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Kacey Musgraves on Rebellion, Aging and Why She's Known as the 'Axe Man'

Photography by Kelly Christine Sutton

"My new mantra for my 30s, and for the busiest year of my life, is ‘Less but better.’"

By Samantha Edwards

Date August 6, 2019

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Kacey Musgraves is always in on the joke.

When Golden Hour was announced as Album of the Year at this year’s Grammy Awards, the camera zoomed in on the Texan country music superstar, her arms shrugging like an emoji, as she said “What? What?” in astonishment.

Two days later, Musgraves posted a screenshot on Twitter of her reaction face—one eye shut, her mouth awkwardly ajar—with a challenge to her fans: “Let the memes begin.” They poured in for weeks, which in the meme economy is like an eon. While some celebrities might have recoiled at that kind of goofy freeze-frame, Musgraves went all in. Now you can even buy a PopSocket in her online merch store emblazoned with the iconic face.

As her fame soars—she won a total of four Grammys this year and consistently sells out stadiums—Musgraves seems even more determined to stay true to her roots, whether that’s continuing to retweet ridiculous memes or donning a pair of cowboy boots and covering herself in rhinestones and fringe.

Golden Hour, Musgraves’s third album, which she has dubbed a “gateway drug” to country music, perfectly blends her bona fide country origins with small doses of sugary pop, disco, electronic and soft rock. It’s that rare album that is beloved by a wide cross-section of listeners while never alienating OG fans.

Now she’s in the middle of a victory lap, touring across North America all summer. But she’s taking care of herself, too. The 30-year-old is currently writing new songs, spending time with her husband, fellow singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, and being wholly herself.

Photography by Alexa King

This is probably a massive understatement, but you’ve had a very big year. How are you feeling?

“I’m a little tired these days, but I’m in good spirits. My biggest reminder to myself is that none of this would be here without the music, and as long as that never gets fucked with or compromised in any way, then I’ll be fine. I’ve recently been able to write a few new songs, and that always gives me a new creative energy.”

Earlier in your career, you were labelled a rebel for writing songs like 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow,” in which you sang about things like gay rights, smoking weed and slut shaming. Did you see yourself as a rebel?

“I never purposefully set out to be a ‘rebel.’ I think I’ve had that spirit since I was little. I’m the first-born. I’m a Leo. I’m pretty headstrong in what I feel like I should do for myself, which is not always a great thing. But when it comes to songwriting, I don’t really believe in rebellion. My job as a songwriter is to filter little bits and pieces out of life and present them in a way that’s meaningful.”

What was Kacey Musgraves as a rebel kid like?

“I was full of sass, hated the word ‘no,’ hated bedtime. I was pretty ADD and bored in school, but I really thrived in any creative challenge. I was a mix of a tomboy and super-girlie. I was a big ham and a ‘Look at me!’ kind of kid. But as I got older, I became more introverted, which is interesting considering my career is based around putting myself in front of people. I feel like I’m a walking conglomeration of a lot of opposites coming together. I’m always wearing workout clothes and no makeup and then onstage, it’s like disco glamour 3000. I’m equal parts cynic and sarcasm, open-hearted hippie and bleeding heart.”

Photography by Jamie Nelson

That juxtaposition relates to something you’ve said before—that there’s “beauty in sadness.” When I listen to Golden Hour, as much as I love “Butterflies,” it’s the slightly melancholy songs like “Rainbow” and “Space Cowboy” that are on repeat.

“I’ve always been interested in the little facets of sadness among happiness. You can find sadness in just about anything, and I think it’s necessary because you can’t be on a Lexapro alternate-reality high all the time. Even putting Golden Hour out—I worked on it for almost a year—was kind of the end of that chapter. It was bittersweet realizing in real time that there’s a chapter ending and a new one beginning. It’s exciting and terrifying.”

And you wrote Golden Hour while you were in your late 20s and now you’re 30, which is also like the beginning of a new chapter.

“In your 30s, you always hear how different it is and the positive things about it, but I think that as a woman, you can only tune in to the negative things that you think you’re supposed to be aware of. I’m really enjoying aging. I choose to look at aging as a luxury. Getting to be alive and see another year and what that could mean for you is really a beautiful thing. My new mantra for my 30s, and for the busiest year of my life, is ‘Less but better.’ It can apply to a lot of different things: less worrying about keeping as many people in your inner circle, [buying] quality clothing versus quantity.”

Will “Less but better” be a mantra we see reflected in your new music? Should we expect a brutally minimalist album?

“One of my nicknames in the studio is the ‘axe man’ because I can immediately spot what needs to go. I love the eraser tool, because you can eliminate and eliminate until there’s just enough space to let the lyrics have their own zip code.”

There’s lots of genre-blurring on Golden Hour. Were you ever concerned about how straight-up country fans would react?

“Look, I love it when people love what I do, but that’s not a barometer for whether something is good or not. I don’t fear anyone not liking it. It’s my most personal project yet, and I feel like humanity could use a little bit of beautiful escape right now from a lot of the negativity that’s flying around all the time. There are always going to be purists in any genre, but I crave exploring different things that feel good, and whatever that may be will be.”

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