Country singer/songwriter Chely Wright came out publicly in 2010 after topping the charts with hits including “Shut Up and Drive” and “Single White Female.” She then made a moving documentary, “Wish Me Away,” about her struggles with coming out, and published her autobiography, “Like Me.”
Last year, Wright released her first studio album in six years, “I Am the Rain,” produced by Joe Henry. It’s a fantastic showcase for her voice, which has become stronger, and more confident, perhaps as a result of her coming out.
Wright will perform “Story and Song” at the Rrazz Room in New Hope this weekend. PGN chatted with the performer about her songs, stories and her upcoming show.
PGN: “I Am the Rain” is your first new work since you came out. Can you describe your approach to the album?
CW: This record is leaps and bounds from what I’ve done before. Joe Henry’s process is very different from how I make records, which is go in, track it and do vocals. Joe records music in the immediacy and the urgency of the moment. The players and artist know they have to bring their A-game. It’s terrifying to know that if the band got their take, that’s your record. It’s sobering. You hear about people in car wrecks lifting the car off their child with superhuman strength; I liken that to working with Joe. Maybe it’s adrenaline, or fear of every musical dream bubbling up and crawling out of your throat. I could find 100 vocal mistakes on this record that I couldn’t on my others, but they set off the other great moments vocally. They shine a light on the moment. When you listen to a record Joe Henry makes, the throughline is that he’s trying to reflect a musical moment, a snapshot of humanity.
PGN: “Inside,” the opening track on “I Am the Rain,” is a beautiful, confident, inspirational song. Can you talk about your inspiration for writing it?
CW: I wrote it as a lullaby to myself. I wrote it at a time when you feel either really big in the world or crushed by your smallness. I was terrified being the speck of dust in the world. I was trying to find that bigness … I hope you hear confidence, but also the emotional vulnerability. I think for the first time in my life I made a record that possesses all of that, and holds up the strength and vulnerability and yearning and some intrigue.
PGN: Can you talk about two “story” songs: Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” which is a love song, and “Mexico,” a wonderful ditty about a straight truck-stop waitress?
CW: Joe Henry asked if I would be open to doing a cover. [Dylan’s] recording was much different than mine. It’s not a same-sex love song; it was me interpreting a Bob Dylan song and not changing the pronoun, because, well, who’s gayer than me? I can leave the lyric the way it is. It’s about the song first. With “Mexico,” I’m looking at this waitress in a truck stop. Truck stops are magical places: You can buy an engagement ring, a pair of roller skates and an Easter basket. I would end up at these diners and just watch these ladies, and they were always the wisest ones in the room.
PGN: Your soulful track, “Pain,” has a lyric about “my own dark little secret.” Was that cathartic or, pardon the obvious, painful to write?
CW: That one really fell out of the guitar. I wrote it on a guitar that belonged to Dolly Parton. I got this guitar Porter Wagoner gave me 25 years ago. I opened it up, tuned it up and if the song is four minutes, it took me four-and-a-half minutes to write it. Was it painful? It was like I was working out in the yard all day mulching and then taking a really great shower. It’s like when you have a pain, and the doctor finally tells you what’s wrong. There’s a huge relief in that. That’s why I felt so cleansed and relieved. The pain and I were having a standoff. I lanced the boil. There was a huge liberation.
PGN: How has your place in the country-music industry changed since you came out?
CW: It’s hard to say. I know what happened when I came out: the nasty mail and the silence in my industry. That, in and of itself, is the litmus test. That was a referendum on the state of country music. I don’t know that I’m qualified to say how it affected my career. I had my eye on the track artists to be like Roseanne Cash, who parlayed commercial success into Americana. It wasn’t that I tried to stay in country music when I came out. I didn’t try to release a single when I came out. It’s less quiet about gay issues in country music now. I hold that into the light. I may have been a little part of that, and I like that. I know the gumption it took. I had to dig for it a long time. I’m proud of the way I came out.
PGN: What is your process for finding a song and finding the way to perform it?
CW: I think life is the creative process. For me, early on when I was a songwriter, I would pop into the office of legendary songwriters and try to extract secrets of their process. What I learned is living is the process: getting married, getting divorced, losing a child, getting arrested, etc. — paying attention and marking the process. Look at the songs that are your favorite, or that shape your musical taste. They are the soundtrack of your life, and they are about everyday things. The songs that stand the test of time for me come from my observation of the day. I’m a curious person. When I meet someone, it’s not that I’m trying to get a song out of them, but I’m interested in them.
PGN: What music do you like to listen to?
CW: Well, I don’t think that people would be surprised to learn I love bluegrass. I like a little of everything. I go into phases. I listen to bluegrass and rock on Etta James. Music is intriguing to me. When I go to the Middle East, the tones you hear in the middle of the morning are very different, and they hypnotize me. It’s spiritual for me. There are parts of that music I don’t understand.
PGN: What can audiences expect from seeing you perform?
CW: We’re calling the tour “Story and Song” because people love stories. The older I get, the more settled into my body of work I am. People are not coming to hear me be Adele; they are coming to hear me take them on a ride. It’s been fun to tell stories I haven’t told before — things like Dolly’s guitar. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll sing songs and tell how they happened.
Chely Wright will perform 8 p.m. July 28 at the Rrazz Room, 6426 Lower York Road, New Hope. For more information, visit www.chely.com.
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