Exclusive: Kacey Musgraves on Her "Willie Nice" New Christmas Album

Music Features Kacey Musgraves
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Exclusive: Kacey Musgraves on Her "Willie Nice" New Christmas Album

Kacey Musgraves  is one of those artists who seem like they were destined to record a Christmas album. It’s not just her well-known penchant for sparkly things or her fun, sing-along on-stage demeanor, either. As an artist lauded for making songs that stand up to the classics, a Christmas album from Musgraves was certain to include all the glitz of the season with at least a few clever originals and plenty of respect for the well-worn carols we all know and love. Musgraves certainly delivers on A Very Kacey Christmas, which was released in late October and has already made its way onto playlists and decked-out stages around the country. We caught up with Kacey about the festive release. Check out the conversation and take a peek at an exclusive behind-the-scenes video from the recording of “A Willie Nice Christmas” in the player below.

Paste: So this behind-the-scenes video is all about your track with Willie Nelson, “A Willie Nice Christmas.” You’ve talked a lot about Willie Nelson’s influence on your music, from inspiring you earlier in your career to working with you on Pageant Material. How did this particular collaboration happen?
  Kacey Musgraves : I love working with Willie Nelson. I’m a huge fan of his, and I was so happy to have him be a part of this funny little song. The title came to me one day when I was heading to a writing session, and it just popped out really fast and really funny; we laughed the whole time that we wrote it. After we were done, I sent it over to Willie and I was just like, “Look, I don’t know if you think this is funny or not, but I think it’s so cute and I would love to have you join me on it.” He was happy to. He played guitar and sang on it, and I just think it’s a really fun, reggae, Willie Christmas song.

Paste: This is one of three Christmas songs you wrote specifically for the record. Tell me more about “Ribbons and Bows.”
Musgraves: Visually I like the mental picture of “Pretty Paper” and ribbons and bows, ornaments and sparkly lights. Christmas is a visually pleasing time and I love that. This song is just a sweet, simple song about not feeling like you need any more fancy things—you know: cars, jewelry, whatever. You just really want the person that you love by your side. I think that’s a sweet sentiment. It’s just simple.

Paste: Another great original—and a great collaboration—on this album is “Present Without A Bow” with Leon Bridges. I know y’all are both Texas artists—how did you link up for this particular tune?
Musgraves: Leon and I are mutual fans of each other. I just think the world of his sound and his style. The idea for “Present Without a Bow” came to me in a dream, and literally the next day I was gonna be writing with Leon. So I brought the title “Present Without a Bow” to him and I said “Hey, would you want to write a Christmas song with me?” He was down, and I love how it came out. He ended up coming and singing on it, and injecting some of his soul into the track. I love the song. It has this familiar pop feel about it. I feel like I’ve heard it before, kind of. There’s just like a familiarity about it. I like that a lot, you know.

Paste: I thought that exact thing when I heard the song. It reminds me of some of the Christmas music I grew up listening to. What were some of the artists and songs you associate with your favorite kinds of Christmas music?
Musgraves: Definitely all those old Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole songs; Dolly Parton or “Pretty Paper,” Willie Nelson, or just…even The Chipmunks’ song, for sure! One of the records that really inspired this sound was the Charlie Brown Christmas album and The Vince Guaraldi Trio. It’s such a classic-sounding album: there are children singing on it, and little piano interludes. It’s just so pleasuring to listen to.

Paste: Absolutely. It’s funny to hear you lump “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late)” in with these old-school classics, but I think for people our age “The Chipmunk Song” was as much a regular Christmas song as anything else. What made you decide to record that one?
Musgraves: Well, a big part of my Christmas childhood is the song “Christmas Don’t Be Late.” I always thought it was so weird, you know, those chipmunk voices. That song, it’s just like glue, it just sticks in your head. I thought it would be kind of a funny cover to take a song that’s so ridiculous and make it a little easier to listen to. I knew it was one that everyone remembers. On this one particularly, I loved the accordion. It just feels good, almost has a Parisian sound to it, a little bit…Rory Hoffman is the musician who played bass clarinet, accordion, baritone sax, piano. He played a lot on this album, and I think he really shines on this track.

Paste: Definitely. You really bounce all over the map in terms of style here. I mean, tell me about your take on “Feliz Navidad.”
Musgraves: Well, growing up in Texas I have, of course, heard that song a million times. I’ve always loved it, but I wanted to take a shot at creating a version that would stand up to the classic one you always heard. The Spanish language and culture has always really intrigued me, and I just have a lot of respect for their music and culture and language. It was fun for me to join in. I love traditional mariachi music, and I think this track is definitely one of my favorites, if not my favorite on the entire thing. It’s just so fun to listen to. It sounds like a party.

Paste: What are some of the other songs on the album that stand out as favorites to you?
Musgraves: One of my complete favorites on this album is “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” I love, love, love the way that this track came out, especially with the opening—there’s such a sweet little opening. It’s just a sweet song for little kids. This track has a fun groove to it to me, too, and I love the clarinet on this track. That was played by Rory Hoffman, too. It just feels good.

Paste: There are several songs on the album that are really sweet for younger listeners. Was that something you were going for?
Musgraves: That’s definitely something I wanted to create with this piece of music: making it fun and accessible for small kids, with fun melodies and upbeat grooves, capturing that whimsical wonderment that we all had as children when we experience Christmas when we were small. Then, I also wanted the music, and the substance, and the lyrics to be able to sustain an older listener.

One of the really fun songs on this album is “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” It’s another one of those old, wacky, childish songs. It’s just so weird. I just love how weird it is. The clarinet on this track is so fun, and it’s just funny. “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas” is a weird thing to say. This, you know…One thing that’s different about these songs than my other albums is there a lot more involved from a singing standpoint, and a vocal standpoint, and so it was kind of a challenge for me to get in and figure out not only how to make these versions my own, but to stand up to all these great singers that sang all these versions way before me.

Paste: I imagine that must be a challenge on a lot of these songs. Christmas music has a long legacy—it’s one of the ways that a long of young people get introduced to classic artists, and it’s so fun to hear new artists rework songs you’ve only heard one way. Were there any songs you covered that felt new to you?
Musgraves: It was important for me, on all these songs, not to just go in and copy all these traditional versions that we’ve heard our whole lives. It’d be very easy to just record how you already know the song, you know, and there’s nothing wrong with that; I just think I enjoyed the challenge, with my co-producers, of really chopping these songs apart and figuring out how to make them our own, how to make them weird, how to extend solos and add in different instruments, and just really run with the theme and tell our own story here.

A song that I wasn’t too familiar with before starting this album was “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” It was a song written in 1947, and was made popular by Ella Fitzgerald. I didn’t really know it, but it got brought up as a contender and I fell in love with the song. I just think it’s a fun concept to listen to the entire record, and go throughout all the emotions of Christmas, and then you land on the last track, which is “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve,” and you get to have a nostalgic “Auld Lang Syne” moment as a bookend to the Christmas album that you just heard.

New Year’s Eve to me always had a little bit of excitement thinking about the year ahead, but it’s also daunting, and it’s a little emotional thinking about the memories that you’re leaving behind. I don’t know. That, to me, was perfectly summed up with the way that this track sounds, and the way that it ends with the little New Year’s Eve party that we recorded.

Paste: When we spoke about your last album, you talked about how you decked out the studio with decorations. Was there any of that here?
Musgraves: Oh yeah. We had to start recording this album in July, so we needed all the Christmas spirit that we could get. We really went the extra mile. We had apple cider, and we strung up lights and cut snowflakes. Every musician had their own personalized stocking, and it just made it campy and fun. It was easy for us to jump into the theme because everyone’s station was so decorated. There were trees and presents. It was a blast.

A Very Kacey Christmas is out now via Mercury Nashville. For more from Kacey Musgraves, check out her 2015 Daytrotter session in the player below.

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