Maines recorded six or seven songs before she told anyone, even her manager, that she just might be at work on an actual album. "I was afraid of anyone hearing about it," she says. "I didn’t want anyone to have any expectations."
Any expectations that listeners might have, though, will likely be shattered when they listen to MOTHER, the first solo effort in Natalie Maines's storied career. As a member of the Dixie Chicks—the best-selling female group of all time—she has sold over 30 million albums and won 13 Grammy awards. But the ten songs on MOTHER reveal different sides of one of the most acclaimed voices of our time.
"I wanted this music to be very different from the Dixie Chicks," she says. "Lots of albums by lead singers might just as well have been made by the band, but I think this is very different from anything the Chicks could make. That separation and distinction was important."
Maines knew that she didn't want to record conventional country songs, but she wasn't clear what direction her new recordings might take. Crucial to the more rock-based, edgy and intense sound of MOTHER was the input of Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and guitar wizard Ben Harper, who co-produced the record with Maines and wrote or co-wrote three of the songs.
"I’ve always been a fan of Ben’s instrumentation," says Maines. "As the daughter of a steel guitar player, I’m drawn to his playing, and to his band’s sound. As we started to work together, we fit together as a band and gelled, we had fun, and it all felt very organic."
Since the release of the Dixie Chicks' triumphant Taking the Long Way in 2006, Maines has concentrated on raising her two children, returning to the studio only for such occasional sessions as duets with Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond or her version of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" for the HBO series Big Love. So last spring, when Harper invited her to sing on a hard-charging rocker called "Trained," she didn't realize that she was starting the next chapter of her musical life.
The first collaboration they attempted in earnest was another composition by Harper and his band, a heart-wrenching junkie's lament called "Vein in Vain," which Maines says she was "a little hesitant" to take on. "It felt very masculine, and I wasn’t sold that I should be singing it," she says, "so we rewrote and rearranged it a bit until it felt comfortable."
One of the initial songs they tackled was the soaring, tortured ballad from Pink Floyd's The Wall that ultimately gave this album its title. Maines went to Roger Waters's concert in Los Angeles, and she reacted to the familiar song in a new way. "I had heard 'Mother' my whole life, but that night it struck me differently," she says. "I heard how I could do the song; I could hear an original idea for a woman singing it. and how it would take on different meanings.
As the sessions went on, Maines was learning more about herself and her work, especially as a producer. "It always felt good when the Dixie Chicks would make a decision, because if we agreed, then it was right," she says. "It was more difficult to depend on myself, but I got used to being the boss and being artistically in charge—it was liberating but scary. You really have to pay attention to every step of the process, you can never check out mentally at any point, so I had to be a lot more focused and available. And I realized that I write a lot more of the music than I ever knew, I’d sing the musicians their solos. I wish I could play an instrument,” she adds with a laugh, “because I’d be awesome!"
As distinct as the new music is from the music of her past, some of the songs on MOTHER do inevitably link back to her remarkable history. "Silver Bell" was written by one of her long-time favorite songwriters. "I secretly wish I was Patty Griffin," says Maines. "I couldn’t do a whole album of her songs, so I had to pick one." And the songwriting credits on "Come Cryin' to Me" reveal that even her fellow Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison still kept a hand in the new project. "That was a song we decided was too rock for Taking the Long Way," Maines explains, "but it really felt right to have a piece of them on here."