Zoe Muth’s World of Strangers effortlessly pushes and pulls country music boundaries. CMT Edge spoke with the former Seattle resident about the excellent new collection, working with producer George Reiff and how Austin has reshaped her musically.
“Moving to Austin has made me have to take more control,” Muth says. “So many singer-songwriters play with a different band every night, so I’ve had to have more confidence in being able to direct a band. It’s made me a better performer.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Muth: We moved from Seattle about a year ago, and I had started writing a few of the songs, but I had no idea who I’d work with on a new record. I figured we wouldn’t really be able to afford a producer, and we didn’t know very many musicians in Austin. It was just by a strange set of coincidences that we got hooked up with George Reiff.
Explain what he brought to the equation.
George put together the cast of players. He’s played with all kinds of people, and he’s good friends with Brad Rice, who plays most of the lead guitar on the record. George played bass with the Dixie Chicks and Court Yard Hounds, so he asked Martie Maguire to play violin. We walk into the studio, and it’s like, “Oh, it’s one of the Dixie Chicks sitting right here.” [Maguire plays violin on the song “Annabelle.”]
You’ve said you were more experimental in the studio.
I knew I wanted to do something completely different than the records I’d made before. Even though I think everything I do will be considered country music, I wanted this to focus more on the songwriting. I didn’t want people to expect just a honky-tonk dance band.
What’s most important is that people hear the lyrics to the songs. It’s not a shocking, huge departure from my previous stuff, but I wanted to make a point that I wanted to do something different.
Do the songs have a common lyrical theme?
Yeah, definitely. Like my previous records, the songs are often about working-class people or people that are struggling in life. That’s what a lot of these songs are about — a sense of isolation that I feel in my life — but maybe other people can relate to that. There’s one happy song on the record.
The song “Little Piece of History.” My husband [Greg Nies] is the drummer, and we both left Seattle together. That song’s our story about moving from Seattle to Austin.
So, you open with the happy song then everything goes south.
Yeah! (laughs) One of the things I think I’m really good at, though, is taking a song that’s about something sad and making it not so sad.
Speaking of which, tell the story behind writing “Mama Needs a Margarita.”
Well, I’m not a mom myself, but I was a preschool teacher for a long time. That song came about because I was commissioned by a writer’s workshop in Seattle to write three songs about motherhood, and I could go in any direction I wanted. That was the first song that I wrote for that. It fell into this classic country theme of a broken-hearted love song but with a little bit of comedy in it, as well. That’s what I was going for. It makes people cry and smile at the same time.
Do you find workshops helpful?
The people putting on the event where I performed that song are from a writer’s school, but I’ve never actually taken any workshops or anything like that. They were just doing a series with speakers and musicians who all focus on the topic of motherhood.
As far as taking a writing class, I’ve never really done that. I’ve always thought it might be helpful, but I don’t really like to share my work with other people until I feel like it’s all completed. I don’t know if I would do well in a class where people are giving me their constant criticism. (laughs)
How did “Somebody I Know” come to you?
I always feel like in life I’ve been outside of what’s going on, like a spectator watching and writing about other people’s lives. It’s a longing to have more of a connection, more of a community. That took me a lot time to write. I had the idea for a song called “Somebody I Know,” and I started writing it two years ago. … I think it turned out good. We were lucky enough to get Bruce Robison to sing on it because George is a good friend.
Describe working with Bruce.
It was like, “Let’s have Bruce Robison come in and sing on this one.” He was kind enough to come in at 8 o’clock in the morning. He hadn’t even heard the song, but he’s been singing that kind of harmony with Kelly Willis so long that he just looked at the words and got behind the microphone. We did a couple of takes, and there it was.
What songwriters do you draw from most?
My all-time favorite songwriter is John Prine. Probably everybody says that, but I love the way he doesn’t over-intellectualize anything. It’s always a mix of sadness with comedic aspects. His voice and everything about his music seems very down to earth. That’s how I am, I think.