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Busker Do! 

Mary Lou Lord comes out of the subway and into a theater near you

Wednesday, Jan 28 1998
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Mary Lou Lord can have her bangs trimmed or dyed whenever she wants. There's plenty of cash for makeup. A record company will put her in a van and send her around the country. And still, Mary Lou Lord says she doesn't have any money.

"Money's gone," she says from a phone in New York City. "I've got this silly freaking hair budget and a makeup budget. I have a stupid tour budget. But I don't have any money. Do you know what I mean?"

Don't feel sorry for Lord. Got No Shadow, her major label debut, comes out this week, and she'll be playing live at Slim's next week. And as a veteran street performer Lord can turn any commuter crowd into a cash machine. If that fails, she can always eat lipstick.

It's not exactly Horatio Alger, but Mary Lou Lord's got a good story. If the details of the subway station to radio station tale aren't already familiar, they soon will be -- Lord's train is coming in, so to speak. Here's the express version:

Lord, who grew up in Massachusetts, once lived in a cold London squat. One day she was hanging out in the Tube with a busker. He asked her to keep an eye on his pitch while he went to use the bathroom. While he was gone she picked up his guitar, fingered a couple of chords, and, to Lord's surprise, someone tossed a pound coin at her.

Ever since then, Lord has worked subways and street corners with her acoustic guitar and -- because her voice is airy -- a Maxi Mouse amp. But in the last nine years Lord has distinguished herself from ignorable guitar players trying to soggily sing over "House of the Rising Sun." When I first saw Lord on the Green Line in Boston in 1993 she drew a semicircle of evening commuters. I remember businessmen filling her guitar case with fresh flowers and crisp dollar bills. I missed my train.

Back then she was peddling a cassette tape titled Real, a collection of inspired covers (John Cale's "Andalucia"; Big Star's "Thirteen") and three promising originals. (Lord now hates the producers at Deep Music and the one-day-take tape. "It sounds like a 14-year-old in the bedroom," she says. "Ooh, I despise it.") She was also talking about a song she'd recorded for the Olympia, Wash., independent label Kill Rock Stars; odd considering she was a quiet solo guitar player and KRS was then known for outspoken riot grrrls like Bikini Kill.

That KRS song turned into a relationship. Lord stepped forward with a full band on a 1993 single that included the songs "Some Jingle Jangle Morning" and "Western Union Desperate," jangly pop songs about losing a lover and traveling on the cheap, respectively. The Mary Lou Lord EP came out that year as well. It included two more dead-on covers: "Speeding Motorcycle," from the mentally scrambled Daniel Johnston, and "Lights Are Changing," written by Nick Saloman of prolifically weird Brit psychedelicizers the Bevis Frond. The record also had perhaps Lord's best-known song, "His Indie World," a winsome portrait of a beleaguered young woman ignored by her band-loving boyfriend and a nice sendup of the indie scene of the early 1990s:

Eric's Trip and Rocketship
Rancid, Rocket From the Crypt
Bikini Kill and Built to Spill
It's plain to see that I don't fit

No one paid attention until a deus ex rockina in the form of Courtney Love brought her to national attention by attacking her for supposedly enjoying a PC (pre-Courtney) tryst with Kurt Cobain. Lord kept her mouth shut on the subject. With all of the media attention came the record companies; more than a dozen. Lord wasn't in a hurry. "All those bands had gotten signed," she says of her indie world. "I knew there would be a tremendous backlash. Also, the whole, you know, grrrl thing was going on. And I waited and waited and I think now is the right time to do it."

In the meantime, 1997 became the year of either the triumph of Lilith Fair or the appalling spectacle of an incessant stream of interchangeable cute girls with guitars, depending on your perspective. What's important about Lord -- what makes her more compelling and gives her superior artistry even greater weight -- is that unlike those Lilith ladies she's got history. More importantly, she's got a story. Lord's story is good, almost too good. People magazine will turn Lord's subway into Jewel's van (you know, the one she lived out of in Alaska for a couple of months). When Lord wasn't performing at last year's music industry schmoozefest in Austin she was out on the sidewalk. No one, she says, will be able to exploit her subway story. "I did that, I'm proud of it. I still do it," she says. "Is Jewel still gonna live in her car? Noooo. Am I gonna still play in the subway? Yessss."

At the Bottom of the Hill last October, Lord peppered her show with mentions of musical compatriots, friends, and idols. "Go see Slim Dunlap," she said. "He used to be in the Replacements." She told the crowd she'd made a record with William Goldsmith (from Sunny Day Real Estate), Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds), Bevis Frond's Saloman, and Shawn Colvin. "If you haven't heard of him, you will," she said of Portland singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. "But you should." One of her own songs ("Throng of Blowtown"), she said, came from the "[Guided by Voices'] Robert Pollard school of songwriting." ("I wrote it and I have no idea what it means," she said.) "Joni Mitchell would probably say that it's a portrait of a tragedy," she said of another.

Mary Lou Lord's not name-checking. She's got a good ear and she's sharing. She's a folk singer, and folk singers educate their audiences. The best joke of "His Indie World" is that Lord's on the side of the boy. Lord's indie world and the folk tradition don't have as many differences as similarities: simplicity, similar lyrical content, and a do-it-yourself ethic. Both get rather obsessive over finding new music.

But the accessibility and cleanliness of her new record suggest that Lord's leaving the indie scene; that means she's not going to always be surrounded with people who are up on the new Tortoise single. "A lot of times," she says, "people who are not involved with the music -- if they're not a disc jockey, if they're not a writer, if they're not a whatever -- it takes a lot of effort to go and find these people."

The most common criticism of Lord is that she doesn't write enough songs. But that's criticism coming from rock critics. In jazz, country, and even Elvis, performers play others' songs. Those genres understand that there's an artistry in finding great songs and bringing something unique to them. So while it's initially awkward to hear Lord, a young white girl with a record contract from a multinational corporation, sing "Pawn my horse, pawn my plow/ Pawn everything, even pawn my old milk cow," as she does on Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree," Lord isn't appropriating or bathing in faux authenticity. She's engaging in a folk tradition. Cotten was an amazing left-handed finger-picker from North Carolina who cleaned houses and worked in a department store for decades before folkies Mike and Peggy Seeger found out that she remembered old tunes from when she was a little girl. Mike Seeger found a folk audience for her. In a way, Lord is doing the same.

Which Lord does expertly. But rock audiences still want new material. The problem, as Lord willingly admits, is that her songwriting ability hasn't caught up to her ability to hear great songs. "I think it is very important to be a good listener, to have listened -- to have studied through listening. I think a lot of people haven't done enough of that," she says of other musicians. "And that's a shame."

Underground artists who try to go large, or even semilarge, must earn entirely new audiences because they inevitably alienate their former audience when they make the jump. In an interview with CMJ New Music Monthly, an offshoot of the influential college radio magazine, Slim Moon, Kill Rock Stars' current chief, has already said he initially hated the album. And certainly her new record sounds different -- brighter, with dense instrumentation -- than her indie work.

But Lord is better now. Sure there are minor exceptions. "Some Jingle Jangle Morning," rerecorded and cleaned up for the new album, in its earlier version fuzzed and crackled in sympathy with its drug references. But overall, the record shows that Mary Lou Lord has developed a once frail voice into an asset of emotion and nuance.

Saloman wrote or co-wrote seven of the songs on the record. Beyond vague references to "craft" or "his body of work," Lord herself can't articulate what in particular she likes about Saloman. But I'd be willing to bet that she appreciates his ability to write compelling female characters. In the Saloman-Lord "His Lamest Flame," the leadoff track, is an encoded response to the old Elvis Presley song "(Marie's the Name) His Latest Flame." In their song, the narrator is a pathetic mess after losing a guy, but she's still no object. ("My hair is black and my eyes are green/ But Marie's not my name.") And on "She Had You," the singer is a jealous woman who forever lives in the shadow of the woman who got the guy, even though that woman is "selling Avon."

Elsewhere Lord keeps Saloman's typically overwrought guitar-playing in check; he gets his licks in and steps away. In fact with producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, who mixed Elliott Smith's Either/Or and produced Beck's Mellow Gold, Lord conducts Roger McGuinn's six-string, Shawn Colvin on backing vocals, the Beastie Boys' Money Mark on keys, and guitarist Nels Cline (Geraldine Fibbers).

Lord says her own songs will come. But for now, she's going to tour, and she's forsaking those indie rock bands she used to run around with. First she'll tour with the alternative country act Whiskeytown. Then she's got a rockabilly outfit lined up to back her. "I want the people who come to see me to have a good time," she says. But why rockabilly? The answer sums up Lord's own transformation: "I love its enthusiasm. ... It's not that fucking shoegazing introspective boy thing that I'm so sick of.

About The Author

Jeff Stark

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