Lera Lynn: Hot Shoe, Burnin’ Down The Avenues
Who knows where the time goes? Seems to me it wasn’t very long ago that Lera Lynn was a budding songbird from Athens, fresh out of college and doing her best to navigate her way through and beyond that town’s music scene, first with a group named Birds and Wire, later on her own. Of course, things have progressed much slower from her perspective. She’d hoped to have a followup to her 2011 debut album, Have You Met Lera Lynn?, finished and out by the fall of 2012. Instead, work on it wrapped up last summer, but after a frustrating search for a label with which to partner on the project, The Avenues is only now being released – completely independently by Lera – on Sept. 9th.
Such was the down side of Lynn’s introduction to the discouraging realities of an industry that often still manages to operate at a molasses pace in an increasingly digital age. But there’s a big up side to Lynn’s experience, as well.
Two years ago, Lynn pulled up stakes and relocated from Athens to Nashville to be closer to the business and creative hubs of aspiring and professional singer-songwriterdom. After finding her footing, she feels like she’s getting a hold on it. “The main reason for moving here was, I think, just to be surrounded by more people doing what I wanted to do. People that take it really seriously. As in sustaining themselves in the music world,” she recently told me, taking a break from helping her boyfriend, The Avenues producer and contributing musician Joshua Grange, install a fence in the back yard of the old house they’re renovating in Nashville.
“It’s such a large and diverse network of musicians, [but] somehow you can find your niche and get along here,” Lynn continues, speaking of her current base of operations. “It’s a little different than I expected it to be, actually. I’ve been coming up here for seven years, since I was just getting started in music, and I guess I thought it was a total shithole. But my old band’s drummer was up here, and we started playing here a little bit, and spending more time, and [eventually] I thought, yeah, OK, it’s kinda cool. And it seemed like a logical next step for me after living in Athens, and growing up in the Atlanta area.”
Though born in Houston, Lera made her way to Georgia as a child when her family moved to metro Atlanta. Her mom – once a hopeful, aspiring rock singer in the Heart mode before giving birth to Lera at a young age – still lives in Canton, where Lera attended high school “back when there was nothing out there.”
Her father was a mechanic who died of a heart attack in his mid-forties, a shattering incident that deeply shook Lera, then in her very early twenties.
“I think an experience like that, at such a young age, ends up affecting your outlook on everything in life. In positive and negative ways, I guess,” says Lynn, whose songs “Whiskey” and “Bobby, Baby” on Have You Met… were inspired by her father, an alcoholic. “Obviously I tried to take that experience and… making it positive is impossible, but, you know, I think that there’s a sliver of those feelings inside that have been a fast lane to realizing human nature, in every song that I write… I was his only child, as far as I know, so I had to deal with making all of the decisions, as far as what to do with his body, do this or do that, let the house go to the bank, so it was a heavy experience, not just for the loss of a father, but also it just kind of throws you into the real world. Guess what? You have to deal with some shit, now. But, you know, now I’m ready for it.”
Lynn was attending the University of Georgia at the time, after a brief stint at Young Harris College in north Georgia. And she was studying for a Bachelor’s Degree in Anthropology. Though she tells me she found it extremely inspiring, when asked what she planned to do with her degree, she replies, “Not a goddamned thing. I was probably just gonna play music. My family – my mother and even my father, who hated the whole idea of me studying anthropology, actually – they were all very concerned about me pursuing music. I think because my mother had kind of dabbled in it, and realized how impossible it is for most people. They were really encouraging me to go to school. I’m very grateful for my education – I’m glad that they pushed me to do that. But I just wanted to play music, really.”
As for her move to Athens, “truth be told, I fell in love with someone that was living there, and he was older than me, and really hip to the whole Athens music scene, and kind of showed me around,” she says. “I was turned off by the size of the university at first, but this was before I went there. I’d spent one year in a small college, and I thought, ‘OK, this is not going to work.’ If you don’t fit in at a small school, it sucks.”
She’d already been dabbling in songwriting at Young Harris, and would hang out and play guitars with friends in dorm rooms, but it wasn’t until she joined Birds and Wire in Athens that she really got a taste of regularly playing her own songs in front of audiences. Although The Avenues’ song “I’m Your Fool,” which Lynn debuted on her EP Lying in the Sun from February, is a beautiful redo of an old Birds and Wire song, Lynn largely feels that band’s music, while a great learning experience, ultimately wasn’t the right fit for her.
“When you’re younger, I think it’s natural that you kinda wanna toss all of the stuff that your parents always liked. For some reason, you go through a period of hating all that stuff. So I was really resisting any kind of country influence whatsoever with Birds and Wire. At least, in my head I was,” she explains. “It turned out to be some kind of weird jazz fusion/folk situation. Or Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius or something. Not that that was our intention, but looking back on it now, it’s like, what the fuck were we doing? The songs were pretty complicated, harmonically, and the lyrics were never repeating, and there was no chorus/hook, really, to grasp onto. And I noticed that the audiences weren’t really responding to it, so I thought maybe if I simplify things a little bit, it will work. And I just had a realization one day that I should just play country music. It comes naturally with me.”
She remembers her dad playing country radio stations all the time while he worked, “I mean, like 24 hours a day, almost. My mom was more into folk, Beatles and pop music. She listens to country, though. She likes Patsy Cline, that was her favorite.”
Recorded with a tremendous roster of Athens musicians including lesser-known talents like Karolyn Marie Troupe on viola, Eunice Kang on cello, producer C.K. Koch on drums and Robby Handley from B&W on bass and other instruments, it’s a stirring introduction to Lynn’s relaxed yet formidable delivery and highly personal songs. Despite the somewhat piecemeal manner it was put together, I actually prefer it to The Avenues for much the same reasons Lynn doesn’t – it’s got a refreshing, but not distracting, level of variety, not only in the styles but the instrumentation. Great, not-so-obvious choice of a cover, too, with Leonard Cohen’s “I Tried to Leave You.” And it all holds together wonderfully.
The Avenues is a good record, with some lovely songs. I adore “I’m Your Fool,” and “Refrain” is pretty great, too. The whole affair has a dusky sort of aura that kind of hovers like a light fog. But it stays immersed in this sorta languid, polished stupor throughout. The vulnerability and pureness of her voice and her songs somehow don’t seem as compelling. To me, at least.
“Well, I definitely wanted to make a more cohesive sounding record with The Avenues,” she tells me. “I spent some time with Josh in pre-production mode, going through songs. He really helped me cull the best songs, and the ones that worked best together. There’s subtle differences, but I think they’re all complimentary songs to each other.” Recorded in five days at Grange’s Los Angeles studio, The Avenues was subsequently mixed at Sheryl Crow’s private studio in Nashville. Now Crow’s out there promoting Lera’s new album on her Twitter feed. Which is pretty funny, since Lynn got somewhat perturbed when my first review of her music compared her to Crow. (Which, admittedly, she sounds little like.)
“It is pretty funny. I know, I never dreamed, especially then… I didn’t know anyone that knew her, you know – she was completely untouchable for me.”
It’s Grange who’s the connection – he’s an in-demand touring musician who currently plays in Crow’s band. Lynn met him a few years ago when he was playing with k.d. lang, for whom Lynn was opening.
But other accolades and opportunities that have come Lera’s way in the wake of Have You Met… are purely the result of her own talent and determination – or at least her management’s determination. Entered into the Merlefest Songwriting Contest, Lynn’s reaction at the time was, “OK, whatever.” Yet after playing “Bobby, Baby” onstage at the festival, with the judges sitting beside her (“very nerve-wracking,” she underscores), she won it. “I’ve never been really big on contests, you know, competitiveness in music,” she says, “but it worked out just fine.”
She’s also been a featured performer on A Prairie Home Companion three times, the first when Garrison Keillor’s live radio program made a tour stop at the Fox Theatre in May 2012.
“I was really nervous,” Lera confesses. “I’ve seen shows there in the past and always thought, man, someday it would be so amazing to get to play at the Fox Theatre… So just that, in and of itself, I couldn’t even really consider the whole radio part of it. And Garrison is so fluid, he’s done the show so many times, it being live doesn’t mean anything to him. But learning how to follow someone who is so quick witted, so relaxed and comfortable with the situation was really challenging. I learned a lot.”
With that, she returns to help Grange with that fence they’re putting up. Pretty soon, they’ll both be heading in opposite directions – he for a round of dates with Crow, her off with her own combo of Nashville players, though she points out that both Grange and Robby Handley will be in her band for the Atlanta release show for The Avenues, Oct. 1st at Vinyl.
All that needs to happen next is for Lera to nab the opening slot on an extended Sheryl Crow tour, and the circle will be complete.
“Ha!” she laughs. “One thing at a time!”
Photo by Jeremy Ryan.