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Though it's been seven years since Natalie Maines released a new album, her first steps back into the studio were extremely cautious. "When we started, we weren’t necessarily making a record, so I wasn't even thinking in those terms," she says. "The stars just aligned when my friend Ben Harper opened a studio on the west side of LA—I started going in and working with his band, with no agenda, just to see what happened."
Maines recorded six or seven songs before she told anyone, even her manager, that she just might be at work on an actual album. "I was afraid of anyone hearing about it," she says. "I didn’t want anyone to have any expectations."
Any expectations that listeners might have, though, will likely be shattered when they listen to MOTHER, the first solo effort in Natalie Maines's storied career. As a member of the Dixie Chicks—the best-selling female group of all time—she has sold over 30 million albums and won 13 Grammy awards. But the ten songs on MOTHER reveal different sides of one of the most acclaimed voices of our time.
"I wanted this music to be very different from the Dixie Chicks," she says. "Lots of albums by lead singers might just as well have been made by the band, but I think this is very different from anything the Chicks could make. That separation and distinction was important."
Maines knew that she didn't want to record conventional country songs, but she wasn't clear what direction her new recordings might take. Crucial to the more rock-based, edgy and intense sound of MOTHER was the input of Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and guitar wizard Ben Harper, who co-produced the record with Maines and wrote or co-wrote three of the songs.
"I’ve always been a fan of Ben’s instrumentation," says Maines. "As the daughter of a steel guitar player, I’m drawn to his playing, and to his band’s sound. As we started to work together, we fit together as a band and gelled, we had fun, and it all felt very organic."
"Natalie is an absolute nonconformist—she is as punk rock as anyone I've ever known," says Harper. "She has a uniquely gorgeous sense of melody, and she doesn't rest until she has brought out the best in herself and the people around her."
Since the release of the Dixie Chicks' triumphant Taking the Long Way in 2006, Maines has concentrated on raising her two children, returning to the studio only for such occasional sessions as duets with Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond or her version of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" for the HBO series Big Love. So last spring, when Harper invited her to sing on a hard-charging rocker called "Trained," she didn't realize that she was starting the next chapter of her musical life.
The first collaboration they attempted in earnest was another composition by Harper and his band, a heart-wrenching junkie's lament called "Vein in Vain," which Maines says she was "a little hesitant" to take on. "It felt very masculine, and I wasn’t sold that I should be singing it," she says, "so we rewrote and rearranged it a bit until it felt comfortable."
One of the initial songs they tackled was the soaring, tortured ballad from Pink Floyd's The Wallthat ultimately gave this album its title. Maines went to Roger Waters's concert in Los Angeles, and she reacted to the familiar song in a new way. "I had heard 'Mother' my whole life, but that night it struck me differently," she says. "I heard how I could do the song; I could hear an original idea for a woman singing it. and how it would take on different meanings.
"Motherhood is something that immediately injected anxiety into me," she continues. "I was pretty carefree, and then having kids made everything a lot scarier, with a lot more pressure. I'm conscious of not putting those fears on my kids and letting them live their lives." These thoughts—as well as insights from her friend Howard Stern about his own relationship with his mother—informed her interpretation of the song, which NPR's Ann Powers has described as "a tender acknowledgment of how fear can entrap all of us, even when we want to do nothing but love."
"Mother" was initially released on the soundtrack to the documentary West of Memphis, a film which chronicles the story of the three wrongly-imprisoned Arkansas teenagers known as the West Memphis Three, whose cause Maines has tirelessly championed in recent years. She says that "Free Life" is also included on the album because of its connection to the case: She performed the song at a rally when the young men were still in prison, and it became a favorite of the wife of Damien Echols, one of the WM3.
As the sessions went on, Maines was learning more about herself and her work, especially as a producer. "It always felt good when the Dixie Chicks would make a decision, because if we agreed, then it was right," she says. "It was more difficult to depend on myself, but I got used to being the boss and being artistically in charge—it was liberating but scary. You really have to pay attention to every step of the process, you can never check out mentally at any point, so I had to be a lot more focused and available. And I realized that I write a lot more of the music than I ever knew, I’d sing the musicians their solos. I wish I could play an instrument,” she adds with a laugh, “because I’d be awesome!"
The recording of MOTHER continued into the fall (on a daytime schedule, so that Maines could be home for her kids' evening routines), and songs were selected for a variety of musical and personal connections. Jeff Buckley's "Lover You Should Have Come Over" was a reminder for Maines of the early days in relationship with her husband, actor Adrian Pasdar. She discovered "Without You" on her friend Eddie Vedder's ukulele album, and heard a groove that she thought might fit.
As distinct as the new music is from the music of her past, some of the songs on MOTHER do inevitably link back to her remarkable history. "Silver Bell" was written by one of her long-time favorite songwriters. "I secretly wish I was Patty Griffin," says Maines. "I couldn’t do a whole album of her songs, so I had to pick one." And the songwriting credits on "Come Cryin' to Me" reveal that even her fellow Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison still kept a hand in the new project. "That was a song we decided was too rock for Taking the Long Way," Maines explains, "but it really felt right to have a piece of them on here."
The Dixie Chicks aren't finished—in fact, the group has some Canadian dates booked this summer—but for now, Natalie Maines says that she is "hyper-focused" on presenting MOTHER to the world in the best way possible. "I have a hard time going from one thing to the next," she says, "so I want to put all my efforts toward this album. I feel completely dedicated to it, and I want to give it everything I can."