Margo Price, Shakespeare and the female orgasm. Not, at first, obviously connected, but Price is nothing if not surprising.
We’re backstage at The Long Road Festival in Leicestershire, UK, where she’ll soon take over the main stage with her sharp-edged energy in a characteristically frank and humorous, psychedelic, dusky, 70s rock-fuelled set.
Her album, Strays, is released in two parts, with the second, Strays II, being presented and released in three distinct acts. Even without the English fields sprawling behind us it seems to fair to ask whether the multiple act structure is intended to be received as a piece of performance, perhaps akin to a Shakespeare play?
She laughs, professing a love for the Bard before going on to add, “I think we have a problem with attention span, speaking of Shakespearean plays. It’s nice to keep feeding people little bits, keep them coming back for more”.
In fact, there is a touch of King Lear’s Cordelia about Price. Her refusal to be cowed into professing false love or loyalty to power for her own gain, a subsequent exile from the kingdom (Price might be a critical darling but she’s not exactly a darling of the country music establishment) and life as an outlaw. It’s an apt King to rebel against. Lear was afraid of and disgusted by female sexuality, whilst Margo wrote ‘Light Me Up’ because she thought country music needed more songs about the female orgasm.
She points to the title track as an emblem of her life. “I think ‘Strays’ is really near and dear to my heart because it’s the story of my husband and I meeting, being feral and young and running around Nashville and how we moved through that”. It’s romantic and hopeful, imploring its listeners not to sell out: “No it ain’t luck and baby it ain’t fate / To just follow your gut and be up and wait / Maybe there’s a little something there for all the strays”, she sings.
A three-act structure, as Strays II is being released as, is usually split into the set-up, the conflict and the resolution. Which part does Margo feel like she’s in in her life?
“I feel like I am in the resolution right now”, she says. “This entire album was a healing journey for me. I had taken a lot of psilocybin mushrooms and had some psychedelic experiences leading up to it. I feel like I’ve been peeling the onion and going back to a lot of things that I wanted to push down or bury in my youth. I’m just feeling in a really good, healthy place with it. This album just took me through those phases. There’ll be more conflicts and resolutions I know”.
Margo is no stranger to conflict. After releasing two albums – Midwest Farmer’s Daughter and All American Made – on Jack White’s Third Man Records, she’s since released That’s How Rumours Get Started and now Strays on Loma Vista Recordings. Together they tell the story of the two threads of Price’s life – the fabric and hardships of growing up in rural America, and the life of a working musician – who’s also a woman and a mother - unwilling to play the industry.
Happily forthright as one of Nashville’s most confident liberal voices, taking on issues such as the gender pay gap, race and gun control, it comes as no surprise to anyone who’s followed her career that she sees life as inherently political.
“A lot of times people say ‘just shut up and sing and don’t stand on a soapbox’. I think most people’s art is just about saying this is what I have been through as a child and a person. This is where I’m from and let me show you how I see the world. Anything is really political if you think about it that way,” she explains.
Whilst Margo has consistently proven herself not to be a slave to the man, she, like all of us, is not immune to a more powerful force when it comes to releasing new music. “Initially I thought I might just drop it like a rapper and be like ‘boom, another album’ but you know the way that the algorithm is these days. You really have to hype people up to get them to see and share it”.
Ah, the algorithm. For Price, ever the champion of rural America, there’s an economic angle to the release structure as well, keeping the album affordable by releasing it in smaller parts. It’s interesting, I say, to hear a working musician talk about the affordability of music, when many would say streaming has made it too affordable.
“I definitely am grateful to fans when they purchase the vinyl, when they go and buy it on iTunes,” she says. “We have devalued art and now we’ve got AI to compete with. I think we need to start giving writers the credit that they deserve because when we’re feeling sad, when we’re feeling vulnerable, when we’re in a bad place, where do we turn? We turn to music and films and novels to get lost in and to help make sense of our pain. So I really hope we do get to a point where people can start paying artists, musicians and writers what they deserve”.
Margo, with an increasingly varied CV, has more stakes than most in ensuring that art continues to be a paying job. She’s been working with T-Bone Burnett on the soundtrack for the film Downtown Owl, and wants to expand into acting, she tells me. Last year she published her memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It, and, ever the storyteller, is considering turning her pen to fiction.
“It would have to be an apocalyptic romance novel with a female protagonist”, she says. Is that how she sees the world – apocalyptic but still romantic? “It just depends on what side of the bed I wake up on, I suppose. I still have hope, but I know we’re at a turning point right now with climate change and in America it feels like we’re living in a dystopian society where it’s confusing and very divided. Music, art and poetry are great dividers and they can really break down the walls and show that we’re more connected and on the same side than we think”.
Touring amplifies America’s dividing lines. “I do feel like it’s calming to be here [in the UK]”, she says. “It’s amazing to see police officers here not carrying giant guns. I have children in school. Tennessee has the highest rate of death for children by firearms and it has been really unsettling. There are moments where I read the news and I just absolutely break down because I want things to change”.
Of course, country music remains one of the battlegrounds of division. Does Margo have hope that it can be a unifying force?
“I think country music has for a long time been the musical background or soundtrack of rural America. I think it can be confusing when we have political parties trying to put a stamp on that. Country music is in a really beautiful, unique place to unite people. There are a lot of folks out there doing a really great job of using their life experience growing up in small towns to find or break down those walls,” she says, nodding to the recent music video for Tyler Childers’ ‘In Your Love’, which depicts a gay love story, as a prime example.
Cordelia returns at the end of King Lear to try to help the King and meets a grisly fate. Luckily Price is an expert at challenging narratives. No chaste maiden or tragic heroine, and ever the writer of her own story, it seems incredibly unlikely that she would ever turn up on a white horse to fight battles for the system.
So, more conflicts and resolutions there may be, but in the case of Margo Price, at least she will always be able to say that they are unmistakably her own.
Strays II will be released on October 13 via Loma Vista Recordings. For more on Margo Price, see below: