Miranda Lambert is a generational icon, a rule-breaker, a rock star whether she knows it or not. Without making a show of it, she’s succeeded in channels typical (third place on the singing competition Nashville Star in 2003) and atypical (the indie-rock press ate up both 2007’s solo breakout Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and 2011’s Hell on Heels by her super-group Pistol Annies, two of the finest country albums released in the last two decades). She’s scored hits with ballads like “The House That Built Me” while simultaneously building a witty, fearless, firearm-toting persona on rockers like “Gunpowder & Lead,” combining the danger and sensitivity of both on 2011’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” co-written by out lesbian Brandy Clark and acclaimed ally Kacey Musgraves.
Lambert herself is no red-state archetype, as adept at detailing a Nugent-esque lifestyle as “The Hunter’s Wife” as spinning a pro-transvestite verse on “All Kinds of Kinds,” with all sorts of smart sentiments both simple and complex in between. Her fifth solo album, Platinum, arrives June 3, amid tabloid annoyances predicting a non-existent split between her and husband Blake Shelton, who’s Nashville royalty himself. It’s her most musically diverse album yet, with throwback Western swing courtesy of backing band the Time Jumpers on “All That’s Left” and a hard-riffing Carrie Underwood duet called “Something Bad.” She spoke to SPIN about addressing more personal issues head-on, discovering classic rock in her late twenties, and why it’s so hard for women to break the glass ceiling of country radio.
The first song on Platinum has a chorus of “You don’t know nothing about girls.” What’s the stupidest thing you’ve heard a man say to a woman recently?
Let me think about what Blake said to me…just kidding. [Laughs.] I can’t think of anything really, but men say a lot of stupid things.
It’s also your first album where you seem to directly address fame, which seems like something you’ve tried to put off as long as possible.
I mean, you know, “Priscilla” is the song that addresses being in the tabloids. I think it does it in a fun way, though. It happens, and it’s happening a lot, lot more to Blake and I than ever before, and I thought it was a really smart take on how it happens, and I definitely don’t want people to think I’m comparing us to Priscilla and Elvis in any stretch of the imagination.
But she wasn’t a famous sex symbol in her own right. Has Blake written back about the millions of guys who have a crush on you?
Oh! [Laughs.] I don’t think so! [Laughs.] I didn’t think about it that way. I think what’s so secure about our relationship is all that stuff makes us stronger. It does the opposite of probably what they want it to do, to tear us apart. It makes us laugh together about it, because we don’t… it’s such a far stretch, these stories that we say. We’re so solid. It seems like the more successful we are, the more solid we get, because we have to pull together. And we have everything in common. I think that’s one reason we pulled together in the first place, because we did the same things. We did it.
Has being married made it easier or harder to write songs about relationships?
I think it’s made it maybe easier, because even though I’m happy, I can still write sad songs. I can put myself in a place for a minute to write about not being happy. But it’s different songs than it used to be, you know? This whole record is in a different place than my second record, because I’m going through different things, different kinds of relationship problems. Back in the day, I would’ve written about cheating boyfriends, burning their house down. And now I’m singing songs like “Priscilla,” because problems change as you get older.
Did you ever end up burning anything—
That’s why I write about it. So I don’t actually have to get arrested and go to jail. [Laughs.]
This is your hardest-rocking solo album since Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. What rock bands are you a fan of? “Somethin’ Bad” sounds like Aerosmith.
I love Aerosmith. I’m way behind the times — like, I’m just discovering classic rock. I grew up loving country music, literally. And Creedence Clearwater Revival. My dad introduced me to them early on, but that was the only thing, and Lynyrd Skynyrd obviously. But I feel like I’m just discovering different rock, and I started doing a Bob Seger song this last tour. Even though it’s old, and everyone’s heard it a million times, it’s still new to me, and everyone’s like, “Dude, they’ve been popular since the ’60s.”
What else do you listen to that would surprise people?
You know, I’m actually a huge fan of Audioslave, which I don’t think anyone would associate with me, but that’s one of my favorites. The lyrics are great, and the singing is amazing. And everyone knows I’m a big fan of Beyoncé. I’m kind of open to anything.
The longer you’ve been in the public eye, the more you’ve sung about women’s pressure to look good, in “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” and now “Bathroom Sink.” [“It’s amazing the amount of rejection I see in my reflection.”] But I like that someone doesn’t have to be famous to relate to those songs.
Yeah, that’s just girl problems in general. It’s definitely more pressure on women, and we put so much pressure on ourselves to look a certain way, to look like other women. It’s hard; some days you do feel beautiful, and then someone will knock you down with a mean comment. It’s exhausting. Weight issues, fake lashes and tanning, and all the stuff that goes into just going out into public sometimes. I wish I could just not do it for a day and see what happens. A lot of the girls I’ve played the record for really relate to “Bathroom Sink,” and “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on the Annies record, because it’s so real, because we all go through it.
You’ve also been on TV on and off throughout your career — do you think that makes it harder? Would you recommend that to anyone who wants to make it as a singer these days?
Television? It’s not forgiving for sure. But I think it’s good for you, because it’s really… I definitely don’t know how actresses do it, it’s so much pressure. But the little stuff I’ve done here and there, just doing award shows and all that, it’s really good for you, because it pushes you. Live television and award shows, that’s where I get the most nervous, because that’s how you separate the voice from the myth.
Do you perform better onstage when you have that kind of pressure, or are you more at home in the studio?
Live shows are where I thrive, I think, on the road doing live shows. You think all this time doing these huge, huge amphitheater shows and stadiums is where you want to be, and it’s amazing how all these ticket sales have been, and then my husband just did a little bar tour, and I’m pretty jealous of that. Just going back home for a few minutes, back where you started, to play for 500 people, it’s appealing, too. To take the pressure off for five minutes and just do something in a honky tonk for fun like you were when you were 18. I think it’s good to have both.
Did you have any idea that Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels would be as successful as it was? Were there even plans to do a second album?
You know what, it’s a fun project. It just goes as it goes. Everybody’s an individual artist on their own, so it was interesting to try and schedule everybody together, to even do a record. But the magic when we were in the room together, three girls, was undeniable, so we had to do it. Every time we were together, we’d just write more songs and more songs, so a second record [2013’s Annie Up] was just like… we had to. There was no option of not doing a second record.
Is it the first band that you’ve ever been in?
[Pause.] Yeah, absolutely.
How do you decide which songs you’re going to save for Pistol Annies, and which you’re going to keep for yourself?
It kind of spoke for itself. Pistol Annies have a whole different sound than I do — it’s kind of a honky tonk sound, more than the little bit of rockage than I have on my own stuff, so as we’d write songs, they’d sort of speak for themselves. And also the other girls, there were just songs like, “That sounds like Ashley,” “That sounds like Angaleena.” As we wrote them, they would find their home.
When’s Angaleena’s album going to drop?
Actually, I don’t know. I haven’t heard exactly when, and I know that Ashley’s been working on some new stuff. So everybody… there’s music everywhere. [Laughs.]
Were you surprised that “All Kinds of Kinds” on your last album didn’t generate more controversy? It’s the most positive portrayal of cross-dressing that I think country’s ever had.
Yeah, it’s pretty crazy that country radio embraced cross-dressing and played it on the radio. It’s fricking awesome, actually. [Laughs.] I think it’s really cool that that song was able to be a single. I love that song — it really came at a good time in my life. I had to just sort of come to this realization that it was all about being who you are, no matter what you are about, where you come from, what color you are, or if you’re gay or straight, or whatever it is. I was just getting to that point in my life where I was starting to accept people for who they are, and myself.
Did anyone give you any flack for it?
No! I never heard one negative comment. It was all positive.
That’s amazing. Why do you think country radio took so long to embrace you, and takes so long for women singers in general to get on there?
I’m not really sure why. I just know that once you’re in, you’re finally in. And I’m very thankful for that. But it is harder for girls — we have to work a little extra to get our foot in the door, and to hold onto the spot that we’ve carved out for ourselves. But I think that’s good — it makes us stronger, it makes us work harder and pushes us. I really am so thankful for all the time and effort I’ve put into building great relationships at country radio, because it all paid off now. I think once people understood what I was about and got me as an artist, they embraced it.
It’s a shame though about the strict genre boundaries on radio, because so many of your songs would sound great after, like, Aerosmith on a classic rock station or something.
I don’t know why. I always say my records are my records, I don’t ever want to do a remix to try to cross over to whatever station. I would love to be played on any kind of station, but it what it is, so here it is, and whoever wants to play it, great.
Have you ever been asked to collaborate outside your genre?
I haven’t so far, I’ve talked about it with other artists, but I think it would be great. In country, there’s a lot of collaborations going on, but as far as breaking out, I think we’re just starting to do that more.
Do you usually choose songs because they’re about people just like you that you relate to? Or do you ever sing as characters that aren’t like you at all?
When I’m looking for songs that I didn’t write, I always lean toward stuff that I don’t think I could’ve written, that I wish I would have, but it pisses me off that I didn’t. [Laughs.]
Is there a song that you’re proudest that you wrote yourself?
I have a couple. “Dead Flowers” is one of them — it was a single for about five minutes, and then they pulled it, I don’t know what happened with that whole deal. And then there’s also one called “Love Looking for You” on the first record [2005’s Kerosene], and I’ve always been really proud of that one lyrically, cause I was only, like, 18 when I wrote it, and it took me a few years to really understand it myself. It was one of those songs that kind of came out of me, and then I had to go back to really understand it, but I’m proud of that one.
You touched on domestic abuse in songs like “Gunpowder & Lead” and eventually appeared on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit as a rape victim. Do you think a lot of people aren’t aware of the seriousness of those issues?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say I’m a huge… I’m aware of it myself, and a story like “Gunpowder & Lead,” it came from a real place. When I was younger, my parents took in abused women and children, and their kids, to live with us from time to time, and I saw firsthand what abuse can do to a family, multiple times. That song is from a real place — it’s not just a girl writing about something where she has no idea what the subject is about. I wrote it with a girl who experienced abuse herself. It’s a real thing to have people come up to me at meet-and-greets and say, “‘Gunpowder & Lead’ saved my life,” and tell me their story, so I do think I’m trying to create awareness, and not in a preachy way.
I don’t think it comes off that way at all.
I think later on, when I slow down a little bit, I’d like to create more awareness about it, because it is very serious. And I can’t tell you how much it means to me… you can have millions of ticket sales and awards and records sold and whatever, but when somebody tells you a record saved their life…that’s why I do this.
Do you think the industry should stop giving people like Chris Brown or Glen Campbell chances, and, like, spots at award shows?
I just think they shouldn’t be celebrated. We can forgive people if they legitimately apologize — everyone makes stupid mistakes when they’re young and doing stupid shit — but we shouldn’t celebrate them and lift them up. It sends such a bad message when on the other side, the women act like it’s no big deal, because it is a big deal, and that sends a horrible message to young fans and young women that they won’t do it again. Because they will do it again.
A lot of the songs on Platinum concern time and getting older. I turn 30 next year. Do you have any advice for me?
Yeah, I just turned 30! I’m actually really excited to be 30 — I’m looking forward to getting smarter. [Laughs.] In your twenties, you’re kind of running around trying to figure out who you are and screaming out, “Listen to me, I have something to say!” So all of this reflection on my record, it’s in a positive way, trying to learn more about myself. I didn’t do anything for my 30th birthday — I literally sat home with my husband, and we had dinner, and I think it’s an indication of how my thirties will go.