Most people take a job in the music business because they secretly want to be rock singers. Mary Lou Lord became a rock singer because she secretly wants a job in the music business.
"I want to have a baby, I want to have a real life," says Lord, at the end of a two-day break from her U.S. tour. Two days ago, she finished a two-week run of shows from San Diego all the way up to Vancouver, then immediately flew to Manhattan. Tomorrow, she begins the East Coast leg of her tour.
"It's a field that youth is on your side in," Lord says of the music business. "I'm 32, and I just know how hard it is, and how it can really fuck you up, being on the road and everything. And I don't want to do it."
Nevertheless, the spotlights are shining on this reluctant singer-songwriter. Thanks to the underground buzz surrounding her recent major-label debut, Got No Shadow (Sony/WORK), Lord has landed in the pages of Rolling Stone, Spin and Interview magazines. With her black Dingo boots, ill-fitting 501s and bleached-blond 'do, Lord certainly looks like this year's alt-model. It's an image reinforced by her impressive indie-rock resume.
Her first album, 1995's Mary Lou Lord, was released on Kill Rock Stars, the hip little label based in Olympia, Washington. Lord's circle of friends includes such luminaries as Kaia (of Team Dresch), Nick Saloman (of the obscure English band the Bevis Frond), and Elliott Smith (the Portland, Oregon, singer-songwriter recently nominated for an Oscar for his contribution to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack).
Lord's first big break came from Margaret Mittleman, of BMG Music Publishing, who oversees a handful of post-rockers, including Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, and Beck. Add to this list of names Kurt Cobain, with whom Lord had a brief romance, and it would be hard to think of a better blueprint for alt-rock stardom.
In fact, Lord has no plans to be a star--she'd rather just be a fan. The people she hangs out with are the artists whom she admires. Her goal is not to be like them but to get more people to listen to their music. Lord's entree into the music business was as a disc jockey, and she's fond of saying that she basically still is one. She spent years busking in the subways of Boston, performing (instead of spinning) her favorite tunes by little-known songwriters.
On Got No Shadow, the writing credits belong mostly to others, such as Saloman, Freedy Johnston and the late Elizabeth Cotten. Lord co-wrote two tracks with Saloman and wrote only four on her own.
"You know how when you first start playing, you're not so good?" Lord explains, with a note of apology in her voice. "And when you first start writing, your writing is not as good as your ears that listen are? So even though I wrote a song, because of the wisdom that I've attained by listening through all the years, I know the song might not be up to par, or it's just something I'm not ready to get into yet. Because I'm not done being a fan. Some people stop listening way too soon, and then their stuff just sucks. I love music that you can tell was written by a good fan. So I'm a little bit afraid at times that my songwriting hadn't caught up to how good I was as a listener yet."
With her charmingly skewed grammar and slightly nasal Massachusetts accent--a product of growing up in the working-class city of Salem--Lord sounds nothing like the woman who sings so gracefully on Got No Shadow. Light, sweet and evenly measured, Lord's voice sounds as though it would barely fill a teacup when she sings "Western Union Desperate," for example, or the Cotten-penned folk tune "Shake Sugaree." But when Lord speaks, there's often more spice than sugar in her words, especially when she's defending her reputation as a cover artist.
"There's this tradition of doing covers that people like the Beatles understood, the Rolling Stones understood it, Bob Dylan understood it, Hank Williams understood it," Lord says passionately. "And I get a lot of flak and shit from people--especially these young dip-shit women that are journalists, who are like, 'Well, she didn't even write that song.' I mean, don't you realize that I had a choice?"
She continues, "In my own little way, I wanted to bring attention to these people. And, fortunately or unfortunately, I had to record their songs in order for people to really pay attention. Because I'd say, 'Go check out Elliott Smith, go check out Nick Saloman.' And they wouldn't. So I'm like, 'You know what, fuck you, because now this song's going to be on my record.'"
For all her artistic self-doubt, Lord is as strong a songwriter as many of her idols. She won high praise for her original songs on her first album and has done so again with Got No Shadow. "Western Union Desperate" is the cry of a lost woman inside a rained-on phone booth; "Seven Sisters" describes the life of a prostitute in a London red-light district; "Throng of Blowtown" updates Don McLean's famous homage to rock 'n' roll, "American Pie," with lyrical references to Billy Corgan, Richard Thompson and Shawn Colvin (another close friend of Lord's).
Still, Lord's attitude toward her own talent wavers between modesty and insecurity and can even teeter toward defensiveness. Asked to explain why she doesn't play guitar on her own album (though she's pictured holding it in various poses in the CD sleeve), Lord replies, "I didn't want to."
It's not that she can't play--in fact, she performs in the Boston subways to this day. "I didn't want to!" Lord repeats, and there's obviously little more to be said on the subject.
She'd rather explain why she continues to busk, even while on tour. In each city where she and her four-piece backup band (all friends from Salem) are scheduled for a concert, Lord arranges ahead of time to obtain a permit from the local government to play in a subway, or on the street or at a mall. Lord takes off an afternoon, sets up her equipment--a guitar, a small amp and a wheelchair battery--and plays whatever strikes her fancy. After years of hopping around the country and busking in various places, Lord knows all the good spots, from Seattle to Key West.
"I know that 99 percent of the record industry is bullshit," she says flatly. "So when I get in the subway, it's the most honest place that I know that I can be, and to me it feels really good and safe, because I know where I stand down there. If I come across a 45-year-old nun or some 13-year-old indie kid, they don't know what friggin' label I'm on; they don't care. It's just the moment, the intimacy, the spontaneity. And I need that, especially now." She adds, "It reminds me of reality and that I'm doing it for the right reason."
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For most singers, that reason would be getting their songs heard. But Lord still seems intent on getting the songs of others heard. Got No Shadow, she says, is partly just a resume for a future career in music publishing.
"I just want to have Mr. Big Shot Behind the Desk believe me and work with me and, hopefully, let me have a career and a life down the road," Lord says. "I think I have really good ears, and I think if this record does well, I'll have a little bit more attention paid to me."
In the meantime, Lord's ears aren't getting the attention, her voice is. It seems unlikely that anyone would want to put this performer in an office anytime soon. But Lord insists: "I want to do my little gigs for a while, do my record, and then get the hell out and have a low-key position in the music business. Like, the music business."
Mary Lou Lord is scheduled to perform on Sunday, March 15, at the Mason Jar. Showtime is 9:30 p.m.