Jul
12

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When Sad Songs Say So Much: Lydia Loveless on Life and Death, Her Next Album & New Film – Interview

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Lydia Loveless Starts Her Summer Tour In Harrisburg (Concert Photos By Molly M. Holtzinger)

Lydia Loveless had barely said howdy and was just one song into her set when she had something to tell everyone. She’d just finished her fourth album. Well, finished with a few caveats. There’s still mixing, mastering and six months of promoting to do so, as she put it, everyone could download it from the internet and its real shitty sound. On that upbeat note we welcomed the start of her summer tour in Harrisburg and had a night to remember.

A little earlier husband and bassist Ben Lamb told me that the band had spent just about a week recording, cutting seven or eight songs in April and another three or four a few weeks ago. Not quite as fast as the Ramones but still quick work for a band that since May has logged more than 10,000 miles travelling across the country and throughout Europe. And in the middle of all this, they’ve started filming a documentary called Who Is Lydia Loveless?

The Stage on Herr, a small room that is part of the revitalization of the Midtown District in Harrisburg, is good seven hour drive from their native Columbus and dead center in the Keystone state. It felt more like the band was dropping into someone’s house. The building, on the national historic register of houses, features both the stage and a restaurant. The mystical backstage door actually doesn’t exist – it leads into the eatery. The room was intimate and people got here early staking out their numbered tables. It would have been odd to be standing in front of the stage blocking the view of those sitting at the tables. But I was hoping that eventually people would get up and crowd the stage like we did at the Rock and Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. in January, a show Loveless tells me later was transcendent. Although it didn’t happen and there was a gaping hole in the floor, the night felt intimate and personal.

Anyone out on date night may have had their post-show hopes tempered when Loveless apologized about the mood and said it was a night for sad songs. In fact it felt more like a group encounter with dialogue going back and forth between performer and audience and everyone chiming in suggestions for songs in between chit chat.

“The Water,” someone called out about her beautiful song set against the backdrop of Lake Michigan. “Too early,” she countered. “Boy Crazy,” the song she wrote in her punk band days, got a shout-out. “’Boy Crazy’ cannot be requested,” she pointed out to the intimates on hand. “It can only be felt.”

But when she played electric guitar by herself and someone called out “Everything’s Gone,” the stars were aligned. The breathtaking song may be her greatest achievement, a stunning narrative about the anguish she felt being forced to leave the rural ground she grew up on when her family moved from their farm to the city of Columbus. She was only fourteen but she was still reconciling the emotional damage and fallout last year on the songs of Somewhere Else.

As I stood to the side of the stage, I realized how lucky we were to hear this as she doesn’t often perform it. My cousin Larry Campbell who toured with Bob Dylan for eight years, once told me about a night they played “Boots of Spanish Leather” and how standing onstage it hit him about the place Dylan was in when he wrote that song at such a young age. I have similar thoughts as I listen to “Everything’s Gone” from Loveless who wrote the song in her early twenties and will turn only 25 come September.

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When one song later she strums the opening chords of “Really Wanna See You,” it feels like a slow motion reel of the screenplay in song she wrote for the opening track of Somewhere Else. Without the full tilt band treatment, Loveless seemed like she could cross examine her inner obsessiveness and angst with a reflective perspective that seemed like she was on the outside looking in. It was softer and more tender with its underlying frenetic vulnerability intact. The personal plea in the bridge sounded soulful.

When Loveless hit the stage, she introduced the show as “We are Lydia Loveless.” It’s clear from the banter and camaraderie of the band members that this is a close knit group. The group is powered by drummer George Hondroulis and bassist Ben Lamb, and built around three guitars, including Loveless, lead guitarist Todd May and Jay Gasper, who emotes the sounds of Loveless’ longings and heartache with the accents of his pedal steel guitar as the soundtrack of some of her best songs like “Chris Isaak” and “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud.” When he switches to electric guitar on “Wine Lips” and “Head,” the songs come alive with the band’s thunderous three-guitar climax. As Loveless arched her head back and then came back, her thick waves and self-described “big afro” succumbed to summer, sometimes not moving in unison, covering her eyes and sticking to her face and mic as the energy and heat got more frenzied and intense. That my friend is rock and roll.

Tonight we got a hint of the new and as of now unnamed record. The longing and melancholy of “Longer,” dedicated to a dear friend who passed away, is a song that Loveless played solo on acoustic guitar during a national radio broadcast from the Stagecoach Festival. It had a full-band treatment now with a propulsive beat and a bass riff that felt like a subtle Metallica accent. Midway into the set, the band broke out into a dissonant, distorted mirage of sound. May and Gasper playing with their guitars against their amplifiers to get the right feedback against Hondroulis’ thumping backbeat. “Out On Love” felt like an avant-garde performance piece as much as a song. Even “Same As You,” second in the set and the first new song introduced, had an eerie moodiness. “Bilbao,” another new song named for the separtist Spanish city/county, had a melodic poppy feel with three guitars that sub-consciously reminded me of the great British band The Searchers.

When she finally finished the show during “Boy Crazy,” Loveless was singing on her back and crawling over the stage. By the time she got up on her knees she looked like a woman possessed as she hovered over Gasper’s pedal steel and took his finger slide and moved it over the strings from the place where he pointed her to begin.

For the past few weeks, all of the band she introduced onstage as “We Are Lydia Loveless” were in front of the cameras. Loveless spent several days at her house with director Gorman Bechard peppering her with questions. It was somewhat less strenuous for the band but the feeling of everyone about the film seems to be universal – we trust the director and the editing and we won’t end up looking like assholes.

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On the shoot, director Bechard brought friend Scott Hudson to assist with the filming and he reported on his trips to Columbus during his podcast in an episode called The Ledge. Hudson shared how the band couldn’t understand why there was such a fascination watching them during rehearsals. Since the film was designed to capture the making of a new record, one of the interesting things we’ll get to see is a song created from start to finish. In the film to be released next year, Loveless strums a new song called “Desire” on her acoustic guitar, then takes the band through it during rehearsal where they take it in and construct the sound and arrangement and then finally record it in the studio.

Hudson elaborated on it further writing in the Argus Leader: “Being able to witness the creation of the follow-up release to “Somewhere Else” is akin to being with Wilco for the creation of “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot,” The Replacements in their “Tim” sessions, or even being in Villa Nellcote throughout the marathon late nights that produced “Exile On Main Street.” A fan of any band couldn’t ask for anything greater.”

As the show ended, Loveless, May and the rest came off stage like they’ve just been through twenty rounds. You could feel the adrenaline as they walked by. Lamb goes back to the band’s merchandise table where he ran point earlier in the night. A line of fans appears, some of whom have set lists, one expressing disappointment he couldn’t get the crumpled up version that Gasper threw at her in a comical moment before “Mile High”, when she said she wrote it in silver just to fuck with him. She says she knows Jay but forgot the names of the other guys in her film.

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When the line ends, I approach Lydia and we head outside on the patio where the band is in a lively conversation about the Rolling Stones. We start talking and Loveless lights up a cigarette. The thing that most excites her about the film is it will show the band’s progress. If she had any trepidation about the director being a fan who might be disappointed or openly judgemental about the way the new music was progressing, she said her fears were quickly allayed. She said he was like a fly on the wall and eventually she didn’t notice the cameras were even there.

We start talking about the new songs. “Longer” was written about her friend Joey who died from a drug overdose. Her voice gets softer and she looks away and mentions that it’s coming upon the anniversary. In fact tonight is the one year mark of the guitarist who played in her sister’s band The Girls.

“It’s hard to say something is about one thing because I take inspiration from so many little things,” she says of writing, “but that song was definitely about Joey. I basically got really depressed and watched a lot of Lifetime movies and wrote that song.”

Loveless was looking for more of a poppy sound for the song. She says she hates to mention any names of artists that she wants to sound like because people might infer she’s trying to rip them off. But the general sound she was trying to get was grounded in Eighties pop. Her dad listened a lot to the Cars and she says that’s a huge influence and inspiration for her. Of the band’s arrangement, “It’s definitely more poppy than when I’m solo and depressed and singing a song about someone dying,” she laughs in a characteristically self-deprecating way.

That reminds me about the Stagecoach broadcast she did back in May. I mention that she offhandedly said “Something Else” was song about killing yourself. “It is a song about suicide,” she says casually but matter of factly. “Probably all of my future albums will be related in some way to death. It’s looming over everyone obviously. It’s looming over my life because I think about it a lot,” she laughs. “Not necessarily that I want to kill myself or anything. My focus is on making the best life I can.” And then she laughs out loud adding, “and when that fails, making the best death I can.”

When I ask her about the line about the girl who tried to drown herself her whole damn life, she talks about being the third-born of a very theatrical family. “I’ve been very shy and insecure,” she tells me. “I guess that song is about trying to find the place where you can fit in which I never felt like I did. But I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way.”

In “Somewhere Else,” she sings about wrestling with the separation of being gone and disconnected from East Ohio. Loveless said she’s always been anti-being angry about something that happened in your past and focused on trying to move forward. She also admits to being very connected to her roots and therein lies the tension she grapples with in “Somewhere Else” and “Everything’s Gone.” The heart and soul and effort that goes into having a farm is central to the story and shaped her identity.

“People always ask, ‘Well what did you do out there in the country?’” she relates. “It’s such hard work. Everyday there’s something going on. The cow fell, a bull got out, a goat steps on its own baby… a cat dies from distemper. It’s been hard to know what to do with yourself when that’s over.”

Lydia Farm

What happened is not exactly clear but the family lost the farm and it went to auction. Loveless looks away and quickly says she doesn’t want to talk about it except to say she’s not angry anymore about losing the farm. But she qualifies this by saying it does suck not to have land to tend to. She returned during the filming to Coshocton last month, an experience she said was both emotional and eye-opening. Overall it made her realize it was good her life had moved forward but it still made her sad to see the farm in such disrepair. In the song she sings about the birth of her brother and the deck her father built with his own two hands. She said the family living there had destroyed the house and there were no crops being grown.

Loveless said the town has always been shitty to her and she never liked living there. She is forthright in her disgust of the police and the huge methamphetamine problem gripping the area. An event during the filming reinforced this. When she drove to the site, she was stopped for speeding and because the car had out of state plates, the cop wanted to search it. “All I wanted to say was ‘Fuck you… Deal with the meth problem.”

I imagine that “Everything’s Gone” is so emotional that it must be exhausting. “I don’t like to play it a lot,” she says with an exasperated laugh, “but it’s one of my better songs. You want to feel that sadness in a way but people don’t all feel that sadness so it’s hard to share it with everyone.”

I told her I was surprised there were people talking at the bar, not realizing how special this moment was and they might never hear it again. I ask her if she was aware.

“I thought about that,”she admits “but part of me is so angry all the time that I tried to think of it as ‘Who else gets to do this and how many bands in America and in the world don’t have a crowd talking over them?’ Maybe that sounds pretentious but I’ve tried to ease up on my anger.”

Where does she think the anger comes from? She thinks it’s biological and adds that she feels people have always been shitty. She goes on to tell me she is getting a tattoo of Joseph Merrick, also known as the Elephant Man whom she’s always admired. “I’m getting it to remind myself of how worse it could be and how uncivilized and fucked up humanity has been.”

We’re an American Band: Loveless in Columbus Rehearsals (Photo By Scott D. Hudson)

What Loveless feels strongest about with her new music is that she is writing much better songs. She also takes pride in producing her music. “My music career has been odd,” she reflects. “I started at fifteen and the songs I wrote then are on my first album. It’s weird when you watch American Idol and they’ll play a Vegas casino before they’ve played another show. That’s kind of how I feel about my first record.”

The conversation reminds me of the line that she sings in “Everything’s Gone,” about how some years have passed. It reminds me of a note I saw at the merchandise table that the first album is almost sold out. It’s unlikely you’ll see it again. I also thought of one fan who bought two copies of Loveless’ Indestructible Machine, the album with frenetic energy, charm, country twang and honky tonk undercurrents that helped cast her as an alt-country artist. That sounds like a different era and when the band tried to strike up the riff of “Bad Way To Go” during encore time, she tells them to cross it off the list.

There’s something else but I don’t think about it until my ride home in the wee hours. It’s what screenwriter Brian Koppelman told Jeremy Dylan, the host of the podcast My Favorite Album. They were talking about Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, a record that had tremendous impact on Koppelman’s life and creative inspiration. “The way we reign in our emotions as adults is deadly,” Koppelman told him. “Music leapfrogs us forward. It provides the emotional resonance that the best art gives you.”

I flashback and think about some of the most memorable moments in my life. Springsteen, The Stones, The Clash, X… I know there are others but those come to mind. I felt something similar that night at Rock and Roll Hotel and it’s a feeling that’s stayed with me ever since. I’ve replayed it countless times in my mind and knew something had changed in me when I left the room. It’s the same feeling I have every time I put on Something Else and hear the opening chords rip on “Really Wanna See You.”

Back to the Herr, there was a moment that occurred at the merchandise table that’s stayed with me. Someone comes over and purchases two copies of Indestructible Machine. She takes one of the copies and methodically tries to open the plastic and pull out the inside sleeve to sign an autograph. The buyer is elated and Loveless takes his camera, puts her arm around him and makes sure they get a selfie that is focused and just right. He embraces her in a goodbye hug.

If Loveless and her bandmates who travel together in the same van know anything, it’s about hard honest work, tending to your craft and making music that matters. These notions may sound old fashioned but they still still count for something in this day and age. Maybe now more than ever.

Band On The Run: Lydia Loveless, Benjamin Lamb, Todd May, Jay Gasper, George Hondroulis. Original etching by Benjamin Lamb. Visit his shop at etsy.com.

About Steve Wosahla

Steve Wosahla's interviews and reviews have appeared in Song Hits, Rock, Good Times, Circus, the Messenger-Press, New Haven Register, Soap Opera Digest and the New York Times. He is a member of the Americana Music Association and lives in Bristow, VA. You can follow him on Twitter: @swosahla.
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