It’s happy hour at the Timothy Demonbreun House, a dignified Nashville mansion with historical significance, and as Pistol Annies knock back a couple after a long media day for new album “Annie Up,” the ladies are very much enjoying each others’ company as they make a little history of their own.
Pistol Annies are made up of three maverick country singer/songwriters — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley — at different positions on the upward trajectory of their respective career arcs. Even if the Annies are all successful as solo artists, particularly Lambert (who is clicking on all cylinders at radio, retail and headlining tours), whatever you do, don’t refer to the group as a “side project.”
“This not some kind of vanity project,” observes producer Frank Liddell. “They’re dead serious about it and they want it to succeed.”
The three united under a common bond of fierce independence, a rebellious nature, and heavyweight songwriting chops, surprising (and overwhelmingly appealing to) not only the country music “establishment,” as it were, but catching the ears of cynical music press and such artists as Neil Young, who casually tossed out in his new autobiography that the group are “writing their asses off.”
That, Mr. Young, would be correct. The Annies’ first album, 2011’s “Hell On Heels” emerged rather quietly but didn’t stay quiet long, simultaneously out alt.-ing alt.country, out roots-ing roots and out rocking country rock.
With insightful, masterfully delivered songs about love, lust, robust indulgence of a wide range of substances, and domestic dysfunction at all levels, the Annies were, and are, completely dialed into the consciousness of what a certain segment of young American adults are living today, and strikingly divergent from much of what is happening on the contemporary country scene today. Frank, insightful, sharp and totally engaging, songs like “Takin’ Pills,” “Beige,” and “Trailer For Rent” tapped into the spectrum of frustration and celebration in a manner that recalls not only the riskier work of Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, or Lucinda Williams, but also brings to mind certain commentaries by the likes of Haggard, Cash, John Prine or even Young himself.
Still, Pistol Annies’ perspective is proudly feminine. “It’s inside insight into how women’s minds work,” says Presley. “Listen and take notes, boys.”
More often than on the first record, all three Annies (and only them) are involved in writing the songs on “Annie Up,” and much like last time, each are unfiltered doses of spirit, poignancy, romance, and sharp social observation. Hanging with Pistol Annies is, as Liddell puts it, “flat-out fun,” and here we talk about the new record, their songwriting, and how their evolution as artists and people. Throughout, Pistol Annies show they don’t take themselves too seriously, as long as you don’t call it a side project.
Billboard: The first record seemed to come out of nowhere, but people are definitely paying attention now. Did you feel any pressure to equal or top the last record?
Angaleena Presley: If the songs wouldn’t have come on their own, the way they did, then I don’t think we would be sitting here right now.
Miranda Lambert: We don’t want to force it, ever.
Angaleena: We say our A&R guy, his name’s Jesus Christ. He brought us together, and he gave us the songs, and the time to spend with each other, and the music drives what we do.
Jesus shows up a few times on this record.
Miranda: We’re all God-fearin’ women. (laughter) We are! We cut our teeth on church pews. [Now] I don’t go to church, really, because I get home at 4 a.m. on Saturdays.
Ashley Monroe: Yeah, so tired, might as well just talk to God himself.
Do you know the people you write about in these songs?
Angaleena: A lot of ’em.
Miranda: It’s either us or somebody or somebody we know, pretty much.
The Annies’ point of view is enlightening to a lot of men.
Miranda: My dad gets Redbook delivered in the mail every month, and I said, “Dad, why do you read that?” And he said, “I want to know the enemy.” That’s what Pistol Annies are doin.”
Where do you think the Pistol Annies fit in country music?
Angaleena: We don’t know where it fits, we just know it’s true. That’s the common thread, honesty, and ownin’ it, and not being scared of it.
The new record features all co-writes with all three of you as songwriters more often than on the first one.
Ashley: We spent a lot more time together, that’s what happened.
Angaleena: We were on [Lambert’s] shows for a year, then we went out; we were together off and on for two years.
Are you able to write on the road?
Ashley: We can’t not write on the road, which is interesting, because normally that’s a hard place to write.
You’re all three on a bus together?
I bet those walls could talk.
Angaleena: We have a saying, “keep it on the bus, girls.” But then we end up writin’ a song about it, so, oh well.
Miranda: But we sing it pretty.
Ashley: If you put a melody to it, it seems less harsh.
NEXT PAGE: Jesus the Manager & ‘Mamaw Harmony’
You’re all prolific writers, you obviously all do things independently, so how do you decide a song is an Annies song?
Angaleena: It kinda decides for itself.
Miranda: There was one I really wanted it from the beginning, because it really does sound like me, and Angaleena was like, “No! We need this song for Annies, it’s different.” So, later on, she forgot – or she acted like she forgot. The last day we ended up cutting it. I was like, (whispers), “Ashley, I think she forgot, don’t say anything.” Then Ang’s is like, “I want that song!”
Ashley: We’re gonna win either way, whoever cuts it.
Did you know more what you wanted to do stylistically this time?
Miranda: Well, the last time we wrote about where we were from, who we are, and this one we’re writing about where we are right now. There are a lot of relationship songs on there, [Ashley’s] engaged, I’m hittin’ two years [married, to Blake Shelton] soon, [Angaleena]’s just hit a year. So it’s all kind a clear, we’re just writin’ about what you know right then.
The harmonies are very special on this record; do you have a vocal arranger?
Miranda: Hell, no.
Ashley: Can you imagine?
Angeleena: Jesus is our arranger! It comes very naturally, and the more we sing together, I know exactly where she’s about to go, where she’s about to go, and vice versa. Now it’s like breathing’. It took me a while, I’m like, “I’ll be in your band, but I don’t really sing harmony.” Miranda said, “it’s in your soul, you grew up in a Grammy church, with bluegrass music. It’s in you, you just gotta let it out!”
Ashley: And [Presley’s] harmonies, when she lets it out, it is like church.
Miranda: I call it “Mamaw harmony,” ’cause my Mamaw sang harmony like that, right on, not perfect, but awesome. And that’s what our band is, imperfectly perfect.
Ashley: The first record we sang in different booths, and this time we didn’t, that’s proof that we have learned each other’s voices better. Three different mics, but all in the same room, and we cut a lot of them live.
Three producers are credited (Chunk Ainlay, Glenn Worf, Frank Liddell), did one of them take the lead?
Ashley: The band and us really took the lead most of the time, and Frank [Liddell] would just come in with his turtleneck on and say, “uh…” and then do something ever so small.
Miranda: He’s the best producer, because he doesn’t produce, he just puts a bunch of great people in a room and says, “go.”
Angaleena: He gets nine geniuses, and gets ’em whatever they need, and just lets ’em go. He’s like the cherry on top. He’ll come in and just say the most miniscule thing, and every one of us will be, “that’s perfect,” and it will totally make everything fall in place.
Ashley: As Vince Gill said, a great quote, producing is like framing a picture. The picture’s already there, you’ve just got to frame it.
Miranda: [Liddell]’s such a good song guy, he loves songs, he really listens to them. We send him the most hideous work tapes, and he can hear through ’em.
I have to say something about the pickers on this record; it’s almost like a fourth Annie, with lots of creative contribution.
Angaleena: We trust ’em and we encourage ’em to go wild.
Miranda: We’re like, “go as far as you can, and if we have to rope you in, we will.”
Ashley: One of the guitar players is a guy named Guthrie Trapp, he’s been playing with me live some lately, and he’s badass. When you unleash him and say, “hey, it’s ok, you don’t have to be professional,” when he lets go, it’s magic.
Angaleena: I think his guitar playing on this record is gonna go down in history. The first day we were in there, he was playing like every lick he knew, all over the place, almost like he felt like he had to be perfect or polished, and we’re like, “uh, that’s so amazing, but get a little bit more stupid.” It was like he was the new guy, we already had this clique and he wasn’t in it.
Miranda: He’s damn sure in it now.
Angaleena: I was like, “here’s the thing, play half the notes, but play every note like you mean it from the depths of your soul,” and after that, he went in there and just kicked in. Like Tom T. Hall says, the less words the better. One of the hardest things about art is trying to edit yourself.
You’re going on tour in June. Do you watch fan-generated cell phone videos of your shows?
Ashley: Mama sends me the good ones, and when I watch that I get chills. But I won’t Google it myself.
Miranda: People are constantly in my face, and I’m going, “you’re not even capturing what’s happening ’cause you’re too busy worrying about getting it recorded.”
I’ve had artists tell me they don’t try out new songs live for just that reason.
Miranda: I won’t either. What if you want to change it, what if the negative comments come in and you never cut it because you second guess it when people talk shit about it?
NEXT PAGE: War Paint
Let’s talk about the songs. “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” has a gospel vibe to it, but the content is anything but gospel.
Ashley: It’s raunch gospel.
Angaleena: Christian girls gone wild.
Ashley: We wrote that a capella, just snapping [fingers], we thought, ‘should we make it big band,’ like Ray Charles, we wanted horns. Frank’s like, “horns? Really?”
Miranda: Getting’ us to snap on time, that was interesting.
How are you gonna do that live? Are you that damn good at snapping?
Ashley: (laughing) What are we gonna do?
“Hush Hush” is such a great family dynamic.
Miranda: That was so much fun, because already people are saying, “oh my god, that’s my family, my brother just got out of rehab, too!”
I like the line about sneaking out behind the barn to spark one.
Miranda: [Ashley] had to actually confess that to her grandparents.
Ashley: Well, they have the red barn, so I kinda gave myself away.
Where did “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” come from?
Ashley: I had written a tweet one time about how I went and bought a bunch of makeup, then I went and bought a bunch of makeup remover, about a zillion dollars worth of each, cause when I get home, it’s all coming off. We can’t wait to get it off.
Angaleena: That’s true for every woman, not just in show business. It’s like we have to wear war paint. Men don’t.
Miranda: So why do we?
Do you find it surprising that so many men, like myself, relate to your music?
Miranda: That’s awesome, because there’s a lot of girl issues attacked on this record.
Ashley: But we do see cowboys with a beer in their hands singin’ “I’m Hell On Heels.”
Angaleena: We factored in writin’ this stuff, we’re like, “what else can we make these boys sing?”
All three (singing): Bein’ pretty ain’t pretty.
Angaleena: I can’t wait to see some big, tall Oklahoma cowboy singin’ that at the top of his lungs.
“Unhappily Married” surely will make a lot of people feel better about their lives.
Angaleena: That’s the message of that song, “it might suck, but we’re stayin’ together, by god.” You can dance to it!
Tell me about “Loved by a Workin’ Man.”
Angaleena: I wrote that song a long time ago. When I first moved here, I dated this boy who worked on the railroad, he drove a big Chevy truck with a lift kit on it, and we’d go up in the hills and go muddin’. One night he got his truck stuck and literally it sank down, and we had to get a backhoe to come up there and get it out. That guy, he’s my dad, he’s their dad, he’s our uncles.
“Dear Sobriety” is one of the linchpins of this record.
Miranda: I was actually pouring a drink of Bacardi and turned around to Ashley and said, ‘dear sobriety!’ She’s like, ‘what about it?’
Ashley: It was the same night we called Angeleena (to join the group), actually. We wrote ‘Beige,’ which was on our first record, and we wrote ‘Dear Sobriety’ that same night.
Miranda: We were thinking “where are these songs are gonna fit?” We had already been listening to [Presley’s] records. Me and [Monroe] went campin’ in my Airstream all by ourselves, and we were like, we have got to do something with these songs. “Dear Sobriety” and “Beige,” they have to be sung by full on women women. So we were like, “hey, you wanna be in a girl band?”
Ashley: But we didn’t put “Dear Sobriety” on our first record, and our manager was kept saying, “that’s very special, you need to do this.” Obviously, it stuck out to us, too, it was just a serious topic. But as soon as it started laying down it was, “oh my god.”
Angaleena: It’s a “hide the razor blades” kinda song.
“Don’t Talk About It Tina” is an unusual song, starting with the title.
Angaleena: Channeling Natalie Maines, channeling Natalie Maines.
Miranda: I hear this and I hear the first two records of the Dixie Chicks. That’s obviously an influence on all of us. My friend Tina is a cowgirl from Oklahoma, and she was out on the road with this…oh god, do we have to tell this whole story again?
Ashley: We’ll make it real fast, tell him about Mother Bra.
Angaleena: There’s this woman, and she’s like the fourth Annie, and her name is Mother Bra. I had never done anything like this and our stylist was like, ‘you’ve gotta go get you a good, durable new bra,’ ’cause I have huge boobs. So I got this hideous, four-hooked, harness, this beige thing that my boobs are wrangled in at all times. But Mother Bra has a mind of her own. Like we were in Mexico and woke up and she was floatin’ on top of the pool.
Miranda: Ang gets drunk in Mother Bra.
Ashley: So we blame it on Mother Bra.
Angaleena: Mother Bra has all these adventures and she winds up in the weirdest places. So Tina was on the road with us—
Ashley: She’s a good Christian lady, sends us Bible verses every day, mother of two, great wife.
Angaleena: —and ol’ Mother Bra was just laid out on the stove, she walked through there and picked it up and said, whose is this?’ And I grabbed it and said, ‘Don’t talk about it, Tina,’ and we started sayin’ that about everything.
Miranda: We finally just said, ‘can’t we just write this and get it over with?’
Angaleena: But the song turned out to be about girlfriends, going out the bar, havin’ each other’s backs, ‘get over it girl, there’s more people out there.’ So it started out about Mother Bra and it ended up being about good ol’ girls like Tina, salt of the earth, you’ve just gotta have their backs.
“Trading One Heartbreak For Another” will probably be helpful to some people out there.
Ashley: I think so, too, I can’t wait for people to hear that. I played it for a friend of mine who is recently divorced and she just bawled, but she said, ‘that’s perfectly put.’ Ang was goin’ through a divorce, and how old was [her son] at the time?
Angaleena: Almost three. And every word of it is true. My husband was awful, and it was such an awful situation. But to leave that situation, I had to break my baby’s heart, and that broke my heart even worse than my husband broke my heart. I can see why people stay in bad marriages, because I can’t stand to see him goin’ through that.
How hard will it be to sing that song night after night?
Miranda: She’ll probably only cry once a weekend, like I do with ‘The House That Built Me.'”
Ashley: And every time she cries, we’ll just bawl.
Angaleena: If you’re not moved by your own song that came from your guts, then you’ve lost your passion. Ashley came in that day [to record] and I didn’t say a word, just ‘this is what we’re gonna do.’
Ashley: She didn’t have a hook, so I said, “I’m finally alive but it’s killing who you’re livin’ for.”
Angaleena: That’s the kinda shit she says, you little genius.
“I Hope You’re the End of My Story” is probably the most romantic song Annies have done.
Ashley: We were on the bus, and I’m normally always the first one on the bus to take it all off and get in my pajamas. Then I’ll get real inspired, and they came up there and I was like, “guys, I don’t know, [sings], ‘I hope you’re the end of my story.'”
Angaleena: It was like all of the air was sucked outta the bus. Stop, Ashley Monroe!
What are your expectations for this record?
Ashley: We hope that it will be accepted, and that people will listen to it from the first track to the last track, as a whole record, and relate to it, that they can find something of themselves in it.
Angaleena: We wanna make all the money and win all the awards.
Ashley: It’s like Willie said, it’s like labor pains, when you have songs and music to share, you have to do it.
Miranda: We birthed it. Her name’s “Annie Up,” we hope you like her.