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Natalie Hemby Lives Out Her '90s Lilith Fair Dreams on New Album 'Pins and Needles' [Interview]

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1997, Sarah McLachlan launched the women-centric traveling music festival, Lilith Fair. The festival, which included performances by McLachlan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Emmylou Harris, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant, Shawn Colvin, the Indigo Girls and many more, was a response to the male-dominated and often sexist music industry and sought to silence critics who claimed that concertgoers wouldn't pay to see a lineup of female artists. It was a massive success.

Country singer-songwriter Natalie Hemby was one of the many Lilith Fair attendees during the festival's initial three-year run. And, like so many others, she left feeling inspired.

"One of my best friends lives in Tampa and I flew down there for the weekend and stayed with her. We drove over to the concert and we just had the best time ever," Hemby says. "Lilith, it was the most fun. It was such an amazing idea and concert. I'm sure that was a very hard thing to pull off because getting a bunch of artists together is like herding cats...they were all on the road at the time and you had to come off the road and do these shows. God, it was so inspiring. I can't even imagine all the artists that [Lillith Fair] created during that time, including myself."

Hemby's lifelong love of  '90s alternative rock and lyrics-driven songs is showcased on Pins and Needles (out Oct. 8), a collection of jangly Heartland rock and Americana, filtered through Hemby's singular point of view.

Hemby says, while this is the album she's always wanted to make, she's glad she waited to create it.

"I was just immersed in so many different types of music," Hemby says. "I loved Shelby Lynn, I loved Macy Gray, I loved Sheryl Crow — all that kind of stuff. I think it just has taken me years and years to figure out what I sound like, you know? I do feel almost like a kid again."

Hemby, who's penned hits for Miranda Lambert, Jon Pardi, Little Big Town and more, says finding success as a songwriter helped find her voice as an artist.

"I don't think a lot of people understand all the work that goes into being an artist. It's probably about 30 percent talent. It's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of being gone from your family and shaking hands with people you don't know. I haven't had to go through all that — I've just watched it from afar," Hemby says.  "Nobody really understands — you can be the best artist in the world — I've heard so many incredible artists, singers, players — and, if you don't have good songs, it just doesn't even matter. That was one thing I learned about throughout my songwriting stuff: the song is just everything. And then it's the artist and production and timing. It really is sort of like a supernatural thing that happens, to be successful at all in the music business."

When recording Pins and Needles, Hemby had no shortage of songs to choose from. The Grammy-winner dove into a rich archive of songs she'd written over the years, including the gritty title track she penned with Brothers Osborne.

"I loved that song so much even when I wrote it with Brothers [Osborne] and they did too. And when I picked it back up I was like, 'Doggone, these lyrics are fire,'" she says, laughing. "There's so much attitude."

Other tracks, such as the rollicking "It Takes One To Know One," a co-write with Miranda Lambert and Kelly Archer (a song "about two people who are just absolutely out of their minds being best friends," Hemby explained) and "The Hardest Part About Business," co-written with Sunny Sweeney and Joanna Janet, showcase Hemby's whipsmart sense of humor.

That '90s reference of women in rock and roll, like Alanis Morissette and all these different women who came out during that time who were just sort of rebellious in nature and bucking the system — that's in my DNA.

One of the album's newer songs is standout track "New Madrid," a personal tune for Hemby, who traces her roots to southern Missouri (Her 2017 release Puxico takes its name from Puxico, Mo., where Hemby spent summers staying with her grandparents as a child.)

"'New Madrid' was sort of like my crossover from Puxico," she says. "You can just completely depart from your last record, but it's always good to have a bridge of something over to the next one. To me, 'New Madrid' was the bridge."

"New Madrid" references New Madrid, Missouri, the site of an 1811 earthquake, which caused the Mississippi River to run backwards.

"My entire ancestry is from that region — from Puxico and the New Madrid area and all over," Hemby says. "I've always been obsessed with this fault line that runs through and how it was the biggest earthquake that ever happened here. I mean, if you really think about that, we've had huge earthquakes in California, but this thing shook all the way up to Pennsylvania and it happened in the 1800s. I just thought it was a cool song idea to compare it to this love that is still there, but it's just dormant... It's like, 'God, do you remember when we used to be so passionate about each other? We'd shake the earth.'

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"Banshee" once again pairs Hemby with longtime collaborator Miranda Lambert, whom she descibes as being cut from the same '90s rocker cloth.

"Our personalities are so different, but we get along really well," Hemby says. "That '90s reference of women in rock and roll, like Alanis Morissette and all these different women who came out during that time who were just sort of rebellious in nature and bucking the system — that's in my DNA. I grew up on that stuff and I love writing that kind of stuff. So when [Miranda Lambert] came along, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, she's the country version of that.' She was so in your face with her lyrics and what she thought and what she was saying. Miranda — what makes her country is her twang and some of her lyrics, but — I tell you what — really, she's rock and roll. I think that's why we do connect on those levels and we have for so many years."

Hemby compares her friendship with Lambert to another long-running musical partnership.

"I'm glad that God put her in my life. I call her my George Strait and I'm her Dean Dillon," Hemby says, laughing.

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It was another partnership that placed Hemby in the spotlight in 2019 as a member of The Highwomen alongside core members Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. Born out of the community spirit exemplified at events such as Lilith Fair, The Highwomen formed, in part, as a response to country radio's lack of inclusivity.

Among the songs Hemby contributed to the Highwomen movement are "Redesigning Women" (which she confirms was partially inspired by the beloved '80s and '90s sitcom, Designing Women) and the Grammy-winning "Crowded Table," which would've sounded right at home during a Lilith Fair singalong in 1997.

"I wrote my way into that one," Hemby says of her invitation to the supergroup. " [Highwomen producer] Dave Cobb has changed my life too. He had me write on A Star is Born and then called me to write for The Highwomen. He sent me the song "The Highwomen" that they rewrote.  I was like, 'Okay, I can't write something like this. This is amazing.' [Laughs] And he's like, 'Well, I want you to write a song that's something women can all sing along to... So I called Lori [McKenna] and she came over and we wrote "Crowded Table" and then took it to Brandi [Carlile] and Brandi just changed a few lines on it. Then she asked me to come in and sing and she and Amanda [Shires] were there. That's when they asked me to be in the band. It's just crazy. Probably half the battle is you've just got to be available to show up to this stuff. The next thing you know you're in a band of superstar women."

Pins and Needles is available for purchase here.