Former Dixe Chick. Rebel Rouser. Truth Teller. Fearless Artist. Dedicated Mom. Soul Seeker. Opens up about Justice, Learning to Listen, Regrets, and Bathing Suit Vulnerability.
Her most intimate new album, MOTHER, co-produced with music God Ben Harper, hits stores this month.
Interview: Maranda Pleasant
Maranda Pleasant: I’ve already talked to your dad and your sister today.
Natalie Maines: Oh, you did? I didn’t know you were talking to my sister. What’d she say? [laughing]
MP: She’s actually giving us some cool photos for your spread.
NM: Oh, that’s cool! [laughing]
MP: I was living in Texas when it all got really interesting for everybody. I know that it was years ago, but everyone here just wants to say thank you for your fearlessness.
NM: Well, thanks!
MP: None of us ever want to be on the end of rightwing backlash.
NM: No, it’s interesting. I don’t recommend it! [laughing]
MP: We’re so happy to have you in. I almost accosted you once on Second Street in Austin a few years ago, back when I lived there.
NM: Where do you live now?
MP: I’m between Santa Monica and Boulder. Taking a little break from Austin. Let me jump in with our questions. So what is it that makes you feel most alive?
NM: Oh my god, these kinds of questions? I need free-thinking time on this kind of stuff. Makes me feel most alive…
MP: Take your time!
MP: That’s what Pierce Brosnan said yesterday!
NM: Really! Well. I know Pierce.
MP: What is it about Hawaii that makes you feel alive?
NM: The nature. I see life everywhere I look. I get the energy off the water. Hawaii really, when I am there, it feels like how we are supposed to live and how it’s supposed to be: slower, just appreciating our surroundings. I love the people there and the aloha, the history. They’re really rooted in something. Even though it’s still the United States, I think on many levels they feel separate, especially the true Hawaiians—who are not necessarily thrilled to be a part of the United States. But I just love the whole spirit. This sounds cheesy but when I would get in discussions with people about religion or spirituality, a lot of people would say, “I believe God is nature, there’s God in that tree”—and I would think, What the hell are they on about? But it was about four or five years ago in Hawaii where that all made sense to me and I got it all, and I felt God was in the trees and in the grass and the flowers, and I completely understood.
MP: That’s beautiful. I raised my daughter in New Zealand and it was very much the same thing. I noticed my heart rate was a lot slower back then. [laughing]
NM: I just got back from Hawaii on Saturday, and it’s so depressing how quickly all the stresses and the stressful energy of L.A. comes bombarding back. Everyone’s in a rush, you’re annoying everyone, get out of their way, everyone’s most important than you are, has got somewhere more important to be—very draining town. But I still love it in many ways. I wouldn’t leave California. I think it’s a fantastic state, if you can’t be in Hawaii all the time.
MP: How do you maintain your center in the middle of chaos?
NM: Well, for one, I hike every day with my dog, after the kids are off to school. I tend to get wrapped up in all the things that need to be done during the day, so I really am strict about setting that time aside for myself and not scheduling anything before eleven, so I can get my hike in. I did some years of therapy and self-realization, and I just move and think at a slower pace—doesn’t make me sound very smart! [laughs]—but really not reacting and doing more listening than talking, and letting people say what they need to say, and then maybe not saying anything at all. It almost takes people by surprise when I’m not a big talker. Because I’m known as being sort of a loud mouth. I have a lot to say. But I try to be more thoughtful with my comments or reactions, unless it’s something witty or hysterical that I just can’t keep myself from blurting or tweeting!
MP: I would have to go through a lot of therapy to not say everything I am thinking.
NM: [laughing] I know, it’s a good exercise. But I gotta say, it gets me way further in debates, conversations. I’m much clearer about my point when I just think more. I had to train myself, for sure.
MP: I’m going to call it my Natalie Maines 30-Day Program, and I’m going to try to listen more—I’m going to try it! [laughing]
NM: If something or someone’s really bugging you, just sit on it. Just sit on it.
MP: I’m gonna try it! [laughing] What has been one of your biggest regrets in this life?
MP: If you have any!
NM: Well, everyone does. You try not to but…
MP: Robert Plant said he wished he had spent more time with Elvis.
NM: There are some outfits I regret. [laughing]
MP: Good one. What is something in your life that you feel you have struggled with the most?
NM: Communicating. I’m not the greatest communicator. I kind of internalize a lot. See, I just said I need to be quiet, but that’s not the kind of communication I mean. I mean expressing myself or even standing up for myself. I can sometimes be very passive.
MP: I wouldn’t have guessed that. What is it that makes you feel vulnerable?
NM: Being in a bathing suit. [laughing]
MP: [laughing] That’s great. I’m living in Boulder right now, it’s so cold.
MP: Layers! How do you process emotional pain?
NM: I think I don’t and then it sneaks up on me when I least expect it.
MP: That’s a really honest answer.
NM: Usually right when I’m feeling it, right when it’s happening, I always find I need to be in some sort of survival mode or mature mom mode, so it always seems to come later that I have the breakdown.
MP: I completely relate.
NM: I would like to do what my kids did when they were little and throw myself in the middle of the aisle and have a tantrum. But I don’t!
MP: I’m saving that for my later years.
NM: Yeah, when it’s okay again! Crazy old lady!
MP: And I’m gonna have a lot of cats. I don’t even like cats but I’m gonna have a lot of ‘em. I’m gonna be that lady. What would you like to create with your life from here forward?
NM: That’s a good question. I really kind of set the bar really low, so I don’t get disappointed. I don’t know. I don’t think about, Oh, I wish I was going to do this or I’ll do that. It won’t even end when your kids are out of the house, because then you’ll still be worried about them. I would feel like my life was a success if my children grow into well-adjusted, happy, functioning members of society. Capable and happy and normal.
MP: Are there any issues or causes that you’re particularly passionate about at the moment?
NM: As always, too many. But I’m definitely always drawn to the injustice of people who have been imprisoned for things they didn’t do. But also lots about abortion and gay marriage. Civil issues are usually what I am drawn to.
MP: Any organizations that you are a part of?
NM: Always the West Memphis Three. I’m a part of the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and things like that.
MP: I actually saw you at SXSW with the man that I am most in love with—I want to tell you, there was someone cat-calling and screaming and making weird sounds when you were at the church at SXSW…
NM: Uh huh! With Ben?
MP: When they said Ben Harper, I thought I was going to lose it.
MP: I had no idea. What a dream collaboration: you and Ben Harper! What was that like for you, that whole process?
NM: It was awesome. Do you know Ben well?
MP: I don’t know Ben well, but Ben will fall in love with me one day.
NM: Well, you know what, if you’re single that could definitely be a possibility! He’s in that mode.
MP: I’ve been waiting. I shouldn’t actually print that, but I am in love with him. I’ve been listening to Ben on deadline since I started this magazine. I have him on repeat. So, I feel like he’s made every single issue with me.
NM: I’ll have to tell him.
MP: It’ll make me sound like a whacko. When he came on stage with you, I was like, Oh my god—so Natalie and Ben are creating this together! Does he play on the album?
NM: He plays on every song, he does harmony on almost every song. And we co-produced it together, and we made it at his studio. It was definitely a collaboration. We spent lots of hours together with his band. He’s got the greatest spirit. He was the perfect person for me to be around during the making of all this, just because of different insecurities I would have and fears of the unknown. He injects confidence into you and has an amazing free spirit. He’s very free with his emotions. He’s so enthusiastic. I wish I could just have an ounce of his enthusiasm for anything. He’s very childlike in the best ways. I think it’s easier for men to hold onto that than women. We take on the rest so they can go skateboard.
NM: It was great. The fact that he’s playing with me live is an honor, and I can’t believe he wants to do it. I am so grateful, because I don’t know who else could take over all that he does. I could have my dad play with me but then he couldn’t sing all the harmonies.
MP: Please don’t make me love Ben more. Your dad is great, by the way. When I listen to Ben, the thing I notice about both of you, I feel like you’re both super unmasked. You seem to be very raw and very real, both of you. There’s also a certain intensity. How did that translate when you were working together?
NM: Hm. I don’t know how that translates in particular, because I’ve never thought about that.
MP: Was it an intense experience or was it pretty laid back?
NM: Definitely laid back. There were musically moving times, times where you really felt something click or connect. When we did the Jeff Buckley song, “Lover You Should’ve Come Over”—it was just an interesting night. It was hard to get that song. It’s a long song, and there are also all these different levels it needs to reach. You have to keep that energy going till the end. It took us the longest to track that song, and then when it was right we just all knew it. You did feel something weird, an energy in the air. When I went home that night, I got on Huffington Post just to check out the daily news, and saw on there that it was the anniversary of the death of Jeff Buckley, and I just had chills all over. I thought, Oh my god—because I think we all felt like he was there in some way that night. He and Ben were friends, so I think it really surprised Ben when I came in and said I wanted to sing this song. I think that was heavy for him. Because he was friends with Jeff.
MP: What was the most personal part about this album? Is there something that’s different about this one than anything you’ve ever done?
NM: It’s definitely a sole representation of me. The Dixie Chicks, it was always me but it was also two others. You become the master at compromise. Fairness and balance. This is definitely just what I like, what I want to do, what I hear. This is one hundred percent me, like it or not. It just is. And the most personal song on there is probably the last one, “Take It On Faith.” Ben and I wrote that.
MP: That’s my favorite.
NM: Aw, thanks. Maybe mine, too. I switch favorites but it’s definitely the one I feel most lyrically, emotionally attached to, and a little vulnerable.
MP: I imagine that that’s one of the most personal songs. I listened to your performance and was blown away last month.
NM: Thank you.
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