By Annie Reuter
For Angaleena Presley, it took a gold record with her band the Pistol Annies to muster up the courage to finish and self-produce her own solo album. Seven years in the making, American Middle Class (out Oct. 14) shows the world who Presley really is.
“I got introduced to the world as Holler Annie with these two blondes beside me,” she tells Radio.com of her bandmates Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. “I feel like I had to get in a band, make history and kick down a door so I could walk through it as a solo artist…I’m an older artist and I could sit there and be like, ‘Oh this should have happened.’ No. If it didn’t happen like this, you wouldn’t have had this story to write or this song that so many people connect with. I feel like everything happened the way it was supposed to happen for me.”
Presley has no trouble speaking her mind and American Middle Class makes that clear. On each of the 12 tracks, she gives an honest portrayal of her life covering the moments that others may want to forget. On “Drunk,” which Presley wrote with Sarah Siskind (who has written for Alison Krauss), she details the hurdles she faced during the “most horrific, tumultuous, part of my marriage,”
“I had gotten pregnant three months after knowing my ex-husband,” she recalls. “We were both wild, living the artist lifestyle and I got pregnant and I grew up and he really struggled with it. He just couldn’t do it. I went to write that day and I just started venting to [Siskind] because a lot of times writing appointments that’s like our therapy. We can’t really afford therapy at that stage in our career so we are literally each others’ therapists.”
This writing session had Presley venting about her no-good drunk ex with exact words from her complaint finding their way into the song.
“I’m in there and I’m going, ‘I don’t know. I’ve read all these books and I bought a nightgown.’ He was a drinker. He loved his beer and he just couldn’t figure out how to not do it,” she explains. “‘I buy the groceries, I wear my lipstick.’ And [Siskind’s] sitting there going, ‘You know that’s our song.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not writing a song, I just came here to talk.’”
While it felt good to get these things off her chest, Presley admits that she’s worried to play the song for her seven-year-old son being that it’s a “laundry list of how my marriage ended.”
“It’s so scary to think about the day that he puts two and two together and he’s like, ‘Oh, daddy did that?’” she says. “I’ve always tried to be really honest with him.”
While sitting with Presley at a French bakery in the heart of Midtown, she even tells a “TMI” story about how she had to explain menstruation to her son after he found a tampon in her car. “He’s like, ‘What is this?’ and I explained to him a woman’s cycle,” she says. “So I feel like that’s how I’m going to handle it. ‘Mommy and Daddy were young and wild and you were in Mommy’s tummy and Daddy didn’t have a baby in his tummy and it took him longer to be a grownup.’ I think I just figured it out in this interview. That sounded pretty good to me.”
Another song that strikes a chord is “Pain Pills,” which Presley says is a protest song about the struggle coal mining communities face with prescription medication, specifically Oxycontin. It’s something that hits close to home for the singer.
“I started [that song] as I was on my way home from a funeral,” she says. “A friend of mine from high school OD’d [and] at the funeral the mom was walking in going, ‘Oh they had a heart problem. It was a heart issue.’ We knew what was going on. This is when I realized, this is starting to become a problem.”
Presley gets emotional when she talks of the song and the “hush-hush culture” that surrounds prescription drug addiction in her small hometown of Beauty, K.Y., where she says the problem is worse than most other places in the country. It took her four years to finish writing “Pain Pills” and once she did she learned of a family member who was suffering with the same pills she’s singing about.
“Addiction has really changed the face of my personal life and a lot of things in my family. That song just haunts me,” she says. “If there’s anything I would get up on a soapbox for, it’s prescription medication. I just think it’s a travesty how careless doctors are with that stuff. It still happens. You don’t hand a 16-year-old a bottle of heroin and say, ‘Here you go. Just quit taking these after 12.’ Let’s start talking about it, let’s get some resources, let’s get some help.”
Husband, manager and co-producer Jordan Powell says American Middle Class is a project where it feels like they “caught lighting in a bottle.” While tracks like “Grocery Store” talk about real life and how “everybody’s got something that they’re searching for,” others like “Surrender” showcase Presley’s vulnerability. “I’m hardheaded and it’s hard for me to ask for help,” she sings on the album closer where she speaks of hitting rock bottom and finally accepting personal weakness, a vulnerability similar to which Powell finds in the Pistol Annies’.
“For fans that liked the Annies stuff, they’re going to love hers. It feels to me that the Annies dealt with a lot of the same subject matter. This to me is the same subject matter but a little more serious tone,” he says.
But it’s perhaps current single “Ain’t No Man,” which makes it quite clear that she isn’t going to compromise which best describes Presley’s perseverance and perhaps her feminist leanings.
“I just think women are amazing creatures and I’m so glad that I am a woman. I just want to empower women,” she says. “We still have to fight for equality. I think we’re a group of people who have been discriminated against, probably more than any other group on the planet. I just feel like we need to stick together. We need to love our men, but we need to make sure that they don’t take advantage.”
The empowerment anthem also proves that she practices what she preaches. “Ain’t No Man” was the first song Presley wrote that she created the demo herself, which she calls a “crazy work tape.” She found things in her home to record which act as instruments on the track, like a cigarette lighter being lit which can be heard at the track’s opening.
“That was the first thing I took to my publisher and he listened to it and he looked at me like I had lost my mind.”
It was in that moment that she realized this is the music she will make, regardless of what her publisher — or any man — told her. She would be just as happy to be singing these songs on a front porch somewhere where she can sing it to “whomever will come to have ice tea with me.”
“Ain’t no man gonna tell me to put a bikini on and wallow around on the hood of a truck. I’m going to sing songs about real things and real problems and real joy and real grief,” she says. “This is the only thing I know how to do. I can’t fit into the model. I guess I broke the mold and I’m not going away.”
Angaleena Presley’s American Middle Class is available on iTunes.