Pic by Amanda Demme
Two years ago, Shelby Lynne released, in very limited numbers on vinyl, an album called Here I Am , the soundtrack of an as yet unreleased film about a few days in the life of a singer as much tortured by who she wasn’t as what she was but, as the title suggested, still standing.
Not just standing, but refusing to cede.
You wouldn’t call the film, shot by writer/director Cynthia Mort in muted daylight and time-irrelevant/light unnatural bars and recording studios, a bundle of laughs, but it is a fascinating experience being immersed in it, watching a once successful singer, Tommy Gold – played by Lynne - on the verge of losing herself completely as she tries to save herself and her career.
An intense, passionate singer who seems to be peeling away a layer of skin each time she sings – much as Lynne does in her superb assaying of soul country - Gold’s clearly has been self-destructive and difficult to be around. But there’s no hiding the fact that at least part of the story behind that behaviour is because she has given in to elements of the business that don’t sit well with, that in fact do serious damage to, her sense of self, her values and beliefs.
The film finally has a distribution deal and is scheduled for release later this year, covid19-permitting, with its title now the even more blunt When We Kill The Creators. Ahead of it has come a new Lynne album – “more of a rounded, love song record,” she says - mixing songs from the film’s soundtrack/Here I Am with new tracks, called with simplicity, or straightforwardness, Shelby Lynne.
From this vantage point it’s clear how the fictional Tommy Gold story crosses paths at various points with Lynne’s own, which began as a teenager signed to a major Nashville label and set for stylised success in the glossy country market of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before fighting against and finally freeing herself from the packaging, constraints and structured railroading of the industry.
Though to be fair you could find links between Gold and any number of successful and not so successful women in the music industry. The core of film and real life remain common truths: being treated as a commodity; being seen as a troublemaker for expressing a differing opinion; being assumed to be a puppet or at least an offshoot of controlling men; being battered by the experience.
But unlike Lynne, whose career has become increasingly self-guided, finally as an independent artist with her own studio, Gold’s gone with the flow more, taken advice more, and maybe paid a bigger price.
“The Tommy character has obviously had more of a commercial successful career and probably not bucked the system as much as I have, which is probably what makes her crazy,” says Lynne. “I sometimes think in all the twists and turns that I’ve taken in the last 31 years making records, I think the craziness has kept me sane artistically. That’s the difference between the character and me. I think, I’m way more of a tough character than Tommy. I’ve been able to withstand it.
Toughness, even if sometimes displayed as a brittle, febrile anger at the assumptions made of her, is one Lynne characteristic, borne to some extent of a foundational tragedy in her life and that of her younger sister, fellow high quality soul/country singer Allison Moorer – the death of their mother at the hands of their father when the girls were teenagers.
(A subject which came up obliquely or explicitly in both sisters’ work for many years, the family story was explored in detail in Moorer’s compelling 2019 book and accompanying album of the same name, Blood.)
Another Lynne characteristic is that she looks like someone for whom writing and making music is natural, in the sense that it is her essence, indivisible from the rest of her. You would not call that a safe or sensible characteristic for anyone in the music business.
“You know, I don’t think you can do what I do and be in the business. You know what I mean? I’m not able to be in the business, because I just can’t do that stuff. It takes the life out of the work for me,” says Lynne. “Since 2010 I’ve had my own label and it’s been a whole different experience. I don’t believe there’s enough money in the world to convince me that I want to be in this business. I tried it, you watched me try, but it just doesn’t work.”
It is no coincidence that the best things she has made have been ones where Lynne has had the least interference or imposition from others. Where she has been just raw to the experience. That the sales have not matched that is both inexplicable and not worth trying to explain.
“It’s just a fact, you know it. God bless them, and nobody’s ever wanted anything but great things for me, but it’s never worked out,” Lynne says of the label heads, managers and other experts who have sought to guide her. “As much as I love performing, and would love to be performing for a thousand people each night - if playing ever happens for any of us ever again - I think that I’ve accepted that that’s probably not my path.
“It doesn’t mean that I won’t keep making records, because that’s just what I do and I enjoy it and I love writing songs and I love singing. But I let go of those big fancy dreams a long time ago. I kinda like the dream I’ve dreamt.”
The fact that she is able to record and release records is, oddly enough, an achievement in itself given what the industry has tried to do to her over several decades. It’s got to be better than having a Tommy Gold-style big hit and then having to live with the consequences and disappointments that come with that.
“You are correct,” she says, adding with a chuckle. “That’s how I talk it up anyway.
“I was thinking today of all the people I’ve met, and the record deals I’ve had and the records I’ve made, it’s been a hell of a ride man. And I believe that this record is one of the best efforts I’ve ever made. I spent years writing it, spent years making it, it took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to present to the world. That’s what I’m happy about.”
If it is one of her best – and I would agree with her that it is – it may be because it taps into similar territory to some of the other peaks in her career, such as the virtual one-woman album, Identity Crisis, and her slightly more embellished tribute to Dusty Springfield, Just A Little Lovin’, in its relative simplicity of sound, it’s intimacy and intensity, and the fact that she takes a significant role in its creation, not just as producer but playing almost everything on it.
However, it’s not quite that simple. She told American Songwriter magazine: “If I’ve learned anything throughout the years, it’s that if you have a good song, you don’t need a lot of noise,” but she is also aware that just because it’s only voice and guitar doesn’t make it more truthful. The album has full arrangements at times, such as Don’t Even Believe In Love, which flourishes in its fuller sound, and others which have not much more than a cigarette paper between Lynne and the listener.
“First of all you’ve gotta start with a great song, and I’m pretty picky about [waiting for] that feeling I get when I know that that’s a good song, that that is singable, that I can cross this river,” she says. “As far as production, it’s another feeling that I get. An example on the record would be Revolving Broken Heart: I got off the road, fell into bed, got up the next morning and went outside into the studio, sat in front of the mic, just to get it out of my head. That wound up being the record and it’s got warts and hair all over it. It’s the most imperfect thing but I was going, this track is done, there’s no way I could beat this. Something told me it was finished, and it was all about emotion and imperfection.
“That’s how I make the decision as a producer: you just know, you know? I’m not one to keep doing things over and over and over, and I’ve had many people be frustrated with me about that ‘but how you do you know it’s not going to be better?’, and I just say, I know.
“I’m glad I am the decider.”
Tomorrow: in part two, Shelby Lynne talks about trusting your gut, sharing the responsibility, and why love is the absolute worst best thing we will experience.
Shelby Lynne’s self-titled album is out now, on Everso, through Cooking Vinyl in Australia.