Mary Lou Lord – Singer-songfinder
It’s Saturday, half past noon, and Mary Lou Lord is indignant. OK, maybe “indignant” is too strong a word, but nonetheless she’s pretty fired up about a certain question that keeps coming her way. The question, which has lots of permutations, generally goes something like this: “Given your reputation as a promising songwriter, why have you recorded so little material of your own?”
Fortified by several cups of coffee, Lord begins addressing the topic, probably for the umpteenth time this week.
“I think it’s a combination of things. Right now, I’m in a position to be heard by a lot of the right people, and before I venture into whatever I’m going to do with my own songs, I want to bring some of my favorite writers to the attention of people who otherwise might not give a shit. People are listening to me right now, and I don’t really mind that they’re saying, ‘Oh, she’s not prolific.’ If they’re hearing people like Elliott Smith, and Nick, and those guys are getting some kind of recognition — whether it means getting a wonderful publishing agreement, or song for a movie, or this or that — then that’s worth it to me.”
The “Nick” she’s referring to is Nick Saloman, frontman for psychedelic Brit-pop band the Bevis Frond, and Lord’s man Friday on her recently released major-label debut, Got No Shadow. When it came time to begin work on the album, Lord turned instinctively to Saloman, who she had met three years earlier while preparing for a show in London. A devoted fan, Lord had recorded the Bevis Frond’s “Lights Are Changing” and “He’d Be A Diamond” on her self-titled Kill Rock Stars EP in 1995, which sparked a series of brief phone conversations with Saloman. Six months later, the tentative acquaintance blossomed into a full-fledged friendship.
“He had read in the paper that I was playing the London show, so he went down to the venue earlier in the day and left a note saying, ‘Hey, it’s Nick here, from the Bevis Frond. Here’s my phone number. Do you think you could put me on the guest list?’ So I called him up and told him to come on down, and to be sure to bring a guitar. So he brought his guitar, and we worked out some songs about ten minutes before I went onstage. The show was sold out, and everything was just perfect. It felt like we had been playing together forever.”
Listening to Got No Shadow, one quickly detects a strong rapport between the two. Half the songs on the album were written or co-written by Saloman; hence, the more-than-occasional assertion that Lord’s much-ballyhooed reputation as a songwriter is a bit premature. What’s more remarkable, however, is a certain seamless quality — in spirit, musicianship, and sense of purpose — that characterizes the album. Pare away the full-band electric sound usually employed on the Saloman-penned tracks, and it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish between his songs and those written by Lord. The distance between “Lights Are Changing”, for instance, and girl-with-guitar acoustic musings such as “Throng of Blowtown” is little more than the length of an amplifier cable.
“We spent about a month together, in total,” Lord says simply. “He’s an amazingly fast songwriter.”
Truth is, when one considers her background, Lord’s penchant for collaboration should come as no surprise. From her earliest days as a struggling street musician in London, to her current status as…well, as a big-time busker on the subway platforms of Boston, music has tended to be a social activity for Lord. Growing up in Salem, Massachusetts, she was privy to a wide variety of styles, which was in part due to the influence of four older siblings, but also because her parents rented a section of the house to students attending Salem State College across the street.
From the time she was five, Lord recalls, she went regularly from room to room, hanging out with her teenage housemates and listening to everything from the Allman Brothers to the Carpenters to the Outlaws. At 13, she became both mascot and DJ for the college radio station. By the time she reached college age, she had decided to pursue a career in music. Following a brief stint at Berklee School of Music in Boston, where she studied production and engineering (Lord’s original intention was to become a producer), she moved to England and began attending classes at London’s School of Audio. There, things began to get interesting.
“My roommate and I lived in a squat, and we didn’t have any heat, so to avoid going home after school I’d hang out in the subway,” she begins. “There were all these buskers down there, and it was warm and it was free. One day a guy asked me to watch his equipment while he went to the bathroom. My roommate from Berklee had taught me some chords, so while this guy was away I began playing D and A and G. Someone threw a pound coin into the guitar case, and I was like, ‘Oh my God! Someone just gave me money, and all I did was play a D!’
“I was really excited, so the next day I went and bought a Hondo guitar and started playing this one song in the subway, over and over again. Then I learned another one, and so on. We had a meter in the basement of our squat, where if you put in 50 pence, you could get electricity for two days. At that time, I was sleeping under a snooker table with a blanket over it, so I bought a hair dryer with the money I got from busking and used it [for heat]. Busking provided meter money, cigarette money, and coffee money, and at the same time it offered a place that was warm to go to, with a reason to be there.”
If fate played a prominent role in her decision to start busking, then an incident that occurred not long after she returned to the States must have convinced Lord her career was truly in the lap of the gods. During her stay in England, she found herself listening time and again to a homemade tape of a radio broadcast showcasing folk performers. Among the selections was a cover of a Bob Dylan tune by a then little-known singer-songwriter named Shawn Colvin. Seemingly no one in England had heard of Colvin, but Lord was smitten. Back home in Boston, while playing some Sandy Denny songs on a subway platform, Lord had a fortuitous encounter.