Amelita, the second record by part-time Dixie Chicks Martie Maguire and Emily Robison is more a short-story anthology than a country record. Unlike their first record, this one is fiction, not autobiography: It’s populated by acid-tongued backstabbers and rock ‘n’ roll heartthrobs and women who took wrong turns and fell on hard times. But though it doesn’t shy away from adversity, the thing that defines Amelita more than anything else is its optimism. “The World Smiles” assures that, “If I believe in the good stuff and open my eyes up/ the world smiles,” and “Gets You Down” is a gently swaying ballad of strength and solidarity. Its backdrop of warm, rich country music is the perfect complement to such uplifting sentiments.
Editor-in-chief J. Edward Keyes caught up with the sisters by phone a few hours before a show in Wisconsin.
Amelita is the second record you guys have made as Court Yard Hounds. I know the first time out, there were a lot of hurdles you had to clear, recording in this new configuration. How did your experience last time inform your work on this record?
Martie Maguire: I think we were conscious of keeping some things the same, but breaking out and trying to evolve as well. The things we kept the same were a lot of our favorite musicians that were on the first record. And as far as the songwriting, we just wrote a ton more, and we wrote together more. We also did some songwriting with other people — we were opening to broadening the songwriting pool. I think it was important for us to keep the Court Yard Hounds sound — to really solidify that on the sophomore album, but also to try some experimental sounds a little bit.
Emily Robison: It let us relax a little more, having one album under our belt. I know I felt more at ease and relaxed. And just getting to work with Jim Scott again — there’s a lot of things that you know work and you go with them.
You worked on the first record in relative secrecy. Did you feel any need to preserve that when you started working on Amelita?
Robison: Oh, not at all. We were tweeting and letting people know all the time. And I think the secrecy the first time around was borne out of the fact that we didn’t really know what it was going to be. We didn’t know if we were going to release it, we didn’t know what it was, so we didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag for many reasons. Having that veil of secrecy allowed us to tinker a little more on the first record. Now, I think, we just feel like a band. We’re not a side project or a vanity project anymore. I mean, we never felt like we were, but people put us in that category.
You can hear that on the record. One of the things I keep coming back to as I listen to the record is the fact that a lot of the songs are centered on the idea of positivity. On the opening track, you take down someone who’s relentlessly negative. The chorus of “The World Smiles” is kind of about focusing on the positive things in life and reaping the rewards of that. I was wondering why you kept returning to those themes?
Maguire: I think in general Emily and I are really happy people. We’ve got children and they’re happy and healthy. There are things that bring us down — I was going through a divorce on this record like Emily was going through a divorce on the last record — but we have different ways of dealing with that, and I think we were just in a really good place when we were writing these songs. It’s easy sometimes to write about traumatic things or sad things — maybe it’s the same when you make a movie: if you’ve got something heart-wrenching going on, it’s easier to pull the watcher in. I think we make a conscious effort to challenge ourselves to write happy, upbeat music, because that’s how we feel. The songs are harder to come by for sure, though.
It’s funny that you used the movie analogy. One of the other things I noticed was that most of the songs on the record are written about specific characters, rather than being first-person.
Robison: I just felt like between the first album and this album I came out up from underneath the water a little bit, and I was able to look at other people’s lives and be an observer of life instead of just looking inward all the time — which is where I was four or five years ago. It was refreshing for me to be able to either live vicariously through other people or notice other people’s lives and still relate them to my own but not be so egocentric about writing. It’s a little bit broader view. It’s not that it was necessarily conscious, it’s just where we were.
The more I started living with the record, the more it started feeling like Spoon River Anthology, or something, where all of these characters were coexisting in this very specific world. I really liked the way you were able to create that sense of place. I wanted to ask about “Sunshine,” specifically — which is kind of a kiss-off to someone who is just cynical and down about everything all the time (“Tonight you’ll grace us with all your inner presence/ While your back-handed compliments let the air out of the room”). Was that based on a specific person?
[Both laugh loudly]
Maguire: We both always say that everybody knows this [kind of] person. For us, it was several different people. There might be a line that made us think of one person or a line that made us think of another. What came first was that Emily just kept hearing, “We call you Sunshine.” That part came first. I don’t think we knew we were going to be tongue-in-cheek about it until the words started coming out in the verses. But it’s not any one person in particular. We each have different people in mind. [Both laugh again.]
You’ve got that great line in there: “The world will pass you over while you’re waiting for a crown.”
Maguire: Wait, how does it go again? [Laughs.] I think I was picturing the singer, Emily, being like, “I’m trying to help you be positive, I want you to see the world in a positive way and I’m worried that you’re gonna miss it if you don’t open your eyes and see all the good there is.” It’s one of those people who are a little entitled — things come easy to them. They’re gonna miss the day-to-day, living in the moment type things while they’re waiting for the big stuff to happen.
I think that line brings an element of hope into the song, too. I wanted to ask about the title track, “Amelita.” A few of the lines seem to me to be about someone who gets led astray by some of the temptations of fame, or someone who got sidetracked on their way to fame.
Robison: [Pauses.] It’s interesting that you read it that way. That song is more about the title character — it was actually inspired by a time we were shooting a video for “Long Time Gone” in this little border town in South Texas. We were in the market square and we come out of our trailers with our makeup on and our hair done and our nice clothes that our stylist picked out for us, and we realized within 10 minutes that we were in the middle of Boys’ Town and we looked over and there was a small, run-down motel and these girls are standing out there on the porch, these teenage prostitutes. That dichotomy was so condemning to us, realizing that we put ourselves right in the middle of a very, very different reality from other people. That stuck with me for a really long time. And then slowly the words started coming to me. I just was painting a picture of this person, and I kept hearkening back to that time. You could have picked any one of those girls and the song is about her.
That’s a really harrowing story. Did you find yourselves in situations like that often?
Robison: I think it’s more that, especially as women, you observe other women who make those kind of choices in an entertainment career that they hope will get them where they’re going faster or get discovered. We’ve never personally come across that or had to deal with, like, the director’s couch, but you do observe it and you do ask yourself, “Why? Why would someone do this? Why would you do that, as a woman?”
Another song with really evocative imagery is “Rock All Night” — you keep coming back to this central metaphor of the Himalaya Ride Is that borne out of a childhood spent going to carnivals?
Robison: Martie and I grew up going to the Texas State Fair every year. And I think it’s called different things in different parts of the world, depending on which carnie group comes through your town, but I always remembered it as the Himalaya Ride. There’s other ones, called the “Rockin’” something-or-other. But having that in our past — I remember always wanting to sit next to the cute boy on the Himalaya Ride because you’d get pushed into him once it got going. Those sort of memories. We had the music for that song for a while, and while we were on tour I took my kids down to Santa Cruz and we went on the boardwalk and that ride was there, and it just brought back all of those memories.