps I’ve been out of my mind / I rolled in dirty dollars stood in the welfare line,” she sings in the opener, “Been to the Mountain.”
The defiant Price then retorts: “This ain’t the end!”
Exploring what Price calls “new sonic territory” came from a place of great vulnerability, an “emptiness” she felt when the pandemic hit just as her career was finally getting off the ground.
“It’s difficult to be vulnerable. I think this culture doesn’t always see that as a strong characteristic. But I’ve learned that it is one of my best qualities,” she said. “If you can find joy after going through something really tragic and if you can figure out how to how to channel that and transform it, I think that is the whole meaning of life.”
The couple had traveled to South Carolina, where they brought guitars, notebooks and hallucinogenic mushrooms.
“I have had just absolute revelations that I do not think that I would have came to had I not taken psilocybin,” Price said, referring to the hallucinogenic chemical. “I really wanted to take away a lot of the stigma with that and just be transparent about how I’ve used them and how they have helped me with addiction and depression.”
Price also chronicled her struggles in a memoir published in October, Maybe We’ll Make It. “I’ve struggled with self-image my whole life,” Price said in the interview. “The success and the money and the fame, those things don’t really make your problems go away. Sometimes they amplify them.”
But not all the songs on Strays are deeply personal. Some veer into storytelling. For the single “Lydia,” Price strums chords on an acoustic guitar as she describes a woman’s visit to an abortion clinic. A string band accompanies her on the otherwise spare track.
“It was one of those really mystical songs that kind of came to me after weeks of really being kind of in a manic state,” Price said. “That song just kind of poured out of me… None of it rhymed. There wasn’t even really a melody. I’ve always wanted to write a song like that.” She wrote the song before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. It now doubles as an ode to women’s rights.
“I wrote the soundtrack to probably what a lot of a lot of women in this country are thinking and are going through at this point,” she added.
The flip side is “Light Me Up,” which explores women’s pleasure. “It starts in a very sweet, loving place. And then it it does escalate to basically this big orgasm,” Price said. ” I thought of all the songs that men have written about their orgasms, that we should explore that.”
She describes creating “Hell in the Heartland” as a “cathartic experience.” Written shortly after Price quit drinking, it’s a reckoning of who she had been and who she wanted to be.
“I was thinking about how you just you get lost looking in the mirror. All you see is this reflection of yourself in the past. And it is talking about living in the present and just being able to shed those things,” she said. “It’s a very dark song, but it was incredibly cathartic to write and and to play.”
While she has engaged in deep self-reflection, Price has not dwelled in it. She’s experienced a new burst of creativity — songwriting, but also painting and poetry. “I can go back to those places, but it’s just a lot more enjoyable to live my life in the present,” she said.
This interview was conducted by Leila Fadel, produced by Chad Campbell and edited by Olivia Hampton. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.
This interview was produced by Chad Campbell and edited by Olivia Hampton.