Friday night I went to hear Shelby Lynne at McCabe’s. I’ve been a big fan, especially since I interviewed her back in March. McCabe’s is a great venue, small and simple. You can just feel the vibration from past shows and people sitting around playing and picking out chords, looking for just the right guitar.
There’s a hush, a layering and nuance in Shelby’s voice that you don’t get off the recorded stuff. At least, I don’t on my car stereo speakers that switch from mono to dual sound with crackling regularity. Or the sad speakers on my computer. I was really looking forward to hearing I’ll Hold Your Head. I think of that song as a ballad though it may not strictly fit that form. But it has a simple, heartfelt storytelling quality. And now, it’s kind of ruined for me because I don’t love the recorded version as much. So Shelby, whenever you want to come over and sing that song for me, just let me know. And let me know what you like to drink so I can pick up a bottle.
There’s a song on Shelby’s latest album, Revelation Road, called Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road. Shelby wrote and sang this song through the voice of a dead man. Switching up perspectives is a good challenge for a writer. Even more interesting was watching Shelby perform this song. She had the big guitar out for this one. (Please excuse my ignorance in guitar vernacular. Shelby used two guitars for the performance. One was bigger.) Her posture changed. She leaned back away from the mike, she seemed to square herself off and get a little broader. Her voice went deeper and could have been a howl with a little less control.
I want to be a rock star. It’s hard to accept that this isn’t in the cards for me. Makes one hope for reincarnation and indulge in happy obsessions with the real thing. I get the same feeling from certain singers and songs that I get from poetry. It’s this intense longing for…something. Something that I hate because I can’t hold it or touch it. At the same time, I love and protect this thing because I think that maybe I’m lucky to feel it at all. And then I go see shows like Shelby’s and I’m courting this thing, wondering if everyone else in the audience feels it. Hoping they do and also hoping that I’m special and no one else gets it the way I do.
After the show, I got to say hello to Shelby and tell her how much I liked the new song that she did. I’d love the chance to just sit and talk with her about how it feels to perform, to hold that audience. How do you know when you’ve really connected? Is it a visceral sensation? Is it something you realize while it’s happening or after?
Instead, I hopped in my car to get home and nurse a child with a sore throat. But I sang all the way home from Santa Monica. I wonder how long it would take me to learn guitar. Oh god, just don’t let me end up at one of those rock star fantasy camps or drunk and singing karaoke, okay?
Here’s a version of Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road. The sound quality isn’t great, but it gives you an idea…
Since last September I’ve interviewed some truly amazing women. Aside from the sheer pleasure in talking with each of them, there’s always something I take away to reflect on. My current crush is on Shelby Lynne. I interviewed her last month over the phone. She was out at her home in the desert and I was sitting on my living room floor with a cup of coffee, wishing I’d vacuumed up the dog hair.
We had a great conversation about books, grammar, being on tour, art, recording, teenage girls, Dusty Springfield and more. Part of this interview is in the Huffington Post. I saved some good bits for my site and hope you enjoy the read as much as I enjoyed talking with Shelby.
For her latest album, Revelation Road, Shelby did everything–wrote the songs, sang the songs, played all the instruments and I think she even recorded it on her own. It’s her record label. On tour, it’s also just her and the guitar up at the mike, performing for small audiences. Shelby said that this kind of performance feels like coming home. She talked about the vulnerability and emotion that comes through in the new songs and on the road.
“It’s a great feeling to be where I am with the people that I’ve hand-picked and chosen to work with who see my vision. I mean, believe you me, we’re not getting rich. But we’re satisfied artistically and that feels really good. But when you’re feeling so good in the art and I’m standing there in front of those small crowds who are just so into it, that’s better than money. Because you’re heart is getting paid.
As vulnerable as I get, I embrace it and just let it out there. I feel like the more emotional, the more vulnerable I am, the more honest I’m being. And people respond to honesty. You can’t help it. If you’re being honest and your emotions come, you just let them come. If people gathered in a room to hear me sing and the emotions come, I can’t imagine anything greater than that. For everyone involved. It’s like a private moment everyone’s having at once. It’s one of the things I really love about just me and the guitar. It’s so sweet to just stand there and be vulnerable and give everything I can give with every ounce of who I am. And I get that back tenfold. I don’t mind being vulnerable. I think it’s a gift.”
This is a beautiful reminder about the beauty of vulnerability, especially coming from a woman who’s lived through early, severe tragedy. I watched tape of Shelby’s concert that aired on KCRW and I’m struck by a few things–Shelby’s ease on stage, the strength and range of her voice and the love that comes through particularly in the song I’ll Hold Your Head. (This is my favorite on the album.) At the KCRW concert, Shelby said as she introduced the song, “this song is about as much a part of me as the skin I’m wearing.”
In 2008, Shelby recorded a tribute album to Dusty Springfield called Just a Little Lovin’. I grew up with my parents listening to Dusty Springfield so I was really curious to see what Shelby would do with the very full, layered tracks on songs like You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.
“With the Dusty record, it wasn’t just going into the studio and singing songs. I did a lot of reading about her. I did as much research as I could about her life. She didn’t have it easy. She had some inner turmoil going on in a lot of different ways. It’s pretty interesting. I also think that when people are not here anymore, we put them on this weird death pedestal and I’m wondering –that’s not really accurate.
There were so many songs. I was caught in a trap. My nerves wore out making that record because I kept thinking, “What the fuck am I doing here?” I was caught in a trap with the record label. They wanted a record that they could promote and sell. They had me in such a bind that I had to tour and I really…wasn’t ready to do my songs at the time. They wanted something. They weren’t carried away with me. I thought, “Well, I’ve been wanting to do this Dusty thing.” They loved that idea. But then I thought, “Oh my god, is this a career ruiner for me?” I’m thinking I’ve got to call in the best of the best to do this thing. I’ve got to choose the right producer. I’ve got to call a guy whose got the age and the experience on him. [Phil Ramone] I need a producer who’s going to understand that I’m not going to cut Son of a Preacher Man. I’ve got to do this so carefully in order not to get slayed. I went in and tried to make it as different as I could.”
I asked her if she felt the Dusty album had influenced Revelation Road. She said that they are very separate, but there are some things that unite all of her work.
“One thing that’s really important to me making records and being a complete and total geek gear head too, and a singer and being in the studio and loving the equipment and the whole process of making records– It is so important to allow the composition to breathe on its own. Without computers, without edits. Basically, if you have a song, sit in front of the microphone and perform it. And when you feel like the performance is down, then build the song and the song will let you know what to do if you allow it to breathe. But just because there’s a space there doesn’t mean you have to put anything in it. That’s kind of my approach to making records. There’s nothing wrong with empty space. In fact it gives the listener a chance to maybe take a breath and absorb what just happened and what’s yet to come.”
This understanding of pace and narrative should serve Shelby well in the book she’s writing. I love how she describes the book and the writing process. I said, “So you’re writing a book?”
“Yes, god. [Sigh, followed by laughter.] The bane of my existence. I swear. It’s been hanging around here for about 10 years. I can’t even tell you when or if it will ever show it’s face, but yeah, it’s around. It’s basically stories of my childhood. It’s what I’m feeling pulled to write so that’s where I am. But it’s fun. I tell you, it’s challenging. It’s a hell of a lot different than writing songs. The trick is that you’ve got the stories in your mind. You lived the stories. You can see the stories play out in your mind’s eye, but then you sit down to try to write it on paper and it’s like, Uh-oh. It’s difficult because there are so many small little details that happen within the story, in your mind that you have to convey on paper to complete strangers who don’t know anything about you. So it’s challenging, but I like doing it.
For me, in order to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. I do appreciate the English language. My father did. My daddy was an English teacher. I grew up in the rural South where grammatical teachings kind of fly out the window. I’m not dissing anybody and I think it’s more of getting stuck in ruts. But I have to say, my sister and I were not allowed to get in those ruts because Daddy really stressed and Mama too—Just because they talked like that doesn’t mean you’re going to. I don’t ever want to hear it again. Nobody wants to go out in the world and be an ignorant ass. I mean let’s just get down to the basics here.”
I managed to slip in a personal question at the very end. I told her how my daughter sings, plays guitar and keyboards and possibly aspires to a music career. Did she have any advice for young women getting into music?
“It’s complicated. When I was 16, things were so much different. I cannot imagine being in your shoes now with a 16 and 13 year old because I would just be terrified. My hat’s off to you. Especially with one that wants to be in the record business. My advice would be—don’t do anything you don’t want to do. The end. I don’t care if it’s wearing a pair of high heel stilettos or cutting a song that you don’t really like that someone wants you to cut. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. And that’s my motto in life.”
And that’s where we ended. But check out Shelby’s site for more info, tour dates and the like. Buy her albums. And read the interview piece in the Huffington Post. Here’s a clip of Shelby at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday performing his song, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground. (A family favorite.)