Pic by Amanda Demme
In the life and career of Shelby Lynne there’s sharing, and then there’s sharing.
Yesterday, in the first part of this interview, the Alabama-raised, singer/songwriter/producer/musician/actor who now lives “above the office”, her home studio, in California, explained the roots of her new self-titled album were in both her 31 years as a musician and the film role she developed with writer/director Cynthia Mort.
That film, When We Kill The Creators, centred on a singer, Tommy Gold, with a successful past and a more troubled, disorienting present as everyone around her wants a say in what Tommy does, makes and thinks.
As we saw, that’s not how Lynne works. “I’m the decider,” she told me. And that applies at every step of her record on which as well as producing and doing most of the backing as well as lead vocals, she played pretty much everything – calling in the likes of Benmont Tench for roles, as needed.
That level of involvement asks a lot of her, before even considering the close-quarters singing, which is intimate but powerful in its restraint. Lynne’s clearly comfortable with that load.
“I know my limits. I’m very careful when I do it because I want to get myself in a hole that I can’t get out of and then get frustrated and leave the song on the floor,” she says. “So I start off by what I do know, what I hear in my head, and try to be in service of the song more than anything rather than concentrating on trying to play fancy or stretch myself to the point of being silly or embarrassing. I keep my limits close and I respect my limits.
“I’m a pretty good guitar player, that’s really my instrument. The rest of it is feeling and keeping it in my own neighbourhood. But if it’s too difficult and I want something more out of a production, I will call who I need. Love Is Coming, I wanted to be more of a real musician kind of a [track]; Don’t Even Believe I was after a soul/Memphis thing and I wanted to cut it live].”
She even plays the saxophone on the album, a surprise not just to fans who have followed her career for decades but didn’t know she played the horn.
“Nobody knows. Except the people I went to junior high with,” Lynne says. “That was just a day where Cynthia and I were in the studio, recording that song, My Mind’s Riot, just the two of us, and I knew I loved the vocal man, I knew that I loved the sound of that thing, knew that I loved the piano, but I wanted more and she said why don’t you play the sax? I said are you crazy, I haven’t played the saxophone since the eighth grade.
“But I went up into the attic and got it down and I thought, what the fuck, I’ll try it.”
While it sounds right now, it was still a bold decision to include it both in the context of the rest of the songs and the fact she hadn’t played it in nearly 40 years. But she went with her gut.
“And that’s another thing. One thing I learned when I started my own studio and got into the gear and learning how it all worked, there is such a thing as an erase button. If it doesn’t work, you get rid of it. With this I tried it a couple of times, we were liking the way it was feeling, and I thought this is cool, nothing has to be perfect to feel right. And often perfection doesn’t feel right.
“I’m all about the emotions and when you you’re looking at somebody and think, damn, that works, we’re keeping that. It’s all an emotional thing, for sure man.”
She and Mort worked very closely in the creation of the character and the film, so much so that Mort co-wrote several of the songs used in the film, and repeated on this new album. This is a level of sharing in the writing process beyond anything that Lynne has ever really felt comfortable with. But again it was a gut call, acknowledging how close in spirit and intent they were with that project and Tommy Gold.
“As a songwriter there are only very, very rare cases where you can collaborate with somebody in such a close way. Songwriters are generally selfish, if they are doing it right. It’s one thing if you get together and you’re having 10 o’clock meetings and you write songs that you want to make hits from. But it’s another thing if you are just writing songs because you are moved to do that.
“When Cynthia and I met I had just finished a record where I had written all the tunes on it and I was kind of bored with the process of my own. I’ve been writing songs for a long time and I write songs all the time but there was something about the way she put words together, something about the imagery of her words that she didn’t even recognise, and I’m like, I like this, there’s a hook in this, I think we can work with this.”
Lynne explains that they would combine their quite different approaches to lyric writing, with Mort never having written a song before and not really up on structure.
“And I’m like you gotta have a verse, you gotta have a bridge, sometimes you might have to have a b-section, and you gotta have a hook in the chorus. That’s how songs are, that’s why we keep going back to the great Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Burt Bacharach and Hal David: these songs have patterns, this is what makes the world go round,” Lynne says good humouredly.
“So she would give me these narrative kind of things and I would go in and choose the lines almost like a physics problem. Without changing any of her narrative I would come up with stuff like ‘I’ll ride you off my mind’. It was not always fun but it was refreshing.”
There was some history to suggest Lynne letting someone else take up the slack could work well, on top of being refreshing.
In the 21 years since she took back control of her career as a songwriter and a soul singer – that album, I Am Shelby Lynne, winning her a Grammy, incongruously as best new talent, more than a decade into her recording career - she has made two fascinating covers-based albums, the tribute to Dusty Springfield, Just A Little Lovin, and the record she made with her sister, Allison Moorer, Not Dark Yet.
What emerged in those recordings was that despite the history in all of those songs - from songwriters like Randy Newman, Bacharach and David, and Bob Dylan, to name but a few, and of course the stellar voice and presence of Dusty Springfield - Lynne made the into something that wasn’t just different, they were hers.
There is a quality to interpretive singers that goes beyond singing to grasping the nature of a song and I put it to Lynne that that usually can only come by a kind of brutal self-assessment that allows you to know, though not necessarily like, yourself.
“When I went to Nashville when I was 18, 19 years old and I started working with [legendary Nashville producer] Billy Sherrill, I learnt so much about how to make records. I was hanging out with George Jones, probably the greatest interpreter of all time, and Tammy Wynette, another great interpreter, and I just started to understand what they were doing,” Lynne says. “Country music, as we know, in the day was a story with a beginning, middle and an end and the voice telling the story, the medium, was responsible for everybody’s feelings. And that’s the most important part of making a great record. You gotta have a great song, and you gotta be able to sing that story.
“The Dusty record was a frightening experience because I realised that I was walking on sacred ground, but I knew that to make that record even a possibility, it was all intentional to completely allow songs to just do the work. Dusty had already done it the way it was supposed to be done and my tribute to her was making a record that she would enjoy listening to. That’s how I interpreted that record.”
If, as she’s already discussed, there is an ambivalence about making records in this industry within her and the film, this new album also reaffirms a suspicion that Lynne, who was briefly married at 18 and has always kept a tight lid on a personal life even as its tribulations and traumas have surfaced in songs, has a similar ambivalence about love.
Ambivalence may be underselling it. The takeaway message from a Shelby Lynne album would appear to be that love is inevitable, it has incredible moments, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good, or that you can live with it long-term. Or that you can choose to live without it.
“I think love is the most destructive, hurtful, heartbreaking, incredible, lightning bolt experience that we can’t control. There’s nothing we can do. When that happens to you you’re just kinda screwed,” says Lynne. “Love is a destroyer of thinking, rational people and that’s what makes it amazing. There is no way to survive it. There is no way to survive love. You just can’t.”
You just come out the other end and hope you’re reasonably intact?
“You’re scorched, burnt, bruised, beaten up. You don’t even recognise yourself when you get out of it.”
Sometimes it seems the only good thing that comes out of it is another record.
“You are correct. Now that I can attest to.”
Shelby Lynne’s self-titled album is out now, on Everso, through Cooking Vinyl in Australia.