“I disappeared,” laughs Natalie Maines, by way of explaining where she’s been for the past six years. Beleaguered by the lingering controversy over her infamous remarks about President Bush back in 2003, Dixie Chicks released the triumphant, defiant Taking the Long Way back in 2007, and it won all the Grammys that year.
Martie Maguire and Emily Robison released one album together as the Court Yard Hounds, but Maines stayed out of the spotlight and the studio for years. Instead she chose to focus on raising children and campaigning for the release of the West Memphis Three.
Now, six years later, Maines finally returns with Mother, a collection that boldly establishes a new identity. Working with Ben Harper, she gets about as far away from country music as possible, preferring a sophisticated rock sound and a handful of revelatory covers. “I never felt compromised with the Chicks,” she says, “but there are always things you have to take into account when writing songs. We have our sound. But this time it was nice to get to do whatever I wanted! Me me me me!”
Speaking from her home in Los Angeles, Maines gave Paste a guided tour of Mother, revealing the personal connections behind each cover song.
Eddie Vedder, “Without You”
I was obsessed with that ukulele album. I remember the first time I heard it. I was not in the right place. I was in traffic in L.A., and I thought it was way too mellow. I just couldn’t listen to it. So I put it away for a little while. Then I went to Hawaii, and I was working on a puzzle and I thought, “I’m going to listen to Ed’s uke album.” And I loved it! I really listened to the lyrics, and then I started trying to learn how to play it. I listened to it every day for over a year, so I knew I wanted to do something off of that album. I could hear what the groove and the guitar riff would sound like behind “Without You,” so that’s why I went with that one. And I love what it says. It’s hopeful and loyal and romantic, and I love Ed, so I’m glad to have a piece of him on this album. And now I can listen to it in L.A. traffic.
Semisonic, “Free Life”
I met [Semisonic frontman] Dan Wilson because Rick Rubin had us write with him for [Taking the Long Way], and he was one of my favorite people that we wrote with. I really loved his melodies and loved where he goes in a song. I sang “Free Life” at a West Memphis Three rally in Arkansas, when they were still in prison. That was a big part of my life and my time off. Damien Echols’ wife, Lorri, said that she listened to that song every single day from that rally until his release. So I put it on the album as a tribute to her.
Pink Floyd, “Mother”
We had just started in the studio when I saw Roger Waters perform The Wall. It just struck me that I had to try this song. I had to sing this song. His lyrics and the imagery in his show are very powerful, and I realized how relevant that song still is. It’s about a very different war time, but here we are still in war time. I felt a connection to the mother as well. She is very evil, and what she does to her son is horrible. But I understand the emotions behind her actions. When I had my kids, something went off in me. You worry constantly, and you really would like to build walls around your kids. So I think it’s an interesting perspective. I do have compassion for the mother in the song, even though I would never want to be like her. I hadn’t thought of any of that when I decided I wanted to do it. I just loved the melody and could hear the instrumentation. So it was a nice surprise when I sang it and it turned out to be so different.
But really I just chose it so I could say “balls.”
The Jayhawks, “I’d Run Away”
That was the last song we did. We actually did two Jayhawks songs for the album. We recorded “Blue” as well. But then I figured out that “I’d Run Away” was the song for this album. We never finished “Blue,” but I think we will get back to it at some point. I just couldn’t have three Gary Louris songs on my record! [Martie Maguire, Emily Robison and I] co-wrote “Come Cryin’ to Me” with him as well.
Patty Griffin, “Silver Bell”
[The song is from Griffin’s unreleased album, Silver Bell, which she recorded in 2000.] I like the idea of having these unreleased Patty Griffin songs that were all mine. But that unreleased album is everywhere, so I don’t feel that special. But I love Patty Griffin. I wish I was Patty Griffin. I would love to do an entire Patty Griffin record. I just chose that one because it’s the one the Chicks could never do. It would never fit our instrumentation. I don’t think banjo and fiddle are what’s best for “Silver Bell,” and I’m not sure where the three-part harmonies would come in.
Jeff Buckley, “Lover You Should’ve Come Over”
I’ve known this song for a long time. The first year Adrian [Pasdar, Maines’ husband] and I were together, the CD alarm clock was set to go off with this song every morning. So it brings back a lot of good memories of when there were no kids and no worries. It was just us and [laughing] our love. I love singing that song. Maybe Jeff and I are connected musically or something. Maybe I’m drawn to the song because it’s a melody that I like or would like to have written. It is challenging—but not in a hard way. There’s so much emotion you’re trying to evoke, and there are so many layers to it musically. It’s very smart songwriting. And so poetic. But I’m always drawn to melody first. You can have the most brilliant words, but if they’re not set to a great melody, I’ll never hear them.