There are different masks we all wear that represent different sides of ourselves. None are solely us on their own and yet they all are. There’s the lonely girl – the blissful girl – the new wife – the daughter missing her mother – the hopeful girl – the selfish girl – the sarcastic, hair-sprayed, rhinestoned Texan – the shy girl, the life of the party – the winner and the loser… They are all characters on this record. None of them alone are me, and yet they all are. The golden hour is when all the masks come together as one and you can see, in perfect light, the whole picture of me.
In early 2016, when Kacey Musgraves finally set some time aside to start writing again, she was in a confused place. When she broke through in 2013 with Same Trailer, Different Park she was instantly recognized as one of music’s most original new voices in years; she was named “New Artist of the Year” by the Country Music Association and awarded both Best Country Song and Best Country Album at the Grammys, as well as an Academy of Country Music trophy for Best Album. Her 2015 follow-up, Pageant Material, also reached Number One on the charts, and received another batch of accolades and award nominations.
But now she was frustrated, unsure which road she wanted to take…what she wanted to say or how she wanted it to sound. And then, just as soon as she got off the road, slowed down, and began to re-focus on simply enjoying being creative again, she met singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly—who has since become her husband.
“Almost immediately, I could feel a metamorphosis happening,” Musgraves says. “I was feeling genuinely happy for the first time in a long time, and it started pouring out in ideas and songs. I had never really written a ‘love song’ and felt sincere about it. Now for the first time, I had that perspective, and it didn’t feel cheesy or contrived.”
The journey that she took is chronicled in Golden Hour, her third album (in addition to 2016’s acclaimed A Very Kacey Christmas, a Top Ten hit on the Holiday charts). It marks a more personal, emotional chapter for a songwriter who has been celebrated for her piercing observations and finely-hewn storytelling.
“I had a different mindset this time, which was feeling rather than thinking— leading heart first, rather than brain first,” she says. “I’ve always been known for my turns of phrase, for being clever, but you can wear that out at a certain point, so what other side am I inspired to show?
“It’s a little scary, because I don’t want my music to come across any less biting or smart. But I think there’s another strength that comes from leaving more up to the listener and painting with other colors—not being so linear all the time.”
The sole example of her previous life on the new album comes with the confidently lonely “Space Cowboy,” in which she sings “..though we had our day in the sun, when a horse wants to run there ain’t no sense in closin’ the gate…you can have your space, cowboy.” It marks Musgraves closing a door, making peace with a certain part of her life—“it’s the only song that goes back to where my mind was at before I met my husband.”
The transition to her new phase came with the sparse, dreamy “Butterflies,” written with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird. “I had the imagery come to me, but I didn’t yet know what it would be,” says Musgraves. “And then I started seeing butterflies everywhere, they started following me…a medium even randomly told me that my grandmother’s spirit shows itself in the form of a yellow butterfly. So that has really become a metaphor for this time period and this record as a whole.”
In this window of creative exploration, she tried working with a couple of friends, Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian—guys she had known for quite a while, but had never actually written with. Together they came up with “Oh, What a World,” which she describes as “a magical song, all about the real and beautiful things in this world, and being enamored with them as well as the person I’m singing to. It’s a song that wrangles with bigger questions about reincarnation and how we all got here on this planet.”
Notably, they constructed a sound for “Oh, What a World” that combined Vocoder, banjo, and classic pedal steel. “I had this vision of futurism meeting tradition—space country, galactic/cosmic country—where those instruments could live together as a guiding tone for the record. Organic meeting non-organic in a very authentic way,” she says.
Golden Hour offers a strikingly new musical direction for Musgraves, with inspirations ranging from Neil Young to Sade, even dipping lightly into disco land on “High Horse” (“I was on a huge Bee Gees kick,” she explains).
“You won’t find anybody on this earth more inspired by traditional country music more than me,” she says, “but there are all these other facets of music that inspire me, too. I was wondering what it would sound like if those influences could live cohesively. I could still have banjos and steel guitar, but I want to connect with people outside of country music, as well.”
Excited by the collaboration with Fitchuk and Tashian, they started making demo recordings together and she committed to producing the album with them. Golden Hour was recorded mostly live at Sheryl Crow’s home studio, which is in an actual horse barn. “Sheryl graciously let us come in and set up house,” says Musgraves. “It feels like a sanctuary, tucked away in the woods, away from Music Row and the whole 9-to-5 mentality of the industry. We were around these beautiful horses and on breaks we would go down and play with them or ride—it really set the tone for the project. It made me feel very grounded.”
The songs explore a spectrum of feelings and experiences. The album opens with “Slow Burn,” which Musgraves calls “one of my most autobiographical songs, a personal look inside myself and a snapshot of where I’m at in this chapter.” She notes that “Lonely Weekend” is inspired by feelings she says she has experienced as a byproduct of touring for a living and being gone all the time. ”It’s an anthem for loners, homebodies like me,” she says. “I’m fine being by myself, I’ve learned how to enjoy that as I get older.”
“Mother” came about when her mom texted her a picture of her hands while Musgraves was at home on an LSD trip (“The number of times I’ve done psychedelics hasn’t been astronomical, but those times have always been profoundly eye-opening for me,” she says). Overcome by emotion and love, and thinking about the cycle of mothers and children, she wrote the song and “bawled my eyes out.” She recorded the song live, with only a simple piano accompaniment. “It has flaws I had to come to terms with, because I’m a perfectionist to a fault,” she says. “But it’s a moment on the record that I’m really proud of—art isn’t supposed to be totally perfect.”
A similarly intimate track is the final song on Golden Hour. Musgraves wrote “Rainbow” five years ago, and played it at her grandmother’s funeral. At the last minute, it filled in a piece she felt was missing on the album. “I had all these groovy songs with a positive outlook on love,” she says. “I had the irreverent, fuck-you moment with ‘High Horse, and the crunch of ‘Velvet Elvis,’ but I needed a hopeful moment. Something that speaks to myself and any person struggling with whatever they’re going through—and I was thinking especially of LGBTQ youth.”
With Golden Hour, one of pop music’s greatest young talents takes a powerful step, broadening her range, expanding her canvas, creating new possibilities. “I’ve always been a commentator on society and the human race,” says Kacey Musgraves. “With what’s going on politically and socially, it’s a really scary time, and it could be easy to focus on the negative aspects and lean too hard on the things we all want to see change. But it was also important to me to inject some hope, love, and color with this music. My life right now has allowed me to see the magic in the world.”