by Nick Hanover
There’s a wisdom and confidence of voice to Lainey Gonzales’ music that makes it difficult to believe she’s as young as she is. The self-described “pop punk country superstar” sings about anxiety and uncertainty and self-deprecation with the wit and aplomb of a Dolly Parton and the emotional range of Kacey Musgraves. So it’s not too surprising that Gonzales is aiming high with her art, seeking universality and global recognition. We spoke with Gonzales on a sunny day in Hyde Park about bad first dates, New York scenesters, her love for all things Kacey and much more.
Nick Hanover for Ovrld: The first thing I wanted to talk about is that you are the second artist I’ve spoken to recently who has made a big emphasis on their astrological sign in their bio material, Socha was the other. What do you think gives you an edge as a Libra in making music?
Lainey Gonzales: The funny thing is that I’m a Libra but I’m a Sagittarius rising and moon, so I mostly feel like that plays more into how I write and create. Definitely in terms of being a Libra, with my music I try to make it as accessible as possible because I really like DIY indie spaces, that’s always where I’ve felt most comfortable. But I grew up kind of more straight laced.
I loved indie music but none of my friends really did in high school. I’d put it on in the car and they’d be like “This is weird” so then I’d put on Top 40. So that got ingrained in me. I want to make music that appeals to more DIY, indie people, but I also want to make music that can appeal to my friends from high school and family members.
I want to make music that can connect with everybody and not be totally niche and totally inaccessible. I get turned off by people who try to make music that is too over everyone’s heads. I feel like the true sign of a good work is something that is universal and meaningful to a lot of people. So that’s one way my Libra-ness applies.
And in terms of my Sagittarian-ness, I like being really blunt in my songs because I don’t always find myself being that in real life. I very much tip toe around talking to and dealing with my friends and family. So songwriting is the only place where I can just be honest and say things the way I want to. Especially this next song I’m recording, the first line is “First dates are such a waste of time/I always seem to find something to bother me about them in a month or two/And even then there’s something I’d rather do/Oh well, what a stupid game I always seem to lose.” That very blunt delivery is very sad and lame but I’m just being as honest as possible and not straying away from my experience. If it’s not 100% my experience– even if I’m trying to enhance a story– I try to keep as true to the story as possible.
With writing “Exit Interview,” I did not stretch the truth whatsoever. I didn’t embellish anything, that was very important to me. I wanted to be as concise and accurate as possible. So very sad and also playing into my journalism and PR background. Accuracy is important to me.
Ovrld: There is a diaristic quality to your music, especially in a song like “Pretty,” where there’s a lot of self-deprecation and self-esteem focus. When I covered that song on Ovrld, I mentioned that the self-deprecation is something I think people don’t usually think about in terms of a connection between pop punk and country, but you describe yourself as a “pop punk country superstar.” Is that self-deprecation something that draws you into both pop punk and country? That whole aspect of being self-defeating…
LG: Yeah, it’s funny, I saw a tweet the other day that was like
“Emo artists: I’m growing up in a small town and I’m going to die in a small town 🙁
Country artists: I’m growing up in a small town and I’m going to die in a small town :)”
I love that duality. Even in pop punk, yes, it is a lot of complaining about your small town, but you’re complaining about it because you love it. That’s all you know. It’s the same with country. You write about very mundane life because that’s all you know. For me, I love that throughline. Both genres are very much centered around storytelling. Granted, pop punk is a little more emotional and a little more intimate than I think country gets. With country you tie it in a bow, like you struggle but we’re going to make it into a very nice hook and make it accessible, enough to where a grown man can feel something from it but not to where he’s uncomfortable. In pop punk, there is no boundary.
Ovrld: They put it all out there…
LG: Yeah! Even to a fault sometimes. So I love that both are so centered around exploring your own emotions, and your own mundane lifestyle. But country has the poise and pop punk has the rawness. I like straddling that line. Maybe it appeals to more people that way. Or people will feel more comfortable with that. Even with a song like “Pretty,” I didn’t think very many guys would like that song, but a lot of my guy friends are like “I just never think about life like that, I never thought about it from the perspective of a girl and how being pretty could be kind of a belittling thing.” That’s important to me, being accessible like that.
Ovrld: It’s always great when you can bring a new perspective to people…
LG: Right, exactly, it’s cool. I do think a lot of people pick up on it, maybe just not right off the bat. But when I go back to what I listened to in middle school, it was a lot of All Time Low and Taylor Swift and it’s honestly very similar [laughs].
Ovrld: And Swift has ended up working with a lot of people from that emo boom.
LG: Yeah! Panic at the Disco’s Brendon Urie. They all just want to share their emotions and that’s also what I want to do, tell people how I feel.
Ovrld: A lot of your press photos and album art have an element of deglamorization to them, or there’s a kitschy aspect to it. Like the photo of you with a martini glass…
LG: And french fries [laughs]…
Ovrld: Exactly. And the album cover itself has your face scratched out. What are you trying to convey with those visuals? What are you communicating about your image?
LG: I got really tired of seeing the same thing over and over. I did a bunch of music internships and I would always look at a lot of press photos, because that was my job, making sure the right press photos were with the right people…
Ovrld: So you were looking at a lot of surly musicians standing against a brick wall with one leg up…
LG: [laughs] Yeah, you know the drill. Everyone parodies the classic band photo, or the classic pop girl studio photo, all of it is the same thing, just with a different background. I was very wary of that, because I do really enjoy visuals and hopefully as time goes on my budget will get bigger and I can lean into that more. But I got sick of seeing the same thing, I got sick of people pigeonholing me, like “Oh, she writes her own songs and she’s a singer-songwriter, and she’s going to be really pretty, so there will be a nice photo of her in a field…” and I was very bored of that.
On the flipside, the way you portray yourself with your image does affect where you get to play, which is unfortunate. I want to play as many places in Austin as possible. So to have my press photos be a bit more unexpected, maybe a bit more of a DIY aesthetic, can allow me to get into more spaces.
Ovrld: Let’s talk about the title of the EP, which is I Just Blame Me. What’s the message behind that?
LG: So that comes from, I guess you would call it the bridge, of “Exit Interview.” The line goes “You blame it on a funk/Well, I just blame me.” A guy I liked, he was ghosting me. He texted and said “Yeah, I’m sorry, I’ve just been in a funk.” And I thought to myself, this is really my fault, I knew he was not great from the beginning, and I should have seen this coming, but I didn’t and I just pretended it would end up different.
Ovrld: I think we’ve all been through something like that.
LG: Yeah, exactly. I thought “I can be the one that changes him,” and the more I thought about that, in general, I just blame me for that.
Like “Up in the Air,” in that song I just blame myself sometimes for feeling so anxious about the future because that’s on me if I’m worrying all the time and choosing to focus on that instead of thinking of good things in my life. That’s on me. Granted, sometimes you can’t help it, because I have anxiety and sometimes it’s just chemicals in my brain. But it does take a conscious effort to focus on the thoughts that are better and throw away the ones that are not useful.
With “Pretty,” it sucks that where I grew up was so centered on looking a certain way and acting a certain way if you’re a girl. And I blame myself in terms of buying into that. I wish I would have realized sooner that I didn’t have to do that. At the end of the day I guess I’m trying to say that it’s all in my head and I’m the only one who has control over my life. Obviously, things happen that are out of your control, and you have no control over things around you, just how you decide to deal with it.
The album I want to release eventually I’m going to call it Don’t Make Me Worry, because that’s what my mom would say. Every time I would walk out the door she would say “Don’t make me worry! Make good choices!” I find that phrase very interesting. Like yeah, okay, it’s my job to make sure you’re not worried about me [laughs]. I’m already worried about everything!
Ovrld: That comes up in “Calm Down,” right? I think you mentioned elsewhere that it as inspired by a phone call from your mom…
LG: Yeah. It’s so ironic because she’s always like “Don’t make me worry” but she’s also the one who tells me “Don’t worry, you don’t have to have it all figured out right now. Take a breath.” So it’s very mixed messages from her!
Ovrld: [laughs] That’s standard for parenting, I think.
LG: Pretty much. So I liked that the EP was more what do I blame myself for, what do I have to worry about just internally. I tried to take a more holistic look, like what worries me in general, what helps me get over my worries, that kind of thing.
Ovrld: On the taking control aspect, you have a background in publicity and marketing, and it’s clear from everything you have up that you have goals, you have specific plans…
Ovrld: That’s often hard to find with Austin artists, though! In the indie scene in particular, artists here frequently take an anti-careerist stance.
Ovrld: Do you feel that’s something you have had to deal with in the community, of people maybe not understanding that aspiration?
LG: Not necessarily. That’s something I really love about Austin, it’s really up to you what you do here. Because I did New York, and I loved it, but I definitely found myself putting on this industry game face there. Any time I was at a show or at a bar, I had to act as cool as possible, and act like I didn’t give a fuck about anything. I have to know this person, and this person. It’s all a game and I get it but you don’t have to do that. I think you can be successful and not give in to that.
For a while I thought I was just going to be an industry person. I loved writing but I thought there was no way I could make that feasible. And then I took a step back and I realized if I think the game face stuff and that whole scene is ugly, the only way I can change that is by being an artist and not standing for that. So hopefully if I ever get to the point where I’m being scouted by labels or whatever, I don’t have to play to those rules because I’m the one they want to impress.
If you’re on the artist side, they want your business [laughs]. I won’t put up with being wined and dined for $500 a night or people standing at my show with their arms crossed, sizing me up. I don’t want to work with you if you’re not actually enjoying my show. I don’t want to put up with people who are too cool to admit that they like the music. Obviously not everyone in the industry is like that but…
Ovrld: It’s a lot…
LG: Yeah, it’s a lot of that. And that’s only because that’s allowed by artists and artists have been told their whole life that’s just how it is and you have to play the game.
Ovrld: You have to not care.
LG: Exactly. But especially now with streaming, where you can just make your own fanbase, artist development is truly up to artists now, for most cases. But you don’t have to work with someone who is too cool for your music. Find someone else who is more passionate about it.
Ovrld: What are some unexpected ways the marketing and PR background has helped you as an artist, with you being able to understand both ends of it?
LG: I’d say it’s even in the way I write songs because it’s a totally different type of writing and had I studied creative writing or poetry I think I would be way more…I’m always concerned about what I’m writing but I think in a way it has made me more aware of saying what I need to say with as few words as possible. And making it as accessible as possible.
Obviously I love a good metaphor and I love flowery language but sometimes to write a good song, for me it can be as simple as something I took from a conversation and building it around that. Like sure, I can put a really cool word there or I can put what I was actually feeling [laughs]. So in that aspect, it has made me a more efficient songwriter.
And as a musician in general, I’m very aware of how I interview and how I interact with people and social media and internet and things like that. I love that I don’t have to hire anyone to do that for me because that’s what I got my degree in.
Ovrld: Your original site even has your resume…
LG: Yeah! Exactly! [laughs] I’m just as much a musician as I am a businesswoman. And as an independent artist especially, I feel like that’s what you have to be. Until you have a team built around you. But even then, if I had a huge team around me, I don’t think I’d be able to let anyone completely take that from me, I’d have to still be involved in every single aspect.
Ovrld: I think most big pop artists have that viewpoint and that’s how they operate, like Madonna or Lady Gaga or whoever.
LG: To me, if I’m not involved in every process of it, there’s no throughline. I’m wary of being a brand but I feel like a brand is only as strong as the person behind it. This might be very anti-marketing of me but I never ask myself if something is on brand, it’s not really something I would ever say.
Sometimes my musician friends will ask “Why do you not have a separate music Instagram?” I would feel dishonest doing that. My songs are already so personal.
Ovrld: Right, so why have that division.
LG: Exactly. And a lot of my favorite artists don’t seem to have that division either. I’m very wary too of over-marketing as well, and being a student in a marketing program it’s nice to know when to check myself. A lot of artists roll out their singles in a very methodic way. They’ll do like, I don’t know…
Ovrld: The Instagram grid…
LG: Yeah! For now my audience is predominantly family and friends of family and I know it will grow over time but I don’t need to make an Instagram grid for a single or EP. If anything it’s more impactful if I just post the date of the EP and a link, people just want it. They don’t care to watch me unroll this thing, they just want to know when it’s out and when they can stream it.
Ovrld: It feels less mannered that way too.
LG: Right. It feels like I’m still a person, and I like that. I don’t ever want to be too disconnected from normal life. I don’t want to act like I’m more important than other people. What I’m doing, I’m very proud of, but it doesn’t make it more significant than what anyone else is doing.
LG: Like [bassist] Kinseli [Jazz]! [laughs]
Ovrld: I was actually just talking to her about how she’s in every single good new band in Austin…
LG: [laughs] Yeah, she sent me a screenshot of that conversation, it was so funny.
Ovrld: Does it feel like a community is being built? It’s all very organic but I’ve noticed you all take similar approaches. It’s not even that your music necessarily sounds similar but it has a similar philosophy to it.
LG: The funny thing is, I barely know Socha or Christelle. I’ve never even met Christelle in person. But we share a bassist and I think she’s really awesome.
Ovrld: She’s been getting a lot of notice lately.
LG: Yeah, she’s on Father/Daughter and I’m excited for the year she’s about to have. That being said, my roommate does know her pretty well and he had described her as being someone that, it’s great that she’s getting that recognition, but no matter what she would still be doing it. And Socha’s the same way. That brings me a lot of comfort to know, that there are artists like me who are starting to gain more notice and more bookings and more recognition in Austin and who knows what happens after that. It’s nice to know that I’m not in a city where everyone takes everything too seriously.
Ovrld: Right. Christelle’s EP art is even pretty silly, with that photo of her in a kiddie pool.
LG: Exactly. And Socha is like performance art. She’s amazing. Her art is clearly not for anyone else but her and same for Christelle. To me that’s just a very healthy way to create in general and the fact that that’s what’s being embraced and it’s not this crazy, super calculated stuff. I like that it’s like that in Austin but it’s still a very well respected city.
Any time I was in New York and I would tell people I was from Austin they would tell me they wanted to move here [laughs]. I think because it’s not like New York or Nashville or LA and there’s not a competitive songwriting culture and all the labels aren’t based here there’s not as much pressure. To me, that leads to better work and better communities. There’s no competition here, in a good way.
I would feel comfortable going up to any artist here and saying “I make music, let’s collaborate or let’s do a show together.” That’s a really cool thing. In those other cities, you can talk to people but then they’re like “Yeah, we can do a show, but I’m the headliner…”
Ovrld: “I absolutely have to play at this time…”
LG: Yeah! “I’ve got to clear it with my manager” [laughs]. Is it going to be at the right time, are the right people going to be there, etc. I like being here and knowing that in one week I can have all these shows and all these things coming up and then the next can be completely empty and I’m fine with that. That’s just the way it is. Whereas in New York, I felt like if I was not on a certain track I was being left behind. That gets kind of unhealthy.
I like that the communities here form organically and everyone is on the same page. We really love this because it’s for ourselves and it’s for our expression and whatever comes from that, right on. But on the flipside, I have noticed there are some artists that take that so far that they’re like “Fuck ever making money off this, fuck it ever being a career.” There’s definitely a balance. Obviously I want to be free to express myself but I also want to sustain my lifestyle, I want to be able to eat and have a roof over my head.
Ovrld: There’s nothing wrong with paying your rent with your music.
LG: Exactly! So I like that in Austin, people seem to have that balance. This is really great and this is for me but I do want this to be something for myself and to provide for me. And to get it out to more people. Because at the end of the day, that’s the goal, I just want people to be able to hear it, outside of Austin especially.
I want the world to hear it so that hopefully they can connect with it. I want to be seen as a person who writes their own music, and as a woman, and a person of color-ish…definitely still half-white [laughs]. But that’s a perspective in and of itself. And as someone not making indie lo-fi, or techno-pop…which, nothing wrong with that, it’s just never been me and that’s okay. But I still want my own stuff to be valid. I don’t want to be a buzzy artist, I just want to make good music.
Ovrld: Outside of the local scene, and Kacey Musgraves, who are the artists you are inspired by and aspire to be like?
LG: Definitely Kacey [laughs]. Everyone is always like “She came out of nowhere!” It makes me so mad. Because first of all, her debut album won the Grammy for best country album.
Ovrld: I even heard a thing the other day on the radio, I think on KUTX, where an older country artist was talking about when Kacey Musgraves was 9 years old, her grandma brought her over to him at a show and asked if she could sing a song with him on stage. And he was like “Sure…” but then he was blown away by her talent even then.
LG: Exactly. She’s sang at the White House, she’s been doing things forever. She moved to Nashville when she was 19 and her first single was “Merry-Go-Round” which was so opposite from what was playing on like country radio. Especially for a girl. It would have been one thing if a dude had released that song. But apparently she really fought her record label because they were like “This is way too sad. This is your debut single. Are you positive this is what you want to do?” And it’s because of that song that I rekindled my relationship with country. For a while it was just a bunch of bro-y white dudes.
LG: Yeah, I could have written a country song in five minutes then because it was just about trucks and beer and jeans [laughs]. So hearing her and that song when I was 16, it was just like “This is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before.” And I realized “Oh, she’s citing all these older badass women in country that I’ve never heard before.”
That was super important for me, and following her career in general. I like that she’s just always doing her own thing and being rewarded for that because it’s authentic.
Honestly, Taylor Swift is very much the same way for me. She started out country and crossed over to pop. I think the throughline with her is that regardless of what it sounds like, it’s always her and honest.
And then people like Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridges and Lucy Dacus were very important to me. That was the first time I saw girls being really accepted in indie and DIY spaces. I know now there was a time in the ‘90s like that and I’ve seen that history but it felt covered up for me for a while.
All I grew up with in high school were bands that were just all men. I love Young the Giant, I love Vampire Weekend, I could go on and on. But it was cool to see women being at the forefront of indie again. And really good songwriting being at the forefront of indie again. I think for a while it was just about the compositions around it and whatever you were saying in the middle was just whatever. Not to discredit people’s writing but I would look up lyrics and it would just be like four lines, repeated over and over and over again. Which can be cool, but clearly it was about the music and not so much the content.
I just really appreciate that Lucy and Phoebe and Julien and Soccer Mommy and Mitski and all these women are making the choice to write their feelings and get empathy from other people. It was really cool to me and I hadn’t realized this could also be appreciated.
I think for so long I just thought, if I’m a woman I can either be a pop star or I can be a girl in a band. Those girls really changed it for me. It made me take a step back and realize “Maybe I can actually do this. Maybe there is a world in which me being a songwriter is feasible.”
LG: It’s a song I’ve been sitting on for a while. I honestly probably have an album’s worth of material at this point. But there’s, y’know, finances and time and things like that to deal with. So from this point, I’m just going to do singles and then see how those go. It’s more feasible and makes more sense. Eventually I’d like to get an album out.
This song in particular is almost comical. It’s just so blunt and talks about this first date I went on from Bumble or Tinder, I honestly don’t even remember which. It was so mediocre. So bad. It was such a waste of time. I could have been watching a show or going out with my friends instead. It was so boring. It was so much self-talking.
Ovrld: It’s the worst when you can’t even get a good story out of it.
LG: Right, right, but then I did, because I realized “This is a song.” The following week I went to this party with this group of people I was already drifting away from, and I was like “I swear to god, if one more person asks me about school at a party…” Because that was all we could talk about, because we don’t know each other.
So I was again thinking this is such a waste of time, such a waste of energy. The last verse of the song goes into therapy, because I hadn’t really started going to therapy until last year. That was huge for me. I wrote a lot about that. So it talks about how a lot of the time I’m sitting in that chair and I don’t even know how to articulate what I’m frustrated with.
Ovrld: Oh, yeah, I know that feeling [laughs]
LG: Exactly. So the line goes “Most days I can’t make much sense of what happens behind my eyes/But I still pay an hour for someone to listen and here me try,” because that’s better than nothing. The throughline with that and the hopefulness of all these bad dates and awkward parties and sitting in a therapist’s chair and not knowing how to articulate, through all that we have good friends. Or hopefully. I hope everyone has a support system.
For me I’m very lucky to have a good group of people who are with me through the bad dates and awkward parties and they’ll leave early with me so we can actually go do something fun. I know I can always go to them and obviously they can’t give me medical advice [laughs] but they can listen and put a hand on my back and be like “it’s okay.”
Ovrld: Which is mostly what you want, to be heard.
LG: Exactly, which is why I’m a songwriter [laughs]
Lainey Gonzales plays our POPtober event at MusX with Goons and more tomorrow, October 19th
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover