“In the last few years, I’ve grown so much,” Elaina Kay says. She’s home in Dallas, reflecting on the relentless touring, writing, singing, and gypsy living that has culminated in her anticipated new album. “I’m not that small town ranch girl anymore,” she says, then with a smirk, she adds, “I run with the boys.”
Elaina talks like she writes: defiant but vulnerable, hopeful but wry. Her new album wraps all those occasionally opposing forces in Elaina’s signature ranch rock-and-roll to create a modern portrait of steely femininity that’s sad, funny, and ultimately, inspiring. “I don’t want to be a victim,” she says. “I just want to be independent.”
Elaina comes by her self-reliance naturally. She grew up on her family’s ranch in Wichita Falls, Texas, 15 miles south of the Oklahoma border. Up at 4 a.m. every day, she helped farm and raise cows and cutting horses. “There was always something to do––lazy wasn’t an option,” she says. “Then, it was a pain in my ass, but now, I miss it. Especially when it’s sunny outside.”
In between ranch chores at dawn and dusk, Elaina discovered music. Her grandmother, Meemaw, noticed, and took her to perform at county fairs, beauty pageants, nursing homes, and everything in between. Elaina remembers vividly when she began composing her own songs. They were living in a single-wide trailer while her dad built the family a new house. “He was stubborn and building it by himself,” she says. “He said, ‘We’ll be in this trailer for six months.’ Well, we ended up being there for about three years. I hated it. But now, I see I had more fun and more great memories living in that trailer. That is where I really started writing.” Country kids are the last to be dropped off, so on long bus rides home from school, she also took pen to paper.
For college, Elaina loaded up two horses and her dog and headed to Tarleton State University, where she joined the rodeo team. “Rodeoing trained me to be on the road like I am now,” she says. “I was traveling then, too, just with horses instead of with long-haired dudes in a band.”
Elaina loved to rodeo, but she realized she loved music more. So she took her horses home and hit the road, this time with her guitar, singing songs in clubs throughout the South. Nashville beckoned, and without a safety net or fully formed plan, Elaina packed up and moved to Tennessee. She rented a room for a few months in what she became to know as the “rock hostel,” a three-story house full of boys in bands. Elaina didn’t know a soul, but she jumped in, wrote more songs, and made more friends––including fellow Texan Paul Cauthen.
Nashville wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t home. Like many who’ve come before her, Elaina missed Texas, and made the decision to move to Dallas, where she’s based today––but not before honing her writing chops and expanding her circle of collaborators.
Produced by Paul Cauthen and engineered by Jeff Saenz, the new album was recorded at Modern Electric in Dallas. Backed by Paul’s studio ringers the Texas Gentlemen, Elaina’s moody soprano slides from breathy storytelling to golden-era country songbirding and back again, nuanced and captivating. She wrote or co-wrote every track, and the result is a layered collection that is both starkly personal and intensely relatable.
Album opener “Cheating Me Out of Love” sounds like the wide-open spaces of Elaina’s childhood, building from sparse snare and B3 to more layered instrumentation. Angry and sad, she takes down an old lover who strayed, pointing out that she’s lost more than just his company. “When you get cheated on, it hurts, but they’re also cheating you out of something you thought you had,” she says. “I felt cheated out of a chance at love.”
With Wanda Jackson panache, “Daddy Issues” puts a true story in a raucous song. “Brother was five, I was three / When we first saw Daddy on the TV / He wasn’t a star or celebrity / He was wanted by the law on felonies,” Elaina drawls over snarling electric guitar. “The man I call ‘Dad’ adopted me when I was young. He is my dad,” she says. “But I’ve always known this story about my biological father: He left me and my brother and was rolling back car miles in Wichita Falls, was on the news and on drugs. Most girls I know have daddy issues. I know I do.” The tale is heartbreaking, but instead of sounding broken, Elaina exudes confidence and humor. “I went through a lot,” she says. “But I am okay––I’m strong and tough and fine. I didn’t want this song to be sad.”
Sauntering “Rodeo” draws parallels between the rodeo and music lives Elaina knows so well, while swaggering “Pull Your Own Weight” points the finger at a lazy partner. With heart-thumping organ, “Saint” stares down the end of a relationship and the unfair labels we tend to assign one another. The first song she penned after moving to Nashville, “Wild Horse” proudly proclaims independence. “I was in a new city and felt so free to do whatever I wanted,” she says. “I always joked, ‘As long as it’s under $20, I can do it!’ I moved there to write songs––I had no money.” Written with Paul and rock hostel roommate Noah Jackson, “Widow’s Watch” tells a gut-wrenching story inspired by a spot on Paul’s family’s land. It’s the only song on the album that isn’t drawn directly from Elaina’s own life, but she has grown to love channeling someone else’s pain. “It’s one of my favorite songs to sing now,” she says. “That’s one of the coolest things about songwriting: being able to embody characters.”
Co-written with Joey Green, album standout “Lose a Little” is one of Elaina’s favorite songs she’s ever written. An ode to fully embracing all that you are, the track captures the joy only found in taking risks. “I like the unexpected––the adrenaline that comes with not knowing what will happen,” she says. “What do I have to lose?”
Asked what she hopes listeners experience when they hear the new songs, Elaina is resolute. “When I write a song about something, I’m over it––I can close that book and move on with my life,” she says. “That’s what I want for people who listen to my songs. If one of my songs could get someone to that other side, like it has for me, that’d be the coolest thing.”