Heart & Soul & a Whole Lot More: An Interview with Shelby Lynne
With a new label (her own), a new album (self-produced), and a new lease on life, Grammy winner Shelby Lynne talks about the lack of autobiography in her songs, how she doesn't really want to learn how to make an MP3, and why she'll never record another cover song again.
Shelby Lynne is a living, breathing contradiction.
She won the Best New Artist Grammy in 2001 for I Am Shelby Lynne -- her sixth album. Although Lynne's previous five albums charted quite well on the Billboard Country Chart, I Am Shelby Lynne was actually a full-fledged rhythm & blues disc, which Lynne then followed with a major label pop album (2001's Love, Shelby), two roots-based alt-country discs, and then a jazz-oriented Dusty Springfield covers disc, which may very well be her best (2008's untouchable Just a Little Lovin'). Lynne has been notoriously hard to pigeonhole and frequently does just about the last thing that's expected of her, but, really, she wouldn't want it any other way.
Following the tepid label response to Just a Little Lovin' (which, incidentally, was her highest-charting album to date), Lynne decided to forge a new path, forming her own label -- Everso Records -- and then writing, recording, and producing a brand new album by herself. The resulting disc, Truth, Lies & Alibis, starts off on a remarkably upbeat note, featuring warm, inviting songs with fun tempos ("Rains Came", "Why Didn't You Call Me"), but it's not long before it morphs into a voice-and-acoustic affair, putting Lynne's talents in the forefront without any flashy instrumentation behind her. On the flagship album of her new label, she's released the most vulnerable record of her career.
Lynne is plainspoken and frank, happy to talk about her new independence and positively relieved to have it after granting more than her fair share of concessions to labels during her 22-year tenure in the industry. During our discussion, Lynne explains that she still doesn't know how to make an MP3, offers career advice to Vanilla Ice, and suggests there's a very real chance that she'll never record a cover song ever again.
After coming off an album like Just a Little Lovin', wherein you did virtually nothing but jazz-oriented Dusty Springfield covers, there are still many that consider you a "country artist" through and through. Do you consider yourself a country artist at all still?
You know I'm just an artist, singer, songwriter. I'll let people do whatever they want to do with categories, 'cos I don't really think about it that much. I know what my influences are. I just enjoy playing music. Categories are kind of boring to me, so I just let the people decide.
Who would you list as some of your biggest influences? Would you classify them as country-oriented?
Well, once you get to be over 40 years old, you just kind of take over the influence yourself. The names go away. But as far as genres of music, it'd be too vast and too broad for me to name every single name that influenced me: country, traditional country. But I like anything from Hank Williams to Charlie Rich-style country. Charlie Rich made pop kind of records during that time, but then of course I love some R&B stuff. And jazz, I like traditional jazz. We could be here all day.
A lot of that is reflected in your recordings as well. One of the things I loved about I am Shelby Lynne is how the first song ("Your Lies") was like a full-on Phil Spector kind of track, not the country music I was lead to believe was contained within. Then, on a related note, you were able to get Lost Highway Records to release a jazz album, and this was a label that was already somewhat infamous for getting in a fight with Ryan Adams when he wanted to release a rock album. With that said, how did Everso Records come into being?
Well, when I was [with] Lost Highway and I started making this record for them, I was spending about eight months working on it, and I called 'em in to listen and they passed.
Yeah. I'm just tired of record companies and I just decided I'd do it on my own.
Well is there something that Everso is looking to accomplish or is it just going be the label to support Shelby Lynne?
You have certainly picked an interesting time to become a label head, what with the digital download era suddenly changing the ways that labels and producers go about making recordings. For you, has the advent of the digital download changed the way you make your music?
No. You do have to pay more careful attention to the digital world, you know? Record stores still exist, but they're not as big as they used to be. I mean, I still personally like to buy CDs and albums. A lot of the world is moving too fast for my liking, for what I like. I just put it out there to whoever and however people want to buy it. I got a great distribution company and they're into it and I'm into it and they know what they're doing, and that's the whole thing -- hiring the right people who know what they're doing. You know the good part is that I get to make all the decisions and I can actually get something accomplished. I find it more and more difficult [to do that] with a label. It just got to be where it was not fun. I mean, you spend all your life and your time makin' a record -- your heart and your soul -- and you hand it over to these people who don't ... who don't have any interest.
And they say, "Well, it's not commercial enough."
Well, I mean, besides that. I'm probably never gonna cut anything commercial in my life, but there are people in this world who will buy what I do, so that's what I'm gonna do.
Well, that kind of brings us to the songwriting part. When "Rain Came" kind of kicks in the album, it seems like you're in a bit of a happier mood, but then you sneak in a line like "the dark side of me seems to like how it feels when it's pouring". Then you begin to realize that this is a bit of a darker record, and there's that moment in "Alibi" where you're pretending to sleep just so that you don't have to be friends with your lover. The more you listen to this and tracks like "Your Lies" and Identity Crisis' "I Don't Think So", you begin to see that you're actually pretty well-versed in areas of heartbreak. Where do you usually get inspiration for tracks like these?
Well I mean ... I don't know. You look around and ... I don't know. It's just like writing a story. I don't discuss my private life, but some songs should be a message for everyone.
So it's not like "this is a song about Shelby Lynne: The Person", but "this is a person whose perspective I'm singing from."
Yes, exactly. I would never tell anybody a word about me. It's not something I do: talk about my private life with anyone. I just don't. In the public you just got to keep some things private.
In reading a bit about your songwriting process, I got the sense that for this album a lot of those songs stemmed from your love of collaboration and working with your band members during the recording process.
Yeah, it's true. I'm really close with my fellas that play with me. We're really like family and I sunk into their lives and they sunk in mine and -- there's that. I use it.
I did notice, however, that there were a couple of different themes running through this album, specifically that of homesickness. In "Rains Came" you're remembering the rainstorms in the Alabama of your youth, while "Home Sweet Home" had a relatable sentiment of being away from the place you reside. Was that much of an intentional force that came around this time out?
Well I don't have any plans when I write songs, they just appear. I try to just make something good happen from the idea of it. I'm looking up to fall down, but I never did. I just try to take advantage of the life around me.
Mike Doughty of the band Soul Coughing once said that you can never force a song to be something that it's not: you've got to nurture it and let it grow. You can't force a song to be a dance song if that's not what it wants to be, and you can't force a country song to be a country song if it doesn't want to be.
Yeah, the thing about making songs is this: you either run with it or you lose it. You've got to have your instincts honed, and you're lucky if you [have them]. Sometimes you want to say, "Well, I don't want it to be that way!" Well, that's too bad -- the song does what it needs to do.
I have a feeling that's going to be the Everso Records motto: "The song is boss".
Well kinda, yeah. You got to have a song before you sing anything. That's kind of key to the whole scheme of things.
Yet you've also found great success with cover songs as well, ranging from "Rainy Night in Georgia" to your entire album of Dusty classics. That's one thing that kind of surprised me about Truth, Lies & Alibis: It was all 100% original songs, which, to a degree, makes sense given that it's your "label debut", technically, wanting to make an impact from the get-go. Was that a deliberate choice?
Yes. It was a deliberate choice. I did a whole covers album last time -- I think one career is good for one covers record, and I don't really plan on cuttin' any covers from now on out. Sometimes at a show I do some, but I really want to concentrate on doing my own thing. After I did such a big covers record of famous songs, I'm just going to stay low and write about airstreams I guess.
Well you always have chosen an eclectic batch of artists to cover in the past. Are there any artists out there right now that you're currently digging?
This is always the worst question to ask me! I got too many things going on at once. I don't know. I have one radio station that I listen to in Los Angeles and they play a pretty eclectic group of songs -- new records and things like that. It's kinda nice to find new music without being completely nerdy and sitting at the computer all day which I hate.
And don't discount yourself there either. The new album is stylistically all over the place, ranging from jazz-based tunes to pop songs to a lot of acoustic tracks as well, making it a sort of "thematic best of" for you. Yet you stay away from "flashier" songs this time out, making it seem like you just want to have one record under the idea of "Shelby Lynne: The Artist".
Yeah, and I made this record on an absolutely shoestring budget. Lost Highway said they wanted a record and they wanted a big-name record producer to produce it, but then they cut the budget in half. If there's no Big Time Record Producer Budget, then there's no Big Time Record Producer. I kinda had a feeling from the beginning when they did that that they weren't going to continue the relationship. I just kept doing my thing, and here we are. I'm glad to be out from working for the man: I'm working for myself now.
Best part about that is calling your own hours.
Oh yeah. I love to work. The weekend comes around now and I'm not on the floor yet [going], "Well shit, I don't have anything I can do." I can just continue to write or make some notes.
Do you have any particular favorites off of the new album?
I like "Like a Fool". "Loser Dreamer", I like that.
I like "Loser Dreamer" as well, if not just for how relatable it is, being a bit of a universal theme out of only a few specific details.
That's the thing: they're really simple songs and the recording is really plain, and I kinda like it that way. If it can't stand up to be really simple, then it probably is not good. On the last record I made, I like to call it "sanity" 'cos it's [got] great players and Phil Ramone and Capitol Studios -- and there was a big budget. Well, not too big: I mean, they don't do that as they did back in the day. Too much money. I really don't think it takes a lot of money to make a brilliant record. I think all of that stuff is going to go away , all of that "too much money", all that "wasted money". I think everything needs to come back down to reality to find the music again.
Now with technology, you have to go through a lot of stuff to see if [an upstart artist] really can pull it off. You wouldn't be able to tell on the record: there's absolutely no faults or warts or anything on it -- it's just perfect. But let's go out and see 'em live to see if they got the goods.
I have a cassette recorder that I write songs on and I don't even know how to make an MP3 on my computer. People say, "Oh can you send me an MP3?" Well, no, you can't! You'll have to wait three extra days for the record to get there. I think that somebody has gotta fight for what we got left to salvage.
I keep hearing all of these things about how the music industry is dying, but it's never going to die: people will always be making and distributing music. People may make less, sure, but it's never going to go away completely. And artists who make great music will be remembered, and even those making trashy pop hits will be forgotten before too long. This is how Vanilla Ice can sell seven million copies of a record and then basically disappear.
Well, I hope he saved his money.
Lastly, so far in your lengthy career, what has been your biggest regret and -- conversely -- what's been your proudest accomplishment?
My biggest regret is not doing this sooner. Accomplishments? I think I'm there now. You know I got 22 years in this business and I never had a hit record, so I'm still makin' a living and starting my new label, so I think my best times have yet to come.