Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, Amanda Shires & Natalie Hemby Unpack The Highwomen's Impact

ISSUE 20 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
Andrew Lipovsky/NBC
From left: Shires, Morris, Carlile and Hemby on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Early this year, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires started working together at Dave Cobb’s Nashville studio. They invited Natalie Hemby -- a hit songwriter for Morris, Miranda Lambert and Lori McKenna -- to pen songs for their new project. Hemby sent each of her collaborators a demo of the tune, and Carlile was struck by the effect she’d achieved on the recording by twinning her own vocals for the chorus. She knew Hemby needed to have a larger role, and invited her to join their band.

During their first session as a foursome, they sang the first verses of Hemby’s demo together, their voices in unison. “Everyone’s holding the lyrics, and the girls didn’t know the harmonies yet,” Carlile recalls. “We started singing it on the melody, and it sounded like Natalie’s demo. I knew right then: ‘This is the sound of the band, this unison thing.’ No one’s competing here vocally, no one’s trying to stand out -- we’re in one lane, one push. It felt like a metaphor for what the band was.”

Between them, Carlile, Morris, Shires and Hemby boast an impressive stockpile of awards (including Carlile’s best American album Grammy for 2018’s By The Way, I Forgive You), chart-topping hits (namely Morris' "Girl" and her crossover smash with Zedd, "The Middle") and offer empowerment anthems and vulnerable treatises on love, death, motherhood and adversity on many of their albums. The Highwomen, out Sept. 6, is the sum of these brilliant parts, and their first recorded effort showcases how strong these independent women are when they work -- and sing -- together. 

Amanda Shires

Age: 37
Hometown: Lubbock, Texas

“If my daughter grows up and wants to do country music, I want it to be easier -- more inclusivity, more colors, more genders,” says the singer, songwriter, fiddle player and mom. Shires has been outspoken about gender disparity in country radio and the music industry at large. She found a like-minded artist in Carlile, who runs her own all-female music festival, Girls Just Wanna Weekend, when she reached out about working together.

Shires’ contributions stand out as deeply personal. “Cocktail and a Song” is her rumination on a parent’s mortality, and “My Only Child,” which she wrote with Hemby and Lambert, is about the love she has for her daughter. The album’s lead single, “Redesigning Women,” also resonates with Shires. 

“I think it’s really awesome [that] we’re singing about our daily, domestic lives,” she says. “We’ve been allowed to do that, but it isn’t a thing people really encouraged as much. It felt like it was a bunch of encouragement that way, like, ‘Yes: there’s more to you than just unrequited love.’”

Brandi Carlile

Age: 38
Hometown: Ravensdale, Wash.

The album’s queer anthem “If She Ever Leaves Me,” written by Shires and her husband, Jason Isbell, was penned with Carlile and her range in mind. Even so, because The Highwomen aim to represent a movement, Carlile insists that the project lacks ego, no matter who’s taking lead on a track.

“I was happy with the songwriting coming from anywhere, as long as it was really powerful and said what we needed to say,” says Carlile. “I think if we had been married to our songs and our own contributions, it would’ve been a very different project. But because it’s a movement and not a band, it lacks the ego that so many bands have.”

The new project provided an opportunity for her to ruminate on ingrained pressures women face in the music and how they’re conditioned to compete, even when they’re collaborators.

“There’s a certain wokeness to it, where you have to admit, as women in a room together making music, that you are silencing a very, very real voice that’s telling you to compete with one another because there aren’t enough spots,” she says. “To make the decision to wake up every day and silence that voice is a really radical decision… you get all these women in a room and on a project together, and you are making a very real, very radical choice, to silence a natural and institutionalized voice in yourself telling you, ‘You have to stand out in this group, you have to get ahead of these gals -- just a little bit.’ It’s a decision, and it’s hard, and you do it. That’s what’s cathartic about the Highwomen for me.”

Maren Morris

Age: 29
Hometown: Arlington, Texas

In early August, Morris became the first female artist in over a year to top Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, with the title track off her second album, GIRL. “We knew from the get-go with this band that we all have our own solo endeavors," says Morris. "They have families. We’ve said [that] none of us really needed this group, which is, I think, why it’s so special: none of us need the money or the fame, we all have our own things going on, so this was really four people that really believed in the songs that we were turning in for it, and the message behind it."

She’s enamored with “Crowded Table” for its judgment-free message. “We have no interest in making angry, political music," she says. "I think there’s enough shit in the world and it makes me super depressed. This record is extremely medicinal. There’s no bashing on it… People can’t even talk to their families because politics are so volatile and polarizing. You can’t even sit at a table and have opposing opinions and break bread. That’s what the message of 'Crowded Table' is.”

Natalie Hemby

Age: 42
Hometown: Puxico, Mo.

Joining The Highwomen posed a new challenge for the seasoned songwriter: Unlike her experience writing with Morris, Lambert and Hemby’s other regular songwriting collaborators, being part of a quartet was unfamiliar territory -- especially considering she was exploring vulnerabilities with women who were basically strangers. That quickly changed.

“Honestly, we didn’t even know each other: It’s like we got married and we had to get to know each other and our dynamic and what our roles are,” she says. “We fell into our own specific roles, but we had to get to know each other and our personalities, and what our creative strengths are… We really all four are different, but we really all four work really well together and compliment each other, and we have a dynamic that’s very special and unique. It’s not like we were all hanging out all the time and decided to join a band. We put our heads together.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Aug. 24 issue of Billboard.


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