Interview: Natalie Hemby Lives Her ’90s Teenage Dreams on New Album, ‘Pins and Needles’
Having spent more than two decades in the music industry, Natalie Hemby has plenty of wonderful stories about working with dozens of artists.
As a songwriter, her name is in the credits of dozens of albums, and she's notched eight No. 1 country songs. She's also won two Grammys: one for a song from the 2018 version of A Star Is Born, as performed by the film's stars, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga — the latter of whom also co-wrote the song — and one for the song "Crowded Table," performed by the Highwomen, her quartet with Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.
However, she also knows that fame — and, specifically, famous people — aren't all they appear to be.
"Sometimes you'll go to an awards show and you'll meet somebody, and [your friends] will be like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe you got to meet them,'" Hemby says, "and sometimes, in my head, I'm like, 'Well, be glad that you didn't' ...
"We all immediately think of celebrities as, like, these people that we're just [wishing], 'Oh, if I could just spend one day with them ...,'" she adds. "Well, the truth of the matter is, you don't want to spend one day with them ... Really, at the end of the day, spending a day with your friends and your family is way better."
Hemby's not bitter, to be clear; she's just seen behind the metaphorical curtain. Her song "Heroes" — a co-write with Jeff Trot and Aaron Raitiere that opens her new album, Pins and Needles — cuts right to the chase on the matter: "I don't wanna meet my heroes ... They might let me down," she sings.
Out Friday (Oct. 8), Pins and Needles is Hemby's second solo album, following 2017's Puxico, which doubles as the soundtrack to a documentary about the annual homecoming celebration in her grandfather's Missouri town. This record is, comparatively, a bit more freewheeling: 11 songs co-written with Brothers Osborne, Miranda Lambert, Morris, Sunny Sweeney and others, often in long-ago writing sessions, that have sat unreleased until now.
"After [Puxico], I was like, 'Okay, that record was a soundtrack, and it was a love letter to my family and my hometown. But on this next record ... I want to do whatever the hell I want. I want to make ... that record I never got to make,'" says Hemby, who landed her first publishing deal at the age of 19, but only recently signed her first solo record deal, with Fantasy Records.
Hemby had begun working on Pins and Needles well before her new label entered the picture; she figured, as with Puxico, she'd make the album, do some press for it, put it out and see what happened. Her invitation to join the Highwomen, though, changed those plans.
"I saw ... how [a record label] can catapult a record ... I learned a lot about how to build up your team ... And I saw all of the work that went into that," explains Hemby, who credits her role in the Highwomen with giving her the platform to make those same things happen for herself as a solo artist.
"You just don't know until you walk through these doors what other doors they lead to," she adds.
Hemby once again enlisted her husband, Mike Wruke, to produce. "He moved to Nashville for country music, thinking it was gonna be more like Whiskeytown or Wilco," says Hemby, who wanted Pins and Needles to ooze 1990s sounds and styles and, therefore, knew he'd be perfect for the job.
"Whenever I set out to make this record ... I didn't hold back," Hemby says. "'90s Natalie came out in full force."
Listing off her influences for this album, Hemby mentions Sheryl Crow and Bonnie Raitt; earlier in the conversation, she gushed over Amy Grant. The Lilith Fair era of women artists left an indelible mark on her — as a woman, as a music fan, as a songwriter and an artist — so it only makes sense that she would strive to do the same in her work.
"It's been frustrating for years, writing for just phenomenal country women artists, who are just such badasses, and they just get shut down at radio immediately," Hemby laments. "We're not going to have [role models for a new generation] if we don't start playing [more women] on the radio ..."
Hemby will celebrate the release of Pins and Needles with a Tuesday night (Oct. 12) concert at Nashville's Basement East. She says she's planning to stay in town for a while now — that is, unless another last-minute opportunity to headline as the Highwomen crops up.
"I'm just trying to keep myself available, so I only do headliners," she jokes.
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