By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
"I put on our record the other day and said, 'Let me act like I'm not in this band and just listen,'" says Ashley Monroe of the Pistol Annies. "And every single song just felt great, every song had that 'chill factor' in some way. There's just something you gotta capture in a song, and I feel like we did it, like we've done a big thing."
The new album, titled "Annie Up," isn't the first big thing the Pistol Annies have done. When Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and platinum-selling powerhouse Miranda Lambert first launched the band in 2011, they tried to sneak in under the radar, initially making the "Hell on Heels" album available as a download only. But the response to the trio's plainspoken, rock-solid songwriting and irresistible harmonies was immediate: The album debuted at No. 1 on both the iTunes charts and the Billboard Country chart, and went on to win the Nashville Scene's Country Critics Poll and make the list of the year's best albums from Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
The Annies even picked up an unexpected cheerleader in Neil Young, who raved about the group in last year's memoir, "Waging Heavy Peace." "The music is really good!" he wrote. "I love the vibe these girls have! The way they talk about real things … I am loving this music because it's talking about a life that I can't see, kind of a mirage from the back country of the South."
But it's complicated to keep a band going when all of the members have their own careers. Lambert, of course, is the Academy of Country Music's reigning Female Vocalist of the Year; Monroe's acclaimed album "Like a Rose" was released in March; and Presley is a respected Nashville songwriter. So despite the success of "Hell on Heels," it was hard to know for sure whether the Pistol Annies could be an ongoing concern.
When they started working on songs for the follow-up, though, they found they had new sources and experiences to draw from. "We were on the road a lot, so the fans inspired our writing this time, seeing how they react to our performances," says Presley. "We thought about that when we were writing -- we thought, "It'll be cool to see boys singing 'It Ain't Pretty Being Pretty.'"
"Annie Up" delivers the rewards of great country songwriting: It's a collection of the working girl's blues, full of the humor and struggle of real life. The first single, "Hush Hush," is a raucous tale of denial in a dysfunctional family. The album often has an old-school, honky-tonk feel, complete with a lot of drinking -- sometimes for comic effect and sometimes, like in "Dear Sobriety," for the misery it can cause. The 12 songs, all written by the three Annies themselves, add up to a bold and deceptively complex portrait of modern young womanhood, from the power and pride of "Girls Like Us" to the domestic torment of "Trading One Heartbreak for Another."
Seated in a makeshift dressing room following a release-day performance on the "Today" show, the Annies finish one another's sentences and giggle even though they've been up since 4:30 a.m. ("We were mad because we have separate hotel rooms," says Lambert. "We wanted one big room together!") When they talk about the record, it's clear that while an all-girl band including one of today's biggest stars could easily be considered a novelty act, they don't look at the Pistol Annies as a side project or a distraction; it's a means for them to make music that truly is unlike anything out there today.
"When the music is good enough, it's what drives everything," says Lambert. "And we are tired as s--- sometimes, that's the bottom line, but it's worth it because when you see people singing your lyrics, that's what it's all about, that's what all the effort is for. To be able to be onstage and sing and have people sing back to you, that's what we love the most."
MSN Music: What can you do in the group that's different from what you do as solo artists?
Miranda Lambert: I think it gives each of us a little more looseness, a way to be a little more of a character than we would have confidence to be on our own. When you're together it's easier to be kitschy and fun than when you're by yourself trying to be serious. You feel a little more confident when your girlfriends have your back, whether it's writing or onstage or walking down the street.
Angaleena Presley: And we're all really big fans of each other's solo stuff, so it's like you have your own personal sounding board. You already love their music, so if they say it's good, it must be good, and if they say it's not, it must be dumb.
How does your writing process work? Do you mostly write together or separately?
Miranda Lambert: Somebody will usually bring a title or a melody, but sometimes we'll just sit in a room and don't plan on anything. It's different every time.
Ashley Monroe: But it's easy every time, too. We don't make writing appointments or say "OK, girls, we've got to write."
Angaleena Presley: We don't really labor over it, and that's a blessing.
You mentioned playing characters in the songs. Especially on some of the more honky-tonk moments, do you think you can get away with some things that you couldn't pull off on your own?
Miranda Lambert: We probably could do it by ourselves, but I don't think it would have the same punch. The fact that there's three of us standing in a wall saying it from three different perspectives gives it that extra push that gives it more force. If one of us did "Don't Talk About Him, Tina" or "Damn Thing" by ourselves, it just wouldn't have that extra kick in the ass.
I think that's the reason there is this band. We all could have done stuff on our own, and we do, but something was missing, and that's why these songs are here. That's why the band is still together and why it's working, because I think women can find their characters in each of us. All of our friends can relate to the stories that we have to tell.
Angaleena Presley: We all add to the songs, our personalities are in all them, so it would be weird to sing them and not see each do her part. The most important thing is that we still like each other -- our producer was like, "I'm just really shocked y'all still like each other!"
Which song was the biggest surprise?
Ashley Monroe: When we wrote "I Feel a Sin Comin' On," just snapping on the bus, we thought, "Let's make it like Ray Charles, an old-school horn section, string section, big thing." But we got in the studio and our producer was like, "How did y'all write it?" We couldn't really play it, we don't know those chords because they're too fancy, so we just sang it like the work tape and snapped with it, and he was like, "I think you should just do it like that."
Angaleena Presley: We had our minds on some big thing, big arrangement, and it's actually a cappella for half the song.
What are your ambitions for the band?
Miranda Lambert: That's what's so weird. I was up there this morning thinking, "We're on the 'Today' show -- we came from a couch, what are we doing? Why are we here, how did we get here and where are we going?" We don't know. But if it's not fun anymore, I don't want to do it. I don't think any of us do. If it becomes this big machine where we hate each other and people are forcing us to do things we don't want to do, then let's just quit. We weren't put together to make money for our label, we got together because we love music, and we each have other things going on anyway. This is supposed to be fun and unique and about the music, so if it ever gets to be miserable, walk away -- at least for a little while.
I have to ask about your fan club president, Neil Young
Angaleena Presley: That blew my mind. My uncle Bobby used to sing the "Harvest" record from start to finish -- every word, every lick, to every song -- and I would sit on my Mawmaw's front porch and listen. That was kind of my first memory of music, and totally why I think I was drawn to it, because Bobby would play those Neil Young songs. We didn't even know that he knew who we were, so when that came out, I downloaded the book at a show and was walking around showing people the screen: "Look what Neil Young said!" It was huge for me.
Miranda Lambert: It's really crazy how you don't know how people know who you are. Any random fan will come up and ask for an autograph and I just get into a routine, but if they mention Pistol Annies, it immediately changes my attitude. When it's your baby, you get extra proud.
Do you think things -- more possibilities -- have opened up for women in country music in recent years, or is it still a fight?
Miranda Lambert: We'll be fighting the fight every day forever, but I feel like we're winning. We might get knocked down, but we're gonna keep being on the charts and selling records and selling tickets. We're not going to ever stop. I think the good stuff breaks through and there's room for all kinds of females; it's just a matter of who's good enough to kick the door down. And it's tough, you gotta be willing to work.
Ashley Monroe: I think Miranda kicked down a lot of those doors herself to make it easier for females right now, including us, as a band and as solo artists.
Miranda Lambert: Just 'cause the door is open doesn't mean it won't slam in your face again. You just gotta keep doing it, nose to the grindstone.
Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in- chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.