Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Hail Mary

Ms. Lord hits the major-label world.

By Brett Milano

JANUARY 26, 1998:  A funny thing happened to Mary Lou Lord two years ago, during a vacation in Key West. One idle afternoon she found herself doing the same thing she does in Boston: she pulled out her guitar and played in the street for a few hours, setting her guitar case up to collect money. But she didn't realize that her perch was just below the window of record producer Russ Kunkel, who'd been trying to get hold of her for weeks. She accepted an on-the-spot offer to have dinner with Kunkel and his boss -- but the boss was Jimmy Buffett, the dinner was in Palm Beach, and the transportation was Jimmy's private jet. Before long she was turning down an offer to record for Buffett's record label -- all on a day that began with playing for pocket change.

That's been the state of Lord's life for the past few years: one foot in the underground and the other in the jet set. When her debut album, Got No Shadow, comes out on Sony's Work Group label this week, it will end her long stretch as one of Boston's most sought-after unsigned artists. And it means that the singer, whose regular gig for the past nine years has been a subway platform at Park Street, is poised to move to bigger venues.

"I can't predict what people are going to like," she says matter-of-factly over hummus at the Middle East, where she'll be celebrating the release of Got No Shadow with a show this Wednesday. "But I know that if the label wants to, they can sell a piece of shit. I know they're going to work this record. And I know it's not a piece of shit. So that's a no-brainer."

Not that she's considering giving up her day job. The subway looms large in Lord's world. She played Park Street as recently as last week; the cover of Got No Shadow shows her in front of a Red Line train; and her press kit puts heavy emphasis on her subterranean gig, enough so that a cynic might detect the smell of a marketing ploy.

"Right, like Jewel always talking about her van," Lord notes. "People are going to think I'm going for a gimmick here but that's it, that's me. There were these two worlds I was caught between, but there was also my world of absolute reality, and I kept myself grounded by playing for people in real time. That's something I believe in, and I still do. There's so much bullshit when you make decisions, people tugging at you. When I play the subway, there's none of that involved. There's just the moment, and the moment doesn't lie."

Lord was a music fan/college DJ before she was a performer, and a Joni Mitchell/Shawn Colvin acolyte before she heard Daniel Johnston, explored indie rock, and had her life changed by it. The music on Got No Shadow reconciles her split personality: it sounds as if she'd taken her indie cohort and transported it back to Asylum Records in the '70s. Her main collaborator is Bevis Frond mastermind Nick Saloman, who wrote four songs with Lord and four alone. But his brand of neo-psychedelia takes a back seat to the quintessentially California, acoustic-based arrangements. Lord's own "Throng of Blowtown" even pays wistful tribute to the days when cocaine and Fleetwood Mac ruled the pop world (she says it's also an homage to Guided by Voices songwriter Robert Pollard, but only its title sounds Pollard-esque).

Even on confessional songs, Lord's fandom infuses her writing. "Some Jingle Jangle Morning (When I'm Straight)," a tune about her younger and more reckless days and originally her first Kill Rock Stars single, quotes Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Lee Hazlewood's "Some Velvet Morning" in the title alone. Other allusions are more subtle: "Western Union Desperate," another Kill Rock Stars remake, sneaks in a Dinosaur Jr lyric ("When I need a friend it's still you") -- because, she explains, the song steals some chords from the Cure's "Just like Heaven," which Dinosaur Jr covered.

The album's virtues also hark back to the '70s: the prettiness of the vocals, the comfortable arrangements, the personal but not overly intense nature of the songwriting. Its charms are hard to resist, even if it lacks the edgier feel of her indie releases.

"I don't think it's an exciting record," she admits. "I think it's a nice record. It's humble. One thing I learned playing in the subway is that you can't pick and choose who your audience is going to be. I could have done it differently, but I chose these songs because they have the widest genre appeal; they kind of sit in the middle. It's just a group of likable songs, all sitting happily on a record."

Saloman, who also plays guitar on the album, was brought in for similar pragmatic reasons. "I probably could have written with anybody, if I'd put in a big pitch for it. But I guess everybody has a favorite, and his songs -- the ones of his that appeal to me -- are my favorites. So I wanted to help him. The more I got to know him, the more I realized he didn't need my help in any musical way; but maybe I could bring some attention his way."

Lord's been criticized in the past for relying on other people's songs, and the new album may not change that. She gets seven out of 13 credits, but four are collaborations with Saloman and two of the others are remakes. But that situation also harks back to the '70s, when interpreters were in demand along with songwriters. Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson didn't write their own hits either; and their spiritual daughter, Shawn Colvin (who makes a background vocal cameo on Got No Shadow), made a full album of covers before her recent breakthrough. Although Lord says she's getting more prolific, her real ambitions lie elsewhere.

"What I'd really like to be is a publisher. I think my ears are my best resource. Publishers work with writers, finding homes for songs. That's what I can do, run an orphanage for songs. So the record is really a trick. You can't say to someone, 'I have good ears, can I have a job?' I had to turn myself into a musician to show how good my ears are."

It was a publisher, Margaret Mittleman of BMG, who took Lord out of her indie world. After a recommendation from Kill Rock Stars owner Slim Moon, she caught Lord opening for Sebadoh in Olympia and talked her into a publishing deal.

"I told her I wasn't interested," Lord recalls. "But she kept sending me tapes of this guy she was working with, who she wanted to sign to a major. We decided she wasn't a typical ambulance chaser, because she was obviously never going to make money off this guy. We knew we could trust her if she was putting her heart out for this fruitcake."

Lord hooked up with BMG soon after, in 1993. As for the fruitcake, Beck did indeed sign to a major.

Around that time Lord released a Kill Rock Stars EP featuring "His Indie World," the song that became her local calling card. By far the jokiest of her originals, it's about the dilemma facing a girl with old-fashioned tastes and an indie-obsessed boyfriend: "I don't think I fit into his indie world. . . . He thinks that my songs are too deep and gloomy, and he wishes that I could be more like Jenny Toomey." True, the song took some liberties with the facts: Tsunami leader Jenny Toomey is in fact deep and gloomy, as she pointed out in a friendly letter she sent Lord. And the indie bands Lord mentions in the song -- Guided by Voices and Velocity Girl -- were ones she herself had championed. But "His Indie World" was really more about her social life than her professional one.

"At first I'd been singing all these old ballads, hanging out with the folk guys at Passim, and I was always the baby of the bunch," Lord recalls. "Then I started hanging with these indie guys who only listened to Sebadoh, and trying to get them to listen to Joni Mitchell as well."

Still, she remained gun-shy of major-label deals. Jimmy Buffett wasn't the only bigwig she turned down. She also got Eagles manager/Revolution Records owner Irving Azoff to see her at the Hollywood club Jabberjaw -- an even smaller and funkier place than T.T. the Bear's, where Azoff came to see Jen Trynin. But she says the real question wasn't indie-versus-major but which major to go with.

"I could have taken a much bigger advance and a much better deal, but I needed to trust the people I got involved with. I didn't just jump in, I really thought about things like the history of the labels, the personalities involved, the state of the industry at that time. I knew that the record I really wanted was going to take a lot of money to make, and Kill Rock Stars was never going to give me a lot of money. And I thought that I could do more good for Kill Rock Stars by signing to a major."

In other words, her back catalogue will become more valuable if her new album's successful, which is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. So it may come as a surprise that the backing group Lord has assembled for her first full-band tour (Mark Barnicle and Dave Fischer on guitars, John Sprague on bass, Tony Depietro on drums, and Amy Griffin on keyboards) are all unknowns from in and around her hometown of Salem. Their only credentials are a long way from indie rock: Barnacle played with blooze guy James Montgomery, and Griffin's in the hot rockabilly band Raging Teens. Lord's become a rockabilly fan herself (her boyfriend is also a Raging Teen), covering songs by Buddy Holly and the late Carl Perkins and even starting to write in that vein. All well and good, but why not take some of that major-label money to hire a big-name supergroup to back her?

"Because Dylan wouldn't have done that. Look at what he did [in 1965]: he went to Saskatchewan and got the guys in the Band. They were a rockabilly band, and that was as retro as you could get in the '60s. But he got them to form around him, and that's what I'm doing here. This is the band that I would have had when I was 16. And now we can all grow together."

Lord may be fighting conventional wisdom on this one -- but after all, that's what major-label clout is for. Meanwhile she's back in the subway, not forgetting where her roots lie. Dylan wouldn't have forgotten either.

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