Interview: For Natalie Hemby, the Long Road to ‘Puxico’ Was Worth It
For years, Natalie Hemby dreamed of being an artist. At the age of 19, she signed a publishing deal, intending to leverage it into a record deal -- and although she still has the paperwork from a deal she almost signed, nothing ever panned out.
"I had always wanted to be an artist, but I was trying to be an artist in [the late '90s and early 2000s], a time where so many music formats were changing," Hemby tells The Boot. "At first it was very disheartening, but after a while ... it was sort of like, 'You know what? It's time to let this go.'"
So, she gave up. Hemby took a job in marketing ("which was hilarious, but I learned a lot," she admits) ... but knew that she still wanted to be writing songs. Fortunately, her husband, Mike Wrucke, was working with an at-the-time-new artist, Miranda Lambert, who asked Hemby to write with her.
"At first I thought she was just being nice," Hemby recalls, but the two got together for a songwriting session and, in two sittings, penned "White Liar," "Only Prettier" and more songs for Lambert's third studio album, 2009's Revolution. Things spiraled from there; cuts by Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town and many more followed, as did a Grammys nomination, a CMA nod and an ACM win for Lambert's "Automatic."
Occasionally, friends would tell Hemby that she should put out a record of her own, and she'd brush off the idea, "not because I didn't want to, really, but because I was just being realistic;" however, she continued to see friends (Maren Morris and Brandy Clark among them) release projects, "and I have loved watching people be cued into how amazing they are."
Hemby was also working on bringing a different idea to life: a documentary about the homecoming celebration in her grandfather's town of Puxico, Mo.
"If anyone ever wants to do a documentary, I would highly recommend that they make sure they really want to do one, because it's very time consuming and it's very costly," she confesses, "but am I happy I did it? Absolutely."
After holding onto the idea for years, Hemby spent five years putting the film together, and wrote all of the music for it. And on Friday (Jan. 13), she released the documentary's 10 songs as her first album, Puxico; enough friends had asked her for copies of the music that she finally decided they were onto something.
"I think, over time, it was just one of those things where I came to realize, 'This is my first record; this is it,'" Hemby says. "Because this is who I am ... this is the most tender part of my soul, and I'm about to show everybody what I'm really about."
When someone would ask Hemby about pitching another artist on one of her Puxico songs, she'd shrug it off, thinking, "I mean, yeah, it would work for them ... but these are my songs."
"I wanted a shot for it to come from me," she adds. "And not that some artist couldn't take these songs and make them their own and make them huge or something -- I have no idea -- but all I knew is, these were my songs."
Indeed, they are. Although Puxico isn't Hemby's hometown, she's visited at least yearly since she was a child -- and although she never intended to make Puxico the documentary about herself, its story is told through her eyes, and, therefore, its soundtrack is, too.
"If I can keep a small town alive, if I can keep the homecoming alive, hopefully I can always keep my grandfather alive," Hemby explains of the impetus for the film (Grandpa George, by the way, is still alive, and his granddaughter says he loves the attention the documentary has brought). "It took me a while to get to that understanding of why I did the film. And then, from that, came the music."
Hemby is now 39; she'll turn 40 in March. It took her two decades to release that album she was so keen on -- but she doesn't regret it.
"I am so grateful," she reflects. "Back then, they were giving big record deals, and when you signed these record deals, you were a product of that time ... This has allowed me to put out music that I love, and it might not be commercially sound, but ... I get to put out the music that I want to put out. I don't know if I could have done that if I signed a huge record deal back in the '90s, when I was 20 years old ...
"A lot of things are unsuccessful because they're not authentic," Hemby adds. "I think authenticity is winning a little bit more these days, which is great."
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