This is a story about control. Kacey Musgraves thought she had it. She describes the moment when she felt “on top of the world” in 2019, when her record Golden Hour was named Album of the Year at the Grammys. After about 30 seconds of sitting in the audience dumbfoundedly mouthing “What?” she took the stage, wearing bright-red Valentino ruffles, and thanked her husband, fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, saying, “This album wouldn’t have been created without you.” Now, she says ruefully, “If you would’ve told me the night of the Grammys, ‘Hey, in two years, you’re going to be divorced and have a whole ’nother album written,’ I would have been like, ‘Fuck off. No. No way.’ ”
Musgraves is lying in bed, wearing the kind of waffle-weave robe you associate with fancy hotels, her hair long and loose, her nose ring glinting every so often as she turns, her long gray nails punctuating every gesture. Zooming with her feels like FaceTiming with a friend—such is the brand of intimacy she radiates. At the beginning of this year, she decided to lean all the way into the loss of control she was feeling and take a guided mushroom trip. I’d venture to say that Musgraves has type A tendencies rolled into a type B personality, based on the fact that she used a Johns Hopkins–created playlist made for the purpose, unwilling to completely surrender control of the aux cord even while tripping. She tells me about the psilocybin-induced vision she had of her nine-year-old self—not coincidentally, that was around the age when she began performing music in public—and the compassion she felt for young Kacey. “Less time for bullshit” was a major revelation she came away with. “I am so repelled by the artificial, the chatter, the pressures of society. It doesn’t matter. We’re not here for very long.”
The singer’s psychedelic quest came on the heels of a year that would tax anyone. She was grappling with the pandemic, but also with the end of her marriage to Kelly, whose entry into her life she once compared to the turn from black-and-white to Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz. The two had been living what looked like a musical fairy tale: They met at Nashville institution The Bluebird Cafe and went on to adorably perform a musical version of the Johnny Cash poem “To June This Morning” together. Being forced to sit with her cornucopia of emotions in self-isolation was hard, but ultimately necessary. “I could have coasted for another couple of years,” she says now, “just not paying attention to my feelings or not really dealing with some things.”
Instead, she burrowed into herself, bouncing off the walls of her own anguish. She started asking herself tough questions: “Why did I make these decisions? How did I get here? How can I prevent myself from getting there again? Why do I keep choosing the same kind of people?” And she second-guessed some of her choices: “I would love to meet the person who makes a very insane life decision and is just”—she snaps her fingers—“fine from then on.” Forty songs tumbled out of her, 15 of which made it onto the eventual album, set to be released in late summer or early fall of this year. At the onset of the pandemic, there were jokes about how Shakespeare managed to write King Lear during a plague. With this album, which she refers to as a “catharsis,” Musgraves may have created a timeless tragic work of her own.
The horrifying inevitability of loss that has marked this time feels well within the realm of tragedy—we’re all spectators, numbly watching things unfurl, feeling largely powerless. “I’m constantly torn between free will and fate,” Musgraves says of her conception of the world, and for her, the genre has resonated in ways both personal and political. “I think when you look at the whole last year, or last four years, here in America, you could say that on many fronts it was a tragedy,” she says. “Then whenever I zoom in to my own personal life, I also experienced tragedy, but in a completely different, personal way.” The album’s three-act structure came to her a few days before recording. She was lying on her bed, journaling and listening to Bach. “The word tragedy just popped into my mind. And I was like, ‘Whoa, what if the album was formulated like a modern Shakespearean or Greek tragedy?’ ”
When she was doing Shakespeare in high school, Musgraves would dissolve in fits of giggles. “At the time, I didn’t quite understand it. It’s still pretty heady, the ‘old English’ and all that. But it’s themes that we’re still familiar with today. They’re just wrapped up in a different way. Those things will carry on forever, as long as humans are living, breathing, crying, loving, dying, fighting, all of that,” she says. “Being a human is tragic, but it’s also beautiful. And you can’t really experience the beautiful parts of life without also experiencing the absolutely heart-wrenching.”
She knows whereof she speaks. “I felt, in many ways, on top of the world in my career, but in my personal life, I felt like I was dying inside. I was crumbling. I was sad. I felt lonely. I felt broken.”
LET’S GO BACK for a moment to small-town Texas, telescoping in on the storybook-sounding town of Golden, the birthplace of a little girl who called her first song “Notice Me.” Says Musgraves, with a laugh, “Quite possibly the most thirsty title anyone’s ever heard.” She played the western swing circuit and formed a duo, the Texas Two Bits, with another girl her age. Along with the applause, she started to imbibe the idea that as a performer, and as a woman more generally, it’s your duty to make other people happy. She recalls “learning how to please roomfuls of people before really even knowing how to navigate my own emotions first.”
It’s something she clearly still struggles with, but her career has been built on pushing back against that need for external validation. When she released her debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, she rejected the “shut up and sing” mandate, her lyrics touching on everything from LGBTQ rights to her marijuana use to the bell-jar suffocation of small-town life. She’s remained politically outspoken about everything from gun violence to Ted Cruz’s abandonment of her home state during this winter’s devastating storm. (She released T-shirts that read “Cruzin’ for a Bruzin’,” with the proceeds going to Texans in need.) “It’s physically impossible to shut up and sing at the same time,” she quips of the hoary critique. “So that doesn’t even make any sense.”
“What I love about her is not only her voice, but her personality that goes with that voice,” her good friend Willie Nelson tells me. “It’s, ‘Hey, this is me. I hope you like me, but if you don’t, that’s cool.’ ”
That extends to her distaste for being hemmed in by categories. “I feel like I don’t belong to country in any way on one hand, but on the other hand, I’m deeply rooted in that genre. So I’m not owned by it.” She name-checks influences on the new album: Bill Withers, Daft Punk, Sade, the Eagles, and Weezer. “She can do whatever she wants to,” Nelson says. “I think whatever she thinks she can do, you’d better get out of the way.”
And with her upcoming music, her canny ability to connect with her listeners should only intensify. Troye Sivan, who worked with her on a remix of his song “Easy” last year, puts it best: “It feels like you have a friend when you’re listening to a Kacey Musgraves song.”
It isn’t quite right to say that her new album is the inverse of Golden Hour, which was written while she was falling in love with Kelly—the looming negative image behind those warm snapshots. When I went back and re-listened to Golden Hour, I was struck by the pathos lurking in the wings of even the most chipper songs, like a restless houseguest. “Lonely Weekend” is about missing someone who’s out of town to the point where you feel unmoored. The title track begs, “Keep me in your glow.” And “Happy & Sad” pretty much explains itself. Musgraves excels at writing about the kind of complicated emotional states that there should be a multisyllabic German word for. And sometimes, she admits, “I just make something more sad than it needs to be.
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“Golden Hour was, in a lot of senses, escapism,” she adds. “It was fantasy. It was rose-colored glasses.” Its successor, she says, “is realism.” The album rejects the linearity of the moved-on, never-been-better narrative. Instead, she sings about longing for the past, recognizing that it was imperfect and craving it anyway, thinking about the possibilities of putting oneself out there again, and then politely demurring, for now. And about modern quandaries like scrolling through old pictures on your phone, examining the digital wreckage of an analog entanglement (“It’s that space where you’re like, ‘It’s too soon to delete these, but I also don’t want to look at them’ ”), and timeless ones, like trying to shape-shift into the person a partner wants you to be.
Even in her lowest moments, the writer in her is peeking out, pen at the ready, to chronicle the Sturm und Drang. “I’ll be in the middle of an argument and somebody’ll say something, and I’ll be like, ‘Damn, that’s a good line. I need to remember that.’ ” But anyone expecting a he-said, she-said, nakedly confessional ticktock of a love gone wrong is in for a curveball. Instead, there is a slight remove to it all. Maybe the only way into her story was to become its narrator, as opposed to a character, to adopt a literary distance, to graft order onto random experience. She tells the story of “two people who love each other so much, but they cannot make it work in the physical realm to be together, because it’s just not written in the stars for them. It almost takes the blame off the two people, which is what I like, because it could be easy in a heartbreak to be like, ‘Well, you fucked up, it’s your fault.’ ‘No, you fucked up, it’s your fault.’ And it’s like, ‘No, let’s just blame the stars. Let’s just say that we’re not meant to be.’ ”
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The other night, Musgraves woke up at 2 a.m. with an ache in the pit of her stomach, worrying about how the album might be received. “It’s daunting to put your emotions about something really personal on display,” she says. “I haven’t spoken much about this chapter, and I don’t feel like I owe that to anyone, but I owe it to myself as a creator to flesh out all these emotions that I’ve felt, and I do that through song. It would be strange if I didn’t acknowledge what happened in my life creatively, but it is scary to be like, ‘I’m about to share my most personal thoughts about me, about this other person, about a union that I had with someone.’ I mean, I’m not a ruthless person. I care about other people’s feelings. So it’s kind of scary.” (Though she tells me she is in “no rush” to jump into dating, and is “definitely focusing on [her]self,” rumors of a possible romance start to swirl a month later, when she’s seen embracing a cute doctor, Gerald Onuoha.)
She’s already dipped a toe into singing about heartbreak with her verses on “Easy.” But the public anticipation for her album can feel charged in a way that only happens for female artists, and that might explain her subversion of those expectations. Bon Iver makes indelible breakup songs, but no one is cheering when he hits a pothole in his personal life; meanwhile, I’ve seen tweets in response to female artists’ breakups expressing delight about the music that will result, as though they’re jukeboxes, not people. We expect confessionals from women; rather than an outpouring, Musgraves is giving us high art.
Speaking of the expectations we place on women, Musgraves has spent this time reexamining the ideas she absorbed about marriage growing up. The album finds her wondering what it means to be the right kind of wife. “I come from a family full of long marriages. My grandparents met when they were in second and third grade, and they’re still together in their eighties,” while her parents ran a small business together and sat side by side at their desks for 30 years. When she divorced, “It was hard to not feel like I was in some ways a failure,” Musgraves says, bemoaning the fact that relationships that have ended are described as “failed” or seen as shameful. After all, she says, “There’s nothing more shameful than staying somewhere where you don’t fit anymore.”
“I’m doing whatever the fuck I want in here, and it feels amazing,” Musgraves says as she walks around her Nashville bachelorette pad, grabbing a cookie to thoughtfully munch on. The time at home has helped her realize that years of touring have kept her from experiencing the contours of regular life. Days on the road ran together. “Meanwhile, back at home, your grandparents are aging. Your parents are aging. Your sister has a baby you’ve never met. Your friends—you see them on Instagram, and they’re moving on without you. It’s this constant sense of FOMO for your real life,” she says. “And then sometimes you wake up and you’re like, ‘What the fuck am I doing in Idaho? It’s my dad’s birthday. I haven’t seen him in three months.’ ”
Now, rooted in place, she’s been reconnecting with family and friends in a way she hasn’t been able to in years, and reexamining her need to fix people, a pattern that goes back to childhood. “We try to re-create and fix whatever was broken back then,” she tells me. “We try to fix it in the now through different people, and that can go on your entire life if you’re not careful. I don’t want to do that.”
The only thing she’s focused on fixing now is her house, which she’s been remodeling for four months, “and I’m really ready for it to be finished,” she says. While making Golden Hour, she recalls “almost having a mini-breakdown” while planning her wedding, renovating a house, and working on the album at the same time. “I told myself I would never do that again.” A few years later, she’s nearly come full circle: She’s making another album and fixing up another house. “It seems like there was this heightened need to channel something or shape something,” she says, marveling at the cyclical nature of life. “It just happened to be at the same damn time again.”
Hair by Esther Langham at Art And Commerce; Makeup by Frank B. at The Wall Group; Produced By Libi Molnar and Nicole Abt at Lola Productions
This article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ELLE.