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If you’re seeking to define Lera Lynn’s music, the best description may be “beyond category.”
The Nashville-based, Georgia-bred singer-songwriter, whose new self-released sophomore album The Avenues, out this winter, can easily be filed under “Americana” and “country.” But those categorizations tell only part of the story.
“There are definitely aspects of earlier country in there, and rockabilly and Western swing, music of the Patsy Cline era,” Lera Lynn says. “I take some things from people like Conway Twitty and some of the other old country greats, and that’s very different from what country is now. Maybe that’s why the ‘country noir’ label is applied to my music so frequently.”
She adds, “My parents listened to a lot of country music. My mom was really big on Joni Mitchell, and I think that’s a pretty obvious influence on me. They were also listening to ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd – my dad was a total redneck. That’s worked its way in there. Then, when I went away to college, I started listening to a lot more jazz, and for a short period of time I decided I was going to become a jazz singer, and I started listening to a lot of jazz singers – Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, the obvious greats. Ray Charles and Harry Nilsson are big influences. And there’s a lot of pop in there, too – from the Feist or Fiona Apple or Cat Power world. I can’t deny that those female singer-songwriters have had a large influence on me.”
Impetus for the recording of The Avenues developed during Lera Lynn’s 2012 U.S. tour, which succeeded the 2011 release of her solo debut Have You Met Lera Lynn? During that trek, she supported such notable performers as the Punch Brothers, Joan Osborne, Todd Snider, the Wood Brothers, and k.d. lang, whose group included producer and multi-instrumentalist Joshua Grange, also a longtime sideman for Dwight Yoakam.
“Josh and I spent a lot of time on the road that month talking about music, listening to music together,” she says. “He heard all of our performances, 30 shows in a row. I already had plans to make a record in December – I just didn’t know where or with whom yet. After talking with him for so long and getting to know him, and as he got to know my music, I felt it made complete sense to work with him.”
Ultimately the 11 songs on The Avenues were recorded at Grange’s studio in Los Angeles’ Highland Park neighborhood with a noteworthy group of players: Lera Lynn’s live accompanist, guitarist Ben Lewis; bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Fiona Apple, Soul Coughing), keyboardist Jebin Bruni (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Meshell Ndegeocello), and drummer Quinn (Tracy Chapman, eastmountainsouth). Grange also provided his distinctive touch on guitar, pedal steel, and other instruments.
Unlike her solo debut, which was cut piecemeal, work on The Avenues proceeded as a true album project. “This one was much more focused,” she says. “There was a much more professional approach. We did pre-production work. We sifted through a lot of songs and pulled the best ones. We tracked everything live in five days. It was pretty intense. Then we worked on some overdubbing. We mixed it at Sheryl Crow’s studio in Nashville.”
Melodic, atmospheric, and intensely introspective, the material on The Avenues is entirely self-penned and fearlessly personal. Several of the songs, including “Letters,” “Coming Down,” and “Leave It Up to Me,” are reflections on the musician’s difficult relationship with her alcoholic father, who died when she was in her early 20s.
“The rest of the songs are about love,” she says. “There’s a lot of love and death happening here. But what else do you write about?”
The new album is the culmination of a life spent in music. “Performing has been pretty constant for me my whole life,” she says.
Born in Houston, Lera Lynn began playing at an early age, singing in her church choir and taking up violin in the sixth grade and then guitar in high school. After doing restaurant gigs during her high school years, she went away to school in Athens, Georgia, the musical hotbed that spawned R.E.M., Pylon, and Widespread Panic, among others. There she did her first recording work with the band Birds & Wire.
Recorded with co-producer C.k. Koch, Have You Met Lera Lynn? put the musician on the map. The collection included her song “Bobby, Baby,” which won Merlefest’s 2011 Chris Austin Songwriting Competition (an honor she shared with Gillian Welch and Tift Merritt) and best alternative country song at the Independent Music Awards. (She also filmed a hair-raising video for the track.) Following the album’s release, she walked away with best country artist honors at Athens’ Flagpole Music Awards.
Early last year, Lera Lynn followed up the debut album with a cover of June Carter Cash’s classic “Ring of Fire,” backed with the original “Don’t Make Me Wait.” Her group’s 2012 tour of the U.S. and U.K. included stops at Mountain Stage, Prairie Home Companion, and the Cambridge Folk Festival. She relocated to Nashville in late 2012.
With The Avenues, Lera Lynn has created a mature album that resolutely defies pigeonholing.
She says, “Where does my music fit? It’s the hardest question to answer. It’s something I’m constantly thinking about, and something people are asking all the time. I haven’t found an answer. I think it’s sexy. It’s sophisticated.”
No arguments there.
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