Artist Lera Lynn talks “True Detective,” surf noir and her latest album

LERA LYNN

What: Lera Lynn in concert with Andrew Combs
Where: Terminal West, 887 W. Marietta St. NW C, Atlanta
When: 8 p.m., Friday, Jan. 20
Cost: $15-$25
Learn More: www.terminalwestatl.com/event/1388244-lera-lynn-atlanta/

 

Story by Bekah Porter

The camera pans across the top of the dreary city, which seems to sag under fog and despair.
A weathered man appears, awash in a grey cloud of ashy smoke from his cigarette. His misery pulsates on the screen, as if it’s a living thing, consuming him puff by puff. A voice cuts through his gloom, and the man turns toward the sound, fixated on the haunting image across the bar. A woman is sitting on a stool, cowering over a guitar, microphone pressed to her mouth, track marks snaking up her arms and circles blotting out the skin beneath her sad eyes.
Melancholy radiates from the nameless singer, the mournful lyrics of “This is my least favorite life” conveying the thoughts of the man smoking in the booth.
It’d be easy to associate singer-songwriter Lera Lynn with the role of the dead-eyed musician whom critics say stole the show at the second season of the widely-acclaimed TV show “True Detective.”
But to yoke the Atlanta and Athens girl turned Nashville resident with only sad songs is to have never listened to her extensive anthology, which is much more nuanced and uplifting than haunting and maudlin. And to characterize her as cheerless is to ignore her upbeat personality and her numerous reasons to celebrate.
Lynn’s latest album, “Resistor” was recently listed in American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums of the Year. Her song “Lying in the Sun” was just featured in a trailer for the new HBO series “The Young Pope.” Amazon just released her holiday song, “Love One Another.” And she has earned positive reviews from Rolling Stone and The New York Times.
Here’s what the former Atlanta resident had to say about her success, her style and the influence her Southern roots have had on her ascending career:
Question: You’ve described your music as creepy but lovely, and I’ve read reviews and fan pages that use words like grim and maudlin and unsettling to describe what you do. Yet you say that darkness is only one aspect of your persona. What’s the complete picture of you as an artist?
Answer: My goal is to move people and to make people feel things, preferably all of the things — happy, sad, excited, turned on, everything. I try not to limit myself to any one emotional genre. If you listen to Resistor or my previous records, I feel like they explore different territories. It’s not all just one feeling. I think having done “True Detective,” where we wrote music for a character for a specific feeling, I think people attributed that to me. That’s why I’m saying it’s part of me. “True Detective” is a part of me. But it’s not all of me.
Q: In the comment section of your music video for “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” one listener said that the song had him racing to a window so he could look out at the rain and think about life. What do you want people to feel when they listen to your songs?
A: I want them to feel what I feel when I fall in love with someone’s record. There’s a certain feeling, as if someone has opened a gateway or window for you to see some kind of universal truth. I think that’s what songwriters, at least in my vein, are trying to get at. They’re trying to show you something.
You can’t help but have an emotional connection. It’s so abstract, and I feel pretentious talking about (how people should feel when listening to my music.) But there are records that I fall in love with, where I can just close my eyes and lose myself in their world. And that’s the whole point of making music. It can be an emotive escape. It can be a call out to say, “Guess what, listener, there other people who feel the way you do.”
Q: What is one of those records for you, that you’ve fallen in love with and fallen into the artist’s world?
A: For me, currently, is a Canadian artist named Andy Shauf. His latest (record) is called “The Party.” He’s a great lyricist. I love how dry his delivery is. The production is fantastic. He plays all the instruments, and there’s so much control in the playing. And by that, I mean he underplays. He’s subtle and restrained and the songs, they take me places. You can close your eyes and enter a new realm.
Q: You’re a singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. In other words, you’re a true artist. Do you think it’s important to have that classic multidimensional depth? Do you think that depth is lacking in the music industry today?
A: I think everyone has different strengths. Personally, I prefer to consume art that does have that kind of depth, but I can also appreciate art that has a different function, like Beyoncé’s music. That still makes me feel something.
She and Andy are in two different worlds, obviously. I think he real art comes in doing something no one else has done in your own special way and in connecting to yourself and be unique and being able to show your perspective, how you interpret things. That’s where I think real artistry comes in.
Q: You recently released a seasonal song, “Love One Another,” saying that you were looking for a timeless and universal holiday message. You also said that the song seems more timely now. What prompted that statement?
A: I wrote that song before (Donald) Trump became President-elect. I was on tour when the results from the election came in, and I think everyone in the nation was shocked, whether you’re a Trump supporter or not, by how divided our country is.
I didn’t realize it was to the degree that it is, and I think it’s good that we’ve been shown that, so I started hearing those lyrics a different way. Of course, always, yes, love one another, but it’s easy to forget that as Americans, it’s easy to forget to do so while living our comfortable air-conditioned lives. We need to remember to accept differences.
Without trying to sound too corny, you can do anything with love. You can change anything with love. You can achieve anything through love.
Q: NPR and other reviewers have categorized you as a surf-noir musician. Can you describe what that genre is?
A: Surf-noir comes from Dick Dale, who is the famous surf guitar player. There is, like, a dark ’60s rock vibe kind of underlining everything. People are always scrambling to find a genre or a way to describe music, and I understand that you have to have a way to say in words what something sounds like, but that’s a real tall order, and I think it can be detrimental. And I’ve also been described as country, so go figure.
Q: How has growing up Southern influenced your identity as a musician?
A: It’s funny. (My family and I) are all from Texas. I was born in Texas but mostly grew up in the Atlanta area, and my parents were always playing classic country and classic rock, like southern rock, like Lynryd Skynryd.
When I went to college, I was exposed to jazz for the first time, and sushi. This whole other world that I didn’t know existed. And I became ashamed of (my country roots) for a while, and even of my own songwriting, and I rebelled against that and started looking at jazz.
My creative goal became to be a jazz singer and I dove into that world. I started writing songs that were harmoniously complex. I would perform the songs and notice that nobody was really connecting, which is the biggest and best test for any music, how the audience responds to it. So I went back to the drawing board, and I realized that I wasn’t being myself.
So I started to write really simple country songs instead, and that got a much better response. It was sort of an experiment for me in forming some sort of identity. I realized that it is, in fact, a really big part of who I am.
Q: You were the singer in a smoky bar in “True Detective,” which begs the question: Have you done a lot of singing in bars and lounges? Which was your favorite? Because not all of them have Colin Farrell in them.
A: Yeah, The Black Rose was definitely my favorite dive bar ever. Of course, it was a set and not a real bar. I’ve played plenty of those places, and I still do on occasion. They can be great.
The place doesn’t really matter. I mean, obviously playing in a beautiful theater with a great sound system is nice, but if the audience in the dive bar is there in that moment, none of that other (stuff) matters. And sometimes I find those in those dive bars are the best audiences. They can be the most engaged.
Q: If I enter your name into Google, I can hardly find a link that doesn’t mention how you stole the show in “True Detective.” How did that opportunity come about, and what role has it played in your career? Would you describe it as your break? Or is there another moment that you point to in finding your success?
A: I don’t think there’s any one moment or thing that brings success. I’ve been working in music for years, and I’m like, “Oh, we got a feature in Wall Street Journal or a spot on Letterman or a song placed in a TV show.” All of these things add up.
“True Detective” was obviously a pretty monumental thing, and it helped me reach many more people, especially in Europe. But I think success is a culmination of persistence and small breaks. I hate to think that any one moment would define any person’s career.
I feel there are greater things in store yet, but the opportunity came about because T-Bone Burnett was interested in using a song of mine that I had already written and released called “Lying in the Sun.”
He wanted to meet and discuss using that song in the show, which, funny enough, we didn’t use after all. But he invited me to come to L.A. and write with him, and we wrote almost 10 songs, and we recorded them very quickly, and the next thing I knew, I was on the set with Collin Farrell and Vince Vaughn. They’re both really, really nice people, by the way, if you need another reason to like them.
Q: Almost every single review I’ve read of “True Detective’s” second season says that you stole the show? Do you see acting in your future? What role would you love to play?
A: I would love to do more acting. What role? I don’t know. Any role. I’d play any role. Why not? Although, I am terrified of someone telling me to cry on camera. I’m working on it, though.
Q: You have a lot going on in your life right now. Your latest album, “Resistor,” was listed in American Songwriter’s Top 50 Albums of the Year. Your song, “Lying in the Sun,” was just featured in a trailer for the new HBO series “The Young Pope,” starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton.
If you don’t mind me veering for a second, I recently interviewed a teenager who was achieving some monumental things — most specifically getting honored by Congress for a program she created that has fed thousands of people — and she said that you can’t set out for recognition or achievements or hitting the markers by which your industry marks success. Instead, she said, those are a natural result of truly loving what you do. So with that said, what role does passion play into your many, many successes? And how do you strike a balance between following your passion yet still hoping for success?
A: It’s tough. It’s a daily struggle, especially when you are hoping to support yourself through a creative endeavor, especially because it’s unpredictable, and your success really depends on the opinion of others. Passion really is the only thing that keeps you going. I have thought so many times that I am completely crazy for doing what I do.
But I just feel so compelled to do it. I can’t not do it. I think success is complicated. I think passion is where you start. That’s square one. Then there has to be a great endurance and drive and persistence and support.
I don’t think anyone is successful alone. But it’s a long game. A very long game. So you have to be patient with yourself and accept the ebbs and flows of success.
Q: What are you hoping for in 2017?
A: World peace? Is that too much? (Laughs.) Well, I am writing and getting geared up for the next record. And I’m currently producing another record for another artist, and that’s been really fun, and we have more singles coming out.
I don’t think 2017 is going to be as heavy of a touring year. It’s time for me to reset and write and work on the next record.
Q: You went to the University of Georgia and earned a degree in anthropology. Did you always want to be a musician? Or was that degree your way of ensuring that you had a Plan B?
A: Yes. It was a Plan B, and I was pressured by my family to do that, and I am very grateful that I received an education. Those are some of my favorite memories. What a luxury to wake up and go learn every day. And that education has been so crucial to me as a person in the world. It helped my mind to expand, which is helpful to a songwriter.
But, yes, it was a Plan B, but I’ve wanted to do music since I was 13, or somewhere around that age. I don’t regret (my education) at all, but I do sometimes wish I had just started music earlier.

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