[25 February 2014]
With the release of her two new records, Lydia Loveless watches you watching her. Maybe you should listen, instead.
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself.”
– John Berger, Ways of Seeing
It seems like an unwritten rule of rock journalism: when a woman is interviewed for a feature, within one paragraph you’ll know what she was wearing that day. A hundred words, tops. Maybe you could write it off to “setting the scene” or creating a sense of “being there”—maybe, if only men were usually described the same way. But how often do you get a catalogue-like description of Marcus Mumford’s fashion choices?
I decide to put my wholly anecdotal, no-way-anyone-has-the-time-to-research-this hypothesis to the test by randomly grabbing a rock journalism anthology off my shelf: The Sound and the Fury: A Rock’s Backpages Reader, edited by Barney Hoskyns. “Part 2: Close Encounters” starts with a feature on Joni Mitchell written in 1972 by the late Penny Valentine, one of if not the first female pop journalist in Great Britain.
The second paragraph begins, “[Mitchell] is wearing a pair of jeans, a tiny printed shirt and plain sweater over top,” and goes on about her appearance for another 50 words or so. The next three features are about Marvin Gaye, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, and the closest thing to fashion in any of them is when Mick Brown informs us that Dylan “stroked the beginnings of an unruly beard.” Glenn O’Brien, writing for Interview in 1990, then notes in his feature’s second paragraph that “Madonna looked like a billion bucks in a Gaultier sheath with dangerous-looking silver nipples.”
This isn’t to shame any of those writers, or Hoskyns and his book; neither is the point to dismiss the ways women might identify themselves through fashion. It’s just one example of how musicians who are women have been and are still looked at differently than male musicians, “looked at” being the operative phrase. Too often a woman’s music is seen more than it’s heard, and seen only through a gendered lens of style, biography, sexuality, and the myths of essentialism and authenticity.
Or, as alt-country musician Lydia Loveless puts it to me more succinctly, “No one ever asks you, ‘What does it feel like to be a man?’”
Loveless is like a basketball player who skipped college and went straight to the pros. The image that trajectory creates in the minds of some, an image of privilege or grace, obscures the reality of countless hours spent in the gym, or in Loveless’ case, dive bars.
Her career began at 14 when she and her sisters formed the band Carson Drew with their father on drums. The group’s first big-time, glamorous, gig of privilege? Bernie’s, a punk club on the Columbus, Ohio, High Street strip, the kind of place where the bathroom floor is always flooded with an inch of standing water or other liquids. Loveless kept at it, recording her self-released debut, The Only Man, but it was the strength of her voice and live performances that caught the eye of Bloodshot Records in 2010. By the time she released her first record for Bloodshot in 2011, the volatile cowpunk Indestructible Machine, Loveless was 21 and already a veteran.
So what did she do? She toured for two years.
Meanwhile, I followed the story in Columbus and heard the grumblings in the local scene: too much, too fast, who does she think she is? Loveless heard them, too. I wondered then, and still wonder, how much of that suspicion and jealousy has to do with Loveless being not only young and successful, but a young and successful woman. If some young dude with guitar scored a label deal, would the pressure be quite the same?
All those touring miles and, I think, that particular brand of pressure have forged Loveless’ strongest work on her two new recordings: an EP titled Boy Crazy and the full-length record Somewhere Else. Each veers away from outlaw country-punk into territory held largely by rock ‘n’ roll, where nothing is so easy to pin down. With a solid band behind her—Todd May on guitars, her husband Ben Lamb on bass, and Nick German on drums—Loveless’ vaunted brashness is still intact (“brash” being a word the press uses to describe a woman who talks plainly) but there’s also a maturity to the songs. If Indestructible Machine was an explosion from the gates, the quintessential cowpunk blend of twang, muscle, and up-yours energy, Boy Crazy and Somewhere Else sound like they’ve been made by someone who’s realized she can’t get all the way across the country at a sprint.
Having agreed to an interview for the magazine Ghettoblaster, Loveless suggests we meet at a restaurant called Betty’s, a narrow, busy landmark in the gentrified, artsy Short North neighborhood of Columbus, her home base. Sitting at a corner table by the front windows, she’s patiently stirring a foggy mixed drink when I arrive.
Shy but assured, Loveless possesses a wariness that, I think, must be the natural response to doing so many interviews, playing so many shows, and meeting so many strangers. But once she decides to talk, she talks, sometimes freely, laughing at herself, and sometimes thoughtfully, searching for the right word or revising what she’s just said. Either way, she’s honest, and we talk for nearly two hours, far more conversation than I can use for the Ghettoblaster feature.*
After we talk about the new records a bit, especially their warmer sound compared to Indestructible Machine, I note that I haven’t seen much mention in other features and interviews about her songwriting.
“That’s because I’m a woman,” she says with a laugh.
So we talk about songwriting. Finally taking a break from relentless touring, Loveless spent a fair number of frustrating weeks holed up writing new songs in an office in a Columbus neighborhood called Grandview, chucking away an entire album’s worth of songs. Ultimately, the time in the office was about “vacuuming all the extraneous shit out of my brain,” she says. “When I sit by myself for too long, I can get a little trapped in my head. I forget to experiment and let go. So at first it was very simple three-chord songs, and a lot of writing about ‘I feel boxed in by the country music genre’. And I was like, oh, this is boring.”
Loveless credits May with helping her get past the traps. “Todd and I do songwriting nights where we’ll just get together and play, and it’s cool because he has different influences and more guitar-oriented influences than I do.” When I ask what she means by that, Loveless explains how her tendency is to focus on the songwriting while May, a songwriter with a long and laudable history of Columbus bands, picks up on texture and production. “With the EP and the record, I’ve started to take more control of the guitar sound and focus more on production and what the whole thing is going to sound like instead of, ‘I’m here in this room writing this song and I’ll let everyone else decide what else goes on it.’”
The songwriting on Boy Crazy and Somewhere Else sounds effortless, possessing that combination of timelessness and immediacy. So I ask if there are moments in the writing process when everything comes in a rush. “I’d say most songs that I write to completion and actually end up recording and using are ones where I don’t remember sitting down and writing them,” Loveless replies. “I’ll just record a demo of something and completely do stream-of-consciousness stuff and then just not listen to it for a few days and forget about it. And quite literally it’ll sound like something I’ve never even heard before.”
Or she’ll dream them up, like “The Water”, a gorgeous ballad on Boy Crazy I’m afraid will get lost in the rush of Somewhere Else being released. “As a songwriter,” Loveless says, “you go to bed at night and sometimes you dream songs, and you’re like, ‘That’s great, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.’ And then you wake up and it’s fucking gone. Shit.”
“But with ‘The Water’, I fell asleep and had a dream that I was hanging out with this guy on a beach on Lake Michigan, which is like my favorite place on Earth. I went to Interlochen, so I had this dream I was back there. And then I went into this cabin and put on a Deer Tick record—do you know that band?—and ‘The Water’ came out. Literally, fully formed. I had to adjust the lyrics somewhat, but that song came out of the record player in my dream, and it was Deer Tick playing it.”
Somewhere Else is a swaggering country-tinged rock record with shadowy, bittersweet edges. You hear them in the lower range of Loveless’ voice, in Jay Gasper’s weeping pedal steel, and in the thick textures of Todd May’s guitars—the end of “Chris Isaak”, for instance (like “Steve Earle” from Indestructible Machine, another song named after a famous musician that’s not really about that musician), when the guitar sustains just a little longer than it ‘should’, just long enough to make you uncomfortable, just long enough to conjure the possibility of a Neil Young-style feedback coda.
Then the bouncing, syncopated riff of “To Love Somebody” kicks in; it’s happy; hell, it’s chipper, until Loveless growls the title line, “What does it mean to love somebody?” On paper or your screen it may seem like a sugar cube of philosophizing, but Loveless wrenches every ounce of meaning from it.
If Somewhere Else takes a slower, more confident pace, it recognizes the danger that comes with slowing down: it’s harder to ignore the back alleys and the corner bars in your mind. Loveless doesn’t flinch, interrogating herself as easily as you or me. On the album’s title track, the woman in the song is somehow seductive and self-loathing, crooning, “Well you give me more love than a woman can stand / I keep trying to find a way to see you”; she pauses, then rattles off, “‘Cause I guess I’m just a spoiled brat just like my Daddy said I was / God that used to make me so fucking angry.”
“Head” and “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” are the album’s strongest songs put back-to-back, one dripping with passion, one with total detachment and male fantasy. Ignore whatever you read in the more genteel areas of the press; “Head” is about a demoralizing, dehumanizing masculine fantasy of oral sex. Calling that the “heart’s hunger” softens the blow, if you’ll pardon the pun, and pretty much ignores the lyrics. Sung from the point of view of a man who admits “I don’t even try that hard to stay awake,” “Head” is a sneering, painful proclamation of aggression and regression. “Don’t stop getting undressed / Don’t stop giving me head,” sings Loveless from behind a masculine mask, exposing the fantasy for what it’s really about: self-love, if not self-worship.
“People are going to think it’s a joke,” Loveless says, “but to me, it’s a really sad song. I wanted to actually write a sad, visceral song about oral sex. The first time I ever played with Todd, we were like, wouldn’t it be cool to write a really sad song about blowing someone? That was our plan. It took us forever to actually come up with the song; I ended up writing it a couple months before we recorded the album.”
After “Head” fades into distortion, Loveless reappears, singing plainly over an acoustic guitar:
Well, Verlaine shot Rimbaud ‘cause he loved him so
And honey that’s how I love you
Well, Verlaine shot Rimbaud ‘cause he loved him so
And honey that’s how I wanna go
“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” is one of the more country-sounding songs on the record and it’s about two gay French poets and their violent relationship. Loveless keeps upending your expectations, spitting out, “I wanna love you like a father loves a son,” finding common ground with these young men whose passion might be fatal—Rimbaud was all of 18 when Verlaine wounded him—but claiming that passion for herself, too.
At Betty’s, I’m telling Loveless about Miranda July‘s recent Columbus visit; during the Q&A, a young man handed the author and filmmaker a pair of those eyeglasses with the nose and mustache attached and asked her to tell everyone a secret about herself. What made him think she’d do it? (She didn’t.) Starting to wax philosophical over my second beer, I wonder what happens when a person becomes a public figure, and ask Loveless if she’s found it difficult to keep up a barrier, to maintain a space for herself.
“Yeah, I guess I do,” she says, “because I write so honestly. And that’s what’s kind of weird: I write in a very blunt manner, like, I need to say this. You know? And then I get reviews that say, ‘She’s making this up, she’s trying to have this shtick, or she needs to find other things to write about.’ Or I’m married now, so it’s like, ‘Why are you writing about dudes and shit?’ I still need to have, obviously, a part of me that’s not for everyone, but I don’t ever wanna be the kind of person that doesn’t write honestly.”
Loveless explains that the sense of being scrutinized only intensifies at shows, partly because there’s such a stark difference between who she is in her songs and who she is in person. “Especially strangers,” she adds. “I’m very shy and closed-off. Sometimes people will come up to me and think I’m being a bitch because I’m like,”—Loveless adopts a robotic tone—”Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the show, and then I just sort of run up the stairs to get away from everybody.”
“I think they expect me to be like my songs—brash, vulgar—and then they think I’m faking my songs because I’m not like that. I mean, I’m twenty-three years old and married. I’m pretty boring and monogamous. But I just really like in-your-face writing. My favorite writers are Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Tobias Wolff—those are tell-it-like-it-is people. And I’m this way partly because my family is. We’re very, ‘I have a problem, I’m going to tell you about it, and now we’re going to get in a horrible fight, but at least we’ll know what we feel, right?’ I’ve never been able to relate to people who are like, ‘I feel something but I don’t know how to express it.’ I’m really into just, ‘Tell it.’”
Sipping the beer that’s making me ponderous, I wonder if, once people find in her a kind of authenticity, they lock her in a mental category… and then I lose my thought. The word “authenticity” bothers me, I admit.
“I don’t know what it means,” Loveless says. “I think there’s this weird idea that everything authentic, or authentic country, comes from the South or the West. But I’m from the Midwest and I feel like the definition of authentic is the Midwest. We’re friendly, we have this accent that isn’t even an accent. I love being from the Midwest because I feel like it’s the most authentic place in the country.” Authentic as in honest? “Yeah, honest. We have manners but we’re also really vulgar and crass. We like to get drunk. We just don’t hold anything back and I love that.”
Not holding anything back seems like it’d give people more of an opportunity to judge you, more material to work with.
“You can’t make all of those people happy. And especially as a performer, when I’m on the road every night for two months, you’re gonna see some bad shit.” Loveless tosses back another self-deprecating laugh. “You’re gonna see me at my worst. But that’s life. Everyone’s human and you shouldn’t judge people too harshly. A lot of that, for me, comes from being raised really religiously; I’ve seen a lot of people judged just for being human.”
As Loveless and I have been talking, it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me that the walls of Betty’s are adorned with pin-up magazine covers from the ‘50s and ‘60s. I’ve been going to the restaurant for years; it’s something you start overlooking after a while. But all this talk of pop culture, public perception, authenticity and judgment—even someone asking an accomplished filmmaker and author to tell a roomful of strangers a secret—has an underlying subject to it: the masculine gaze. How much has really changed in the past 50 years? For some men in the audience, any woman who steps onto a stage isn’t much different from those pin-up queens with their doe-eyed glances.
“People really are jealous of women who play music,” says Loveless. “That sounds kind of pathetic, but it’s completely true. Right after I got signed, there were a couple dudes in the country music scene that were like, ‘I guess it’s who you know.’ Since I was fuckin’ twelve-years-old I wanted to be in a band, I wanted to play music, and I wanted to fucking do it for a living.”
Loveless describes how she dropped out of school and even dance classes, having once planned on going to college to become a dance teacher. “I realized I couldn’t be a full-time musician and do anything else. I sacrificed everything. Sacrificed education, having money. I networked the fuck out of myself, played shows constantly, sacrificed having any comforts… like, this is what I do. I lost my job. I got laid off from Benevolence [an organic restaurant in Columbus]. I was a prep cook there. They closed down and I was like, ‘I guess I’m doing this for real.’ And a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, I guess you must have known someone.’”
Do people not recognize how much of a risk the full-time musician’s life can be?
“It’s an incredible risk. And I’m not bitching at all, because I love my life and I don’t have to work a real job. But people think you can have a full-time job and a house and a family and be a musician, and you can’t.”
When you read the press about Loveless, especially what came out around Indestructible Machine, you can pick up on this tone of wonder, this amazement at Loveless’ age. Thrown off, perhaps, by the strength of not only her songwriting but her attitude, so many articles cast her as an anomaly, a mystery to solve, when in fact she’s just been expressing what millions of women her age, in her generation, experience every day.
Loveless nods when I ask if all this sleuthing is getting kind of laborious. “Yeah,” she says, “People say it’s hard to believe I’m writing these songs. I mean, girls are having babies at fourteen.”
“There’s this whole thing about women that we’re more feelings-oriented or we’re just thinking about make-up.” Loveless pauses and smirks. “Okay, I am thinking about make-up most of the time; I love make-up. But we have so much pressure to be smart and be pretty. Like, if I show up to a meeting and I don’t have make-up on or if I’m wearing a casual outfit, people are like, ‘See, you say you want to be sexy, but you look kind of boring right now.’ But you can’t look too sexy because then you’re not a feminist.”
“It’s so fucking hard to be a woman,” she continues. “And I don’t expect any sympathy or pity. I love being a woman, I’d never want to be a man. I’m very happy being me. But every second that you’re a woman, you’re aware of it. I walked in to get cigarettes, and people were like ‘Damn, baby!’ Come on! You cannot have a moment to yourself where you’re not thinking about being a woman.
But everything you do as a woman is like, ‘Pretty good for a woman!’ or ‘Why is this woman singing about drinking?’ I mean, Vic Chestnutt fucking drove himself into a tree and then sang about depression and killed himself, and he still gets more respect than I do when I sing about having a beer.”
Loveless recounts the tired comparisons she gets to Neko Case, who, if you’re really listening, she sounds nothing like. Case’s voice is also not a rock ‘n’ roll voice, Loveless’ is, through and through.
“Obviously there are more male songwriters than women songwriters,” Loveless says, “so getting compared to Neko Case is like saying, from the writer’s point of view, ‘That’s the only thing I can think of.’ Or every time I play a show, somebody says, ‘I saw a woman with a guitar and I was like, What is this gonna be like?” She laughs in disbelief. “And I’m like, ‘Well, I saw four dudes in a band and I thought, ‘This is gonna be the same fucking thing I hear every night.’”*Thanks to Ghettoblaster for allowing me to use portions of an interview for their magazine here at PopMatters.