Country’s brightest new voice discusses her first rock record, her love of Liz Phair, and why country singers deal with so much drama
The best make it sound easy, which is why a Kalie Shorr missive about wearing her ex’s engagement ring on her middle finger leaves you wondering how you’ve never heard that one before.
That’s not to say she doesn’t borrow from the best; her incredible new EP’s “Amy” recycles the “wasn’t over you when you were under him” trope from Dua Lipa’s smash “New Rules.” The 27-year-old firebrand first made waves after relocating to Nashville from Maine with her anthemic single “Fight Like a Girl” in 2016 before co-founding the Song Suffragettes collective of women songwriters, and breaking through critically in 2019 with the astonishing Open Book.
That bullseye won plaudits from New York Times, Stereogum and Robert Christgau for one-upping Taylor Swift with rawer confessionals about her “Vices” amid big walls of Sunny Day Real Estate-influenced guitar on a lighter-waving behemoth like “The One.” To the surprise of no one, the follow-up is I Got Here by Accident, a Butch Walker-produced (Pink, Fall Out Boy) EP that dispenses with country altogether for five shiny bangers more akin to Charly Bliss or Carly Rae Jepsen than Pistol Annies. She spoke to Rock and Roll Globe via phone about, among other things, her ADHD, swearing at all-ages shows, and being stuck between genres.
Once in a while we hear a musician that blows us away and we can’t figure out why they’re not more famous. For me, that’s you. I’m curious what you view as the ultimate success for yourself.
I think my ultimate goal where I can die happy is if I play SNL. I always stayed up late watching it when I was a little kid and it’s such a benchmark for any artist’s career. You can be huge and never play SNL, or you can be Margo Price with 10,000 followers the first time you play and then you blow up. I think the people who book it just curate it so well and there have been so many iconic moments. My favorite one recently, I thought Olivia Rodrigo did so great, especially considering these are, like, her first shows ever.
VIDEO: Olivia Rodrigo performs “good 4 u” live on SNL
So what do you view as the obstacles to that?
Ooh, there are so many. The biggest one I’m dealing with right now, I’ve always done music that’s ‘90s rock-influenced, but this is the first time I’ve ever not called it country. I wanted to be honest; I didn’t want to just smack a label on it when it wasn’t. And it’s not like a grand exit from the genre, it’s just ‘Hey, I made this EP that didn’t really have any twang to it.’ Deciding what to classify it as was a very long conversation. I always think genre is just a Dewey Decimal System for record labels. There’s a defined alternative space and a defined country space, and it’s difficult because I’m in between the two and can get some support from either but not all the way. I’ve felt in-between in a million different ways in my entire life so…. people don’t know where to put me, but I don’t know how to make music other than this. If it was more one way or the other it wouldn’t be honest and that’s the most important thing to me.
What came first, writing these straight-up power-pop songs or deciding to work with Butch Walker?
I wrote all of them with Nashville vets who have done that whole scene and they’re excited to be able to get out of that songwriting rut with the country checklist songs. “Did you mention beer? Did you mention tailgating? A sundress?” When I came in with these songs, they started to take shape and speak for themselves. But when I started talking to Butch about pre-production and the instrumentation we were gonna use, I was like, I don’t want to bastardize the banjo. I don’t want put it on a rock song just so I can classify it as country. That would be disrespectful. I think people insult their audience a lot, in the sense that they don’t think they’ll notice. It was sort of a no-brainer, but I think part of my team was holding onto the country thing like, “I think you shoulddd…” and I was like, “Eee, well I’m nottt…”
Is it harder to make a concise rock song than a country one?
Well, the checklist is for a country radio song, which I consider to be almost its own subgenre. People act like Jason Isbell or Kacey Musgraves are the subgenre and they’re not, it’s country radio that is. Because it’s so wildly specific, it’s so narrow, you’re writing about the same things, that’s kind of the definition of a subgenre. When I go out to L.A. and tell people you’re from Nashville they’re like, “I love Kacey Musgraves,” because that’s who’s representing Nashville to the world, and not whomever on a major label put on a baseball hat who’s singing about the same old stuff. I could have a number-one song on country radio with some artist and mention it to people in L.A. and they wouldn’t know who I was talking about, like “Oh cool, some dude named Luke Josh something…” [Laughs.]
The country I listen to is not that far off from how a rock song’s composed. That’s gone back forever from the White Stripes covering “Jolene” to Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails. When you hear them stripped down…I mean “Old Town Road” is a great example, I love that song. And to further my point, Lil Nas X just covered “Jolene” for BBC Radio 1. When you break all these songs down acoustic, they sound country just because of how tightly woven they are.
And I really like the challenge of trying to fit everything I have to say into three minutes and ten seconds. Anybody can get their point across in a six-minute, self-indulgent indie-pop song because you have the space. But if you really challenge yourself, it makes you not put anything into the song that doesn’t need to be there. I would say the same thing for a lot of the rock music I was influenced by, especially Liz Phair, her songs are so concise and cutting, and Alanis Morissette, there’s not any filler in there. It’s not that a six-minute song can’t be well-written — hello, “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift — but it’s so rare that a topic needs six minutes.
VIDEO: Lil Nas X covers “Jolene” on BBC 1
The new songs especially have such a setup-and-punchline structure. Do you have to take more poetic license in order to make everything work? It’s almost hard to believe that a song as airtight as “I Heard You Got a Girl” came from a real breakup.
We had so much fun writing that; I remember we were just so pumped to be able to get “insatiable” and “placate” into one sentence. I’m a big word nerd and the people I write with are as well; I tweeted the other day that my favorite word is “loquacious” because you have to be it in order to understand it. [Laughs.] I think it was a Tom Robbin quote — he’s one of my favorite authors — where he said, “There’s no such thing as a synonym.”
That’s why I love co-writing as well, I actually think it has a lot to do with…because I love writing by myself and I’ve written some great songs by myself. It’s not that I can’t, it’s that I love the process of co-writing. I think it’s because I have ADHD with the massive dopamine deficiency. The immediate feedback you get when you put out a good line and the people in the room freak out over it, that feels so much better than when I write a good line in a song I wrote by myself and I’m like “I think this is good, but I’d rather wait for someone else to tell me that it’s good.” I get so energized by all these tiny pings about writing a song, and then you get the big hit of dopamine.
I also have ADHD and Liz Phair is my all-time fave so you’re just touching on so many reference points before I even get to mention them. That probably explains why I connect so much with your music.
[Phair’s] vocabulary is amazing too.
There’s this casualness to her delivery where the words just all kind of glide together in this unforced way despite these unusual chord progressions she writes to.
I also like her use of profanity as well, have you read her memoir?
I love the title Horror Stories, but it’s so good because she’s kind of shitty a lot of the time! When she tells a story, there’s certain times she’s the bad guy, and she should be unlikable, but she’s not because of how self-aware and real she is. People don’t want a perfect protagonist, they want someone they can see themselves in. [The book] made her songs make so much sense. Like, “Why Can’t I?” is about cheating. And the line in “Polyester Bride” where it’s like, “Should I bother dating unfamous men?” That’s such a douchey thing to say. [Laughs.] But I wonder if she should?
VIDEO: Liz Phair “Polyester Bride”
Such a great line. Being unafraid to put the uglier things about yourself into your own fucking memoir.
You don’t always have to do, like, [mocking voice] “self-love,” for people to get you. There’s more self-deprecating things on my album Open Book, because that’s where I was. The new one is more telling stories. But back to the poetic license thing. [Laughs.] See, I always remember, I just need a second to get back.
That’s the difference between you and me.
[Laughs.] Well, I try really hard! Poetic license, I don’t really do. Songs like “Amy” are pretty fucking brutal, so I don’t want to put in something that’s inaccurate when I’m roasting somebody. If I’m writing a song and it’s mean and it’s angry and it’s calling something out… most people in my circle know who I was talking about, so if I’m gonna expose this person, I better be telling the truth. There are actually several things I left out even though they were true, like let’s say their mom hears the song and they…don’t need to know that they did that. When the truth is that messy, why would I need to exaggerate?
So country singers are really as cheated on as they make themselves out to be?
I think we probably are because, Taylor Swift, for example, you’re like “How does she manage to have all these crazy relationships?” Well, we date creatives, we have fast-paced, super-demanding jobs. That’s just a recipe for personal life disaster. Taylor Swift was dating Harry Styles, it’s two superstars with larger-than-life personalities, drama is bound to ensue. I don’t even think you’re unlucky in love when you’re an artist, it’s just almost impossible to make a relationship work when you’re in the music industry. “Amy” was another artist, the guy we were dating was a creative. Theatrical people lean into the drama a little bit, myself included. So of course we’re always gonna get ridiculous. Everyone Taylor Swift is writing a song about and herself, and everyone I’m writing a song about and myself, we all think that we’re the main character. So of course shit’s gonna happen. [Laughs hysterically.]
VIDEO: Kalie Shorr “Love Child”
“Love Child,” my favorite, was obviously more personal. It felt like you put a few different phases into writing that one.
I think I recycled two lines from older songs for it as well, so it’s just so funny that you’d pick up on that, because nobody else has. It definitely encapsulates a lot of different time periods and it’s very chronological. That was actually the first song I wrote post-COVID, in person, in my friend’s backyard. It was so amazing to not be staring at a screen and we were just so elated to be there with each other. I missed that human connection so much, so the fact we got such a special song was just so incredible.
Another thing that stopped me was when you mentioned your meds on “Gatsby.” It feels especially rare for country to address mental health in song.
That song was terrifying to play live for the first time. One of my biggest insecurities is playing for an audience that’s like, not there to see me or don’t know what they’re getting into, because they get upset over the F-word. Usually I’ll say “Hey if there’s any kids, now’s a great time to take a bathroom break…”
Before “F U Forever,” basically.
Yeah, exactly! [Laughs.] I’ll meet little girls at the meet-and-greet after and their moms will be like, “I was raised on Alanis Morissette, your music doesn’t faze me.” But this girl from [Shorr’s collective of women songwriters] Song Suffragettes played this song that had the F-word in it, two people went up to the manager like, “we thought this was a family show.” And they didn’t even have any children with them!
One time I almost got fired from this venue because somebody gave me and Candi Carpenter a hundred dollars to play “WAP” and we did the radio edit version. This lady went up to the bar demanding that we be fired for singing such a vulgar song in front of her children and the kids knew all the words. We couldn’t come into work the next day because they had to make this woman think that we were fired.
So with “Gatsby,” I was so scared to play it the first time, but after I played it, there was this group of boomer women who looked kind of Karen-y and they were elbowing each other, like, “Oh my god, she takes antidepressants, too, Sheryl!”
“F U Forever” has one of your most amazing bits, about wearing the ex’s ring on your middle finger. Do you get scared when you come up with a line so good that you have to Google to make sure?
Oh yeah, I do that all the time.
Like “Dancing to the beat of a broken heart” in “Love Child,” how did Robyn not come up with that?
Robyn as in…
The Swedish pop singer.
I love her so much! “Be Mine” is one of my favorites, the acoustic version could be a country song. She influenced me so much when I was younger. I went to one of her concerts when I was 16 with my best friend and these gay guys kept buying us drinks all night. She’s so transcendent and free onstage.
But yeah, lots of Googling, lots of ideas where I’m checking if it hasn’t been written before. Candi had the idea for “F U Forever” for the longest time, about her divorce. She was like, I think we have to write this about you. She deserves all the credit for coming up with that genius idea.
Do you consider yourself a perfectionist?
I really don’t. I run so purely on instinct that I don’t like rewriting songs. Capitalizing on that energy. I don’t like when songwriting feels like work. It’s so rare that I want to go back and edit something ‘cause I just like to trust my first instinct. I wonder if it’s possible to be a control freak without being a perfectionist because I know that things aren’t going to be perfect. When it comes to, like, pictures of me, I just let other people pick them. Because I don’t really care and truthfully other people’s opinion of it matters more, they’re probably right, because they don’t have to look at my face every day. [Laughs.]
I try to pick the things that I micromanage and I don’t like to spend too much time on one thing. In my experience, when I’ve done that it just turned out to be a waste of time. You could end up not even cutting that song, so why waste all that time and energy when you could’ve just written another song?
VIDEO: Kalie Shorr “F U Forever”
You were one of the first people on my radar to announce you had COVID last spring, so how did that affect you and what you were doing?
I didn’t like Zoom writing, and some writers were looking at a screen for six hours straight, no breaks. It was like being a kid in school or a teacher. My eyes would hurt; I needed to wear blue light glasses because it was so exhausting. I have a threshold for how long I can look at a screen, so I found myself not watching TV or answering texts or anything because I was so tired from just working. Once I could write with people in person again, though, things just started pouring out. During the forced isolation, I said I was going to meditate or work out and I just didn’t. I just kind of drank alcohol and read books.
Was there ever any thought that you wanted this five-song rock EP to be a full album?
I’d always rather do a full album, especially the way Open Book worked out where I wanted to establish myself as an album artist. I think these stories specifically were really good for an EP, but I’m sure if I had a budget from my record label I would’ve figured it out. The next thing I do I’d really like to work towards an album.
Do you think that will be more in this rock lane or do you know where you’ll go from here?
I don’t. And I think I’m at the point where I’m about to figure it out. For me, everything clicks at once and then I go through a very manic writing period. I definitely think I’m going to record new stuff sooner rather than later, probably even sooner than I’m expecting to.
So were the songs from the “unabridged” version of Open Book originally intended to be on there? It’s unusually for the bonus tracks on a deluxe edition to be dispersed throughout the record.
They were quote unquote “chapters,” not to be corny. We already had 13 songs on that album which is a lot, but you don’t want to exhaust listeners. We had to pick and choose a little bit. So my number-one thing I wanted from Open Book was to do a deluxe edition.
The last thing I wanted to ask is what advice you have for a singer-songwriter moving to Nashville with all their savings and possessions?
I think if you just work hard and be nice it sounds so simple but people will want to help you. You can be the most talented singer on the planet and kind of lazy and also not be kind and no one’s going to want to help you. You might get to a certain level but you’ve got to be really talented for people to forgive you for being an asshole.
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