Golden Hour, Kacey Musgraves‘ most recent album, was written while she was falling in love. It earned her a Grammy for Album of the Year and Best Country Album, and propelled what had been a fast-growing career to full maturity (perhaps beyond). But what else could you do when that love began to fade? She started drafting a new one.
Star-Crossed is the product of that soul-searching, and it is released today. Sure, it’s a breakup record, but it’s not one fueled by grief. It’s almost, if not entirely, devoid of anger. Musgraves talked to us from her home in Nashville, where cicadas hummed their own song in the background, to find out how it occurred.
For clarity, this interview has been trimmed and condensed. Use the audio player above to listen to the broadcast version of this story.
On Morning Edition with Noel King: This is a really unique album it has a three-act structure. And according to your own words it’s a tragedy — the end of your marriage.
Kacey Musgraves: Yeah, this album was mainly motivated by some big life events, but it also follows me chronologically over the past two-and-a-half to three years since Golden Hour was released. It’s sort of carrying on from where I left off.
For nearly three years, you were married to Ruston Kelly, a singer and composer. A lot of fans are casually referring to this as a “divorce album.” Do you think that’s a fair characterization?
Musgraves: I believe that all albums are a combination of where you’ve been since the last time you were heard from. And that was the end of it for me. So much has occurred. It’s nearly impossible to put into words what I’ve learnt and experienced in this chapter.
But at first, I thought to myself, “OK, so people would call me “the Golden Hour girl.” Many people were introduced to my music via my previous album, which was influenced by this period of my life when I was falling in love, and it’s very lovely. That album’s charm, in my opinion, does not have to stop with that relationship. In that record, I can still find a lot of appreciation, as well as a lot of beauty and significance. And I’ll continue to sing it for many years to come. This album is no exception; I believe it is full of love and appreciation.
I believe it’s funny that we’re all taught that the duration of a connection—whether it’s a friendship, a business partnership, a marriage, or anything else—is somehow related to its success. I just don’t believe that’s entirely accurate.
You might easily classify it as a post-divorce record, which is on paper. But this album is full of love and appreciation for that person, for Rustin, for my life, and for my capacity as a musician to explore all of the feelings.
Isn’t divorce a major part of it? Because, as you said, it is a significant aspect of your life. I know you’re capable of writing furious tunes. On this record, there isn’t a lot of rage. Did you make a deliberate effort to keep anger out of this?
Musgraves: I wanted to pay tribute to myself as a songwriter by being able to express the broad variety of feelings I’ve experienced throughout my recovery process. I’ve been reading a lot about the phases of grieving and healing, as well as the stages of acceptance. And I’ve learned a lot about how healing isn’t a straight line… I was like a rubber bouncy ball, bouncing from one feeling to the next. One day, I’d feel very certain in my decision. Then there were days when I’d wake up and wonder, ‘What am I doing?’
It’s a mixture of self-assurance and empowerment, blended with severe dread, sorrow, guilt, and depression, as well as optimism for the future. But then there’s a little bit of rage, a little bit of bargaining, a little bit of fighting to accept your current situation. I don’t believe any one feeling or music can adequately express how I feel. That’s why I thought the CD needed to be 15 tracks long. In my opinion, it is divided into three acts. That’s about the greatest thing you can do in such a difficult situation: attempt to express how you feel.
I kept listening to “Good Wife” over and again. That song hit me like a ton of bricks. Many women, I think, will find it very genuine. In this song, you’re basically asking yourself, “What went wrong with me? What would I have done differently if I could go back in time?” And it’s something that most people do after a breakup.
Musgraves says : Please help me come through and be the kind of person that I need to be for this other human that I’ve committed my life to. This song is before the life event in the album – it’s really just kind of a personal prayer to myself and to the universe, to God, to Goddess, or whoever, saying: ‘Please help me come through and be the kind of person that I need to be for this other human that I’ve committed my life to.
That song has a hint of humor, but it also serves as a humble reminder that I may not have all of the skills I need to be the person I need to be for the other person. It’s a little utopian, but I could bring him coffee and prepare a bowl for him when he gets home. Please God, help me to be a decent wife, since he and I both need one another.
What have you learned from your marriage?
Musgraves: That is an excellent question. I come from a long history of lengthy marriages, and I appreciate long partnerships. My grandparents met in the second and third grades and have been together ever since. They’re in their eighties and seem to be very happy. And They’re adorable. They’re like a classic American love tale, Darrell Gene and Barbara Dean. My sister and her husband, who have been together since they were 14 and 16, are another example. They now have a child, and my parents are still married. With two children, they operated a company side by side for 30 years.
I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t believe marriage is right for everyone. However, I think it’s lovely. If that’s your preferred method of working and you find satisfaction in it, I believe that’s a wonderful thing. But, you know, I don’t believe it’s the be-all and end-all.
And, as you said, length. The standard by which we should evaluate achievement isn’t always length.
Musgraves: yes, on the one hand, I believe that marriage is wonderful because it makes you responsible for someone you love in all seasons. But, in many ways, it’s not always realistic in my opinion, since we change so much throughout time. And there are seasons when we may not be able to connect to someone with whom we previously had a strong bond. This is true in every relationship. So, as long as you have the space to grow and shrink as you do throughout time and maintain grace for each other, I believe that’s a key component, having the grace to let someone grow and contract without taking it personally.
You earned a Grammy for Album of the Year with Golden Hour. And I’m sure your life has altered in some way as a result of it.
Musgraves: Since Golden Hour, my life has altered dramatically in mostly positive ways for which I am grateful. That album, I believe, helped me come closer to complete creative freedom and the courage to follow my creative instincts rather than feeling obligated to adhere to one sound or anything. I believe it was very satisfying to alter the game so much musically for myself and get such a good response. It made me feel, at the very least, that doing what makes you happy would always connect you with others.
What’s the fresh thing you’ve discovered about yourself? On this album, what did you discover about yourself in terms of sound?
Musgraves: On this album, I’m drawing from a broader variety of inspirations. I’m experimenting with a variety of textures and noises that I haven’t really explored previously. For this record, I even learnt a little bit of Spanish. For me, it was a lot of joy. I was raised in Texas and I have spent my whole life surrounded by Spanish-speaking speakers. I simply have a lot of respect for the language. It’s stunning, in my opinion. I’ve been taking Spanish classes for many years just as a fan. However, when I heard the song “Gracias a la Vida,” I knew I wanted to record it for this project.
I think the last time I heard the song was in the 1970s, when it was performed by a Chilean protest singer. I was curious whether you were aware of the song’s background and why you chose to put it on this album.
Musgraves: Violeta Parra wrote the tune. She’s a well-known Chilean folk singer, activist, and composer. However, the version I heard was recorded by Mercedes Sosa, a few years after Violeta’s death. I believe it’s also noteworthy that this song was on her last album; she did commit suicide. That, I believe, adds to the deep, sad, and mournful character of what this song is thanking life for. You’ve given me a great deal. You’ve given me both the good and the bad. You’ve given me both agony and joy. And I’m grateful for it all. ‘I’m glad to be alive,’ it says. And I thought to myself, “What a wonderful way to finish this album, this chapter of self-exploration.”
The album begins with “Star-Crossed” and concludes with “Gracias a la Vida.” And I believe that it completely encapsulates where I’m at right now.
You stated that you were learning Spanish. Is there anything new you’ve learned about writing as a result of it? Have you discovered anything new?
Musgraves: One of my ambitions is to one day be able to comprehend Spanish well enough to compose a song in the language. There are so many hues that the English language, unfortunately, does not utilize. There are numerous alternative ways of describing something or expressing an emotion, each with its own set of hues and degrees that English simply cannot match. Even when translating the words of “Gracias a la Vida” into English, they fall flat, they are clumsy, and lack the uniqueness of the original. So it’s been fascinating to observe the differences and hope to get to a point where I can put it to creative use. My primary aim, though, is to be able to have a conversation with someone without feeling ashamed.
I’m sure there will be individuals who listen to this CD after suffering through their own divorces or breakups. What do you want people to take away from this music?
Musgraves: It’s been incredible to hear from so many people who say things like, “I’ve been through the same thing” or “I’m going through it right now, and this song means a lot to me.” I believe that by reading the final chapter, and even by living through the epidemic, I have become a little more linked to mankind via my suffering. And we all feel closer to each other after spending the past year communicating and discussing the kinds of micro-frustrations that come with being a human in 2021. I think that’s a very lovely thing, and I’m grateful for it.
I believe this song serves as a reminder that the individuals you see on Instagram, whether they’re celebs or regular people, are all putting their best foot forward. And I believe that as much as you may be “the Golden Hour girl,” the girl in love and enjoying this really wonderful aspect of life, you can also experience the polar opposite. It’s also true. It’s a real life, and I believe that accepting both the good and the terrible and understanding that we’re all going through it, whether famous or not, is a wonderful reminder that we’re all in this together.