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.”
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, centered 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 recognize, 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 kinds 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 realized 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 recognize 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.
Part 1: https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/i-am-the-decider-the-shelby-lynne-interview-part-1
Part 2: https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/scorched-burnt-bruised-and-that-s-the-good-stuff-the-shelby-lynne-interview-part-2