The Shotgun Seat Presents: An Interview with Natalie Hemby

When you’re as talented a songwriter as Natalie Hemby is, your proverbial coat closet has a lot of gems hanging in it. The writer and recording artist signed her first publishing deal at 19 – since then, she’s won a Grammy Award as a writer (“I’ll Never Love Again,” A Star is Born), been nominated as a writer and artist (Miranda Lambert’s “Bluebird,” The Highwomen’s “Crowded Table”), and earned critical acclaim with a stunning missive to her hometown (debut solo album, Puxico). With her second solo record, Pins and Needles, she gives some highlights from that sonic treasure trove their much-deserved moment in the sun.

“The benefit of being a songwriter is you can dip back into your bag of goodies,” she says. “I’ve also written quite a few turds,” she adds, laughing. “I speak for all songwriters when it’s like, man, there are so many great songs that haven’t been cut. I just started piecing what I wanted together … I had full intention of just making a record that I never got to make, so I intentionally pulled songs that I felt like harkened back to the 90s and that kind of were about where I’m at in life.”

She began to gather songs starting with “Heroes”; having grown up in Nashville, growing up in Nashville, and then having success in the music industry, Hemby has often had proximity to stars, not all of whom live up to their shining images. “I felt qualified to tell that story,” she laughs. “Pins and Needles” was a co-write with Brothers Osborne. “They were going to put it on their record, I think they even played it out a few times,” she says – ultimately, they didn’t release it, and were happy to return it to Hemby. “I just started adding on pieces from there, “New Madrid” was the bridge from Puxico to this record for me. Doing a record is like putting together a giant puzzle, just trying to find the right pieces that go with it. I took my time with it – I started it before The Highwomen, before I ever joined them, so it was definitely a long time in the making. But my favorite records have all been a long time in the making, a lot of the ‘90s records you didn’t bang out in a month, people sent a long time on them, and I feel like we held true to that,” she laughs.

The record demonstrates both depth and breadth from Hemby – produced by her husband, renowned producer Mike Wrucke, Pins and Needles is masterful from start to close. While genre lines are increasingly murky and often, frankly, detrimentally simplistic, Hemby has honed her own spin on country, framed in the rich musical variety of her upbringing. “I feel like I’m my own festival, I have all these different genres that I like to tap into,” she says. “I feel like my [spin] is like, Alanis Morisette country?”

“In high school, I didn’t have a clique, I was friends with every group, and I feel like that’s how I am in life as well like I loved ‘90s R&B and I love folk music, I love rock music, I love country, I love all kinds of different genres. There’s a few genres that I’m not very good at writing for, but I love music, I don’t care what kind it is.”

“It’s almost like owning a restaurant if you want to be a great chef – you gotta wash dishes, and you gotta know how everything works, you have to know how to serve people. I feel like music’s the same way, you just gotta know how to do all these different things.” For Hemby, her strengths and practices span a wide variety: writing records with other artist friends, leading her to successes like the Miranda Lambert hit “Bluebird”; co-writing, which landed her two smashes on the A Star Is Born soundtrack; writing, recording, and performing as a member of The Highwomen; and sharing her unique musical perspective on her solo records.

For Hemby, Pins and Needles puts her artistry at the forefront, giving the work that has felt most true to her solo artistry center stage. “We all started off as artists,” she says of herself and colleagues like Sarah Buxton and Jessi Alexander, whose songwriting talents are also accompanied by vocal prowess and stage presence. “We bring our artistry to our songwriting, but we still have a voice.”

Distinguishing how much of one’s artistry to inject into a co-write can be a delicate balance in songwriting – for Hemby, songs for other artists, songs with The Highwomen, and songs that end up on her records all navigate that balance in their own way. “If I’m going in the writing room, I’m definitely writing for someone else, unless I’m like hey, I have this idea for me,” she says. “Part of being a writer is pressing an idea to an artist and being like, I think you should do this in this direction, and I definitely do that a lot with my artist friends, but sometimes what happens is you bring more of yourself into it than you realized and maybe not so much the artist, and that’s kind of a good indicator of like, today wasn’t their song, that was supposed to be cut by me. That’s how I feel about “Heroes” and probably even I would say “Banshee” [that] Miranda [Lambert] and I wrote, and she loves that song, but Miranda and I have written so many songs together that there’s just a lot to pick from.”

“I’m really not a hitmaker, I’m a record maker,” she says. “Sometimes they end up on the radio and I get really lucky, but I really do like helping people write for their record. I love timeless songs, that’s what I try to reach for.”

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