US - Massachusetts - Full Moon 32 - 05/30/99
Mary Lou Lord
an interview in New York City
It must've been about four years ago that I heard Mary Lou Lord's
debut single Some Jingle Jangle Morning for the first time. I was a
huge Juliana Hatfield fan at the time and thought that Mary Lou, also
hailing from the Boston-area, was the best thing since sliced bread. It
was just a bit sad that she was on Kill Rock Stars because I knew
chances were slim that she'd ever make it to Europe that way. But it came
as no surprise to me that Mary Lou - who started out singing on the
streets and in the subway, something she continues to do occasionally
to this very day - signed to Work/Columbia a couple of years ago. Even
though she got excellent press in the US for the very fine blend of folk,
lo-fi-pop and - dare I say it - College rock on her major label debut Got
No Shadow and got quite successful in her home country (in the
same way Juliana Hatfield did, I suppose), but the record never even
made it into the stores in Europe. So imagine how happy I was when I
found out that Mary Lou would play a show at the Knitting Factory the
same weekend I was supposed to be in New York City!
I didn't know what to expect from her at all, as I never had seen her
live before, but she seemed to have a great time on stage. She sat down
for most of the show cause she had been suffering from migrane
anxieties and did busloads of requests, including many covers like
Cinderella Backstreet by one-time Pere Ubu member Peter
Laughner and the opener Barstool Blues by Neil Young. She also
did Book, She Had You and Lights Are Changing
by The Bevis Frond, the amazing Richard Thompson song 1952
Vincent Black Lightning plus one of my alltime favourite obscurities,
Hey Antoinette! by Courtney Love! She even did a 20 minute
encore! It was probably the best solo live performance I've ever seen
(and I've seen quite a few), with the possible exception of a 1991 Bob
Dylan show. It was very impressive indeed! After the show I basically
just wanted to ask her for 15 minutes of her time to do a short interview,
but instead I got to hang out with her and her friends for a few hours and
the interview itself lasted for 40 minutes, too. I get to meet tons of more
or less famous singers and bands, but hardly any of them are as nice as
Mary Lou. I know it sounds corny, but, hey, it's true! Again, I was very
pleasantly surprised. Thanks a lot, Mary Lou! So here is that
conversation almost in its entirety and if anything Mary Lou or I are
saying doesn't make any sense - blame it on the fact that it was 2am
when we did this interview...
Carsten: What's it like to be Mary Lou Lord in
Mary Lou: I guess it's kinda cool. I just had a baby [named
Annabelle] and it's the first time in a long time that I put a priority
besides music in front of me. It's been great to put everything on hold,
like my 'career' and the whole music thing. I've never stopped when I
needed to stop, especially after I made my major label debut record,
cause I was kinda caught up. It's crazy, the more success you have, the
busier they keep you and the busier you gotta keep yourself. And then
you just lose track of important stuff. I haven't listened to music in ages
cause when I did the record I just didn't have enough time and now I
start to listen to music again so I can have a little time to be a fan again.
I'm taking some time off and it feels really good to have the baby in my
life and to be slowing down, putting the brakes on that whole, y'know,
fucked-up... rolling ball of bullshit (laughs) that happens when you get
caught up in the music industry. When you put yourself in the middle of
it, it's very hard to slow down. And a baby certainly will if you're a
Carsten: I talked to a number of female singers who just
had babies recently and all of them told me that the baby turned their
lives upside down. Did you experience the same?
Mary Lou: I actually don't know cause it's so, um, new (laughs).
But yes, it certainly feels like my life is changing and that it has changed.
It's kinda stressful but it's a natural kind of stress. It's not like this weird
unnatural thing the way stepping on a stage sometimes can be. You
know what I mean? That seems a lot more unnatural to me. I'm really
good being a mother and I don't often feel very good about being on the
stage. It was a change that was definitely welcome.
Carsten: You said you're gonna take some time off - just
to get new ideas for songs and stuff, or do you want to hide from the
publicity, the limelight, a bit as well?
Mary Lou: I just felt the record was a bit sterile. I think that it
has to do with the fact that I didn't have a band. They were session
people and so some of the dynamics are very dry, cause they only had
two weeks to learn the songs, so it never will come across as sounding
as complete as a band, with all the feel and the dynamic that would go
into a song naturally if I was a band. First of all that was the thing I
noticed about the record, it sounds a bit sterile. So in the future I'm
gonna do a little more lo-fi kinda stuff. The songs I've been writing
sound a little more 'Stereolab-ish'. There's a lot of keyboards and I'm not
so focussed on writing a story song, cause if you listen to a lot of my
songs, they are like stories. It's not just a sequence of melody or
something ethereal, something you can play on an acoustic guitar and
get away with it... but the stuff I've been writing wouldn't be suitable for
acoustic guitar, because it would be too ethereal.
Carsten: Isn't that a little bit weird? Most of the bands
seem to start out playing more atmospheric stuff and then turn to more
song-orientated tunes later on, like Low for example.
Mary Lou: It would naturally work that way, I think, but the
reason why I could get away with that is I'm doing so many covers so I
could get away with doing a lot of story songs in performance and then
on record, because the stuff I pick is pretty obscure, and I do that
because a lot of the time I think the writers need some attention, too. I
feel that someday I ultimately will work as a music publisher so I don't
have to put other people's songs on my records and I could find other
places to land their songs and get money for it... hopefully... later. I love
songs, but it takes really A LOT to write a good story song so I just
wanna have fun with music again, do some more experimental type stuff
and move away a little bit - for now - from the story thing and just do
music as a melodic drone, as an exercise.
Carsten: Why do you think you actually get away with
covering so many songs and still get respect as a good songwriter?
Most of the time it seems to be like: 'Oh well, they do boatloads of
covers, cause they don't have talent'.
Mary Lou: I guess it depends on how you interpret the song,
somebody can be a really good interpreter and there have been very
good interpreters in the past who also have been good songwriters, like
Tom Rush or Iain Matthews. And a few others. It's funny, I listen to Iain
Matthews sometimes and go 'wow, this guy really had a good ear he
should be working in publishing'. And he might be now... That's all what
they really were, people loved songs and had a passion about them and
maybe made friends with the songwriters way before anybody else did. It
was a rite of passage in a way. When a song is that new and the artist is
not even signed yet it's so irresistible to cover that song. Can you
imagine hearing Bob Dylan for the first time, hearing some of the Beatles
songs for the first time and say, these bands weren't signed yet, these
songs weren't heard yet. It would be so tempting to cover them. That's
why Tom Rush and Iain Matthews and even the Beatles did covers, like
and Carl Perkins. The Rolling Stones were a cover band, The Beatles
were a cover band...
I think it's a very respectful craft to cover songs that wouldn't get heard
Carsten: So do you cover songs just to introduce the
crowd to other people's songs rather than getting personal satisfaction
out of playing these tunes?
Mary Lou: Both!
Carsten: I only know of four people back home in
Germany who own your records,
but the interesting fact is that we all got curious about The Bevis Frond
after we heard you do his songs...
Mary Lou: Oh really? (laughs) See!
Carsten: Have you heard his new album, Vavona
Mary Lou: Yeah [and without saying anything else she gives it
a 'thumbs down']
Carsten: Does that mean you're not going to cover any
more of Nick's songs
Mary Lou: No, not right now anyway...
Carsten: Tonight you played a lot of requests... do you
do that all the time or do you usually have a set that you're
Mary Lou: I usually decide on stage, but there's a definite group
of songs that I always play, like the standards that I have. A lot of them
of course are covers, but it's fun to play a song like 1952 Vincent
Black Lightning for a crowd.... y'know, a lot of people who come to
see me... initially they were Kill Rock Stars mail-order teenage girls that
liked Bikini Kill. So to play songs that they expect back to back with a
powerful song like... Vincent... and they love it! They don't
know who wrote it and they don't care and they go: 'There is more to life
than what you mail-order and what you've been listening to. People come
up to me and ask.' What was that Motorcycle song or what was
that song?' They think it's mine and I can say, no, this is Richard
Thompson and you might really like him. They are young and I realize
how much power you have to help these kids out hahaha.
Carsten: Did you always listen to that kinda stuff or who
turned you on to it?
Mary Lou: I used to listen to Prog-Rock stuff, like Jethro Tull,
Yes, so I guess the celtic stuff came from listening to Jethro Tull first, but
then I got really into folk, because I knew somebody from Jethro Tull
played in Fairport Convention, so I checked out Fairport Convention,
that's how I got into Richard Thompson and from there I went even
deeper... Andy Irvine, Paul Brady and all that stuff was great! And then
what happened was: I was 22 years old and had just started playing
music... um, started later, and I went down to the Coffee shop talking to
the 55 year old guy with the beard... and all I wanted was a fucking beer. I
was sitting there with my leather jacket and I was living kind of a
punkrock lifestyle but I was listening to folk and hanging out with folkies
drinking coffee. But I didn't want coffee, I wanted a beer (laughs) But I
loved the music, so I had to be in the coffee shop. So I'd be the only dork
in there with a leather jacket and a pint and red coat and I thought they
were the biggest dorks on the planet but they were great and the music
was very nice, but the lifestyle was wrong for me. So what happened was
- and it changed my life! - I was driving in my car and I heard Daniel
Johnston sing Speeding Motorcycle.
Carsten: They really play his stuff on the radio here?
Mary Lou: In Boston - on College radio. So I was like: "Oh my
god, who's this crazy woman?" And I pulled over and called the station
and asked: 'Who's this crazy woman singing about the motorcycle?' And
they were like (bursts into laughter): 'That's not a crazy woman, that's
DANIEL JOHNSTON!' And I said: 'Where can I get his stuff?' and they
said: 'Go down to In Your Ear (sp?)'. So I went down to In Your Ear and
said: 'I heard this Daniel Johnston on the radio - any other stuff like that?'
and they gave me this weird Sentridoh record, which is really Sebadoh,
but home tapes, and all that other stuff like the Pastels and the Vaselines
and I went like: 'oh cool' and I went home and listened to it and then they
gave me a Lois record - and I spent all this money and bought all this
stuff and I had no idea what it was I was taking home and I listened to it
and I was like: 'This is like folk, but it's more cool!' And I can probably
play this! Cause I had only played for a little while and my ears went like:
can play that. The reason why I started playing folk to begin with was
that it had a billion verses and the guitar was very minimal so you didn't
have to be a good guitar player, you just needed to remember the words.
So with this new music I'd found - discovered on my own - I noticed that
it was crafty melodies and crafty lyrics but with a fucked up twist, that
certainly wasn't folk, but very close to it. So I asked myself: What is this
music? Then I started listening to more College radio and it was way
back in 1990 and it was lo-fi basically. So I started to write and it sounded
a little bit like Lois and all the stuff I've been listening to. But yeah, I
guess most bands start out a little more ambient, more ethereal with their
stuff, bands like Low and all those pretty bands and they get better with
lyrics as they keep writing and they become even more - country! A lot
of bands indie bands they always listen to Hank Williams and stuff. And
they never made it big as an indie band when they were indie and
now they're doing this Americana, No Depression style. It's all
intervened... country, folk, indie. It's all just music, but it's funny how you
wanna fit into some little social department of it fit when you're
Carsten: I know you don't have a big following in Europe,
but at least some people over there who have heard of you got into your
stuff because of the Juliana Hatfield connection, because she was quite
big in Europe in the mid-90s and so we're very likely to put you into the
same category as the Lemonheads and Buffalo Tom and all these other
Boston based bands. I guess you don't really like that, at least that's my
impression listening to His Indie World...
Mary Lou: No! That's cool. I like that. His Indie World
was fun, it was totally tongue in cheek. A lot of those are my favourite
bands. I like whatever's good. And there's a lot of stuff that sucks, but
there's a shitload that's good. Nick has this fanzine, the Ptolemaic
Terrascope and that's awesome and Mojo's awesome, instead of all these
fucking magazines that write shit about people. There's not enough
friggin' room. Write something good if you like it and if you don't, then
don't say anything about it: Too bad for them - no press haha. If
something's overrated, just leave it alone and let it die out rather than
wasting space when you could write about, I don't know, maybe
something older. The reason why I like Mojo and Ptolemaic Terrascope
is that they review records that came out 30 years ago and I like to know
about that if it's good. They did a big story on Sandy Denny back to
back with Neutral Milk Hotel. It's like, leave the shit writing to Lester
Bangs. Don't go there unless you're Lester and make a career out of it! If
you're gonna tear the shit out of something, really tear the shit out of it
but don't be a pussy about it and say [adopts childish voice] 'I don't like
this, because everybody else does'. You need to have the balls to back it
up. I love Lester Bangs. You know, my record with the heart on it, did
you know that the guy on the picture is him? And all the little girls go:
'Who's that?' - That's Lester Bangs!
Carsten: So that's just another chance to turn people on
to something new...
Mary Lou: Yeah! And it's such a little effort. I've really learned
from playing in the street and in the subway... I know it sounds really
dorky, but if you act locally and think globally - it really does matter. I
sold close to 60,000 records without hardly any radio and that's pretty
good and that was my first record and that was done by me. I played the
subway for ten years... and that didn't mean that I got great cause I
started playing when I was 22, so all that time that went by was still not
a real lot of time to get good haha. When I started playing the subway I
started in London and I knew one song that I played over and over
Carsten: Which one?
Mary Lou: Angel From Montgomery by John Prine.
Carsten: Silly question, how did you come up with
Mary Lou: I love that song, it's by Elizabeth Cotten.
Carsten: It still seems to be a weird choice...
Mary Lou: Hahaha, I know...
Carsten: I got into Elizabeth Cotten because Bob Dylan is
Sugaree and O Babe It Ain't No Lie live.
Mary Lou: I had an Elizabeth Cotten record and you can tell that
the girl who sings the song is like a 14 year old black girl from Alabama
or something... But it's the whole thing with her connection with Pete
Seeger and how she was their maid and how she was dusting off the
banjo and started playing it and then Pete Seeger's wife came in and was
like: 'Oh Libba, you play it' and they hooked her up with a record
company. Something like that. I just LOVE that song. I always thought it
was a very sweet song and I loved the way that young girl sang on
Carsten: Did you have big expectations for your first
major label when you signed to Work in the US and Columbia in
Mary Lou: Well, they gave me money! I wanted to get my teeth
fixed and I wanted to get out of the hole I was in cause I was so poor for
soooo long, y'know and I knew I'd never get the chance again and I just
decided to go with it and see what would happen... how many people I
could meet, how far I could take it, cause ultimately I really do want to
get into publishing and if I could convince people through this record
that I have good ears - in a way that's all I wanted to do, to get my foot
into the door into the world of major money stuff so that I could maybe
down the road be paid attention to.
Carsten: How do you feel about the fact that the
European company did zero to promote the album? In Germany, they
didn't even send out promotional copies...
Mary Lou: I thought that they would, I didn't really pay
attention to it. They need to make money so hopefully they will do
something with it.
Carsten: Was it very disappointing to see this lack of
Mary Lou: No, it wasn't really the record companies' fault, cause
I got pregnant. And what happens if you get pregnant AND have to get
into rehab, is they don't want to spend any money on you. They don't
wanna keep dumping money into something that's not gonna be on the
road, that's not gonna be able to do Letterman and do this and do that.
Everything has to work in synchronisity. I was in rehab for something
like seven days when I found out that I was pregnant, so I got pregnant
the day I went into rehab... which was a good thing (laughs). What
happened was they were like: 'okay, we're gonna stop'. And I was like:
'Fuck it!' I was a wreck, a miserable wreck by the time and you can't
predict when you are gonna fall apart and that was when I fell apart. It
was just too much, y'know.
Carsten: You seemed to have a great time on stage today
though. It was the first time I saw you live and I was very pleasantly
surprised [as I explained in the intro already: what I meant to say was
that I never had seen a better solo performance - ever, with the possible
exception of a Bob Dylan show in '91, but I didn't dare saying that...]
Mary Lou: Oh really? It was fun. I love to play live...
Carsten: People have said after the show that they loved
your cute stories inbetween the songs... I guess a lot of people tell
stories on stage, but they usually don't laugh and giggle halfway
through cause they tell the same stuff every single night.
Mary Lou: Hahaha. Sometimes I don't talk much at all and I
never know what's gonna happen. I told you I've been having the
migrane anxieties so I figured I should tell everybody that it might
happen and then maybe it won't happen?! It's true, it's like: 'Oh shit, what
happens if you have an anxiety attack on stage?' Maybe it's stage fright,
sometimes I start to sweat, I shake and my knees go weak and I feel like
I'm gonna fall down. But if I tell people that they're like: 'Oh yeah, we
have that too'. And if I imagine that they have it too, I don't feel so
separated and I don't wanna feel separated. That's why I like the subway
the best cause I'm on the same level as everybody else. I'm not meant to
be a performer, I'm just meant to go: 'Listen to this song, look how
beautiful this is.' And if I could get money to listen to lots more songs
(giggles) cause I could afford to buy stuff, I could maybe take it to the
next step and help my friends to get their songs into movies so they
don't have to drive taxi
cabs anymore. Because they are good at writing songs, I'm NOT good at
writing songs, I DON'T want to perform, but for some reason I got
myself into a really good position to make records. I'm not really a
songwriter, but I have good ears. It freaks me out... Why should I be
getting paid money and them not when they are better songwriters than
me? That makes no sense to me.
Carsten: Was it a big surprise to you that Elliott Smith
[judging from her reaction I must've slurred the words big time here] got
Mary Lou: AEROSMITH?
Carsten: Haha, they are big, too, but I meant ELLIOTT
Mary Lou (laughs): Was I surprised? Oh my god no! I went on
tour with him three different times and I'm very close to Elliott, I love him
He was always opening up for me, cause his record had just come out
and nobody knew who he was. We were on tour with Guided By Voices
and I used to tell the kids and introduced him sometimes and I used to
say to him: 'You're gonna be really big and I hope you're gonna be able
to handle it'.
Carsten: Yeah, I guess that's his problem (if you wanna
call it that). He's so shy. I met him in Cologne last May, even before he
had one album out in Europe and I was amazed how shy he was.
Mary Lou: He's really sweet. I told him: 'You're gonna have all
these people marching around for you, you don't even get to carry your
fucking guitar, you're not even going to tune your guitar! It's gonna
happen'. And he was like [adopts Elliott's shy and somewhat sad voice]:
'Maybe in your eyes, Mary Lou...'
No part of the above article may be reproduced without the author's
permission. Thanks to Rachel for her help.
Copyright © 1999 Carsten Wohlfeld