Lydia Loveless: Don’t Tell Her to Turn it Down, ‘Cuz it Ain’t Loud Enough!
There’s a lot to love about Lydia Loveless. For God’s sake, just listen to her (if you haven’t already), and you’ll figure that out. At the moment, I sorta love the fact that she immersed herself in the poetry of Paul Verlaine while writing the songs for her new, third album, Somewhere Else. She claims that at least 80 percent of the album’s content was inspired by Verlaine. It seems a bit of an ostentatious boast at first, until you let the album sink in and it makes perfect sense. The passion. The excess. The outpouring…
There’s a quote from Verlaine’s Aspiration on the inside cover of Somewhere Else, reading in part, “take me far from this tainted world where statistics murder dreams… Take me far from this prison where all’s vile save the sleeping debauchee…” She tells me her favorite songs on the album are the title track and “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud.” The former could easily be mistaken for a Stevie Nicks outtake from Rumours in a blindfold test, while the latter references a rather extreme (and many would argue, insane) blueprint for devotion. Its guitar tones remind me of Television, which has to be intentional given that founding members Tom Miller and Richard Meyers were sufficiently inspired by those decadent French poets and turbulent lovers to rename themselves Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell (the latter after Rimbaud’s famous prose poem, A Season in Hell.)
So while Loveless (she chose the punk-ready surname long before writing and recording her own songs) often draws comparisons to Loretta Lynn, Maria McKee and Neko Case, I have a strong hunch she’d much rather be bouncing off the walls to a soundtrack of the Ramones and Voidoids, the latter of which likewise yearned for “somewhere else” on the closing song from their classic debut album, Blank Generation: “I could live with you in another world…”
On the other hand, most of the time Loveless strikes me more like a less inhibited (and, honestly, more compelling) Lucinda Williams, and if a hundred other witless critics have made similar observations, well, so be it. Musically, her combustion of shotglass country and punchy rock ‘n’ roll stems from authentic cultural sources. She grew up home schooled on a farm in small Coshocton, Ohio; when she was 14 her family moved 90 miles west to Columbus, where Lydia soon immersed herself in the city’s punk scene and the reckless teenaged rebellion it helped ignite. “Everything’s Gone,” the penultimate song on Somewhere Else, is (and I’m sort of assuming here, because Loveless is largely a decidedly autobiographical songwriter) a sad and pointedly bitter reflection on the circumstances that apparently led to her family’s relocation and the “progress” that is transforming her hometown, as if “My City Was Gone” by fellow Ohioan Chrissie Hynde had instead been inspired by a small farm town. It’s also, appropriately, the album’s most country-flavored song.
Supposedly Loveless’s debut album, 2010’s The Only Man, written and recorded when she was between 15 and 17 years old, is a calculatedly country affair, with songs that she now considers “a little embarrassing.” I’ve still never heard it, but I need to because I’m sure it’s far better than she lets on. My introduction to Lydia Loveless, as was most folks’, was her second album and debut for Bloodshot Records, 2011’s Indestructible Machine. I was just cranking it again the other day, and man, it still knocks me on my ass with its blunt honesty, awkward displacement and Yeah? So fuckin’ what! defiance. But from where I’m standing right now, Somewhere Else (also on Bloodshot) is even better.
Stylistically, the overt cowpunk elements are less evident. There’s still an earthy twang to the record, but I hear more classic pop harmonies, more AM Gold in the mix. Lyrically, there’s less swagger, perhaps, and more longing, loneliness and regret. Still, booze, and occasionally blow, continues to fuel the narrative of many of her songs, unapologetically so. And Loveless (now 23) still has a mouth like the walls of a dive bar bathroom stall. Her delivery erupts like an uncorked fountain of volatile lava, its impulsive path unconcerned with objects and obstacles. Her voice careens, boisterous and slurry, accelerating to an impatient rush that smacks you like a heavy, bracing gale to your face. If Indestructible Machine announced the blustery arrival of an undeniable powderkeg, Somewhere Else is the onward force of that detonation advancing into unexpected terrain. Ignore at your own peril.
So I rang her up on the morning after Somewhere Else’s official release, and she was feeling a little rough. When asked how she celebrated, she confided that, following practice, she and her band “stayed up a little too long drunkenly watching Golden Girls…” This woman’s a badass…
You had originally envisioned this album to be different than it turned out? You had written other songs?
“Yeah, I think it would’ve just been really boring. Because I had writer’s block from just…this was post-Indestructible Machine, and I felt like I had to make a really great alt-country album, and I just kinda freaked myself out and got way too stuck in my own head. I was writing completely alone in a studio that I had rented out, and I just knew that I didn’t feel good about the songs, and I didn’t want to play them for anyone. So, I kind of had a little nervous breakdown. And, uh, decided to not worry about writing for a while. And that’s when it all started to work for me, because I wasn’t so stressed out about it.”
I think a lot of people are surprised when they learn how young you are. I’m sure you don’t FEEL young. But the fact that you’re 23, and were 20 when you made Indestructible Machine, I’m sure you’ve been told this many times, but your songs seem to come from many more years of hard living and bad decisions!
“Ha ha ha! Yeah…”
You’re pretty much drawing on your own life for these songs?
“Yeah, for the most part, definitely. I guess it was just a crazy, intellectual, hillbilly childhood, and started playing music in bars at 13. It seems like it’s been a long time already!”
When did you really start thinking about writing songs?
“When I was a kid I’d write crappy like ‘no one loves me’ songs, and (laughs) nothing that ever made me feel proud of myself. I’d say I was about 15 when I actually started writing stuff that I felt like I knew what I was doing, and what sound I was going for. I think I just wanted to get attention, so my whole life I just pictured myself on stage. It’s funny now, ‘cause I’m incredibly terrified of attention – I have horrible stage fright! I guess I just had a lot of time to think about it.”
What sorts of trouble did you get into or cause when you were a teenager?
“Oh, I mean typical teenage, drinking and smoking cigarettes, and sort of being with older boys, I guess, was my main thing. Older boys in punk bands, I guess that was the thing that made my parents sort of tear their hair out. The Columbus scene is definitely sort of based in punk rock. There was a local bar, that’s still around but it’s not the same, called Bernie’s, that was sort of the focal point for all the punk shows, and we would all hang out there. It wasn’t actually all-ages, but you could get in (laughs).”
I’m just a little fascinated. I mean, I did those sorts of things when I was a teenager, too. But the way you articulate things like that is so natural, and honest. Harshly honest. You can relate, because you can tell you know what you’re talking about.
It’s a pretty brave step to reveal so much about yourself, because honesty is not often pretty.
How difficult has that been for you?
“Um, it can get a little awkward. I’m lucky enough that people don’t tend to ask me what I meant. So I try to be honest and just hope that no one really gets offended. But if they do, I really don’t know what I could say to not hurt people’s feelings. And I don’t wanna seem whiny in songs, but I feel like the more honest, the more people will be able to relate to it. So I don’t really want to write songs that make me seem like I’m awesome or anything.”
Have you ever written something and then later regretted being so honest?
“Um… yeah, I guess there have been times where…um…I felt like maybe I went a little overboard. But I don’t know… I think it’s more [important] for me to get a good song that sounds real, that wasn’t sort of trying to dodge the subject.”
Is it sometimes difficult to sing these songs in front of your in-laws, or family, or the people they’re about?
“Yeah, I guess the most awkward thing would be when I know that someone is gonna know that a line is about them, or something. Like it’s literally taken from an actual experience and I didn’t really even try to disguise that. I kind of wince if the person’s around. But, uh, whatever. They’ll get over it, I guess. Ha ha ha!”
I would imagine it would be uncomfortable to sing “Head” in front of your parents.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s awkward. But my parents have always been so supportive, so I remember when I took the rough draft of that, and my dad was, like, blasting it, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is embarrassing…’ And my mom’s like, ‘What’s this song called?’ And my dad’s like, ‘It’s called GIVE ME HEAD!’ I was like, ‘…oh, dear God…’ (laughs) I wanted to crawl up in a ball. But, I mean, at least they’re enjoying it!”
I love that you cover Kirsty MacColl’s “They Don’t Know” to close the album. How did you hear about her?
“I think I was introduced to her by my guitar player. He’s sort of a musical catalog, so he was the first one that told me about that. And I kind of got obsessed with it. I think it’s such a perfect song. It’s happy, but has sort of a melancholy vibe to it. The lyrics are really simple, and perfect. Part of that was the lyrical things like people sort of wanting you to leave someone behind, but you don’t want to, and I thought it was funny because people often tell me I need a different band – I need to sound more country, or I need to start a soul band and stuff. It was sort of like warm weather to my band, and the way we ended up recording it made it even better, because we were really learning it as we recorded, which is kinda cool.”
The Loveless name seems to fit the attitude of some of your songs.
“Yeah, [but] it was mostly about just sounding cool, and alliteration. Unfortunately it’s gotten me, ‘It sounds like a porn star,’ or ‘she’s so sad.’ (laughs) I don’t know… to me, it just seems perfect. I feel like it almost is my real name. Sometimes if I have to pay for something, you know, use my card, or when I’m closing a bar tab, and they’re like, ‘What’s the last name?’ I’m like, ‘I forget…’”
It makes sense when you consider that you were a little punk rocker when you were a teenager. It’s a total punk rock name.
“Yeah, and when I was that age, everyone had a nickname, you know. We never called each other by their real names, so you kind of had to adopt one.”
So you’re into Richard Hell and that whole ‘70s New York early punk sound?
“Yeah, definitely, he was like my complete idol when I was a teenager. And it’s been really awesome – we’ve actually been in touch for like the past year, ‘cause he got ahold of me through my label, and I actually got to meet him in New York and hang out with him for a while. So, it’s been kind of amazing. He was like, ‘I was Googling myself, and you were someone who was talking about me a lot, and I finally listened to you and I really like it.’ I pretty much fell out of my chair.”
Maybe you and him can collaborate at some point. That would be pretty wild.
“Yeah, that would be awesome!”
Photo by Patrick Crawford.