Every other Thursday, in his new column Another Country, Duncan Cooper showcases country, folk and bluegrass music that's so often unsung around these parts, with an emphasis on new approaches to old American classics.
I came across Zoe Muth's "Mama Needs a Margarita" a while back, and no song has choked me up more since. There's a live version here, and a better version on her new album, World of Strangers, out May 27th via Signature Sounds. The song's about a mother putting her baby to bed; her husband's still at work (or lying to her, and at a bar) and she's left imagining a freer life: Mama needs a maragarita/ A slow song and two strong arms to lead her… A long straight highway/ No cops to get in my way/ A Texas roadhouse and a band to play the blues. It's not even that bleak of a lyric, but there's this twinge of apathy in Muth's voice when she sings it, this hint of no hope that makes happiness seem impossible. On another song on the new album, "April Fool," she's just as resigned: I take my dreams to bed now, right where they belong. Goddamn, I can't deal.
World of Strangers is Muth's third LP, and first since moving from Seattle, where she was born and raised. Now she lives in Austin—she found that Texas roadhouse, at least, so maybe all hope's not lost. Apparently, she's a rebel in any setting. While the decidedly countrified honky-tonk of her first two records made her something of an anomaly in the Pacific Northwest—"I was so removed from a country lifestyle," she told me. "It seemed so different, and that intrigued me"—now that she's moved to Texas, some of the traditional country elements in her music have given way to a style that's more folk-rocky and flowing. Being Seattle's greatest country singer was one thing, but Muth is an artist who deserves to transcend genre and place, and I think she's done that with this album. (Still, there's a new song about a show-off's pickup truck being too shiny; I don't know what could be more country than that. Sometimes, it turns out, it's best if some things stay the same.)
Below, listen to the premiere "Little Piece of History," the first track off World of Strangers, then read Muths' thoughts on the song, her new LP and life in the Lone Star State.
Seattle to Texas is a pretty big jump. Is Austin how you imagined? It's kind of funny, I really had no idea what it would be like. In 2011, we took the van down for SXSW, and that was the first time I'd ever been to Austin. We actually had a lot of support there, and we were getting radio play in Dallas and Houston. The band that I had made my first two records with was sort of dissolving. We'd toured for two or three years and it just started to—we needed to do something else. It was sort of like, do we go to Austin? Do we go to Nashville? Do we go to LA? Austin seemed like it still had a slightly hippy, artsy, more liberal vibe that we were attracted to. And we just figured there's got to be a great country guitar player there.
Who's we? My husband Greg is the drummer. He's been in the band the whole time.
Besides him, this album has an all new band. What was that like for you? It was completely different. For the first two records, we had already been playing all the songs live and we had a way that we would do it. Now, sometimes the other guys in the band were a little more set in what they thought it should be than what I wanted, but at that point I was still really new and sometimes I'd just be like, “Okay fine." I paid for the first record with savings from my day job, and at some point you just run out of money to record, and that's your record. This time, we had more time to experiment. Brad Rice played lead guitar on pretty much everything, and he walked into the studio the first day with like, eight guitars. I said, “Okay, let's see what happens.” It was a big experiment, and that was the best part.
To me, it’s a really sad album. Yeah. I think there’s like, one happy song on the record. [laughs]
That’s good—I was like, “She knows this is really sad, right?” I think that's just my personality. It's sort of how I see the world. People wouldn't say I'm a mopey, always-depressed person, but I think that's just what I'm attracted to. When I'm out in public, I see the people who seem like they're struggling somehow and I'm attracted to their story. That's why I write what I write about—many of my songs aren't necessarily my story. I don't know why I always seem to write sad songs and breakup songs and songs about people mistreating other people. Somehow it comes easier to me. The one song that I wrote for my husband and about our story is the first one, "A Little Piece of History." It was a vague telling of our story of moving to Austin—giving up most of our belongings and driving to Austin in our van and not knowing what was going to happen.
Some of my friends in Austin seem distressed by the political situation there. Has that has been an issue for you at all? Definitely with the whole affordable health care act. Neither my husband nor I have health insurance, and because Rick Perry denied the federal medicaid to the state of Texas, it basically makes the affordable healthcare act nonexistent in Texas for low income people. But Austin has a strong music community, and musicians here do a lot of fundraisers for something called the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. Through that, musicians can get affordable basic healthcare. Seattle had a strong music community, but not as much as Austin. People really stick together and try to help each other out as musicians.
You posted on Facebook once that you were looking to book shows at farms and honeybee sanctuaries. You’re on tour now—did you succeed? We played an organic farm in Malibu. It was a 100-year-old fig farm. It's actually just up the road from where Bob Dylan lives. We tried to find Bob Dylan's house, but we couldn't see it from the road. We haven't played any honeybee sanctuaries yet. That idea started after I saw this movie called Queen of the Sun about the declining honeybee population, and thought it would be a good fit with our music to try to play on farms and get to support the farmer by splitting whatever people gave as a donation. It'd be our way of supporting something we believe in. We like ending up in small towns and beautiful out of the way places, and it’s also a way to do that.