Mary Lou Lord has been around the block...after a decade spent dealing with things that would make most humans crumble, she is back with the delightful new album "Backstreet Angels", a collection of covers and originals that shines a light on what it means to persevere. Knee-deep in preparation for her first visit to Japan, Mary Lou was kind enough to reflect on her collaborators, working with her daughter Annabelle, the Boston-area busking scene and the wish that Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith (two friends of hers) could have found their way into collaboration...
Your new album, “Backstreet Angels”, is a really beautiful collection of songs and your first new album in over a decade. Parts of it were recorded oceans-apart with Australian musician/producer Maryanne Window while others were produced more locally at Sonelab and Bang A Song studios. What made you decide to get back into the studio and how did the record come together?
I originally decided to do a Kickstarter. I had just gotten GarageBand and had a few songs in the can, and thought it was going to be an easy (and mainly) acoustic project. My friend Billy Ruane had just died, and he was perhaps my best friend. I was also coming out of loss of a three year relationship with someone, as well as going through a foreclosure. So, my thought with the Kickstarter, and the album, was to keep "moving forward". I needed to put myself up for the challenge, otherwise, I might have never gotten out of the black fog I was in. Putting myself up to the challenge of doing that album gave me "hope". And it also was a way for me to see if anyone was still interested in my music. It was a great way to litmus that.
One of the things I was most struck with is that your daughter Annabelle sings lead on album stand-out, “I Feel Better”. You must be so proud of her, and there is something very profound about the passing of the torch to a very literal “next generation” of singer-songwriter. What was that experience like for you, as a mom and a musician?
Yes, daughter Annabelle was 13 when I initially began this project. I was in Denver at a performance and I checked my computer and there was an mp3 sent to me by someone. I listened and it was a young girl doing the Beatles' version of "Till There Was You" on a ukulele. At first it took me a couple minutes to get my head around the fact that it was my daughter! She hadn't let on to me how much she had been practicing, nor, that she had begun to sing. I was knocked out by this. She's 16 now and she's become a great young writer. Her guitar playing is wonderful and her singing style is sensible, non-dramatic, and most importantly honest. I'm beyond happy that she took part in the making of this album, and I think it was good for her to learn a lesson in perseverance, persistence, and patience. Through me showing her or telling her about music that I like, it really gives me back the spirit of hearing something awesome-for the first time again.
You have always covered a lot of others’ material on your albums, but balance that with very focused and well-crafted originals. Some of these collaborations have been career-long (Nick Saloman from the Bevis Frond, for example), but you seem to keep finding new artists who inspire you. Where do you find inspiration these days and how do you choose which songs to cover?
I've never been an artist who has to write as a means to express myself, or some kind of cathartic experience. I think I find that kind of joy in the "sharing" of a song I might find or discover. Where some people only want to write a song, my passion is finding songs that fit exactly what I too might feel, and then, either share them, cover them, or simply pay the songs themselves the honor of being the best listener I can be. There is a very silent art and half of what makes a great song "do" what it should "do", is when the listener connects with that feeling. Listening might be the most "silent" thing, and no one gets a trophy or a medal for "listening" because it is invisible, but it's important. And some of the songs that Nick from the Bevis Frond has written are some of those songs that affected me profoundly. Just amazed me in their craft, structure, in either the lyrics, melodies, guitar playing, and even his singing. It comes from a place of honesty. And it was naturally a good fit when we would team up somehow-I was already a big listener of his songs. I still love his music.
Speaking of your songs, I imagine that they are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are forced to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particularly proud to have written or that is special to you?
Yes, it's funny that you say that songs are like children. I suppose that when making a record, it's like their wedding day. There's a lot of preparation that goes into it. Then you take the picture, and they go out into the world. They will have their own experiences, and you won't be there. So, you try your best to make sure they are the best they can be. I guess if I could pick only one, it would most likely be "Western Union Desperate". I like that one. And now, “My Buddy Valentine” - it's just a great song, and I loved having the experience of writing with both Nick and Maryanne on that one. I love that we'll always be connected through a song. You know?
There has always been connection between you and Kurt Cobain and Elliott Smith, two artists who impacted your artistic development and life in very meaningful ways. Both were the subjects of documentaries this year (“Montage of Heck” and “Heaven Adores You”, respectively). I was wondering if you had seen either and what you thought of them? More generally, is it difficult as an artist to separate yourself as a fan when you have a relationship with someone whose work has such an impact on you?
Yes, it really still amazes me that I did know Elliott and Kurt as people, as friends-and thankfully, before they got famous. I did see the montage of heck movie, and I thought it was great to see all those lovely home movies and photos of Kurt when he was a child. I was sort of shocked at how much old footage there was actually. That was late 60's early 70's. Before the video boom of the mid-late 80's. It was all on Super 8. It was clear to see he was beloved as a child. It must have been very tough on him to lose that type of Camelot - yet have all that happy child footage constantly reminding him of how it "was" during that happy time of innocence. Maybe he always wanted it to remain that way and went back to childlike expressionism and never fully developed as a grounded person because of that stunt in a mature growth. Possibly he saw a happy return when he had his daughter. It perhaps connected him back to his own childhood, but alas, in order to protect her, he knew he finally had to grow up. Maybe it was all too much for him. I haven't seen the Elliott Smith movie yet, but I'm sure it's lovely. Elliott and Kurt were a lot alike in many ways. In my heart, one of my biggest wishes is that Kurt had lived long enough to have met Elliott. Elliott was either in Portland at the time, or just about to be back in Portland. I know that had Kurt met Elliott, he would have adored his music. And in my biggest fantasy, if they had met they could have made a side-band together. Elliott could have shown Kurt so many things - where Elliott's whisper was from the same place as Kurt's screams, if the two had connected, it would have been one hell of a band. I also think that they could have been two people on the planet that understood each other as friends, more than most.
You’ve been very vocal and active in the Boston area speaking up in defense of “busker’s rights”, a tradition that has long been a vibrant part of that city’s street culture but which has had wavering political support over the years. You yourself came up in the scene…is the fight to preserve performing on the streets triumphing?
Performing on the streets was great. When any new artist begins, they need some kind of support while they practice, being, learn the instrument-this stuff takes hours and hours. I started late in life, and it was a time when I had to somehow make money. So, with busking, I was learning my craft, while getting supported for doing it-at the same time. In other words, if I wasn't busking, or anyone else for that matter, they will have to become a waitress or something in order to live. Busking allows for freedom, and allows the ability to work on your art at the same time-as well as gives a person one of the main ingredients in persisting, which is "hope". I will always fight for this right. It was very good to me, and has been for thousands and thousands of people.
You’re heading off soon for a tour of Japan, which I have to imagine must be really exciting! Is there a plan to tour your record stateside? What’s on tap for you next?
Yes, I'm going to Japan for the first time. I'll be there in early October. I'm very excited. Somehow “Lights are Changing” found its way onto a popular soundtrack to a popular young people's show called "Terrace House". My song is wedged in between the likes of Taylor Swift, Black Eyed Peas, and Weezer. Again, it's the Bevis Frond song, "Lights are Changing". It just goes to show the timelessness of that song, and the fact that, well, it's a great song. It's one of those songs that could have been a hit. But, somehow, I'm kind of glad it wasn't. The song will remain timeless and have plenty of spins left in it. Music, great songs, should be like that. And in your earlier statement about songs being like children, well, with that foster child (haha), it will be a nice reunion, and the tour will be a reunion of sorts as well-whether in Japan or stateside. I go where the music brings me.