Tattoos. Lydia Loveless has a handful. Most of her upper right arm is embossed with an intricate tattoo of Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man. It’s striking. As one who has zero tattoos and fears the permanence of something implanted in the skin unless it’s deeply profound and personal, maybe culled from a dream, I’m hoping there’s in fact an almost metaphysical meaning to Loveless’s choice of art.
“It represents a lot of self-loathing.”
Loveless is never one to mince words, but for a songwriter who has spent a career putting confessionals, domestic affronts, and smug-drunk love directly on the table, it’s a statement that holds particular weight, and one that can certainly preface any first listen to her latest, and arguably most accomplished album, Real. In the lead up to the release of Real, Loveless expressed this state of flux in the press for the album saying that she was “masking pain with substance abuse and ashamed of who I was,” that it became “absolutely necessary to become a stronger, more confident human or I was going to die.” The goal then was to craft a record that was a “love letter” to that realization.
true; not merely ostensible, nominal or apparent.
Loveless has a love/hate relationship with success and subsequently dealing with the media. The frustration is palpable—while on the one hand she’s blessed to be able do what she’s always wanted to do, on the other she doesn’t want to come across with “canned answers” that may posit her as a clichéd artist. Nor does Loveless understand the over-reach of journalists to represent her childhood as coming from some imagined and romantic outlaw country commune.
Yes, Loveless did live a slightly-sheltered life in Coshocton, Ohio, playing country and western standards, yes, she jammed pop songs with her sisters and dad in a band called Carson Drew starting at 13, but her origin story has become more akin to tall tale, embellished and extrapolated more with every new album cycle.
“I think people imagine peanut shells on the floor of my dad’s bar, or waking up to Hank Williams Jr. sleeping on the couch,” says Loveless, “but no, it was a Mexican restaurant with a blues bar in the basement. I actually feel like I’ve misrepresented how much of a redneck I actual am. We were very rural and we had crazy weird hillbilly times and it was great for bonding with my siblings, but I barely remember it, and every time I have to do press I’m kind of forced to revisit that. I want to hear the present and the future, not the past.”
Turning 26 this month, the past includes all of the trappings and rungs necessary to ascend to pop stardom—signing with alt-country Chicago juggernaut Bloodshot Records, expensive videos, late-night appearances, European tours, and 2014’s critically lauded Somewhere Else—but Loveless admits it’s never as glamorous as it seems. Finding her voice in that world of pop has been a constant internal nag, one that has her questioning personal sanity for wanting to be a part of it.
Perhaps that’s why she agreed, so early in her career, to make a movie about her topsy-turvy life. Along with director Gorman Bechard, Loveless and band spent the better part of three years touring, in myriad hotel rooms, with cameras in their faces, to make the warts-and-all documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless?—apropos because at the time, she had no damn idea.
“That was just a very weird time. My marriage was going through a period of disillusion and being on the road for three years can really be a strain. Most of the time the only other female who I had to talk to was myself.”
In the trailer for the film there’s a telling quote from Loveless’s husband and bassist Ben Lamb in which he describes her as “the greatest fantasy and your worst f*cking nightmare,” a description that Loveless says is…
being an actual thing; having objective existence, not imaginary, ideal, or fictitious.
Real is a statement of balance, redemption and “figuring things out.” Though it veers wildly as to where Loveless’s lyrical compass is pointing—either in a sharpened commentary on heartbreak and the perpetrating priggishness of the characters in “Midwestern Guys,” or the vulnerable lullaby of the very next track, “Bilbao,” in which Loveless sings to her beau to “marry me”—there is an equilibrium to the album that projects her as deftly confident in her current Zen-like zone of songwriting and well-being. As much as she remains slightly off the rails, she’s also incapable of being anything but spontaneous and recklessly authentic.
The first single, “Longer,” is a heat-seeking Top 40 hit were it released in 1986. Wobbling in a stylistic ether, the feel is sonically somewhere between the air-conditioned paradise of Fleetwood Mac (circa Tango in the Night) and the neon-new-wave chunking of the Cars. Though we are not in a warp where Casey Kasem could on any given summer Sunday exult her universal genius as a songwriting for all to enjoy, there’s a defiant crossover edge to the song. It transmits beyond the pale of an alt-country and NPR fan base that still blatantly alerts Loveless of how she’s perceived, instead of how she truly wants to exist.
“I’m not trying to shed the country aspect, because I’ll never lose those roots, but as a songwriter I just want to be known as a f*cking songwriter. I don’t want to be stuck in the Rolling Stone ‘country’ section,” says Loveless of misconceptions. “What sucks is that I do love the quiet and I do love being out in nature, but I hate that culture and I hate the argument that always asks if what I do is “real” country. Which has a lot to do with the title of this record. What the f*ck is “real” country? The title is a poke at everything that gets questioned for being real or not.”
And to be certain, that aesthetic of radio-ready radiance practically glows on the dance-driven “Heaven,” or the constant craving of “Same to You,” songs that could be indebted to Britney Spears and Prince as much as it could to Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Written mostly on the road, in a me-against-the-world solitude that Loveless admits is where she is most comfortable, what constitutes a “true” Lydia Loveless performance is irrelevant on Real. Her longtime producer Joe Viers treated the studio as a “playground” when it came to recording the album and the final results are as singular and divisive as her heroes.
“When I was 8 my first record was Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time. And I was obsessed just wanting to know what I had to do to do what she did for a living. She was the complete experiment for pop music, she was the prototype for the modern pop diva, she never made the same record twice,” says Loveless ruminating on the balance between intentionality and pure inspiration. “But she also never really had an identity. What is she? A down-home barefoot country girl or a Vegas star? I think that she lost her mind because of that. I don’t want to be pegged into anything.”
genuine, not counterfeit, artificial, or imitation.
By the time you read this, the album-cycle for Real will be in full swing. A reviewer will write of the record, “Is this the Lydia Loveless we’ve all come to love?” and another will proclaim it, “The proof that Loveless can adapt to any situation with the same shit-eating grin.” Swilling bottles of Miller High Life and chain-smoking Camels in the gloaming of a muggy Ohio Thursday, Loveless is hesitant, precarious, and candidly ambivalent about the nomadic lifestyle that awaits. At the same time, it’s something she thrives on—the future, pushing her art forward, eagerly anticipating whatever step is next knowing full and well that a ton of people are listening to her every word. She’s got the intense fan mail to prove it.
But again, at 26, despite her tenure and adventures, calling her a veteran is unfair. In her own words, “I’m just getting good at what I’m doing and I want to do more,” and with her evolution bending, so does pop music, always a topic of Loveless’s strong opinion.
“We’re really in this safe period of music, with fake blues, white dudes with beards playing what they think is roots music that is safe for white people to listen to. It would be interesting to see things get a little more dangerous for a change. The Replacements had this because they were f*ck-ups and they had this ability to f*ck-up so well.”
Beyond anything, Loveless craves risk. Never the ingénue, she has a serious interest in getting into recording other bands and lending her immaculate songwriting talents to others (she’s already written a song for local rookies Cherry Chrome). If there’s anything indisputably “real” about Loveless, it comes…
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