Columbus powerhouse Lydia Loveless ready for national spotlight

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From the February 27, 2014 edition

Despite the troubled persona that often surfaces in Lydia Loveless’ music, the local singer/songwriter is actually doing quite well these days, thank you.

Her sometimes turbulent romantic life has calmed in recent years — she married band bassist Ben Lamb in 2011, celebrating the union with a raucous party where the pair harmonized on a version of Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” — and her music career appears to be on the verge of a similar blossoming. In mid-February the singer released her excellent third album, Somewhere Else, amid a wave of glowing national press. Both Spin and Rolling Stone included Loveless on lists of Artists to Watch, and positive reviews have popped up from coast (the Los Angeles Times) to coast (Brooklyn-based website Pitchfork).

Even so, the musician admitted to adopting a wait-and-see approach during an early February interview.

“It’s so hard to tell [if the music is reaching a larger audience] anymore because everything moves so fast,” said Loveless, 23, seated across the booth in a Clintonville bar and grill. “It’s scary because I’m at this point [with my career] where it’s like, ‘Is this going to happen or not?’”

It’d be unwise to bet against Loveless. Though the singer has struggled with social anxiety much of her life (these battles formed the backbone of her 2011 Bloodshot Records debut Indestructible Machine), she’s supremely confident in this new batch of material.

“I don’t know if it’s confidence or obstinacy or just the bravado of youth,” Bloodshot cofounder Rob Miller said, and laughed. “She’s such an unfinished project, but the trajectory is good, and all signs point to go.”

While Indestructible Machine often lingered on the musician’s struggles to connect with the world at large (“Why can’t I be more like them/The people who go out of their way to make new friends?” she sang on “More Like Them”), the songs on Somewhere Else often sound born of a more intimate, one-on-one connection. Sometimes very intimate, as in the case of “Head,” which could be the saddest tune ever penned about giving/receiving oral sex.

“I’ve always been fascinated by relationships,” Loveless said. “I was reading a lot about Richard Burton and Liz Taylor and how they loved each other so much they kind of wanted to kill each other all the time. The last [album] was like, [adopts a depressed, Eeyore-esque voice] ‘I’m an outsider,’ but this one is more about these insane relationships.”

This includes “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” a scruffy, Richard Hell and the Voidoids-like rocker inspired at least in part by the tumultuous relationship between 19th century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, which ended in bloodshed when Verlaine fired a revolver at Rimbaud, leaving a bullet embedded in his wrist.

“Verlaine was out of his mind, but everything he felt he felt like all the way,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Yeah, passion!’

“But really [the song] is as much about me and how I have to do everything all the way. All of my relationships have come out of me doing something stupid to let the other person know how I feel, and I love fighting and arguing.”

It’s a more destructive side that surfaces on Somewhere Else’s “Everything’s Gone.” Where the cover of Indestructible depicted a drawing of a woman chugging from a can of gasoline, here Loveless empties its contents all over her Coshocton hometown, setting ablaze the properties of the assorted bankers and rich men responsible for booting the clan from its homestead all those years ago.

“I’m sick of seeing defeat in my family’s eyes,” she sings atop a deceptively calming acoustic strum. “I need to find the man who put it there and set his life on fire.”

Somewhere Else is a cathartic thing, especially for Lydia,” Lamb said. “There’s some heavy shit on there, but she really just went for it.”

Though the musician strides confidently throughout her latest, its creation was initially fraught with self-doubt.

“With Indestructible I was just hoping anyone would care about it, but with this one I knew people were going to be listening,” Loveless said. “So when I started writing I was extremely aware of that, and that’s why all the songs were sucking at first.”

Feeling somehow indebted to the various labels affixed to her music — phrases like “the cow-punk queen of Columbus” and “alt-country princess” surfaced regularly in media coverage — Loveless initially attempted to please these masses, penning twang-laden, Americana-leaning tunes more in line with past material, nearly every one of which left her feeling empty.

“I rented a [Grandview] studio to be alone, and I would just end up crying and lying on the floor having a panic attack because I was like, ‘Nothing of worth is coming out of me!’” she said. “So I had to scrap everything and start over.”

“She lost her voice and was depressed as hell because she felt everything [she was writing] was below her standard,” Lamb offered. “She’s got a strong sense of when a song is ready, and if the material is not there yet there’s no point in telling her it is.”

Abandoning any preconceived notion of what her music was supposed to sound like, Loveless started incorporating a wealth of musical influences, writing songs that flirted with everything from punk (the Richard Hell-inspired “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud”) to soul (she penned “Hurts So Bad” after binging on Stax Records offerings) to gleaming ’70s rock.

“I don’t even want to talk about this because I am afraid I’ll get sued by Fleetwood Mac, but as I was playing [“Somewhere Else”] I realized it’s the exact chord progression of fucking ‘Dreams,’” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘That has a very Fleetwood Mac vibe,’ and I was like, ‘Yes it does. Shhhh.’”

There’s also a newfound maturity to the songs reflected in everything from Loveless’ vocal approach — “I was trying to be a little more controlled with my voice and less breathless and crazed,” she said — to the way she confronts a run-of-the-mill substance like alcohol. Past records were littered with dirty bottles of hooch and gallons of cheap, stale wine. But this time around she daydreams of kissing a crush’s “Wine Lips” and sips from a glass of quality red.

“Cabernet, I think I say,” Loveless said, and laughed, curling her left hand around a pint of a blue-collar, ribbon-winning beer. “It’s like, ‘Now I only drink the finest whiskey in front of my fireplace in my mansion.’”

She’s kidding, of course, but even these small details speak to her willingness to embrace change — no matter what effect it might have on her established fan base.

“People say things like, ‘You have to please the audience,’” she said. “And I feel like they’re going to be pleased if I’m happy and doing what I want to do. I just cared more about writing good songs than writing a country song.”

“It would have been very easy for her to remake Indestructible Machine,” agreed Bloodshot’s Miller. “But she’s still soaking in so many new forms of music, and it’s fascinating to watch how these different things percolate in.”

A series of lineup adjustments accompanied the shift in musical direction. Steel guitarist Jay Gasper joined the fold, and Nick German replaced Loveless’ father on drums — a decision that weighed heavily on the singer. Ultimately her concern for his physical well-being trumped the emotional attachment of having him continue on in the group.

“You wake up in a van outside some rest area and it was like, ‘God, my dad is going to die out here,’” said Loveless, who grew up in a musically gifted family (her older sisters play in The Girls! and Dead Girlfriend, respectively, and her younger brother handles drum duties in Shores of Elysium). “I was concerned with him being gone and my mom being home alone. I’m sure he misses the musical part, but I think he’s happier now. I don’t think the touring was the best fit in his life.”

In that regard, at least, the timing was ideal. The way things are shaping, it appears as though the singer will be on the road for a bulk of 2014. She’s already booked a headlining tour that runs through April, and in late May the band will hit the road as the opening act for Old 97’s, a higher-profile supporting gig that includes a local stop at Newport Music Hall on Friday, June 6.

“I know it’s going to be stressful, so I’m doing various therapeutic things for myself … so I’m prepared physically and mentally for months of living in a van and eating Cheetos,” she said. “I have to be responsible with my mental health, because I know I do have a tendency to go off the rails. I’m trying to maintain my sanity so I can make it through the year.”

It helps, of course, that Loveless has surrounded herself with bandmates who can both insulate her from stressors and offer an outlet those times when outside pressures do overwhelm.

“If I have a meltdown Nick [German] will be there to be like, ‘It’s OK, buddy,’ [guitarist] Todd [May] will give me a pep talk if I’m crying and obviously Ben is my husband,” she said. “It’s nice to have a different rapport with everyone where they help keep me sane.”

Ultimately, Somewhere Else filled a similar role — Loveless said the title references the search for this “magical place where [she] can go and be happy and fulfilled” — and a majority of its 10 tracks find the singer trying her damnedest to let go of past resentments and depressions. It even closes on a somewhat optimistic note with a straightforward cover of Kristy MacColl’s “They Don’t Know,” a relatively plainspoken love song the singer delivers with a breeziness that suggests some great karmic weight has been lifted from her shoulders.

“I’m definitely more positive than I used to be, but I’ve never written a song like that,” Loveless said. “I’ve tried to write straight-up love songs, and they always fizzle out. Maybe that’s why I covered ‘They Don’t Know,’ because I knew I wanted a song like that on the album.”