In Gimme Songs, musician Mark Mallman talks songwriting with his peers and heroes. This week, Lydia Loveless before Thursday's show at 7th St. Entry.
What strikes me most about Lydia Loveless as a songwriter, is her ability to communicate bold-faced authenticity. I talked with her in hopes of finding out how she maintains the balance of elegance and rawness that she so masterfully does on her new record, Somewhere Else.
Mark Mallman: Somewhere Else is a great collection of material, how did the songwriting all get started?
Lydia Loveless: It's kind of a weird story. I'd just gotten home from a Swedish tour, and hadn't been thinking about what sound I was going for. I had thrown a bunch of ideas into the air, but they just weren't coming out right. I kind of had a nervous breakdown. Half the time I would sit on the floor, stare into space, and just cry.
Oh no! What did you end up doing?
I was like, "Well, forget this!" and went on tour. We stayed with friends at SXSW. I pretty much ended up at the house drinking, playing guitar, and talking with my band the whole time. Having that bonding experience, and remembering why I play music with my band is what opened the floodgates. I ended up finishing the album there. A month later we started recording. It was sort of like scrapping the entire album and then rewriting it. I think "Wine Lips" and "Chris Isaak" were the only ones that I'd had for a while.
Those two songs are more formal, where the others are more conversational. It makes sense that a record like Somewhere Else can't just be forced out too formally.
Everyone these days asks, "What's the theme of the album?" It's not really a concept album, but the theme was that I was frustrated and depressed. I was reading a lot, and trying to not even think about music. That's how I ended up writing these songs. Sometimes you try to force stuff, but you'll just lose your mind.
I look back at songs that I've forced, and they feel dead. When a song happens, it just happens. The "magic" of songs is, kind of, actually magic.
It really is, and I've tried to get out of the habit of waiting for inspiration to hit. That could take months. I know people that say they try to write a song a day, but I would never be able to do that. I do try to have more of a songwriting routine these days at least.
Let's talk about "Wine Lips." Was that written during the period of writers block?
I'd had this experience where I'd met up with an old boyfriend in New York, and he asked me to get on a train with him and go four hours away. I'm normally a really impulsive person, but this was one time I did not do something impulsive. It took me a while to write because I had to step away from the situation to get it done. So, that's an example of having an idea first, and wanting to write about it. Most of my songs are a little more organic than that. I'd had the idea for that song for a while. It took me a long time to get it right. Hence why it is so simple, because I had to completely dumb it down.
Getting simple, in songwriting, usually is not a simple task. The journey of getting to the simple end can actually be a complex trip.
Sometimes. "Verlaine Shot Rimbaud" is probably the most labored-over song on the record. Todd May was very involved on that one, and on "Head." "Head" was the biggest pain in the ass of all time because it was so simple. I wanted it to be that way. We probably wrote fifteen different bridges for that song. Todd actually ended up writing the bridge but refuses to take credit for it.
I have a friend who says "The bridge is the conscience of the song." Why was the bridge so tough for "Head?"
Bridges are always a pain in the ass. I can't even remember all of the original versions of that bridge. I might have sang over one, or gone through the chorus five hundred times. Then Todd wrote this guitar part that was ascending and fixed that problem. I wanted it to be a simple, sad song, but I didn't want people to laugh at it because of the subject matter. It took a long time to nail.
"Head" is also explicit, in ways. How do you uncensor yourself when you are writing?
It's hard to explain. I feel like sometimes I should censor myself more, but then again, that seems dishonest. When things just come out it seems the best.
Is there a point where you think, "I really like this song I'm writing, but there is profanity. I feel it needs to be there, but they wont play it on the radio if I keep it in."
I never use it if I don't think it's necessary, unless it's in a live situation where I'm energized or something. Who's to say what's going to get played on the radio? What about songs like Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." Most people are going to pay to have it on the radio anyway. I just try to write good songs.
Critics are comparing you to Stevie Nicks because of the title track on the new record. Who else do you look toward as an inspiration?
Chrissie Hynde is someone that I admire a lot. I actually cover "Talk of the Town." That's one of my favorite songs ever. People say she's a badass, but she can also write the most simple, heartbreaking songs. That's something that I aspire to as well. A song like, "Kid" by the Pretenders seems like she's in control, but is also very sweet.
Yeah, when nice songs are too nice, the sincerity goes away. For your material, it seems like authenticity is the rock, or the core of what you do.
I think sweetness is relative to different situations. Someone might say "I'm listening to your song and it's so mean." And I think, "Really? Cause that was a broken-hearted song." They say I'll beat them up and break their hearts, but I was the one that was crying when I wrote it.
How do you remain authentic to a situation, but also protect the innocent?
I try to be respectful of people. I'll use words directly out of people's mouths, but I won't parade around that I wrote it about someone. It's hard to talk about honesty in songs. People are so tangled up in emotions. I don't think anyone has just one emotion that they are trying to express, especially when writing about relationships with other people.
I think that's why the authenticity in your music is so powerful. How do you override preconceived notions of what should be, and allow ideas to come out so freely?
I just do it. I wish I had more of a process, or maybe I don't. When I write my songs, it's different every time, so it's hard to say if I'm making conscious decisions. I use the term trance a lot because I like to forget when I wrote a song. I don't like to sit and labor over things. A big breakthrough I had with Somewhere Else was not thinking about what people were going to say, or themes, or anything. Letting go of trying to fit into a box is why I think the album turned out so well.
Somewhere Else is out now on Bloodshot Records. Catch her live at the 7th Street Entry on Thursday, April 24. Info.
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