By STEPHEN L. BETTS
At a January photo shoot for the cover of her self-titled new album, Shelby Lynne was instructed by renowned photographer Amanda Demme to pull the collar of her white turtleneck up over her mouth and nose, never expecting that bit of artistic inspiration would result in an image that’s both striking and unfortunate in its timeliness. Yet, for a mercurial artist who had more than a decade of making music behind her when she won a Best New Artist Grammy in 2001, the creative process has routinely yielded serendipitous results.
The soft jazz and blue-eyed soul of Shelby Lynne also features several songs with lyrics penned by screenwriter and director Cynthia Mort, in whose award-winning film When We Kill the Creators Lynne stars as Tommy, a singer challenged by the difficulties of realizing her artistic vision as well as the perils of the success of that vision. In Lynne’s words, the film, which is as-yet-unreleased awaiting a distribution deal, is “an art piece… a meditation in love and death and art and a true study on how difficult making art is.” The film also features the late singer-songwriter Tony Joe White in the role of an angel. Lynne’s longtime friend whom she refers to as “family,” in the film White joins her to sing “Can’t Go Back Home,” a song they wrote together and first recorded in 2004.
In a conversation earlier this week from her Hollywood home, Lynne shared her thoughts on the film and her new music, on staying close to home and the “crazy” coincidence of that Shelby Lynne album cover.
Several years ago, we talked about how much of a homebody you tend to be. So, how are you coping with the stay-at-home order?
I hate to say it but I’m in hog heaven. [Laughs] No, really, I am a homebody and I do tend to hibernate as often and as best as I can. But the state of things has forced us into houses and I guess there’s a reason. Maybe it’s to look inside ourselves, stay inside the house and see what ways we can be creative without feeling like we need to run around all crazy all the time. I sit around and wait on the sunny days, since there’s not much venturing out anywhere, and listen to the helicopters go by. It’s kind of crazy to see Los Angeles as a ghost town, but that’s kind of what it is these days.
How did the film and music collaboration with Cynthia Mort come about?
I first met Cynthia about five years ago. She was doing this film and told me about it. We kind of started writing songs, which wasn’t the plan. But that’s how that happened. That’s another thing about art, you can’t really explain or figure out how you’re thrown together with other individuals to make it — it just kind of shows you. That’s why I love it so much. If you start being able to explain the art process, it’s probably not art.
What are your memories of Tony Joe White and how did he get involved in the film?
He was probably the coolest person I’ve ever met. He was my friend and my family. We were making the film and Cynthia and I were talking about how we needed an angel. I said, “I’ve got the perfect guy.” I called him and said, “Tony Joe, I want you to be the angel in this movie.” He said, “Awwright, I’d better get out there and do it.” So, we did it. He came out here a couple of times and he was wonderful. There’s a whole scene in the film where I’m singing with the angel. Of course, we lost Tony Joe [White died in 2018 at 75] and I realized what the reason for making the film at all was. It was for him. It’s just kind of crazy how things happen when the intentions are good. I think it really matters in your soul and to the world’s soul when you recognize those things in the moment. If we recognize those situations in the moment that marry and create that feeling of bliss inside of us, I think that’s the only way we can communicate with God.
On the album track “My Mind’s Riot,” you’re playing saxophone, which is a first for you on record. How long had it been since you played it?
I don’t think I’ve played since I was in 9th grade. Cynthia wrote that lyric and I loved it. I just freaked out over that hook, man. She writes all these fantastic narratives, these words, and then I take them and turn them into songs. I went into the attic and got my alto sax down, ordered some reeds off Amazon and started fooling around a little bit. I just said, “It’s got to be simple because I can’t get killed here. I just kind of channeled all my favorite sax players that I’ve loved through the years like the soft stuff… “The Look of Love” solo on the Dusty [Springfield] record, “Naima” from John Coltrane, “Alabama” from Coltrane, and just made it as low and silky as I could. I don’t fucking know. I got lucky, what can I say. [Laughs]
How soon can you see yourself back out on tour?
Like everybody else, I’m waiting on the storm to pass. Then we’ll look at it when everybody feels somewhat different about things. We’ll have to see how people feel about gathering and celebrating music for a while. It’s not really safe for any of us until we get a handle on this thing. And it’s kind of hard to sing through a face mask.
Speaking of face masks, what do you think now when you look at your album cover? It seems so prophetic.
It’s crazy. There was no rhyme or reason for it except to do an art thing. I don’t know what the hell that means. It looks like a mask for sure, some kind of foresight into art that we weren’t aware of. But then, that’s what art is. We’re never aware of how impactful it’s going to be until we see it with our own eyes. But when the turtleneck showed itself, it was like, “Let’s let the art do the talking, not me.” We didn’t realize there would be a worldwide pandemic going on.