Q&A: Pistol Annies On Three-Way Songwriting Sessions, Organic Groups, And Reeling In Elvis Fans


Much of what you need to know about the Pistol Annies is encapsulated in this delightful couplet from their song “Lemon Drop”: “I owe two dozen quarters to a washing machine before these clothes will ever really shine/ But I got me a man that just don’t care if his little darling’s got underwear.”

Other things you should know about the sweet-and-sour trio: 1. Its members are the country superstar Miranda Lambert and two of her Nashville singer-songwriter pals, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. 2. The band’s debut, Hell on Heels, is out this week. 3. It’s great. We corralled the ladies in a Beverly Hills hotel room Monday afternoon for a chat.

Most people didn’t know about the Pistol Annies before you performed on CBS’s Girls’ Night Out special in April. Four months later, there’s an album. Such haste!

Ashley Monroe: We’d just been writing songs, then there was a chance to go into the studio, so we were like, “What are our six favorite?” Then we had another chance to cut four more at the end of one of Miranda’s sessions for her new album.

Angaleena Presley: We never sat down and said, “Okay, let’s write for the record.” We just had all these songs and were like, “Badass—let’s put ’em out.” Our record was done before we signed our record deal.

Hell on Heels sounds like it was more fun than work to make.

Monroe: It was. We were particular about how the songs sounded, but sometimes when records are made, you go in like, “What about this note? Are you singing the right harmony?” This wasn’t like that. We love singing the songs together so much that we just wanted to go in and do it like when we’re sitting here on the couch.

Presley: Nothing was thought through. Our first performance ever as a band was literally on national television. Until then it had just been us sitting in a room with our guitar. And we were like, “Hey, let’s just show it everybody!”

Monroe: With the Judds and Reba [McEntire] and Carrie Underwood in the front row.

Miranda Lambert: We kind of went from zero to a hundred.

What was the initial bond between the three of you?

Monroe: Liquor.

Presley: Honest music.

Lambert: Admiration for each other’s talent.

How’d you get from there to “Let’s write some tunes together”?

Monroe: Me and Miranda had written before, when we first met. Angaleena and I had been set up by our publishers to write in Nashville.

You went on a blind date.

Presley: We did, and we fell in love.

Lambert: Then Ashley introduced me and Angaleena.

Presley: And now it’s a love triangle.

What’s it like to get together with a stranger to write a song?

Monroe: Sometimes you just sit there and talk.

Presley: For me there’s no middle ground. You feel it right at the beginning and you write a great song because you have chemistry, or it’s like getting a root canal. You’re just sitting there like, “Why did I do this for my life?” It takes a lot out of you.

Monroe: I’ve left bad writing sessions crying.

Lambert: We’ve never had a day like that—at all. I was doing a production meeting the other day and I came back on the bus and the girls were like, “Don’t be mad—we wrote a song.” I was like, “Assholes! I’m trying to make our stage look better and you’re writing without me!”

Presley: We tried to hold it in, but we couldn’t stop ourselves.

A three-way songwriting session isn’t too many cooks in the kitchen?

Lambert: Not for us—we’ve got a big kitchen.

Ashley and Angaleena, you’ve both written for other artists. How does writing for yourselves differ?

Presley: At the beginning it was hard for me to adjust because I was so used to doing the opposite: meeting at 10:30, getting your coffee, getting to know each other, blah blah blah.

Lambert: I hate that way.


Lambert: I mean, I just didn’t do well. I’m way too protective. I feel so uncreative. When I first went to Nashville, I did the same exact thing. They were like, “This is how you do it.” I’d only written songs with people I knew—my friends, people that I was willing to give my best line to because I knew they were good enough. Sometimes you write with somebody, you don’t know what they’re about. You give them one of your best lines, they could ruin your song.

The album is stripped-down in a way that kind of emphasizes the songwriting more than anything else.

Monroe: The songs all have stories and there’s a lot of imagery in them. It’s cool that the band played to the songs. “Beige,” for example, is very slow and dreamy—the girl’s kind of in a daze because she’s knocked up and walking down the aisle.

Lambert: It’s not a track that you just stick the lyrics in. It’s the other way around: The track is build around the story.

You wrote primarily on acoustic guitar, right? That vibe is preserved on the record.

Presley: We’re all self-taught guitar players. I fingerpick, but it’s totally in a ridiculous way that’s not supposed to be. So I literally had to sit down and teach Randy Scruggs how to play the part from “Lemon Drop” because it was so in my own way that I created. And he did it on there perfect—he sounds just like me.

Country has a lot of co-ed groups right now: Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, Little Big Town. An all-female outfit is less common.

Lambert: I think we stand out. We’ve definitely found a niche for being a girl group.

Why aren’t there more girl groups?

Monroe: There probably are. The music business is kind of tough right now, and I think everybody’s just trying to figure out how to get heard and get out there.

Lambert: I think, too, when somebody says, “Oh, you’re a great singer and they’re a great writer—let’s put ’em together and make a group,” sometimes that works and you have Brooks & Dunn. And sometimes that doesn’t work. Nobody threw us together. Nobody said, “This is how you’re gonna look and this is your part in the band.” I think because of the honesty and the organic feel of this group, we’re gonna carve out our own little niche that’s just for us. But that’s what everybody does. That’s how you become a star: You find your niche and you stick to it the whole way through.

Given each of your experiences in the music business, what’s your take on the industry right now?

Presley: I think Miranda did a lot for country music on her own. She kind of opened the door for artists like me and Ashley and this band. If there hadn’t been Miranda Lambert, then I don’t think Pistol Annies could have been. She got “Gunpowder and Lead” on the radio!

Lambert: This is kind of the left-of-center outlaw direction. But then you’ve got people like Taylor Swift who bring in a whole other huge audience to country, which is awesome. There’s room for all of it.

There’s not much pop on your record compared to Taylor Swift’s stuff. Yet because you’re three young women, you stand a similar chance of attracting listeners who couldn’t care less about, say, the Grascals.

Presley: We all love Elvis. We hope that people who love Elvis will love this record.

Wait, I don’t follow. Everybody loves Elvis.

Presley: Exactly!