With Chely Wright‘s new studio album, I Am the Rain (out Sept. 9), the country vocalist allows herself to relive unimaginable sorrow and pain, in order to craft a compelling and authentic story for the listener. “That’s what we try to do, right? Try to capture — there are 13 songs on this record — 13 little polaroids of something that was really happening in that moment. I was really grateful that even after all that time had gone by and I wasn’t suffering from that broken heart anymore, I could find my way back to that person and deliver that,” she shares with AXS.com over a phone call this week. The album, her first since 2010’s Lifted Off the Ground, is earthy, muscular, mighty and charges the soul with thoughtful wisdom and soul-shaking interpretations.
It wasn’t just the weight of pain which propelled Wright down this little stretch of creative highway. Many other things were happening in her life to inspire her. “Anytime you change your perspective and fire some new synapses in the brain, that stuff is just going to ooze out. But then you kind of have to look back. I fell in love and got married and got pregnant and then oops, I had twins. Didn’t mean to have twins, which turned out to be a really wonderful thing. I never had a lack of stuff going on in my head,” she says. “It was just a matter of when that itch happens. I think every person who either writes books or poems or makes movies or music for a living, they all probably experience it the way I do. I just have an itch, and it doesn’t mean I’m not writing songs and putting them on my pile. But until I feel something that moves me to say ‘ok, it’s time to start putting some wheels into motion,’ I just don’t put them into motion. I don’t know if I ever lacked a creative impulse. It was just a matter of at what point do you take the pile of songs and put them under your arm and go knocking on some doors. Luckily, thanks to Rodney Crowell nudging me a couple of times to reach out to Joe Henry, Joe was there to open the door when I knocked.”
When Wright started a dialogue with producer Joe Henry (Elvis Costello, John Denver, Bonnie Raitt) for the new project, she knew right away she wanted to chart new musical territory. “It wasn’t a matter of me picking Joe. It was a matter of my having the courage to do it with Joe, and Joe had to want to do it with me. I don’t just get to run around and pick someone. A lot of stars have to be in alignment for Joe Henry to be willing to do a record. His coming onboard came after a lot of dialogue and sharing — really not even about music, just about our worldview and what I wanted to do and accomplish with the record. Part of that discussion in that ongoing dialogue we were having either by phone, text, voice memo, voicemail and email, he understood I wanted to grow and go somewhere I hadn’t gone before. Part of that would be instrumentation and the sonic landscape. He knew almost immediately that he had some ideas that might work for me. I wanted it to sound earthy and woody and part of that was achieved by his suggestion to bring on Levon [Henry], his son. Levon is a super-duper gifted multi-instrumentalist. Woodwinds are his thing. A lot of the cool new sonic landscape was because of Levon’s work.”
Throughout much of I Am the Rain, the bass clarinet acts as a secondary character, often taking up the baton and engaging a tender and emotional conversation with Wright’s fearless lead vocal. “Sometimes, when you decide to put on an instrument so — I don’t want to say obscure — one might decide to do that in an overdub setting. This isn’t a jazz record. You might say ‘you know what, we’ll bring him in to do overdubs,’ but we decided to make him part of the actual band that tracked. It was such a cool, bold decision to make him part of that framework. Therefore, he wasn’t an afterthought, and he did get to do that dance that those other framework instruments typically do. When you hear a record in country music or folk music, an acoustic guitar and a bass guitar answer one another — they dance back and forth and hand off the baton. We wanted Levon’s woodwinds to be in that role, as one of the baton passers. The framework and the infrastructure of our tracks illustrate he was part of the band.”
A year before Wright even began considering a new album, her mother passed away following a battle with cancer. That weight began to resurface in the form of lyrics and melodies, and soon, she would have the first song for the new record, the haunting closer “See Me Home.” “When Joe and I decided to start working on a record and eyeing that prize, we also agreed that it might be fun and productive for us to see what we could write together. He sent me two verses, not the music, just the lyric. I opened my email one morning and saw what he sent the night before. I grabbed my guitar and started singing the melody and playing. I went on to write a chorus. I hit recorded on my voice memo and fired it off to him. That’s how that song started to happen. It struck me as important. Sometimes, a song comes to you that feels like it somehow has a place in your life. My mother had died the year before, and his very beautiful lyric just said a lot to me about my mother’s passing. For that reason, I wanted to record it first. I felt like it was perhaps the rudder for, creatively, what we were about to do.”
That’s when I Am the Rain was officially born. The record also contains a bevy of other talented musicians: guitarists Adam Levy (Norah Jones) and Mark Goldenberg (Brian Wilson), bassist David Piltch, keyboardist Patrick Warren (Tom Waits, Lana Del Rey), pedal steel guitarist Eric Heywood (Over the Rhine) and drummer Jay Bellerose (Willie Nelson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss).
When Wright is packing a wallop of emotion into only four minutes, as you’ll find with the album’s sensational and moving “Blood and Bones and Skin” — “without you, love, I am just a waste of blood and bones and skin,” she laments — you may find yourself feeling things you long tucked away into a cedar chest at the foot of your bed. The woody production harkens to the classic era of country music, a time when the story was framed around instrumentation which lived and breathed on its own without comprising the singer’s honesty. The subtlety and nuance of Wright’s delivery is unmistakable. “I love that song for what it says about my deep connection to country music — the country music I grew up listening to, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Buck Owen, Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris. That song was my best homage to Harlan Howard and Whitey Shafer and Curly Putman as I could get,” she says. “Obviously, a metaphor is no stranger to a country song. It’s what we’ve always done best. I wrote that song in the middle of the night, maybe it was two in the morning. It was a real song written about a real love that was lost. I had had a long, 12-year relationship that fell apart in the most disastrous way. When you love somebody for 12 years and then that relationship goes away, you feel like you are missing a limb. That was me trying to get that out.”
Blood and bones and skin are brawny and evocative images on their own, but when wrapped in tenderness and care, the narratives come alive and elicit self-exploration and redemption. “I don’t know if you have ever suffered a real loss when it comes to a broken heart. You get pretty hollowed out when you get your heart broken or you lose something you really cared about. It scoops everything out and you really do just feel like a corpse. That’s how I felt,” Wright says. “I don’t feel that way anymore about that loss. Obviously, I’m happily married. I wouldn’t have found my way to my wife now had I not gone through that. In those moments, I felt like…what else is there to do with myself? I know there are people right now feeling pretty hollowed out by a loss that happened to them yesterday or last year or four years ago. I’m grateful I don’t feel that anymore.”
Wright’s masterful ability of uncovering the deepest and darkest emotions known to mankind is a marvel to behold. What she achieves on songs like “Where Will You Be,” “Pain” and “Next to Me,” songwriters and musicians dream their entire life of creating stories half as resonating and important. Much like the great female storytellers who came before her, I Am the Rain is Wright’s career-defining moment — as much as Heart Like a Wheel served to cement Linda Ronstadt as a force to be reckoned with or Carol King’s Tapestry redefined the singer-songwriter mold.
Another monumental moment on record comes with “Mexico,” a charming downtempo which glimmers with midnight cups of coffee, dusty truck stops and Tucumcari — much like Ronstadt’s own take of “Willin'” (originally recorded by Little Feat), Wright’s escape is vivid and relishes in another life and another time. “When I sent my manager the recording, he referenced another song that mentions Tucumcari that I didn’t know. He said ‘but it’s funny, before I even heard you say Tucumcari in the song, I was already thinking about this other song.’ My understanding of Tucumcari is 1) I’ve been through there several times, but most importantly, 2), when I think of the town Tucumcari, I think of my grandparents, who lived in Mesa,” she explains of the song. “When we were kids, they drove us through Tucumcari. We were in the back of their pickup truck. I remember thinking what an interesting name for a town. I liked saying ‘Tucumcari,’ too. It just sounded cool. It’s remote. If you drive through there and stop at the truck stop there, you’ve lived a whole life, just in that little stop. As I was writing ‘Mexico,’ Tucumcari popped into my mind. There were no references other than the thousand truck-stop waitresses I’ve seen in the middle of the night and the thousand long-haul truckers I’ve had a cup of coffee with. ‘Mexico’ was a way to pay homage to what those people are doing in the middle of the night and how I felt about being amongst them. I always felt like it was a treat and like it was somehow a peek into something I wouldn’t have otherwise had a peek into.”
Another one of the album’s most visceral tracks is “Holy War,” which treads a slow, but spellbinding, march through a wasteland of recklessness and of lonesomeness. Drawing a correlation between a dying relationship and larger world matters, Wright unfurls her most commanding vocal. “When you are trying to sit down and come up with things that matter, things that are worthy of bringing in all those great musicians in and worthy of your emotional and financial resources, you want to look for songs or write songs that are…worthy. This is a song Joe and I wrote. I just love this relationship Joe and I developed over the course of the year leading up to recording and after that. Joe and I wrote everything that we wrote via voicemail, voice memo, email, text. You have to get to a spot of comfort to do that, too, because if you are not sharing that dance with the right person, you can have a fear of sounding stupid or not being understood.”
“We both checked all that at the door and decided to jump in and trust. We got to this point where we were sending a stanza back and forth or a little melody. I’d wake up to voicemails he’d left me. He’s in LA, and I’m in New York. So, I would wake up to these great surprises of ‘hey, Chel, what do you think of this?’ Hopefully, he felt the same way when my communications came through,” she continues. “I had a couple of lines bouncing in my head that I sent off to him in a text. The first thing I sent was ‘perhaps it was fitting, the sky heavy, spitting at the ground.’ Somehow, that resonated with him. He played around with it, and he also got pretty serious with it and sent me back something that was called ‘Holy War.’ I loved how when you are in the midst of a love that is careening out of control or a relationship that you can’t get the wheels back on the road, it can feel as profound and as big as a war about God. I love that that is where the song went.”
Wright, who has incredible songwriting chops of her own, takes a moment to praise Henry’s work. “He’s a courageous writer. His essays and his songs and his poems are very muscular. Just to be able to hop on his trail for a minute is one of the great gifts I’ve ever received.”
In one of her revealing album sessions, the singer and songwriter briefly mentions how much Henry truly changed her entire life. “That’s not hyperbole either. If you’ve gotten the chance to be with Joe and his circle of people — his wife and his kids — he’s a unicorn. I’m telling you. He’s a really magical person. I’m not saying he’s not cerebral and careful and strategic, because he is. The thing that moved me about this guy is that he follows his intention,” Wright says. “Joe repeated to me something a poet friend had said to him, ‘Sometimes the poem possesses an intelligence the poet doesn’t necessarily have.’ What that told me was that you have to follow your intentions. It can take you a number of places. If you really surrender and acquiesce to what you intend to do in the universe, chances are you are going to get somewhere close to that. That really changed a lot about me. It changed how I approach friendships and a discussion with my wife.”
Wright then leaves AXS.com with a few seeds of advice on how to live a better and fuller life. “A person’s intentions — that’s the meat and potatoes of how we show up in the world. It doesn’t matter if someone said something incorrectly or was misunderstood. You have to look at where you want to be at the end of the day, at the end of this project, at the end of your life. Joe’s example has made me more peaceful. I have a lot more trust about myself now. It’s about trusting the road you are on. Keep peddling. I like bike metaphors because I’m a cyclist. Whatever it is you are doing — you’re a writer — get your butt in the seat and fight.”
Fans can now pre-order Chely Wright’s brand new album I Am the Rain now on iTunes.