Photo: David T. Kindler

Keeping It Real: An Interview with Lydia Loveless

"I don't think you can make very good art if you're not coming from an honest place."
Lydia Loveless

Documentarian Gorman Bechard has a new documentary out titled Who is Lydia Loveless? The flim’s subject provides no definitive answer on her new album Real. Reluctant to wear the crown of punk princess, the 25-year-old Loveless keeps fans guessing with an unapologetic pop turn while maintaining her “feral” approach to songwriting.

In Jeff Strowe’s recent PopMatters review of Real, he notes how “Over the course of two previous full-length albums, she’s written and sang about love and loss, small-town bleakness, and hopeful yearning with an intensity and focus rarely matched by those in the country-rock community, let alone those in her age bracket. Her music has sparked a legion of loyal followers, [including] enthusiastic endorsements from acts like Drive-By Truckers and Old 97s.”

Restless at home while waiting to tour, Loveless was full of nervous laughter when speaking to PopMatters about identity, the vision for Real, and her disdain for a neighboring state. Feelings be damned, the candid Loveless dismissed any notion of pulling lyrical punches when it comes to her latest batch of personal songs as they relate to her husband and bandmate Ben Lamb. Honest and raw, Loveless is as real as can be.

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As Lydia Ankrom, how would you describe Lydia Loveless? Who is she? Is it a persona?

Wow. I was actually just thinking about this, how I’m in a pretty different mood all the time, particularly with interviews starting. I’m kind of all over the place. I’ve probably been Lydia Loveless longer than Lydia Ankrom at this point. I don’t know. I guess right now I’m in kind of a weird place because I’m done with the record, and kind of just waiting for it to come out. I think I really have to be on tour to really know who the hell I am. That’s a difficult question.

Does that change when you’re on tour, from show to show?

I guess I just feel a little more grounded when I’m driving around in a van in a different city every day. That’s when I’m actually doing my work and doing my job, and I just feel a little bit more certain of everything.

Somewhere Else was very rock and roll from the gut. For Real, I would say it’s more from the heart.

Yeah, I was definitely feeling a little more loopy and romantic on this record, whereas I could go a little more desperate on Somewhere Else. I think this one is a little bit more relaxed and flowing, as opposed to choking the life out of everything that I can’t have.

I definitely had an idea of what I was doing this time around. This one was a lot more … not to use the word thematic — it’s not like a concept album or anything, but I was definitely writing all in the same space this time around.

How will that translate live?

Live I’m still a crazy enthusiastic mess, so I think it will still come across. I think we’re little bit more contained on this record. There’s a lot more going on musically. We’re playing keyboards and Jay [Gasper]’s doing all these crazy loops, so we have to be a little bit more contained. I still don’t know how the hell to behave, so I think it will still come across as rock and roll or whatever people expect.

I would say this one showcases the vulnerable side. It was always there, but hidden behind a brash veneer; that’s stripped away on this one. I think part of that is the songs and the instrumentation and production values you mentioned, too. I don’t want to say it’s necessarily poppy, but it’s more polished.

I would definitely consider this a pop album. More so than much of anything else just because of knowing what went on in the studio and how much more work was put in from the other one. Maybe I shouldn’t call it a pop album because I think people get confused about what that is, but more so than an alt-country album. I’ve never really considered myself a punk artist, but I’ll take it because I’m a bit feral. It’s more poppy than anything.

Some of the songs on the new album, like opener “Same to You”, “Out on Love”, and “Clumps” — they come across as very personal. Being married to your bandmate (bassist Ben Lamb), are you comfortable presenting something like that to him and the band that are of a very personal nature?

I don’t think you can make very good art if you’re not coming from an honest place. Your life is not going to be very good if you’re trying to make honest art and you’re like, “Honey, it’s about something I made up.” I’ve always been kind of like “I don’t care.” Sure, it’s uncomfortable for him, but we’re adults. I think we understand the nature of the relationship.

Do you think the songs lose their sting over time once you’re out on the road playing them?

Some of them can. That’s why I like to write very personal songs, so they don’t really lose it. Also I like to let the meanings change over time, which is helpful. With a song like “Steve Earle”, I’d rather die than ever play that ever again. Where did that come from? I guess from the heart. Even if it’s not necessarily about me and my personal experience, I would rather sing something that can morph and change then something that sounds like it would be on Laugh In or Hee Haw.

You mentioned the songs changing over time. With the video for “Longer”, the first single, does the video aspect change the song in any way? If I’m correct, the song is about somebody passing away.

Yeah, but I don’t think anybody wants to watch a video about somebody dying of a heroin overdose. It doesn’t have to be like, “Yeah, let’s show someone in the bathroom dying.” I don’t know. I let Gorman [Bechard, director] come up with that concept. I thought it was pretty, and I always felt sort of not like “super-hot chick”, so I just enjoyed a day of laying in a bed and someone doing my makeup, and it looks good. I think that’s what music videos are for. If you just do something that’s exactly the song, that’s kind of pointless. I just wanted to look cool and feel pretty.

The one thing I noticed on Real is your voice is the focal point on certain songs like “Out of Love” and the title track, “Real”. Are you more comfortable now, or, as you mentioned that this is a pop album, is that more on the production end of things?

I guess it’s both. My voice is my main instrument. I don’t consider myself a guitar virtuoso by any stretch. It was cool to be making a pop album and to be in a really comfortable room, where I’m cool with harmonizing with myself because I’ve been in the studio for ten years now and actually working with Joe [Viers], our engineer/producer, for most of my recordings. So I think we’ve just got to a really comfortable place where I’m not afraid to say, “I’m going to do this crazy thing and my voice is going to crack” and everyone’s going to laugh or it’s going to be really awesome. Just using that as an actual instrument and harmonizing with Todd [May] — we’ve been together for so long — I guess it was just a really comfortable song, I think I was just ready to take the reins more and come up with crazy ideas, because we did do some really weird vocal stuff on this one, at least for me.

The one song that sticks out on the album as maybe the least personal is “European”. There’s a stalker vibe going on there.

That’s funny, because actually that’s my friend’s favorite on the record. He was like, “It’s so sweet and desperate,” I was like, “It’s actually about a rapist.” He was like, “… don’t tell anyone that.” I have to because I don’t want people … I mean, I do want people to have their own concept of what it is because I don’t like telling people how to feel about something. But for me, it’s from the perspective of a rapist or a stalker. I got that idea when I was smoking on my deck and I found myself absentmindedly staring in someone’s window. I was like an unintentional Peeping Tom for like five minutes, but it was really just me zoning out. Then I started writing the song, so that was cool.

The first time I heard it, American Psycho popped into my head. Like someone that’s unhinged but yet holding on.

We actually made a video for “European” that I’m really excited about, sort of a horror concept.

That’ll be fun to see. My favorite song, if I can offer my two cents, is “Bilbao”. It has this very cinematic of-the-moment feel to it. I just love the way that song plays out.

That’s really cool. That was a weird one to write because I never thought I would write a song with the words “marry me” in it, but it ended up working out. Actually it’s interesting enough to carry a cheesy chorus like that.

Like you, I’m from Ohio, although I’m in the Philadelphia area now, but I grew up there. How do you feel about the music aspect of Ohio? Is a very fertile in that aspect; it’s not something you would necessarily think about. If you’re thinking about where music comes from, Ohio is not the first place that really pops into somebody’s head, but yet there’s this wellspring of acts that have come from there and continue to come from there.

For me, music comes from people. I don’t really think of it as, “You have to go to New York.” I think that’s a surefire way to make music stagnant, to consider something comes from some cool area of the country. For me, I get inspired by solitude and going out into the country or hiking. I don’t really like to be around tons of people all the time. Maybe it’s just because I’m socially anxious as shit. I think Columbus has a lot of good music coming out of it. Mostly I live here because I can afford to and my band is here. If I tried to pack it up and go somewhere cooler, I don’t know how to do it without spreading out my band and my resources at this point in my life. I’m sure I would like to get the hell out of here at some point.

The song “Midwestern Guys”, with its “Def Leppard 1983” reference, to me is so accurate in that regard. Once you’re out of any of the big cities, it’s the same songs on the radio that they were playing when I lived there in 1983. It hasn’t changed.

Yeah, it’s funny: that song was inspired by all the 45-year-old dudes that I know. We were listening to Def Leppard on the radio and Todd started telling a story about making out with a girl in the car. I’m like, oh my God, every dude from Ohio has that story.

There’s a line in “Longer” about a “shitty Indianapolis band”. Is that a jab at the state or an in-joke?

I absolutely fucking hate that state with every fiber of my being. I don’t understand how being right next to us we get more shit than they do. It’s the worst. Everyone is like, “Who’s the band?” There’s not really a band. It’s just I needed a city, and I happen to fucking hate that one. I just hate going there.

You are almost as ubiquitous for collaborations as you are for your own recordings. Some of my favorites you’ve done are “Trade All the Lights” with Caleb Caudle; I love what you did on the new Austin Lucas album, [Between the Moon and the Midwest; and even dating back to Ohio references, you worked with Mark Utley in Magnolia Mountain. How did those come about?

With Caleb, I played a show with him when I was like 16, so that’s how I knew him. We ran into each other in North Carolina when I was playing there. With Austin, I was just driving through Nashville at some point, and I threw some vocals on there. Then with Mark, I’ve just known him for a while because I played in Cincinnati so much when I was younger. It was all my traveling that I’m constantly doing and running into studios. I really like to harmonize, so I pretty much do it any chance I get.

Tell me a little bit about the cover art for Real. I have ideas in my head, but I want to know what you think of it.

It started from a joke. We have mascots that we buy at gas stations or claw game machines, like little stuffed animals. We ended up getting a monkey one time that we named Bigsby. For some reason, it sparked a discussion that the funniest thing in the world is a monkey smoking a cigar. It does have a meaning deeper than that, but I’m super depressed and socially awkward and anxious all the time, so I constantly feel like if I’m in a public setting I’m sort of acting or putting on a show. That’s sort of the organ grinder monkey side of me. Also, it’s a bit of the … I hate to say jab, but it’s a nod to the state of the music industry, where new musicians are essentially doing a lot of the work and getting very little at this point — similar to an organ grinder’s monkey. Trying to be too deep maybe, but it was also really fun to dress up in a weird sense. Do weird makeup and be sort of fantastical for a day.