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Natalie Maines leaves the Dixie Chicks nest on solo album

For Journal Register Newspapers

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Once a Chick, always a Chick -- at least when it comes to the Dixie Chicks.

But Natalie Maines, the multi-platinum country trio's lead singer, doesn't necessarily feel she's rooted to that roost anymore.

It's been seven years since "Taking the Long Way Home," the group's Grammy Award-winning last album. There have been only sporadic live performances since, and Maines' bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, even formed another band of their own, Court Yard Hounds, to fill the time.

And with this week's release of her first solo album, the decidedly non-country "Mother," Maines is clearly stepping even further away from the group -- but not, she claims, by design.

"It took me a long time, 'cause I thought I was cheating on Martie and Emily," a black-clad Maines, 38, says while discussing "Mother," which was produced by +Ben Harper and comes out May 7, in a conference room in the Intercontinental Hotel in Austin, Texas. The night before she and Harper -- joined on one song by Maines' father, famed Americana writer-producer-musician Lloyd Maines -- had played a show at the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference, and she seems tentatively at ease with the idea of working under her own name and outside of the confines of the Chicks.

"There's comfort in having three people say yes or no," Maines acknowledges with a smile. "You can just be more confident in your decisions or choices when three are agreed; 'OK, if the three of us agree, then this is the right thing.' And this (album) was a lot of just asking myself, 'What are we gonna do now?' 'Uh...' " She then breaks into a hearty laugh.

But, Maines explains, the time had come for her to explore a musical path that was entirely her own.

"As a woman, as a human, I reached that time in my life where you just maybe become OK with what you want to do and with yourself," says Maines, who sang mostly rock, pop and R&B before joining the Dixie Chicks in 1995 and making headlines in 2003 after criticizing then-U.S. President George W. Bush while on stage in London. "I didn't dream about my solo career. I never thought about it. I really didn't. It felt weird not to have (Maguire and Robison) with me.

"I was glad they were doing Court Yard Hounds, because I felt like everyone was waiting for me, and I felt a lot of pressure and I know they have such a need to do music. I didn't like the feeling of being responsible for taking that away from them, so I was glad they found they were doing Court Yard Hounds and making the music they wanted to.

"I'm sure they'd rather I do a Dixie Chicks record, and I always liked what the three of us had and the sound we made. But country music was not what was the most honest to me. I would never have made a country solo album ever in a million years. So it was nice to just have everything open and anything possible and have no confinements on me, creatively."

Maines took music off the front-burner after the Chicks came off the road from supporting "Taking the Long Way." She did some collaborations with Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond, and she recorded a version of "God Only Knows" for HBO's "Big Love," but mostly she spent time raising Jackson Slade and Beckett Finn, Maines' children with her second husband, actor Adrian Pasdar. "I didn't have the itch or anything to make (an album)," she says. But then she got a call from Harper, a friend and neighbor in Los Angeles, to help him out with a couple of songs that ultimately wound up on "Mother" -- the hard-rocking "Trained" and the junkie's lament "Vein in Vain."

"I just love Ben," says Maines. "He's just a great, genuine person, so it was easy to say 'yes' to just stopping by the studio and seeing what we might do. And he had a studio on the west side, so it was very convenient. I didn't have to worry about going east of the 405 and being back in time to for homework."

Despite the casual nature of the sessions, however, Maines was nervous.

"Honestly, I had no idea how it would go in the studio," she maintains. "I'm kind of meticulous about things and have definite, strong opinions about what I like and don't like, so really I had no idea if I was going to like their playing. And I was really scared because I like so much. I didn't want to not like it -- then what the hell was I going to say?"

In short order, however, Maines and Harper's group clicked. "We were doing 'Vein in Vain,' and it was like, 'OK, they can play. This is good. Phew...!' she says with another laugh.

Nevertheless, Maines did not feel committed to making an album, even as the ensemble recorded a version of the Pink Floyd song that gave "Mother" its title -- Maines saw Roger Waters perform "The Wall," from which the song hails, twice -- along with good friend Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder's "Without You," the Jayhawks' "I'd Run Away" and the late Jeff Buckley's "Lover You Should've Come Over," a favorite of Maine and Pasdar's. The album also includes "Come Cryin' To Me," a "Taking the Long Way" outtake the Dixie Chicks co-wrote with the Jayhawks' Gary Louris.

"We didn't tell anybody," Maines says of the sessions. "My manager didn't even know I was in the studio until I was seven songs in...It was all just very slow, and it was just right."

Harper adds that, "Since we weren't making a record, there was never the pressure of getting any certain amount of material recorded, and it was the most non pressure filled environment I've ever created in, musically. We'd come in, we'd set our own hours, we'd have long lunches. It was great. It was a very special experience for me."

Now that "Mother" is coming out, however, Maines says she has no idea where it will fit or who its audience will be. "I don't think there's anything on here for country radio," Maines notes -- and she certainly didn't court favor there by likening the country industry to an abusive lover during one early interview for the album. "I'm just happy for anyone who'll listen, but the judgment just isn't as honest and pure as it used to be."

Still, she'll be courting more reaction by hitting the road to support "Mother," hopefully with Harper and his band. She's "always open to touring" with the Dixie Chicks, too, and the trio has one date on the books this year, for July 13 in Saskatchewan. Maines isn't talking about a second solo album yet -- "I don't know. Who ever knows?," she says -- but she makes it clear that she's more likely to do that than to go back into the studio with the Chicks.

"I love our stuff and I love our fans, but it's hard for me to imagine making a country record again," Maines says. "And I don't think Martie and Emily would be into doing something else. I think 'Taking the Long Way' is as far outside of country as they would be comfortable going. That's my favorite of our records, but I don't know if they would say the same thing.

"So we'll see. ('Mother') is the start of something new for me. I feel like I have to win (people) over again, which I haven't felt for 15 years. And I like the challenge."

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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