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flag 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 1999?
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 woman.

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 Gene Vincent 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 otherwise.

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 Burr?
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 anytime soon?
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 playing?
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 younger.

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 again.

Carsten: Which one?
Mary Lou: Angel From Montgomery by John Prine.

Carsten: Silly question, how did you come up with Shake Sugaree?
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 playing Shake 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 it.

Carsten: Did you have big expectations for your first major label when you signed to Work in the US and Columbia in Europe?
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 support?
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 really big?

Carsten: Haha, they are big, too, but I meant ELLIOTT SMITH.
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.

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