If Natalie Hemby’s songwriting style feels like a familiar, comfortable old friend, that’s no wonder: A two-decade veteran of the country music industry, she’s the pen behind some of country radio’s most recognizable hits, writing songs for artists like Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Little Big Town.
Like a lot of songwriters, Hemby began her career with dreams of releasing music under her own name. In Nashville, though, she quickly realized her passion for songwriting and found massive success in a mostly behind-the-scenes capacity in the industry. More recently, she stepped into the spotlight as one-fourth of The Highwomen, a supergroup also featuring Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Brandi Carlile.
Though fans have heard her voice as part of that group and known her songs for years, her newest project, Pins and Needles, is a landmark release for Hemby, presenting a clearer picture of her artistic identity as a whole than she’s ever been able to incorporate into a single body of work.
Pins and Needles is full of the signature turns of phrase and expertly crafted melodies that have made her a mainstay in the songwriting scene for so many years. What’s new, of course, is that it’s her voice singing the songs, and it places the spotlight on her musical vision, informed as much by the grooves of ’80s and ’90s alt-rock as it is by the country genre’s emphasis on storytelling.
That gritty, rhythmic foundation lays the groundwork for a diverse track list. On “Banshee,” it’s eerie and forlorn, braiding the spooky grunge of an early ’90s rock ballad with the country genre’s rich tradition of mining murder ballad lore. Then there’s the free-wheeling “Pinwheel,” a Tom Petty-inspired track full of breezy, rhythmic whimsy.
But the biggest juxtaposition in Pins and Needles is between two moods: optimism and jaded world-weariness. Hemby has always had a gift for nostalgia and the kind of simple, effective songwriting that conjures a mood or memory. That talent was part of what made her such a success when she first entered the music business, and her knack for it is just as strong on this album, as evidenced by songs like “Heart Condition” and “Lake Air.”
In the chorus of the latter track, Hemby recalls the memory of potent and fleeting young love, singing, “We were silhouettes, ghosts in the rain / And we almost froze when we left our clothes / By the water bank / Every single word felt like a dare / When you kissed my lips, I breathed you in / And kept you there … ”
But just one song later, Hemby trades in that sweeping romance for grim realism on “The Hardest Part About Business.” “Knowledge is key, but if you’re like me / You’re gonna wish you didn’t know the truth,” she sings on that track. “Damned if you do, fired if you don’t / And dead if they think it’s you.”
Grit and hard-earned world experience are essential ingredients in Pins and Needles, which is as much a product of Hemby’s wisdom and years in the music industry as it is her ability to write a starry-eyed love song. Without her decades in the industry, she could never have written a song like “Heroes,” the first single she shared ahead of her new album’s release, which cautions listeners against blindly worshipping those in the spotlight.
Coming from an artist who has already made her mark as an acclaimed, hit-making, award-winning songwriter — and someone who is also in a band with superstars — Pins and Needles certainly isn’t a conventional breakout album. Most artists put out their mainstream debut at the beginning of their career, not 20 years in. But with its nuanced, confident delivery and skillful self-awareness, Pins and Needles is a compelling argument for more debut albums from artists who already have a couple decades of experience under their belts.