Interview: Lydia Loveless [March 2015]

By Jason Swearingen

Chicago’s Bloodshot Records recently celebrated twenty years of releasing incredible music with a blowout celebration at Metro Chicago. Lydia Loveless was one of the acts to play, and rightfully so. Her music has its roots in the kind of punk, country and Americana the label has come to epitomise since 1994, while showing just how vibrant that sound continues to be. It’s been a banner year for Bloodshot, and Loveless’ ‘Somewhere Else’ was clearly one of the highlights. A visceral record full of heartbreak, sarcasm, angst and joy, ‘Somewhere Else’ is not only one of the best records of 2014, but will likely go down as a landmark album in a number of different genres.

Before the show, we sat down with Lydia in a corner booth of the GMan Tavern to discuss the album, her year of touring, and where she’ll go from here, among other things.

What was it like to be named one of Rolling Stone’s Best New Artists of 2014 (for your third full-length)?

It’s definitely exciting to get that attention. I try not to think about it too much. I know everyone says that, but I’ve been trying, especially lately, to ignore so much press because it can affect me mentally in a weird way that my songs start to suck. But it was definitely awesome. I was not expecting it.

I’m a songwriter, too, and I can’t handle positive feedback.

Yeah, it actually is sometimes worse than negative [feedback]. Negative is fuelling to me. Not that I’m like, “No one ever says anything positive about me”, but I think it gets into your head and makes you kinda fucking annoying.

This last year was the biggest touring year you’ve had so far, right? What was that like, especially coming off of the acclaim for ‘Somewhere Else’?

It was fun. I mean, it was definitely stressful. I’m sure I’ve talked about this in every interview I’ve ever done, but I have really bad social anxiety, so it starts to kind of wear on me. But I think my band’s in a really good place at this point. We’ve definitely bonded. Now, being off for a month, it seems harder than being on the road because I’m trying to figure out what to do with myself. Definitely, travelling across the country and selling out shows is more fun than sitting on the couch wondering what you’re going to do today.

I know you talk a lot about being socially anxious. A lot of times that contradicts the way people write about you, the way they perceive you. I’m also very socially anxious, and a lot of people are surprised to learn that. What do you think it is about public performance that draws people who are socially anxious to it?

I think it’s overcompensation. Honestly, it’s probably your one chance to be…not a dork, which is how I perceive myself. Usually in social situations, people think I’m being an asshole or a bitch. I’ve had people be like, “She glared at me, and she is just a hag, and nasty” and I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m totally not.” But I never know what to say. So I think being on stage is empowering and, yeah, there’s definitely a little overcompensation. And, also, I can just have diarrhoea of the mouth, and it’s not weird, because then it’s funny. It becomes a performance. My dad, one time – I was filling out a job application as a teenager, and one of the questions was, “Do you know what to say to people when they approach you?” and I said, “No”. He was like, “What are you? A fucking idiot? You say, “Hello. How are you?” When you’re on stage, you don’t really have to navigate that. You just are up there. It’s like, “You’re obviously here to hear my songs. Here’s a joke. I’m weird. Thank you. Leave or don’t.”

When you’re a public persona, people talk to you, instead of you having to talk to them.

But they want you to have something really cool to say, and I’m like, “I watched some TV today. It was very cool.”

So, what was the press and acclaim for the record like, and how has that changed in the year since it came out? It’s been a year now.

Yeah, it was February of last year. I guess the thing about that is you get on this rush, sort of like being swept away. When the record comes out, everyone cares, and it’s great. Granted, that’s assuming people like the record that you put out. So that was great to have everyone seemingly, for the most part, liking it, and then you get down, and you’re done with the cycle. So now I’m writing, and all of it seems so far away now. At the time it seemed like, “Wow, this is great”. And you always get back to that part where you’re like, “Now, time to write again”. And you get kind of down and into the process. I’m definitely stoked that my third record seemed to be something people could actually connect with this time. I wrote my first record when I was fifteen, and probably not a lot of people could connect with it. So, it seems like things are progressing in a good way.

When I first heard your record, the first song started, and I heard your voice over that music, and I thought, “Shit, this is a contemporary with, like, Lucinda Williams, and I’ve just never heard of her before.” And then I learned that you were only 23, and it was your third record, and I was like, “Holy shit.” Most people spend ten or twenty years trying to get to the level of confidence and competence that you are at.

Thank you.

A lot of writers like to wax poetic about your lyrics and your persona, the contradiction of you coming off so confident, but you’re really socially anxious – all that bullshit. Most of the stuff I read was from before the album came out, or right when it came out. I was wondering if there’s been any misinterpretations or misrepresentations in the past year that have bothered you?

Like, lyrically?

Yeah. Or persona-wise. Anything where people assume something about you.

I mean, all that shit bothers me because, obviously, no one knows you. Like, “You don’t know my pain”. I don’t know. Something I really hate is “She’s a woman you wouldn’t take home to mama”. It’s like, “Well, I’m married. So, obviously somebody did. Several people have.” It’s kind of annoying. I think that’s kind of a woman thing, where you have to get personal about, “Oh, she’s a rough and tumble gal who’ll kick you in the balls at mama’s table.” No, I’m definitely just a person that writes songs about shit. But that’s a mild irritation. I guess it bothers me when people think ‘Head’ is about giving a blow job. I’m like, “Women can also get head.” There’s a common misperception where it’s about giving a dude a blow job. No.

[Giving head] was kind of a common topic in the 90s, from female artists, where it was about women owning their sexuality, but they did it in a way, like Alanis Morrissette singing, “Would she go down on you in a theatre?” where it was all about going down on the guy. In juxtaposition to that, ‘Head’ is like “Hey, it’s not all about the dude.”

Sometimes, it’s about the lady! I mean, it’s kinda sad that in 2015, I thought we’d have flying cars and we’re still, kinda like, “women owning their sexuality”. I have a flying vagina, I guess.

I’ve heard the song ‘Head’ was an idea you had and spent a long time refining and trying to figure out how to make it work. Because it’s an interesting idea. Is that a technique you gravitate towards more or less? Having a theme or an idea and perfecting it over time, or do songs just kind of…shit out you?

I think it’s a mixture. I think my better ones tend to shit out of me. I mean, that’s hard to say. It’s something I used to do a lot more. Like, “I want to write a song about THIS.” But it always seems to take me so much longer, that I’ve tried to, if I have an idea like that, write it down and try not to push it too much. Because it always seems to work against me. I’m writing a new record right now, and there’s a song I’ve had, again, for two years, and every time we play it, I want to throw a raging fit. But the other songs that I’m like, “I just had this idea today,” seem to always fall into place better. As a songwriter, I don’t want to give up on having an idea and perfecting it. They always happen eventually. It’s better to not push and push and push.

I think i read that you said ‘Verlaine Shot Rimbaud’ was your favourite song off that record. Was that one that just shit out of you?

That was swiftly becoming one of those songs that [drove me crazy]. It wasn’t even the same song, even remotely. It’s two totally separate songs. The original version of that was on all the material that I basically scrapped. I was trying to paraphrase a Verlaine poem, and make it my own. I got so mad one day that I just started writing “Verlaine shot Rimbaud ‘cause he loved him so” and it seemed kinda funny and dumb. But then, once I started playing it more, I was like, “This could be very depressing. Let’s do it that way instead. Let’s make it actually about Verlaine instead of one of his poems.” I ended up just putting the poem on the record. Instead of letting that sort of crush me and make me depressed, I let it make me angry and turned it into a totally different song.

What was you favourite music of the last year? Other than music – movies, books, TV, whatever? What stuff did you love? What do you want to tell people about?

Touring so much, I’m embarrassingly wrapped up in my own world, but my favourite records were Angel Olsen’s. The Phantogram record ‘Voices’. We really liked that. We listened to that all the time in the van. Sia. I like a lot of pop music, so anything that makes me wanna do my white girl dance. Which movie I loved? Birdman. I saw that, like, three times.

Birdman was fucking awesome. I told my wife after seeing it, “There’s nothing else you can ever see that will tell you [that well] what it’s like to be in the mind of an artist.”

Yeah. It was so perfect, it made me not only want to immediately want to get up and do something, but tell everyone to go see it. I don’t know if non-artists liked that movie. I’ve talked about it with my friends who say, “Yeah, it got into my brain!”

The idea of seeing that “asshole who doesn’t have anything to say” succeed, while the person who’s trying their hardest to say something – nobody cares.

I have to say, it was funny for me, because I actually really liked Ed Norton’s character, too. I know you’re supposed to think he’s an asshole, but it reminded me of me and my guitar players and our conversations together. How he’s always telling Michael Keaton, “Stop giving a shit!” And Michael Keaton’s like, “But I can’t stop giving a shit!”

A lot of the songs on ‘Somewhere Else’, more than your older stuff, seem like they’re built off a very simple melody, and everything else is layered on top of it. It’s not window dressing. It builds it. But the songs could easily be played by you, acoustic, as much as they could be with a full band. When you write stuff like that, do you have an idea of what the rest of the instrumentation will be? Specifically, an example I was curious about was ‘Wine Lips’. Do you write the rhythm guitar and work with your band from there?

I write the rhythm guitar. Yeah. Todd does a lot of shit that he refuses to take credit for musically. ‘Wine Lips’ is one that was actually mostly me. I kind of directed the drums in the way I wanted to go more so than I usually would. Then there’s Todd’s little riff that he does. But that was obviously a very simple song.

What about the bass riff?

That’s all Ben.

I could imagine the song being written on an acoustic guitar, and then that bass riff being added and just locking it in.

I would say I have an amazing band that does half really what I tell them to do, and then half amazes me with what they come up with.

I’ve stumbled my way into a band or two like that, and it’s…

It’s like a honeymoon. It’s awesome.

You and your band are locked in together.

It definitely wouldn’t be the same without those specific people. I’ve played with some shitty people that were unwilling to ever listen to me and also had no good ideas. So, I think it’s the perfect marriage of people with good ideas who will listen to me. Which sounds bitchy, but whatever.


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