Q1: Your 2016 debut, Hero, won you a Grammy, and this year’s follow-up, GIRL, was streamed 24 million times in its first week—the most for any studio country album by a woman. What does the spirit of this transition, from Hero to GIRL, mean to you?
Over the next few years, I started to become more of a boss and a sort of CEO for myself, putting my band and crew on salary, giving them health insurance, becoming the head of this machine.
I also fell in love. I started to open up more to my fans. I wanted people to know I’m still that girl, but I’m growing up and I’m okay with being vulnerable. It’s not a weakness. When you find an equal in your life, it’s not you giving up anything or any part of you; it’s sharing your whole self with another whole self. It took me a second to realize that’s a good thing.
GIRL meditates on everything from craving sex and being in love to moments of yearning and the more emotional nuances of being a woman. How do you approach writing about these topics in a time when feminism and womanhood tend to be associated with a take-no-prisoners kind of strength?
By being honest with myself and knowing I don’t have the sassy, armored exterior many of my fans probably think I have. I’ve learned it’s okay to not be a badass all the time. Over the past few years, as I wrote GIRL, I learned that it’s not a weakness to be vulnerable with somebody else, to share all your light and your darkness with them, to trust that they won’t trample your heart or judge you. That was such a learning curve for me, because I used to think if you were vulnerable and admitted how much you needed someone, you were being submissive. That’s so far from the case. Saying I need my husband [country singer-songwriter Ryan Hurd] isn’t me submitting to his power. It’s me being independent and saying, “Yeah, I need your fucking time right now.”
It’s healthy to tell someone that. It’s not co-dependent; it’s a gift. It takes strength. It takes balls. My acceptance of that felt like, Wow, this is some woman shit. There’s strength in the femininity of needing someone but also in having the confidence to ask for it.
The album’s title track has become an anthem among your fans. Can you explain its meaning?
It’s about a fight I was having with another woman who’s also in the music industry. Women in this industry are often pitted against each other. It’s not our fault, but we internalize it, because that’s what women do. We take on the weight, because we’re always so quick to apologize and make peace when we should be like, “Actually, this is their issue, not ours. We need to figure this out. It’s not our fault there are so few slots that we turn on each other.”
Yet you’ve also said, “Being a woman isn’t the most interesting thing about me.”
“What’s it like to be a woman in the music industry today?” is the question I’m most sick of being asked. My husband is an artist as well, and no one ever asks him what it’s like to be a man in the industry today. What would he say? “Same as it ever was.” I never know how to re-answer that question. I don’t know how to answer it in the first place, actually, because I don’t want to be remembered for being a great female artist. I would like to be known as a great artist.
Last year you were featured on Zedd’s “The Middle,” one of the biggest songs of 2018, which landed three Grammy nominations. What do you wish people knew about you now that you have a higher profile?
I would love for people to do their research and know that I’m not just an artist. I started as a writer and wrote for other artists, and I co-produced my last two albums. I don’t get a ton of questions about my work in that realm. It’s always, “So you changed your hair and, like, how crazy is that?” It’s like, Motherfucker, I produced my album, thanks.
Okay, we’ll take the bait. How has your background as a songwriter shaped you as an artist?
I learned so much in my years behind the scenes. I had to help produce my own demo sessions, and I definitely learned how to listen to and follow trends on the radio as a writer, for research. That has helped me pick singles; I know what hits my ear. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong—but most of the time I’ve been right. It comes from studying in the “university” of Nashville songwriting and learning from people who were better than me.
Not thinking you can produce is a mentality even incredible writers are forced into. It’s not an easy line of work, but when you love every facet of making music, you really do care how a guitar sounds. You care about the reverb on your vocal or how loud the bass is—details like that. I love sinking my teeth into it. That’s why it takes me so long to make music, because I overthink it sometimes.
I feel I’ve already challenged a lot of sexual norms. It’s funny, because it’s not that risqué in the grand scheme of things.
Are you a perfectionist?
I’m a perfectionist until I’m not. I know when I get a gut feeling about something and it’s done. Some people will just keep working on music, remixing it and changing things little by little until it’s two years later. And then you never put it out. Luckily I have a bone in my body that tells me, “Okay, you can’t do anything else to this.”
Various headlines have described you as being restricted by country. Are media outlets getting the narrative right?
In a sense, no, because I actually am played on the radio. For the past two years I’ve been the most-played woman on country radio. It’s still way less than a man, but for some reason my music is being played. It’s not just about having a catchy song; it’s because I don’t sound like anyone else. At the beginning, that was hard, but all my singles have been risks. Even doing “The Middle” was a risk, because I was risking that country radio would think I was abandoning them because I was part of this giant pop song.
That I’m restrained in any way is a dumb perception, because I’ve tried to kick ass at everything I do. I work hard. I wish the same for my sisters, because they work just as hard, if not harder, than I do, and they don’t get a single spin on the radio. I don’t think I’m pissing on my success by speaking up for them. I’m just trying to say, while I have the success and while I’m here, why aren’t any of my friends getting played? I want to shine a light while I have it and not let it be just about me.
The past few years have seen greater crossover between country and pop. Is this helping country music? What do you think when people suggest that country music needs saving?
There will always be traditionalists in every genre who try to hold on to the old. I have respect for that, because there’s so much about country music—classic country music—that I love. But every generation has been accused of ruining country music, even the outlaw era of Waylon and Willie. Country is evolving. It’s always evolving. You’ll always have purists no matter what.
So cross-pollination between genres is a good thing?
Country artists having songs on the pop charts and on pop radio this past year has only helped our genre. Most young people who stream music don’t listen to it because of its genre; they listen to it because it’s popular, or they discovered it on a playlist and it makes them feel something. When I did “The Middle” with Zedd, most of the world had never heard of me. A lot of people have checked out my country music as a result. It has brought a lot of awareness, fans and listeners to country music, especially recently. It’s good for our genre to cross-pollinate, because it makes for better music. It’s keeping everyone on their toes and not regurgitating the same kind of art on the conveyor belt.
You performed at this year’s Grammys with Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton, and you recently invited pop star JoJo to perform with you onstage in Los Angeles during your world tour. What other artists do you want to sing with?
I would love to sing with Kehlani. I saw H.E.R. at the Grammys, and she was incredible. I love Khalid. If I’m shooting real high, I would love to sing with Beyoncé. That’s the pinnacle.
Bigger success has opened you up to more criticism. You’ve been slut-shamed and body-shamed online quite a bit. Why are you still dealing with this in country-music culture?
It’s a transitional time. Everyone’s super anxious. A lot of it is the political climate, the culture of social media. Anytime someone is courageous or doesn’t try to blend in, it pisses people off. It’s been like this forever, but we’re much more connected now than we used to be. A lot of hot-button things that seem small explode into something huge.
It’s awesome to be with somebody who isn’t trying to make you feel like a skank because you’re proud of your body—someone who’s not watering down your ideologies for patriarchal and bullshit standards.
Have you ever regretted something you’ve said publicly?
Not really. Every time I’ve spoken up or clapped back at some troll, it has been very much me. I wouldn’t go back on any of it, because they deserved it. Body shamers? They’re asking for it. I would never regret calling them out.
At one point I posted a picture of Emma González, one of the survivors of the Parkland shooting, and I lost probably 5,000 followers. To not be able to share an opinion, or to lose fans and ticket sales over it, is so mind-boggling to me, because it’s an American right—a human right—to be able to voice your opinion. Of course, any fan has the choice to quit buying your music or listening to it. But as a tax-paying citizen, I should be allowed to speak up when I’m passionate about something. It’s always to increase awareness. It’s to let my fans know where I stand. I don’t want to be one of those head-in-the-sand artists who’s only worried about keeping the money in my pocket. I get only one life here, and if I’m going to be a musician and do this thing I’ve been given a gift for, I would like people to know what I believe in. This is where I stand, this is what I want, this is the world I want my kids to live in. That’s why I speak up when I do. It definitely ruffles feathers. Not many country artists speak up.
Not many country artists have agreed to be photographed by PLAYBOY either.
I remember Dolly Parton’s amazing [October 1978] PLAYBOY cover and reading about the drama surrounding this wholesome figure being part of a magazine that has showcased naked women for decades. It was such a faux pas in country music, and yet she ended up making one of the most iconic PLAYBOY covers of all time. Not many other country artists have done that.
I was intrigued, because so many of the moves Dolly made in her career were about bucking the status quo, especially when it came to sexuality and gender norms within country music. As a woman in country music—as a woman in any genre—it always fascinated me. So when I heard this magazine wanted to interview and photograph me, I thought, Okay, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful spreads you guys have done with artists I love, such as Halsey, so what the hell?
Are you concerned about how people might react to your being in this magazine?
I’m speaking such a loud, noisy concept of what it means to be a woman in the music industry right now. This feels like I’m amplifying a message I’ve been passionate about since the beginning that has intensified in the past year. I feel I’ve already challenged a lot of sexual norms. It’s funny, because it’s not that risqué in the grand scheme of things. Even the cover of GIRL is slightly risqué, but it feels like me—throwback but a little modern. I knew it would piss some people off that I was in a bra top. Doing PLAYBOY has been a really fun challenge. I’m trying to do more things that scare me. Every year I’m trying to peel back my layers emotionally—and I guess physically.
I’m learning things about myself that are starting to freak me out, in a good way.
What else scares you?
Locking into becoming an established country artist with each passing year has been daunting. It’s where I’m comfortable; it’s what I grew up in. But I’m sick of the standards we’ve been forced into, and it scares me that I’m getting so fed up with certain norms.
I could just shut up and sing, keep my head down, not talk about politics or sexuality in my songs. But I swear quite a bit. I talk openly about drinking. I’m learning things about myself that are starting to freak me out, in a good way. I’m growing up, and that doesn’t necessarily mean becoming more mature or wiser or buttoning things up a bit more. Sometimes it’s letting it all be a little more freewheeling.
You’ve been married for just over a year. What has marriage taught you?
It’s taught me that I’m not always right. I’ve been doing this music thing for so long that it’s how I’m conditioned. Letting someone else in and letting him be a part of that with me has been a bigger struggle than I imagined. It’s so easy to fall in love, but to stay in love and to fall deeper into love? That’s work. It’s not giving up your stance but allowing yourself to listen. You both could be right; just because you disagree with somebody doesn’t mean they’re wrong.
Being married for the past year has also helped me figure out more who I am independently. For example, my husband is very much a feminist, and I’ve never really done anything that’s freaked him out. He has always been accepting. Even with PLAYBOY, he was like, “That’s really hot.” It’s awesome to be with somebody who is an equal and isn’t trying to make you feel like a skank because you’re proud of your body—someone who’s not watering down your ideologies for patriarchal and bullshit standards that women in country music have been locked into for the past several decades.
What makes you feel sexy?
I’ve been trying to be better at exercising the past year or two. I don’t want to be skinny. I want to be strong and feel like Lara Croft. I remember when choosing Girl’s cover, I was like, Yeah, I have this body; I’m going to put it on the cover! I felt really sexy because I knew I was going to get flak for it, from these little titties, but I’m definitely owning it. I like when I scare the absolute shit out of myself like that. That’s when I feel sexy. That’s what gets me off.
What should our readers know about sex or sexuality that maybe they haven’t thought about?
Lingerie is supremely overrated and unnecessary. Also, I would say that if you’re in a relationship and that person isn’t going down on you on the regular, dump them. If it doesn’t happen enough early on, you know what you’re getting for the rest of it. A selfish lover is a no-go from the get-go. Just dump him, dump her, dump whoever it is. If you can’t sometimes give and sometimes take or have a completely equal experience, then that person is probably selfish in many other facets of his or her life as well.