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Kacey Musgraves’s Expanding Universe

NASHVILLE — Kacey Musgraves made her new album in a garage studio buzzing with domestic chaos. On an August afternoon, the 33-year-old singer and …

Kacey Musgraves’s Expanding Universe

NASHVILLE — Kacey Musgraves made her new album in a garage studio buzzing with domestic chaos. On an August afternoon, the 33-year-old singer and songwriter arrived there to find a basketball rolled into the driveway, tiny swimsuits drying on the porch and a spaniel, Bean, rooting around the percussion section for a stick. “I don’t feel self-conscious out here,” Musgraves said, leaning into a snug couch next to a Himalayan salt lamp. “You can try stuff and if it sucks, it’s fine.”

Musgraves was joined by a couple of dads, the producers Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk. Tashian, the owner of the studio, known as the Royal Plum, wore an all-Patagonia outfit and offered room-temperature lemon water from a glass carafe; Fitchuk settled in a puff of smoke, his center-parted blonde hair mingling with the beads around his neck, a tequila soda jangling in his hand. Musgraves drifted easily around the space in plaid trousers and an enigmatic little smile, a kind of yee-haw Mona Lisa.

The trio first assembled at the Royal Plum to make her 2018 album, “Golden Hour.” They tried stuff, it did not suck and the outcome was better than fine: “Golden Hour,” an album of psychedelic-kissed folk, fingerpicked country yarns and a shimmering dip into disco, won four 2019 Grammy Awards, including album of the year, and lifted Musgraves’s profile from cult country artist to mainstream contender.

As the three sat around discussing its follow-up, “Star-Crossed,” Musgraves’s phone lit up. “Look at this,” she said, raising a sly eyebrow and springing from the couch.

“Answer it,” Fitchuk said.

“No,” she replied, then: “OK.” She tapped the screen. Justin Bieber appeared.

“You freaking love an unannounced FaceTime, dude,” Musgraves said.

“My bad,” Bieber said. “What are you guys doing?”

When Musgraves hung up, she eyed the group. This has been happening a lot recently. “I’ll be lying in bed, hung over at 8 a.m. — FaceTime. It’s a decline for me, but he’s so sweet,” she said. “Anyway. New friend.”

Organized as a tragedy in three acts, “Star-Crossed” charts the dissolution of Musgraves’s last relationship. “I wasn’t going to be a real country artist without at least one divorce under my belt,” she said.Credit…Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

Kacey Musgraves is still a singer-songwriter messing around with some dads in the garage. It’s just that now, one of the biggest pop stars in the world wants to be there, too. The business behind Musgraves is betting a significant contingent of pop music fans feel the same way. After three albums for country labels, “Star-Crossed” will be a joint release with MCA Nashville and Interscope records. As she’s teased the LP ahead of its Sept. 10 arrival, the internet has buzzed with speculation about her next chapter. On a Reddit fan group that describes itself as “dedicated to country singer Kacey Musgraves,” one user archly commented that they might soon be forced to edit that description.

There is a status anxiety that stalks country stars who flirt with pop, as if one genre is the provenance of authentic artistry and the other the land of losing touch and selling out. Really, the commercial demands of Nashville have always enforced their own restrictions on artists, especially women. And these days, with Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X and Bad Bunny redefining what superstars sound like, it’s pop music that is feeling more like the wild West. When I asked Musgraves if it was her ambition to become a big pop star, she replied: “What’s a pop star?”

A FEW MILES down the road, at the Country Music Hall of Fame in downtown Nashville, you can find Hank Williams’s baby-blue monogrammed boots, Elvis Presley’s gold Cadillac and Kacey Musgraves’s pastel childhood Lisa Frank diary.

Since 2019, a temporary Musgraves exhibit has stretched across a wall of the museum, charting her rise from the regional children’s yodeling circuit to Madison Square Garden. As I worked my way through the souvenirs of her life — here’s her creepy ’80s baby doll, there’s her avant-garde Barbie-themed Met Gala costume — the two poles of country-music reactions to Musgraves passed before me. First came a middle-aged guy pulled along by a woman, radiating mild annoyance at the real estate dedicated to Musgraves alone (“I’m just surprised, is all”). Then, a ponytailed girl bounded through, pausing with hummingbird-like efficiency at each artifact and clutching her own diary — taking notes.

Musgraves was born in Golden, Texas, a town of a couple hundred, in 1988, and within a decade, she was singing in a Fort Worth youth group called the Cowtown Opry Buckaroos and breaking out with her own girl band, the Texas Two Bits. She wrote her first song — “Notice Me” — at age 9, and released a string of CDs with names like “Wanted: One Good Cowboy.” Musgraves maintained a childhood website at YodelingGirl.com, and when I plugged the address into the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, I excavated a virtual guest book with comments from boys (“Kacey! My Love! remember me??”) Miranda Lambert (“Keep on Truckin’!!”) and Karen Musgraves (“Yes, I went and accidentally wiped out all of the guestbook! Sorry Kacey! All entries will be back on as soon as we can reload them! Love, Mom”).

When Tashian toured the artifacts in 2019, he was struck by their consistency with Musgraves’s grown-up self. As he put it: “Everyone has always been who they are, you know?” The exhibit includes framed school disciplinary notes she earned in 2002 and 2003 (her infractions included “excessive talking”) and a page from the Mineola High School yearbook where her peers voted her Most Likely to Become Famous. I asked Musgraves whether she believed it at the time, and she shrugged suggestively.

“I didn’t have a backup plan,” she said. But she’s glad it didn’t happen too soon. She subscribes to the theory that people are emotionally frozen at the age that they become very famous, so it’s lucky that it didn’t happen at 9 (“Notice Me”!) or even 19, when she moved to Nashville, appeared on a USA reality competition called “Nashville Star” and landed at seventh place.

Kacey Musgraves at the 2019 Grammys with Katy Perry and Dolly Parton.Credit…Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Musgraves got a job as a staff writer for Warner Chappell Music when she was 21, sometimes writing multiple songs a day for a carousel of artists. She guesses she wrote a couple hundred in the space of a couple years, and she would eventually snag credits on Martina McBride’s “When You Love a Sinner,” Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and — in a meta turn — songs for the cast of the soapy TV series “Nashville.”

But she kept some of her best material in her pocket, and in 2013, she released her debut album, “Same Trailer Different Park” — a witty, melancholy portrait of small-town life that turned her Texas pedigree on its head and managed to embrace both queer love and pot smoking without ever seeming to preach. Her 2015 follow-up, “Pageant Material,” struck more lyrical blows to country tradition. Her friend TJ Osborne of the Brothers Osborne, who added some vocals on the new album’s title track, credits Musgraves with expanding the bounds of acceptable country behavior, both politically and artistically.

“She was one of the first of our generation to step out there and take it on the chin,” he said. “She said things that a lot of people, even now, would be very hesitant to say.” Then came “Golden Hour,” where Musgraves took aim at the country formula in earnest.

In the first Royal Plum session for that album, Musgraves played Tashian the Bee Gees; he pulled out a vocoder. Tashian had recently seen Musgraves sing Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” on CMT, and realized that she had untapped vocal potential. Her first two albums were tightly wound, featuring expert wordplay driving from hook to chorus, everything “tied up with a little bow,” Tashian told me. Together, they worked to unlock more ambitious melodic possibilities. At the time, Musgraves was experiencing an emotional breakthrough, too; the album was written amid her courtship and marriage to the fellow Nashville singer-songwriter Ruston Kelly, and blissful songs like “Butterflies” and “Rainbow” tumbled out.

“Star-Crossed” is the psychological hangover to “Golden Hour.” Organized as a tragedy in three acts, it charts the dissolution of that relationship, culminating in the divorce Musgraves filed for last year. She said Kelly has not yet heard the album, and the songwriting uncovered sentiments Musgraves hadn’t quite expressed to him or even herself. She started writing while they were still together, beginning with a gentle pop track called “Good Wife,” about stumbling over the expectations of marriage. “People have come to know me as someone who really speaks my mind,” she said, but she sometimes feels like she’s hiding behind a song: “Why is it easier to tell an entire crowd of people what I think than someone who is really close to me?”

There’s something achingly country about the whole situation. “I wasn’t going to be a real country artist without at least one divorce under my belt,” Musgraves waggishly allowed. But the album resists the worn emotional grooves of the breakup genre. She puzzled over whether to include “Breadwinner,” a bop about a man who resents a woman’s success, because “I was worried that one song may speak more loudly than another in an emotional sense,” she said. As a listener, she avoids the vindictive breakup song and gravitates toward very sad ones that hit her straight in the guts: “Ahhh,” she said. “Stab me with a rusty knife, please.”

At this point, genre doesn’t interest Musgraves much. “If you asked me what it is, I don’t think I’d even be able to give you a straight answer,” she said of her latest work. Even the Spotify algorithm seems stumped. Its Kacey Musgraves radio station is stuffed with contemporary country by Lambert, Keith Urban, Lady A — “I don’t feel like it adds up,” she said. Boundlessness is her brand: Her music has been described as “galactic country” or “cosmic cowgirl,” her Instagram handle is @spaceykacey and mind-expanding substances are part of the process.

As she wrote “Star-Crossed,” Musgraves took a guided psilocybin mushroom trip with a Nashville couple that offers plant-based therapy, and it felt like dumping six feet of fresh snow on the dusty pathways of her brain. During the trip, Musgraves listened to Mercedes Sosa’s version of the sublime ballad “Gracias a la Vida,” and she caps the album with her own cover of it. The musical influences for “Star-Crossed” are expansive enough to include Sosa and Sade, America and the Avalanches, Weezer and Aretha Franklin. It has hints of early 2000s R&B, a spaghetti western vibe and, as she put it on Twitter, “a fairy sprinkle of Country, duh.”

Despite all the chatter about Musgraves going pop, the new album itself doesn’t feel engineered to be a world-conquering juggernaut à la “1989.” (I mean, it ends with a Spanish-language folk song.) But it is arriving with a “Lemonade”-like twist: Musgraves announced “Star-Crossed” this week with a trailer for a glossy companion film that promises to tell the story of her broken heart. It features the singer in a wedding dress and bedazzled eyebrows, and its capacious aesthetic assimilates references to “Mean Girls” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” John Waters and Quentin Tarantino.

It feels like it exists on a different planet from the Royal Plum, where Musgraves was plotting her next move: recording her version of “Try Your Wings,” a jazz standard by a wispy midcentury singer named Blossom Dearie. But the more success she finds, she told me, the closer she feels to her ultimate goal: “I’m positioning myself to achieve total creative freedom.”

SO WHAT IS a pop star?The idea is currently under revision. Just a few years ago, ascending to pop stardom might have meant slipping into a spangled leotard, communing with the hitmaker Max Martin and aligning your brand so expertly with consumption that you start dressing like an actual cupcake. But that pop playbook is burning. Now a pop star looks like Doja Cat, coasting up from SoundCloud on a cascade of memes; or BTS, assembling a global army with inspirational messages and generous dance breaks; or Taylor Swift, collaborating with a quiet indie-rocker on two albums of serpentine folk. Why not Kacey Musgraves, the sad, psychedelic cowgirl?

The day after we met at the Royal Plum, Musgraves invited me to her house for breakfast. She moved here after her breakup and renovated it into a cream expanse that for a moment had the pristine glow of a Nancy Meyers rom-com about a liberated divorcée. (On Instagram that night, Musgraves posted that she had spilled an entire beer into the crack of her couch.) We sat at a vast kitchen island punctuated with a confusing number of lemons as her dog, Pepper, gnawed on a bone in a sun-dappled living room.

When I posed the pop-star question, her answer was definitive. “I do not want that,” she said. “I have this great fear of becoming detached from reality.” Also, “I just feel like the music will get bad if you aren’t being your authentic self.”

“I’m positioning myself to achieve total creative freedom,” Musgraves said.Credit…Peyton Fulford for The New York Times

Musgraves created “Star-Crossed” for one person — “I make the albums for myself,” she said — but now that it’s done, the work of selling it, and herself, begins. The music may not be much bigger, but the marketing budget seems enhanced. There’s the “Star-Crossed” companion film, for which she has recruited the “RuPaul’s Drag Race” champion Symone, the TikToker @averagefashionblogger and Eugene Levy. She is selling Musgraves-branded stick-on tears and lacy handkerchiefs to prep her fans for the season she’s calling “sad girl fall.” Recently she started an ambivalent TikTok account tagged with a self-deprecating “Mean Girls” line: “she doesn’t even go here.” In her first post, Musgraves saunters in slow motion and smiles winningly before covering the camera lens with a hand. The caption: “the moment nobody’s been waiting for.”

Osborne, who has known Musgraves since they were both “ramen noodles broke,” said that for all the industry scaffolding that’s been built up around his friend, Musgraves herself seems unchanged. “I forget all the time that Kacey is really famous until we go out and somebody gets weird,” he said. I asked him what he knows about her that the public doesn’t, and he was eager to counter a perception he’s seen floating around Twitter that she can be standoffish or cold.

First of all, “If a guy were to act that way, he’d be seen as cool and mysterious,” he said. Second, he knows Musgraves to be a loyal friend, but also allergic to pretense. She just does not have “pert pop star mode” on her emotional dial. “I’ve never, ever seen Kacey pretend to feel a way that she doesn’t feel,” he said. “She wears her heart on her sleeve.”

Lately Musgraves’s Instagram feed has lit up with snuggly images of a new boyfriend, Cole Schafer, a poet who writes under the name January Black. They met when they spied each other across a crowded restaurant. “He did not know who I was, which I loved,” Musgraves said. The paparazzi, however, have been recognizing her more and more. “A handful of grown men come out, and they’re sweating trying to keep up with you on the sidewalk,” she said. “It feels very predatory.” Musgraves is still navigating how to become a bigger star without feeling like she’s the center of the universe. “Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed with how self-centered being an artist is,” she said quietly. “It just feels like me me me me me.”

It’s only in the past several years that Musgraves has acquired a form of performance anxiety, a slight panic that rises when the attention shifts unexpectedly to her. It first materialized in 2019, when she was filming her celebrity-studded Christmas special, and she was spontaneously asked to introduce herself on camera and offer her favorite holiday memory.

“I could not answer what should be the world’s easiest question,” she said. “I couldn’t get any words out. My heart was racing. I started sweating.” Sometimes, when she is sleeping, she has this stress dream, where she is being summoned to a faraway stage, and she can never seem to make it there in time. “And I’m like” — she curses in frustration — “they’re calling my name!”

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