"I've been divorced, broke, and didn’t know what to do,” Angaleena Presley says without pity one not-quite rainy morning at The Post East on Fatherland. “I’ve stared that down, thought, ‘Well, I could just knock that iron over, burn it all down, and catch the house on fire.’ ”
She smiles. People are scattered about, drinking coffee, exchanging details of their lives. The raven-haired woman delivers the above with the same intensity as the people talking about dinner, or what they watched on Netflix.
“Songs save my life all the time, both hearing them and writing them,” she continues. “So, I wrote ‘Housewife’s Prayer,’ and I just kept going.”
“Prayer” was on the Pistol Annie’s 2011 platinum Hell on Heels. The Annies are Presley’s trio with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe, both equally known for their brazen artistic convictions. Presley, who opted to stay DIY for her debut, American Middle Class, and her recent release, Wrangled, believes those convictions come with a strong sense of responsibility. To the fans. To the truth. To herself.
The Bette Page-evoking woman, raised in Beauty, Ky., has seen enough private jets and all night van hauls to understand the wages of music. It’s not for glamour, fame, or money; you can only do it to find a reason to believe, or hang on.
“What I do is open doors and make it OK to start conversations about hard things,” she explains. “You know, ‘My son’s on pills,’ ‘My daughter’s a meth whore.’ Because it happens and ‘it’s a shame.’ But it’s not a shame, it’s life.”
Presley shies away from nothing. The child of a coal miner and a schoolteacher, she was raised to be pretty and popular, but found herself gravitating to the punks and outliers when her teenage creative bent hit.
Whip smart, Presley paid attention in that tiny town. The characters she saw turned into songs. Be it the seducing preacher of the slinky “Only Blood,” the failed gold digger of “Mama I Tried,” the fed-up white trash on the jack-hammering “Country,” or the pregnant teen barely holding it together in “High School,” Presley electrocutes the conflict and tears open the shame.
“I’m 40; I’ve got nothing to lose,” she concedes of her production decisions. “I’ve been in every nook and cranny of this business, and I want to be in this business the way that I am. You’ve got three minutes to change someone’s mood or life. I try not to pigeonhole myself; I want (Wrangled) to be music someone at Berklee (College of Music) would listen to, or my father sitting on the front porch, eating squirrel gravy.”
It’s certainly music outlaws and legends can agree on. Rapper Yelawolf freestyles on “Country,” the late Guy Clark does a recitation at the top of “Cheer Up Little Darling,” and rockabilly siren Wanda Jackson cowrites the rural noir post-hook-up anthem “Good Girl Down.”
“It’s interesting to hear her perspective of when she came up,” Presley says of Jackson. “What stands out is nothing’s really changed about being fair. Here’s a woman who changed everything, who dated Elvis, and she’s still going! When we wrote, she was all done up; she apologized for being late, saying ‘I took a little tumble coming off the plane.’
“Up close, you could see, she’d really had a fall. When I suggested maybe we postpone, she said, ‘You can’t keep a good girl down,’ ... and I knew: We had to write that.”
Songs are where she finds them, just like work tapes feature drum parts banged out on a skillet or a pill bottle for shaker. From the ground up, she wants something less polished and more organic. “There’s a vision and sounds I have in my head, and that’s what I’m going to get,” she explains. “When we started mixing, I said, ‘I want this mixed like a Tom Petty record.’ When the mixes came in, there was a guitar way over there (on the left), and there was steel over there (the far left of the sonic palette).”
Mention the prickly observations, the truculent humor, or the tart twang to many of the guitars, or the female gauntlet she runs through the good girl tropes, Presley nods. Not a crusader, she’s just trying to level the playing field.
“This isn’t about girl power, but everyone having a fair chance,” she says. “I want a world where some girl can wake up and still be Loretta Lynn. There are dudes in my hometown, and [what’s on country radio], those are their anthems. I wouldn’t take that away from them for anything. But the girls in those towns need anthems, truths, songs they can live in. Where are they going to get them?”