It’s a little early to be thinking about trick-or-treaters, but Miranda Lambert’s “Strange” is perhaps a good soundtrack for ultra-organized planners considering this year’s Halloween costume.
“It does sound like this creepy carnival in a cool way,” she says with a laugh.
“Strange” is a reaction to the pandemic, an out-of-balance period in American life that threw the population into uncertainty, battling a creepy virus that — particularly in its infancy — was novel and dangerous. Lest we forget how odd it was, Lambert and her co-writers, Luke Dick (“Burning Man,” “Don’t Come Lookin’”) and Natalie Hemby (“Heartache Medication,” “Pontoon”), wrote “Strange” at Lambert’s Tennessee farm in 2020, when vaccines were a distant dream and society was at a near-standstill.
“Nobody was traveling at the time,” recalls Dick. “Us being out there together was the only time that we were maskless and writing with other human beings, and it was just such a blast. We were swimming in a pond and burning out in four-wheelers everywhere and then writing songs and laughing and dancing. It’s hard to imagine writing another record in that situation again. That song feels like an embodiment of it.”
The trio met up for three different multiday sessions that year to write the bulk of Lambert’s Palomino album, with each of them housed in their own cabin on the property. Hemby conceived the hook, “Times like these make me feel strange,” while processing the oddities of COVID-19 in her cabin at their first gathering. She also came up with the opening line, “Coyotes on my left and wolves on my right,” an ominous image with Halloween overtones that reflected the confusion that accompanied the misinformation that surrounded the virus.
“I just felt like I didn’t know who the good guy is and the bad guy is here,” Hemby says. “Was everybody bad? I don’t know. Sometimes when you’re walking through things in life, it’s not until after it’s over with that you can put it into words.”
Lambert and Dick were on board with the basic idea, but after working on it for an extended period, they scrapped it and moved on to other material.
When they returned for the second multiday session, “Strange” came up again. This time, something clicked. Dick concocted a dark acoustic guitar riff with rock overtones, and it captured the mood. They continued with contradictory, metaphoric images that reflected the incongruities of life in a pandemic: the sun shining at night, “urban feels suburban” and elevators that only go down.
“It’s really an Alice in Wonderland song where you fall down the hole,” says Hemby. “There’s a Cheshire Cat and a key that don’t work, and there’s things that make it big and small.”
The second verse brought additional intentionally vague images — “Lincoln came and Jefferson went” sounds like historical politics, but it’s actually a reference to the shrinking value of a dollar, and the vision of a broken Maytag addresses failing technology while subtly recalling “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” a single from Lambert’s previous album, Wildcard.
The song’s meaning didn’t truly unfold until they reached the chorus, taking a brighter tone as it considered partying and travel, the kinds of activities that were generally discouraged during 2020 self-isolation.
“The chorus, we wanted it to lift and sort of be an anthem, and not creepy in any way,” Lambert says. “Just like, ‘Have fun, get a drink, get out of here, go on vacation’ — whatever you got to do to stay sane through all this weirdness. I wanted it to be an anthem uniting people. The pandemic definitely was the strangest thing we’ve all been through, but that’s just a piece of it.”
As they neared the conclusion, they felt “Strange” needed a bridge, but collectively, they were stuck. They considered closing up shop, but Lambert suggested they each retreat to their cabins, write their own version of a bridge and then come back together. Twenty or 30 minutes later, they compared notes, then grabbed a line from each version to give it one more twist. In the end, its verses underscore the peculiarities of the times, the chorus embraces escape, and the bridge is practically the Serenity Prayer: an effort to accept what cannot be changed.
“It’s fun to sing, and it’s very easy to play,” says Hemby. “I just love the song. But also, I just feel like it voices everyone’s frustrations without sounding preachy.”
Dick built the demo around his original guitar riff, doubling the part to create an ethereal, almost imperceptible, battle between the left and right speakers. Those guitars subsequently became a foundation when Lambert, Dick and co-producer Jon Randall (Dierks Bentley, Parker McCollum) assembled a small band to cut the final version at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio.
“We kept a lot of Luke Dick’s guitars and flew them over into our track because he is so specific, his style, that it’s impossible to replicate what he does,” Randall says. “When he has come up with a really cool vibe on those acoustics and everything, you want to keep those, so we kind of played on top of what he had already put down.”
The track used a Tom Petty-like guitar pulse, and they layered a spooky texture over it as Rob McNelley played with elongated wah-wah pedal tones. “It’s like a Mike Campbell trick,” says Dick. “It’s trying to think like ‘Into the Great Wide Open,’ the beginning of that song.”
Ian Fitchuk doubled on bass and keyboards, where he threaded ghostly counter melodies into the background and filtered a Wurlitzer piano to create a glassy, descending tone at the end of the first chorus, enhancing the House of Mirrors atmosphere. “The track has to match the lyrics, you know, so you had to kind of chase what that vibe was,” Randall says. “That’s why there’s phase-shifter-sounding guitars and all that to kind of make it feel a little bit strange.”
When it came time for Lambert to do final vocals for the album, she had someone else chauffeur her to the studio every day to be emotionally prepared for the songs she was to deliver. “Driving makes me focus on driving,” she says. “I would have to be dropped off so I could start getting in a mindset of, ‘Today, I sing “Strange.” Let’s go to the house of mirrors in your mind.’”
Vanner/RCA released “Strange” to country radio via PlayMPE on June 27, and it debuted at No. 60 on the Country Airplay chart dated Aug. 6. Currently listed as the top New and Active title, it reflects difficult times and sets the stage for Halloween, Lambert’s favorite holiday.
“It’s like one of those singalongs that’s not shallow,” she observes. “Some songs are fun and light and don’t have to say much, and some have a little more meat to them.”