LeAnn Rimes on the Quarter-Century Journey From ‘Blue’ to Her Stirring New Album, ‘God’s Work’

·25-min read

LeAnn Rimes has been “Blue” about a few things lately, but not about a boy. On her new album, “God’s Work,” her 19th studio album, the singer deals with the darker sides of religion and the patriarchy —areas in which, for her, there’s some overlap — on top of a general pandemic-induced anxiety informing some of the more shadowy material. But the record is ultimately an upper, with guests like Ziggy Marley, Mickey Guyton, Sheila E., Ben Harper, Robert Randolph and Aloe Blacc contributing a palpable sense of community when she comes around to anthems of univesal love and acceptance.

Sitting down with Variety in her home in the hills northwest of L.A., Rimes explored the quarter-century-plus journey from “Blue” — the massive hit that made her a household name when she was just 13 — to the depth she now possesses as a veteran who’s all of 40. Her longtime professional partner, co-writer/producer Darrell Brown, joined in with thoughts about what she’s undertaking in putting occasionally more provocative music out into the world as part of a healing journey she wants to share.

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“God’s Work” bears few marks of the country milieu she started out in, although she does hear Robert Randolph’s extended sacred-steel solo at the end of the title track as an echo of the steel guitar that once showed up on her country records… and she says there’s a “primal yodel” in there, too, if you listen for it. But she’s happy to speak up about how she veered off and back onto the country trail over the years — speaking of places where a patriarchy is felt — even as “God’s Work” exists in the world of what she calls “world-acana,” with its mixture of classic pop piano balladry and uptempo global music rhythms. Adventurous, accomplished and stirring, it sits with the best of Rimes’ work… whatever intervention she might or might not have had from a God whose name this former Baptist girl stylizes with a lower-case G these days.

“God’s Work” is not, obviously, an album predominantly concerned with romantic love songs.

Rimes: Yeah, I guess I haven’t thought of it that way. But there’s a lot of love on the record… I always knew “God’s Work” would be the title of the record, because I felt like everything that we were talking about was kind of under that umbrella. It was an exploration for me of: Can we get past the dualistic nature of black and white and good and bad? And can we start to live within the gray area, or allow it to at least be present more? It was an emotional exploration of more unpleasant, uncomfortable emotions that I hadn’t really touched upon in my work, or even for myself as a person and as a woman — anger and rage and grief and things that I think we’re taught aren’t as acceptable to bring to the forefront. So for me, it was a real upheavaling of sorts, kind of excavating what had been there that I hadn’t touched before. Most of this record was written right after we all went into our homes (for quarantine). So I was left, as we all were, with all of these difficult emotions about things that I had run away from for a long time that I finally had time to sit with. It came out in song.

In “The Wild,” a song about resisting the patriarchy, you sing about “the persecution of the woman — the burning has gone on for too fucking long.” Is this maybe the first F-word on a LeAnn Rimes record?

No, it’s not. It’s the second. [The previous instance was on 2106’s “Remnants.”] We have a “fuck.” We have a “goddamn.” We have a few things (like that), which is funny. It’s such an interesting record because the title is “God’s Work” —  I mean, I knew what I was doing with that title. [Laughs.] Especially with a small G.

We just have to warn you — it’s part of Variety’s style guide to capitalize all titles, so we will be running with the capital G for that album and song title, but we’ll note that you style all your titles lower-case, as “god’s work,” etc.

All good! But I think that it was a reclamation for myself of that word. And with having my “Wholly Human” podcast (via iHeart), this was just like banking off of that and creating that idea into music form, where both sides, the dualistic nature of who I believe we are, is explored and nothing’s left out. I think it was really about bringing the humanity back into the holiness of what I believe creation and love and God is. I grew up Southern Baptist, and I ran as far as I could away from it. So for me, this was really exploring, on songs like “The Wild,” my own sexuality and repression of it, and all the ways in which I’ve felt like I’ve had to fracture myself in order to kind of fit into the mold of what religion and society and everything has said we should be. It was really reclaiming back all of those parts of myself and allowing those pieces to speak that haven’t had a voice. I’ve said you can insert “Love’s Work” or “Creation’s Work.” I know God can be a really polarizing word for a lot of people, but that’s kind of why I love it. I think it gives people the opportunity, through their humanity, with this record, to be able to reclaim what that is for themselves. So if people have looked at it and said, “Oh, it’s a Christian record,” sure, it is, if you want it to be. I think you can find whatever you’re looking for within the record.

Darrell Brown: When we had started the record, she got a tattoo, and it looked better being all-lowercase, and then she took a picture and put a post up of it just for the hell of it. And then all these people are going, “How dare you! God’s supposed to be with a capital G.” I said, “Well, that’s interesting, since there was no lower or upper case of letters back then [in the Bible’s original Greek]. I’m glad you think so!”

Rimes: As I saw that trickling in, I was like, oh, then I’m on the right path, because we’re still here talking about semantics and whether or not the G is capitalized instead of actually embodying forgiveness and compassion and love and creating a better world for one another. There’s a lot of people who preach it, but are we really living it out? And there’s very few people who do. And so that was the reason for the song is like, OK, well, can we get past our differences of who’s right and who’s wrong and actually start doing the things that we preach about? So that just proved my point. [Laughs.]

In the song “Awakening,” you sing about your tongue being loosened as you become more aware and outspoken. What do you feel like your evolution has been, in terms of you being able to be yourself and be more honest with yourself and express yourself? is that something that’s still happening? Because it feels like you really started becoming a lot more candid a few albums ago.

I think you’re right. I think there’s levels to it. With every record since “Spitfire” (in 2013), I’ve been more and more willing to not worry about what other people think, and willing to tell a deeper truth, my own truth, and I think probably the truth of many others, no matter how polarizing it can be. I feel like I’m just doing my art a disservice if I don’t. And I think that’s spilled over into every part of my life. … I do feel like this is the most recent and exposed. Things I never thought I would talk about on a record, I’m talking about. And when we released “The Wild” (as a pre-album-launch track), I said I felt like it was my coming out. Because if I can go there, then I can pretty much write about anything in my life. Once you’ve touched upon religion and sexuality, I pretty much feel like you can go anywhere after that. [Laughs.]

When you’re doing concerts, you’re representing more than a quarter-century of material and personas. Do you feel like the audience has been receptive to hearing “Blue” and “The Wild” and everything in between?

Yeah, it is. I have women bawling their eyes out after “The Wild.” We celebrated I think 26 years of “Blue” and then released “The Wild” just a few days later, and I was like, look at the evolution from 26 years ago to now. Which is so interesting, because if you handed me “Blue,” I would record it now. That’s such a huge piece of who I am, too. And yeah, people absolutely receive it, and it all seems to work really well. Some places we go, I’m like, “Ooh, we’ll see how this is received tonight.” There’s been a couple times where I’m like, “I don’t know if I should play this song.” But I do it anyway, because I’m like, “You know what? These people need to hear it too.” I went through that with “Love is Love” (a 2016 single). We’d go to certain places with my whole spiel before the song about the LGBTQ community and my uncle who died of AIDS. There were certain timed that I know some of my band and crew were like, “Are you gonna go there tonight?” I’m like, “Yep. I’m gonna go there tonight. I’m not editing myself and they’re gonna have to sit through it.”

And you know what? People receive it. I think I want to give people more credit; they always seem to meet me there in some way. It’s done with love. And we don’t have to agree, but it is my show [laughs], and you did come, so you’re gonna get a new introduction to where I’m at now. People come to hear what they’re familiar with, and they seem to know me a lot deeper and a lot better once they leave. The reaction we get from “The Wild” at every show is that people won’t stop clapping. What’s so interesting is they all kind of sit there for the most part like this [she mimes stiffness] and then about halfway through, because of the groove of it, they’ll start to come out of freeze. And then at the end, they are elated. It’s fun to watch.

So the groove is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down?

I think so. I mean, those grooves are — especially in “Throw My Arms Around the World” and “The Only” — so primal, and especially in “The Only,” so joyous. It lives in the body. And if people can’t get past the lyrics, then definitely the groove will hypnotize them enough for it to go down, for sure.

Do you get anniversary-minded, or resist that? What was it like hitting that quarter-century mark from the explosive beginning of your career?

When we hit 25, I was a bit reluctant to do everything to celebrate the milestone. Because it felt like forever to me, and at the same time, it didn’t feel like 25 years. I felt like I have so much more to do, and usually when people are celebrating 25 years, they’re 20 years older than me, at least. We were just like, “Oh, cool, 25 years — yay — and then here’s a new chapter.” I do feel like celebrating all of that felt like a really good marker for me to like start fresh with this record. But it is a weird place to be, to celebrate 25 years at 39. [Rimes just turned 40.]

That is not a thing a lot of people experience.

No. [Laughter.] It was a bit strange.

There are some amazing vocal things in this new album. In a way, it’s old hat with you — everyone has been struck by your vocals throughout your career. A lot of times when we think of artists who start really young, we hear their voice — their literal voice —maturing over the years. But you started out, vocally. You’re probably the most famous person there is when we think of someone who sounded like an adult at 12….

[Laughs.] True. That’s the alien part of (the new song) “Spaceship”: “I never thought I belonged here.”

Do you feel like you’re still developing vocally in some way, though?

It’s just deepened. I work on my voice more than I ever have. And there are things that happen with age. [Laughs.] You know, I spent two and a half years basically not singing except for in the studio. And I’ve never worked with a voice coach, and I ended up finding this wonderful woman when I did “The Masked Singer.” I would’ve never found her if I had not lost my voice on “The Masked Singer,” but I was like, “Fine. Maybe I’ll go and check this woman out, and maybe she’ll have some trick I don’t know about.” And I ended up just connecting with her so deeply. And I was like, you know what? There’s things shifting in my body — not for the worse, it’s just things are shifting. And I’m like, maybe I need to play around with really training this muscle. And so I did, and I still work with her every so often.

But this album, specifically, is so challenging vocally. Because I use every part of my voice I didn’t know I had. I feel like my interpretation of things is just obviously so much deeper than it ever has been, and the things I’m writing about, I’m so passionate about, and so the way that it comes out is just so connected. But yeah, I listen back to things even a few records ago and I’m like, oh, wow, there’s a different tone. And it was fun to push myself. Some of the high stuff on “Awakening,” I didn’t even know I could sing those notes. I’ve definitely pushed myself into trying new things that I haven’t done before.

Mickey Guyton is someone you have on the album twice as a guest. She’s spoken about what an influence and inspiration you were when she was just starting to sing, and she joined you for a CMT “Crossroads” special you did this past spring. Is it interesting to bring in someone who has been such a fan?

Yeah. It was great to work with her. She was one of the only artists I actually was able to be in the studio with — it was on the very tail end of COVID that we recorded her part. So I just loved her on “The Wild,” singing those lyrics after all she’s been through. Walking in the studio with her, she’s such a super fan and can’t believe she’s there, and at the same time is my peer, and I’ve become friends with her. She’s so sweet. To be honest, I’ve never had relationships with anybody in this business, really. I mean, Reba, a little bit, as far as more of a mentor than anything, but there’s never been anyone my age. And I think I’ve started to create those relationships with this record. The community aspect of it feels like it kind of became solidified, within the industry, at least, to have built new relationships off of these collaborations. It’s not something I had the last 25 years, for sure.

Were there ways in which you and Mickey related, regarding the status whe has now? She is in the country community, but maybe not of it, having this kind of weird thing going on where it’s like, she’s embraced, but maybe not totally embraced, in terms of having radio play. It might have brought up some memories for you, of when you were more strictly country.

Exactly. And that’s exactly what “Spaceship” was written about: I think that I’ve never felt like I belonged here. That line was written out of exactly that: feeling like I’m in this world, but not of it. And especially in the country community, it’s like, oh, I’m in it… ish. I feel like my sound was birthed of it, especially old-school country. But I’ve almost felt like I’ve only had a toe in for a really long time, if even that, which has kind of felt… You know, I love country music. But I never felt like I belonged, or like I was completely welcomed. Especially as a child, there were like so many complexities to that relationship. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of control there, as in any patriarchal piece of our society. And I’m such a rebel in that if you feel like you have me in a box, I’m gonna go over here. And as soon as you think you can put me in a box here, I’m gonna go over there. And so, yeah, there was that piece of me that couldn’t be controlled and couldn’t be labeled that I think people didn’t know what to do with. And now it’s like the thing that I felt was so un-celebrated about me now has a chance to be celebrated. And I definitely celebrate it, because I don’t think I could ever do one thing musically, ever, in my life.

Brown: You don’t have to get Thai food every night. You can change food up every night if you want.

Rimes: Right. After all of this time and of all the records that I’ve made, it’s so interesting, because the industry’s always like, “People have to know what to expect from you.” I’m like, “Well, you know what to expect from me: something different every time.” [Laughs.]

When you said “the thing that was not celebrated about me,” what did you mean by that?

I think that the fact that no one could label me, and they tried really hard for a long time. But when “How Do I Live” crossed over, it was like, all of a sudden I was the outcast, because how dare? How dare I have success? And then, also being so young, and people are like, you’re an anomaly. And then at the same time they think you’re gonna go away (wholesale into a different genre or format), and you don’t, and they’re like, “Well, what do we do with this?” So I think the biggest piece was the fact that I was boundless, and I was genre-less. They couldn’t contain me. And I feel like that’s what’s so great about this record is I finally got to put all that into an album. And where the boundaries of music were really drawn when I started, now they’re not. I can make this record, I can release a dance track and I can release a country record if I want it. That was really frustrating to an industry at one point, and now it’s like, oh, that’s just kind of the norm.

Brown: What’s interesting, though, is with her early record deal (with Curb), it was based on three different types of records: a country record, a pop record and an inspirational record. They wanted all those records all the time from when she was a kid on. So even when she started, that’s what was put before her.

Rimes: Yeah. I was a multifaceted artist — signed as one, not just as one thing.

Sometimes it feels interesting to speculate about what Mickey Guyton’s career will be like. If you feel like you’re not totally embraced, do you try harder to get into that thing, like, OK, I’m gonna be more dogged about being accepted? Or do you finally just go, OK, I’m gonna go off and do a bunch of different styles and be completely free. And there’s somebody who has like a lot of future ahead of her that’s yet to be determined. It harks back to some crossroads you’ve been at.

Well, the cool thing is, you saw when she wrote “Black Like Me,” she had been trying to fit in for so long, and then she finally wrote of her truth and it was like, oh, yeah, there you go! And I hope that it’s the truth that continues to guide her and not a style of music. Because it never works to try to fit in somewhere. I mean, that’s a lesson learned a long time ago.

And for me, the “This Woman” album (in 2005) — I love the record, but I had a whole conversation with the powers-that-be at the time. And they were like, “If you just do this thing, you’ll be embraced by the country community again.” And I did, and I was. At the same time, there’s songs off that record that were No. 1 hits for me that I won’t ever sing anymore, because I did them for that specific reason. And I learned my lesson that time, and I swore to myself after that record I would never record anything because I was trying to fit in somewhere or someone told me to. And I had to fight for songs off that record, like “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way,” because it wasn’t what everybody thought I would be re-embraced by. That record was a real turning point for me of, like, trying to fit in does not work. And why would I want to?

I remember, I guess I was probably 17 or 18, and the only thing I wished for was to be quote-unquote “normal.” [Laugh.] And I remember in my mid-20s going, “Well, that was the dumbest wish of a life.” Because why would I want to be normal, when I have all of these gifts that I can share that are so different? And so I think that’s been my journey ever since my mid-20s is, OK, how do I embrace my differences? And I think so much of that feeds into a song like “Spaceship,” and that opening line. It really speaks to my journey feeling like the outcast for a really long time. And now the outcast is fun. I’m like, yes! I get to have a lot of fun over here being an outcast.

Do you have a stylistic description for the new album?

Especially with all of the different world grooves and things we were exploring, Darrell and I have called it “world-acana,” because it feels very much like that. Instead of Americana.

There’s some very sort of piano-based songs, and then those songs with very tribal, for lack of a better word, rhythms.

Yeah, those are the two main focuses that we had on this record. I knew I really wanted to explore these world grooves. And then when we started exploring “Awakening” and “Spaceship,” we really went down the strings path. I don’t know how we made it work, but we did.

“Spaceship” struck me as very Elton-esque.

Oh yeah, I mean, definitely. I knew when I had that title. And look, I’ve performed “Rocket Man” in my show many, many times. And it’s like, if only I could have a song like that. And when I had a song like “Spaceship,” I was like, well, I definitely wanted to work in that direction of that kind of epic song. There’s some definite Bowie feels on that, too.

Brown: But when we reference artists like that, it’s also about pulling from what those artists pulled from, too, like the Black gospel side of things. You think of the influence of the influencer… All I was doing was going, like, “What would Billy Preston play, chord-wise?”

Some of the songs, like “Awakening,” have this real propulsiveness and even tension, even though some of them are about subjects we might think of as peaceful or positive, like universal love or acceptance. With some artists, that’s frankly an invitation to hit the snooze button, but you pack a lot of dynamics into that material.

Rimes: Well, that’s the tension of life, right? When you talk about the collective experience, what we were all experiencing at the time (during quarantine), I mean, there was so much tension, and then there’s this release. And yeah, we didn’t want you to fall asleep. [Laughs.] For sure. I think “Awakening” especially is such a rollercoaster ride. For me, that song, especially, experiencing the inner tension that happens within the awakening moments of our lives, it’s not comfortable. But there is release eventually. And I think that was what the sonically and what we wanted to convey was this kind of this overwhelming feeling, which for me, in my journey, has looked a lot like depression. And then it feels like the anxiety for me is so much tension building up, and then there is a release of like, oh, I came out on the other side of whatever the fuck was just happening. And then I just go right back into it again eventually. So I think there is this kind of ebb and flow to life that is clear through the album.

I don’t leave you out in the dark woods without having gone there myself, and I always bring you back from it. … Especially with religion, it’s like, here’s God and here’s humanity, and we’re all sinners and we’re all horrible and we’re all bad people. And for me, it’s the reclamation of: yes, I am completely human, and that’s not a bad thing. The humanity of this record is super important. So when people see “God’s Work,” if they’re not completely turned off by the idea of God, I think they’ll really find themselves being given a permission slip to reclaim all of those parts of themselves that they’ve been told are quote-unquote bad.

And at the end of the chorus, that whole primal sing-yell thing came out. Somehow I get some semblance of a yodel into every record.

Brown: A primal yodel?

Rimes: It’s a thing. I’ve made it one.

Brown: For that song, we thought, who’s a woman who can beat drums? You just go, well, Sheila E., who’s been through everything. So we had her, and then Mickey joined you on that… Another thing that took place too, is the use of women engineers. We made an effort to try to raise that up, too, bringing that type of emotional intelligence into the room as well.

Rimes: Yeah, absolutely. It’s nice to have people in the room who will cry right along with you, because that’s what we were doing the whole time.

How do you feel like this album falls on the balance of confessional writing versus writing for the universe, or humanity?

Oh, I think it’s a mix of both. I mean, I’m part of humanity. Everything that I write I think has a personal touch to it, but it was very much informed by the collective experience we were all having. We spent three years on this album, and you can get really frustrated: when are we gonna release this freaking record? Why is it taking so long? And then (the) Roe v. Wade (reversal) happened and “The Wild” was released right after it, and it’s like, you can’t plan that. And we didn’t write it about that, but it’s the same narrative that’s played out since the dawn of time to a woman. So you kind of go, OK, thank you, universe, for the impeccable timing. I think what comes through is not just my energy that I’m tapping into. It’s very much what’s out there.

On a very much lighter note: how did you end up feeling about doing “The Masked Singer”?

It was a workout. Oh my God. That costume was the heaviest thing of life, and they strapped me in with the mask, and so after every performance I was sore — so sore. But it was fun to do at that moment in time. Because I don’t think I would’ve done it otherwise if I wasn’t sitting at home and being like, oh yeah, why not? [Laughs.] But I did enjoy it.

[Rimes attends to autographing an LP jacket.]

Brown: Don’t write anything weird on the cover. Well, maybe…

Rimes: [Mock-reciting what she might inscribe.] “This is not my first ‘fuck’.”

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