Shelby Lynne Talks About Her Self-Produced Album Tears, Lies and Alibis
Gifted with one of the greatest voices in pop music, Shelby Lynne has been a critical favorite since her debut single in 1988. That song, “If I Could Bottle This Up,” a duet with Country Music Hall of Fame member, George Jones, established her as one of Music Row’s most promising talents. Though she began her career in country music, she’s proven to be a remarkably diverse artist who fuses country, blues and pop music in a winning combination. In a curious result, she earned a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2001 after the success of her sixth album I Am Shelby Lynne.
Though Lynne has never been a chart favorite, she remains one of the most evocative artists of her generation, earning the respect of her peers and a legion of faithful fans. Lynne’s new album, Tears, Lies and Alibis is her first self-produced set, and she spoke with The 9513 about her beginnings in Nashville and the inspiration behind her latest album.
BLAKE BOLDT: Has all the press and publicity work surrounding an album release gotten any easier for you since you started out?
SHELBY LYNNE: You know, it has. I mean, I’m older now and a little calmer. Let’s face it–that hasn’t always been the case. But I have the luckiest job in the world and I love what I get to do and I love being able to talk to people who really enjoy the music and care about it. It’s an honor. I really feel that way. So thank you.
BB: After paying tribute to Dusty Springfield on your last album (2008’s Just a Little Lovin’), Tears is comprised solely of your own compositions. Is there any sort of pattern to your writing process?
SL: I’m kinda known for doing the opposite because I’m so…after I know a record’s done, I get geared up to do something so different from that. There’s no reason for that. It just naturally happens. That’s what it feels like i’m supposed to do. So after doing the Dusty record and singing the covers on tour–and of course I was doing some of my own songs, but no new songs–well, you just get out of the habit, out of writing. It was tough for a while. Then I wrote “Loser Dreamer” and that’s how it all started. Sometimes it’s so good to break the ice and then you just get on a roll and head on down the path.
BB: As the sole producer, what was your primary goal when you first started recording Tears? At first glance, given the title of the album, it seems like it would be a collection of sad songs in largely-acoustic setting, but there’s a tinge of hope somewhere in there.
SL: If the songs go together, that’s great, but I didn’t set out to make them go together. I wrote a lot of songs for this record. But to me, it’s the perfect record, where you can take a copy of it and put it on the vinyl and hear five songs and then turn it over and complete the journey. I don’t claim to be a record producer; I just know what I like to hear. That’s the truth, if you want a kinda boring answer.
Bottom line: Lost Highway passed on this record. I just can’t do this label thing anymore. So I thought, “How can I lose?” and I bit the bullet and produced the thing myself. They had cut the budget before they even passed on the record, so there was no money to get a major producer. I don’t mind doing it; I kinda enjoy it. I’m a gearhead–I like pushing buttons and I know my way around a studio and I can be the engineer out of necessity. And sometimes the key is to not produce. You just have to let it breathe. If you listen to it later and go back in there and want to change a thing or two, great. But usually, once I’m finished, I’m finished.
BB: So much of music today is terribly overproduced and overthought, don’t you think?
SL: Absolutely. You know, music can be loud and can be fun. I can’t really see myself doing a Lady Gaga record, but I love her music. She’s so creative, such an original and there’s a place for that, too. But there is such a thing as too much sometimes.
BB: “Rains Came,” the opening track, is an interesting glimpse into your identity as both an individual and an artist. Your songs are built to question your belief system rather than confirm it. You seem to have a certain joy in embracing the blues.
SL: I never thought the song would be on the record actually. It’s a quirky little thing, but it grew on me and then we started putting a record around it and it fit. You know, I’d be in there with Brian [Harrison, Lynne's bassist] and I’d say, “Play that one chord on the piano. Now play the horn.” And he’d say, “Do you want me to do this again?” and I’d say “No, no, no.” Sometimes it’s hard for me to explain. But I love the line, “The dark side of me likes the way it feels when it’s pourin’.” There’s a certain comfort in all that.
BB: On “Something to Be Said,” the first lines, I feel, are just a perfect summary of our times: “The more I’m here, the more I’m amazed/How people get caught up in the latest craze.” That’s an idea that I needed to hear at that moment, that feeling of wanting to go back to the simpler ways. What are your thoughts on the world today?
SL: Amen. I’m the same way. Out here in an Airstream park, it’s like a feeling of romance. In fact, I’m trying to find myself a new one (Airstream) right now. There’s something so romantic, so classic, that’s not going to change. It’s one of those representations of beautiful Americana in this world that we live in that’s so dear to me. It’s one of those, you know, by God, no matter what happens in this world or how fancy the music gets or everything goes to digital and it takes the touch of a computer screen to make it happen, this Airstream is not gonna change. The Tiffany box is the same way. It’s not gonna change. It’s something that you can depend on. It just feels right, you know. If everything in the world gets too crazy, and the world is so nuts these days, the Airstream is the same.
BB: Appropriately, “Home Sweet Home,” your take on the life of a traveling musician is the closing cut. What’s your concept of home at this point in your life and career?
SL: I know! It’s just a song that gets all of our hearts–all of us who are out making a living on the road. It’s a real lonely life. I know that I’ve been a place and I meet the same man that I’ve met just a week before. You’re literally running into people all the way across the country. You might meet someone you met just last week in Chicago. And you’re meant to run into that guy. I think life is that way. You don’t know the reason. Brian tells me that you have to enjoy every sandwich. You never know when you’re going to taste your last one.
I love where I live. I love what I do. When I’m gone, I miss my garden and I miss my dogs. I just can’t take ‘em out on the road. It’s just too hard for ‘em. But I’m happy in my life and my home and I love the decisions that I’ve made. I have great friends; I have family scattered around the country and I talk to ‘em as much as I can. It’s started to fall into place now that I’m in my 40s. Even when I was 11 or 12 years old, I always wanted to be in my 40s. It’s the strangest thing. I’m just happy with the home life, this world, that I’ve created. I’ll have plenty of times where I’ll be on the road and think, “I’m sick of this shit. I’m getting home!”
BB: Your first blush of success occurred in Nashville with your duet with George Jones, “If I Could Bottle This Up.” Were you overwhelmed with the thought of recording with a legend like George?
SL: If it hadn’t been for that record, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. In a few weeks from now I’m going to the Country Music Hall of Fame to honor Billy Sherrill. I’m gonna go and sing and I’m just thrilled and honored to be a part of it. Talk about a record producer. He’s one of the greatest record producers of all time. It doesn’t get better than that. And I’ve been so lucky with the people I’ve worked with, from Billy to Phil Ramone to (Bill) Bottrell. And I wanna do it again in the future. But now was the time to do it on my own.
BB: So many artists complain about being squashed creatively on Music Row. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for those left-of-center talents?
SL: Oh my God. I don’t know. I don’t know what the weather’s like in Nashville. When I come to town, I run with a circle of underground freaks. My experience with Lost Highway was fine. That about answers your question right there. It was typical. Again, they passed on this record. Nashville doesn’t know what to do with an Airstream. You know, there’s no way a Nashville record company understands it and they don’t wanna get it. I think people out there still want it. I don’t know if anything will ever change. I just know my days with record labels are done.
BB: What’s on the horizon for Shelby Lynne?
SL: Well, of course, we’ve got the first leg of the tour. Then I’m coming to do a Christmas record in June. Since I have my own record label now, I can do whatever the hell I want! So I can walk into Nashville and just do what I feel. I’m gonna keep it really traditional, really laidback, and assemble a group of cats and get on it. It’ll be kinda rootsy, with old traditional songs “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silent Night.” I just love Christmas music. Pretty much, I felt we needed a new one and so, damn it, we’re gonna have a new one. (laughter) We’re just gonna go the studio and put up a Christmas tree and…
BB: Big egg nog drinker?
SL: No, no. (Laughing) But there are plenty of other drinks to get me in the mood!
BB: Your list of influences ranges from the traditional country of George and Tammy to the soul of Dusty Springfield to the pop-rock of Sheryl Crow. Of the current generation of singers, regardless of genre, who’s grabbed your attention?
I love the Broken Bells CD–it’s really good. It’s a one-off kind of a thing, you know, with the singer from The Shins (James Mercer) and then Danger Mouse with…(pauses)
BB: Gnarls Barkley.
SL: Yeah! When artists get together and do something unexpected and off the wall, I love that. I just got a couple old Nick Drake records that I love. They put me in such a relaxed state. Elliot Smith, too. His stuff just breaks my heart. The new Massive Attack is good. The Coachella festival is coming up. As usual I’m on the road. It happens every damn time. There’s something so eclectic there when you have such a communal experience. You get to hear music that you might not have in your wardrobe at the time. It’s just wonderful.
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- Leeann Ward: Yes, we know that it's technically a Keith Whitley song, as Juli noted above.