It’s Not the Songwriter but the Songs for Mary Lou Lord
It’s standard procedure in country music. It used to be the norm in pop and rock ‘n’ roll too: singers doing songs by other writers.
In rock today, though, especially on the alternative edges, artists are pretty much expected to come to the table with both singer and songwriter on their applications. It’s been that way since Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell established the complete auteur as the industry standard in the ‘60s.
That’s why it’s surprising that U.S. record labels generated such a buzz around Mary Lou Lord in recent years, engaging in a fierce courtship for a Salem, Mass., resident who’s sung more on street corners and subway stations than on nightclub stages, and whose repertoire is dominated by the songs of her folk and pop peers.
The Sony-affiliated WORK Group label, which made its mark by shepherding Fiona Apple to stardom, won the bidding war, and the company released Lord’s debut album, “Got No Shadow,” this week (see review on F6). Lord will be at the Troubadour on Tuesday with Whiskeytown.
Typically, Lord’s own compositions on the album are outnumbered by collaborations with guitarist Nick Saloman (of the underground cult group the Bevis Frond) and tunes by Freedy Johnston and the late folk singer Elizabeth Cotton. Her two earlier EPs on the independent Kill Rock Stars label presented material by Pete Droge, Elliott Smith, Daniel Johnston and other luminaries of the indie-pop world.
“I’ve not been playing as long as I’ve been listening, and I have not been writing even as long as I’ve been playing,” says Lord, 32. “So my writing has to catch up to how long I’ve been listening. . . . But my ears work really, really well, and if there’s a better song out there, I’m gonna put it on my album.
“I don’t really care where these songs come from. It’s the record and the music on it that matters to me. It’s about the sheer love of these songs, and I have to respect them.”
Essentially, Lord is trying to do for a new generation of writers what Judy Collins did for the likes of Leonard Cohen and Mitchell--artists whose own careers remained in the shadows until their songs were aired by an accessible singer.
“I want to bring good songs to people who might not otherwise hear them,” Lord said. “People have lives, they’re busy, they’re not these tape-trading dorks like I am. So it’s like, do a little research for them and give them the pleasure of experiencing great songs.
“I try to sing them in a way that makes it sound truthful, I guess. . . . A lot of performers are very dramatic, and I’m not very dramatic in my singing, so it sounds more like a friend talking to you than going to see a show. It sounds more honest.”
Lord became a performer after discovering underground music in the ‘80s and working as a college radio deejay. She started by playing in the Boston subways, where she often pushed the songs of a friend, the then-unknown Shawn Colvin. Lord gravitated to the influential Olympia, Wash., scene, where she recorded EPs for Kill Rock Stars that drew a fan base and led to major-label interest.
The jump to the high-profile, corporation affiliation has its disorienting aspects for Lord, but she has her ways of staying grounded.
“Now I am in this machine, and I feel like, ‘Oh my God, this can’t be real.’ . . . I get really nervous, so lately I’ve been going down to the subway more and more, just to get back that reality. . . . I come up and I walk into Dunkin’ Donuts and they go, ‘Subway Girl, free coffee for you.’ ”
* Mary Lou Lord appears with Whiskeytown on Tuesday at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, 8 p.m. $12. (310) 276-6168.