Lera Lynn: country-rooted musician turned True Detective cameo star, the moody singer-songwriter talks to TGA about how hard it is to make a living in music, the power of Nashville – and playing in people’s laps the last time she toured the UK
Lera Lynn’s voice is lovely. We’re chatting over the phone – she from her base in the capital of American country music, Nashville, Tennessee; me from my UK home. She’s crystal clear, and her voice is sonorous despite the fact she’s not singing. She’s got an alluringly rich yet restrained southern drawl thing going on, and there’s evidence of that occasional crack that adds a raw edge to her singing voice.
Lera Lynn’s new album, Resistor, has just been released. She’s most famous for her appearances in acclaimed HBO television series True Detective, in which she provided a tonal chorus to the quasi-spiritual meetings between Vince Vaughn’s and Colin Farrell’s characters. She was the one embracing full heroin chic, perched on a stool and peeking out from under a mop of greasy hair as she played to an empty bar.
Working with the show’s music supervisor, feted producer T-Bone Burnett (himself a veteran star drawn from the world of country), she helped establish the dusky tone so important to the ambience of the show. The album, though, channels a kind of dark folk that leans steadily on haunting pop melodies, and borrows from Southern gothic and the tenebrous, urbane noir-ness that’s beguilingly particular to America.
Because of her appearance on True Detective, pretty much all of her media coverage since then – certainly on this side of the Atlantic – has been about her involvement in the series. What was it like working on the show? How long did it take in make-up to look so dishevelled and unkempt? Are Farrell’s eyebrows as thick in real life as they look on screen? There is a danger that being so closely associated with a show like this can pigeonhole an artist, eradicate their independent spirit or impact on their ability to self-define, but Lynn isn’t worried.
“I’m just glad to have reached so many more fans,” she says. “One common thing that I hear from people is: ‘I found out about you on True Detective, then I went out and bought all of your records and now I’m coming to your show!’ Which is perfect! It’s a tough business so I’m grateful for the exposure. Usually you’re just lucky if people want to talk to you! To be frustrated by it would just be silly.”
More than that, it proved to her that people would be interested in the type of music she wanted to make going forward. “True Detective showed me that there’s a wide audience for darker, atmospheric music,” she says.
Resistor ploughs a similar furrow as the show. It’s pop, or a dark, Lynchian representation of pop, mixed with the melancholy of Joni Mitchell and the crepuscular nature of dark wave. Nashville doesn’t impose itself all that perceptibly on the record, to ears that recognise country music according to its traditional definitions. Lera concedes that the ‘sound’ of Nashville has become much more diffuse these days, which, rather than being limiting, boosts her confidence to keep trying new things.
“I feel like it [Nashville] strengthens my identity even more – just being surrounded by the convoluted music that mainstream country music has become. I feel better about doing something apart from the norm,” she says.
This recalibration is something that’s been allowed to happen organically – because of the insular and meticulous way Resistor was recorded. Lera, along with studio partner Joshua Grange, wrote and played everything, multi-tracking every facet of Resistor at leisure in the private, relaxed space of their studio: “There was one song we recorded live but 95 per cent of the record is Josh and me doing everything.”
You can hear the results on the record. Resistor sounds more deliberate and more sculpted than anything she’s done before, as if all the textures have been lovingly crafted with all the industry, patience and healthy fastidiousness of an artist celebrating clarity of vision. Take the track What You Done. “I’m honing in on a sound that I’m trying to make my own, so it’s all coming together at the same time,” says Lera. “We were very intentional with every guitar line, with every instrument that was recorded, just because we had the time to do that. Having our own space enabled us to really carve out sonic atmospheres that we wouldn’t have had the time to curate with a band being present in the studio.”
This is the first album she’s released since True Detective; perhaps that’s another reason for the arcane writing processes for Resistor. With loads of attention and new fans to impress, was she more concerned than ever about precisely how her music should sound?
“Maybe,” she answers carefully. “Although I think it’s more that when I first started making records I didn’t realise the permanence of what I was doing. You know, once it’s out in the world it’s there for ever.
“We were working in our own studio so we had more time to experiment. For me, it can be a little stressful when you’re in the studio with a band and money flowing out the door. I’m an independent musician so everything I do is self-funded. Eliminating that pressure opened the door for a lot more experimentation.”
The thought of living in financially unstable circumstances as a musician and songwriter seems like a cause of persistent anxiety for Lera. The temptation with music is think about it in terms of pure artistry, as the bastion of the individual, or a nuclear group perhaps, who envision themselves as ideologues piecing something beautiful together, irrespective of the world outside. But during our conversation, it becomes apparent that Lera has an acute sense of the real world – how can anyone actually survive in a saturated music industry? She is aware of its chronic instability, of how success is reliant on making music that can actually be sold and embraced by an existent market. She approaches the release and writing of her music with that in mind.
“I don’t feel the pressure to write music that is radio accessible, but if you want to be a musician and pay your bills there is a certain amount of that that has to be taken into consideration,” she says. “Is my music accessible? Are people going to buy it? Are they going to buy tickets to come to my shows? You can’t just be completely isolated in that way.”
Long gone are those days in the Sixties when an artist could make music and live in an Epicurean commune, or those fallen romantic figures of music yore whose single-minded pursuit came at the expense of their lives. Lera is keen to make a music career work in the 21st century – no mean feat in the internet era of piracy, decreasing album sales and the changing habits of music consumers.
She finds inspiration and motivation, as so many have, in her home town of Nashville. Lera is energised by the massive popularity of country music. According to music sales measurement people, Nielsen, Sam Hunt’s Montevallo sold 1,378,000 copies last year, coming in as the ninth bestselling album of any genre in the US. Luke Bryan shifted 851,000 physical copies alone of Kill The Lights. That’s a lot of money and a lot of success. Lera is galvanised by the artists still thriving in music today and driven by her proximity to them.
“I find it pretty inspiring and challenging to be surrounded by people who are making millions of dollars in music. Because in today’s climate, nobody buys records – how can you survive as a musician? It’s great to be reminded by people who have very real and very big success in music. It’s encouraging. It makes me want to work harder. It’s easy to become discouraged and think: ‘how can I survive?’”
She continues, “Maybe I’m just delusional! I just feel like: ‘Keep pressing on! Keep pressing on!’ and hopefully there will be a tipping point and I’ll be able to survive.” Lera articulates the biggest problem that faces musicians trying to ‘make it’, who suffer from the same debilitating uncertainties about their livelihoods. She is perseverant but circumspect, inspired by a familiar maxim. “Other people can do it so maybe I can too,” she concludes.
Resistor is an entirely self-funded endeavour on her label Resistor Music (with a Caroline Records distribution partnership across the US and Europe). That self-determination has been an integral part of Lera Lynn’s career, and she is happy that her choices have been justified. “It was not an easy decision but I feel like the hardest part of the struggling is done – I’ve got this far on my own,” she says. “I’m just starting to see the turning point so why give up the [artistic] control now?”
She laughs assuredly, but she’s aware that her current position hasn’t been achieved alone: “I’m fortunate that I’ve had such generous support from my fans. It’s really the fans that have enabled me to do any of this.”
Was she courted by big labels after True Detective? “Yes,” she breathes coyly. “I was. I think the art is more important to me than the business and that’s what I want to make the priority. At this stage of the game it seems the best way to do that, as an independent artist.”
Independence allows Lera to decide her own style without anyone telling her what to do.
“That is the price you pay for having a big label fund your endeavours,” she declares sagely – which means she also gets to dictate the look of her record. “I did all the artwork for the record myself,” she says. “It’s my first time ever doing album art myself. It was a learning curve but I enjoyed it.”
The cover art to Resistor is striking. Lera’s disembodied head is speared by an angular sculpture, begging the question: what does it all mean?
“I used a photograph that a friend of mine took of one of her sculptures,” declares Lynn. “Her name is Ixtel Lara. I saw the photograph and the sculpture. And I was like, this is the perfect thing, because I think the music is really angular. There’s also a little warmth to the image too, and it’s a little psychedelic.”
A major would never have let her do that, would they? “Oh, I’m sure they’d be like: ‘we need you in a bikini, lose twenty pounds, and dye your hair blonde’!” she laughs.
Lera has a long list of UK and European live dates this summer, playing eighteen shows in less than a month, running from the end of May to mid-June. She’s hitting all the major British cities, as well as Amsterdam and Berlin, and she’s very excited.
“Oh my God! I can’t wait!” she yelps. “And I’m bringing my band too. When we toured [the UK] last year we went as a duo but this time round we’re gonna have drums, bass, electric guitars. That’s really what the music is intended for.”
She has fond memories of playing in England: “We played a couple of shows at The Slaughtered Lamb [in London]. It was a small venue, really intimate and we were basically performing in people’s laps. It felt very English – the perfect English experience. And Leeds too! I thought it was so interesting with all the old buildings. The oldest buildings in the US are only, like, 200 years old. I can’t wait [to go back]; I think the audiences are going to enjoy the journey that we try to take them on with the live show.”
Not that she’s daunted by the intensity of the touring: “Yeah, I’ve been looking at the calendar and I’m like: ‘Oh God!’ I love seeing that though, it’s great. I like being stacked; it means things are going well.”
Lynn is looking forward to the rest of this year, which promises to be another breakout one. Resistor marks another high point in her career, and will be enough to battle against the pitfalls of the industry, for a little while at least. It’s the first step into the post-True Detective glare, but she remains cautious. You’re doing alright at the moment, I tell her. She replies with characteristic realism: “At the moment, yeah”.
Catch Lera Lynn live in Europe on the following dates:
27 May 2016 | Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre (The Malt Room)
29 May 2016 | Glasgow, Oran Mor
30 May 2016 | Gateshead, Sage Gateshead
31 May 2016 | Leeds, Brudenell Social Club
1 Jun 2016 | Manchester, Band On The Wall
2 Jun 2016 | London, Islington Assembly Hall
4 Jun 2016 | St Albans, The Horn
5 Jun 2016 | Nottingham, The Bodega
6 Jun 2016 | Oxford, The Bullingdon
8 Jun 2016 | Amsterdam, Melkweg Theaterzaal
9 Jun 2016 | Berlin, Musik & Frieden
10 Jun 2016 | Dublin, Whelan’s
12 Jun 2016 | Cardiff, Wales Millennium Centre (w/ Ben Folds & yMusic)
13 Jun 2016 | Birmingham, Birmingham Symphony Hall (w/ Ben Folds & yMusic)
14 Jun 2016 | Edinburgh, Usher Hall (w/ Ben Folds & yMusic)
15 Jun 2016 | Liverpool, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (w/ Ben Folds & yMusic)