In-Demand Songwriter Natalie Hemby Steps Into Her Own With 'Pins and Needles'

Natalie Hemby
Alysse Gafjken*

Natalie Hemby

Singer-songwriter Natalie Hemby has become a sought-after songwriter, with hits topping Billboard’s Country Airplay chart like Lady A’s “Downtown,” Little Big Town’s “Pontoon,” Jon Pardi’s “Heartache Medication” and Miranda Lambert’s “Bluebird.” She also earned her first Grammy (for best song written for visual media) with “I’ll Never Love Again,” a song she wrote with Lady Gaga for the 2018 film A Star Is Born.

Though Hemby is known for writing a string of hits, she tells Billboard that as a child, “I didn’t have any dreams of being a songwriter. I wanted to be an artist. I knew how to play piano and I loved Sarah McLachlan songs, like the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy album.”

Hemby has previously tested the waters as a solo artist with 2017’s Puxico, a concept album that honored her family ties to the small town of Puxico, Mo. In 2019, she joined Maren Morris, Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires to form The Highwomen. Earlier this year, two compositions Hemby co-wrote -- The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table” and Lambert’s “Bluebird” -- earned Grammy nominations for best country song, with “Crowded Table” winning the golden gramophone.

Now, with her Oct. 8 debut for Fantasy/Concord, Pins and Needles, Hemby is fully stepping into her own as an artist.

“This is over 20 years of pent-up artist frustration,” she says of the new set, with a laugh. “The interesting part was that the label just loved all the songs. Kudos to Fantasy. They could have not signed me during a pandemic, because people were scaling back and tours were being halted -- but they said, ‘No, we’re doing this deal.’”

The album was produced and mixed by Hemby’s husband Mike Wrucke (Lambert, Pistol Annies), and includes several songs she co-wrote with artists including Lambert ("Banshee," "It Takes One to Know One") and Morris ("Heart Condition") -- but also songs co-written with Daniel Tashian and Rosi Golan (the new release "Radio Silence"), Jedd Hughes ("Lake Air") and more.

Hemby grew up influenced by '90s female singer-songwriters, including McLachlan and Sheryl Crow, as well as by the Nashville music industry: Her mother worked for many years as an assistant for Amy Grant and Vince Gill, while her father is a guitarist and producer. On the album's opening track “Heroes," which she penned with longtime Crow collaborator Jeff Trott, Hemby brings a gritty swagger and knowing wisdom on lines like “If I ever met my heroes/ They might let me down.”

“Because I did grow up here, I don't really get too starstruck because I've definitely seen everything behind the scenes,” Hemby says. “Growing up under Amy's umbrella, I mean, she is so kind and so generous to people that if anybody was less than that, I just didn't even really care.”

The album’s title track, which Hemby says "kind of describes the last decade of my life, where it’s just been an absolute roller coaster," stems from her initial writing session with Brothers Osborne’s John and T.J. Osborne. “I remember we wrote that at Warner Chappell and at the time, each room had a theme," she recalls. "Well, the room that we wrote in was like the picnic room or something. It had pink AstroTurf and it was stark white in there. I’m not knocking them at all, but it was funny because it looked a bit like an elementary school room -- and here we are, writing this sexy ‘Pins and Needles’ song."

In addition to her own album, Hemby contributed a song to Ed Sheeran's upcoming album = (Equals). Below, Hemby  tells Billboard in her own words about her work on hits for Little Big Town, Lady Gaga, Lambert and more.

Miranda Lambert, “Bluebird”

We didn’t write "Bluebird" thinking it was going to be a single. Luke [Dick] had most of the chorus and we loved it. Jay Joyce produced it wonderfully and it sounded so different from any other songs on the radio. I’m so proud that radio took a chance on it, because that doesn’t always happen. The radio has all kinds of fun, happy songs and drinking and whatever. Sometimes you need a song for your soul, too. Maybe you’re driving home from work, and you’ve had a crap day and you need something soothing. "Bluebird" was that.”

Little Big Town, “Pontoon”

It was amazing watching this reach No. 1, but it’s a weird dichotomy. It’s like, you’ve finally reached that mountain that you never thought you’d get to the top of and then you get there and you have this moment like I did. I went to write with Tom Douglas a few days after I got my first No. 1 and he congratulated me, and I said, "I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just had my first No. 1 and I’ve worked so hard to get here and should be rejoicing, but for some reason, I’m sad." He looked at me and said, "It’s because you think you can’t do that again." And I was like, "That’s it." That’s how you feel -- because you feel like you have to keep topping yourself. But lucky for me, I did.

Lady Gaga, “I’ll Never Love Again”

I'm very grateful for that song, because I like all kinds of music. I mean, I did grow up in Nashville and I love country music -- but if we're being honest, I love pop and rock and roll. Writing with her was an incredible experience. It was also good to check your pride at the door a little bit, because you write these songs, but you don't really know if they're going to cut them for the movie. It's just a lot of unknowns. We were trying to write a song for the end of the film and Stefani -- Lady Gaga -- came up with the title. Then we started slowly piecing it together. We wrote it on the piano, and it was Frank Sinatra's piano in the studio. It's a studio where they cut [The Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds. It was just really magical.

Ed Sheeran, “Love in Slow Motion” (from the upcoming Equals)

Great heroes are the ones that don’t think they’re heroes -- and he’s just one of those people. Very humble, down to earth. We were just hanging out, telling stories. He brought in a lot of different ideas and I wasn’t sure what he was really looking for in a song. But then he was like, "Play something you want to do." So we wrote this song that I started. He’s a lovely person to work with.