American Songwriter recently got in touch with singer-songwriter Lera Lynn to discuss her new album, The Avenues, out September 9th. The Texas-born, Georgia-bred, and now Nashville-based artist opened up to us about her songwriting heroes, life events that have inspired her soulful tunes, and the many other influences that have helped her master the craft of writing beautifully haunting and highly personal songs.
How would you describe The Avenues?
The Avenues is definitely my most sophisticated work so far, with respect to songwriting and production. The record was tracked live in LA in five days and produced by a Hollywood native, Joshua Grange, so there’s a strong West Coast influence to the sound of it. The songs cover topics as wide and different as confronting death to avoiding the reality of ever-fleeting love. It’s got some Americana/country aspects (pedal steel, vocal delivery), some pop, some rock, even some jazz and quasi bossa-nova. It covers a lot of stylistic ground but never in a contrived way. It’s sexy, it’s soulful. I’m so happy with how everything came together!
How would you compare it to your last album?
My last LP was released in 2011 and called Have You Met Lera Lynn? That record was made piece-meal with lots of overdubbing and was meant to be to country what Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black was to Phil Spector/soul/ Motown. But the end result was decidedly Lera Lynn, hence the title. I think the live aspect of The Avenues is what really differentiates the performances and sounds from past records of mine. I think it’s the best way to do it.
I also released an EP earlier this year in March, Lying in the Sun, inspired by a fan-requested song (“Fire” by Bruce Springsteen) through a Pledge Music campaign I did for The Avenues. Josh set me up with a mic in his studio and let me loose. I was so inspired by engineering and mixing everything that I wrote some more songs and just kept going. Lying in the Sun was also made in a matter of days. The shorter the better sometimes, I think. It keeps you from over-thinking every little detail and sucking all the vibe out of it.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
I try to keep guitars lying on the couch so that you have to pick one up to sit down. That keeps me playing for at least a few minutes a day! And those moments are invaluable, as I always end up finding song seeds.
How did you learn how to play guitar?
My parents dabbled in guitar, but it wasn’t until they bought me my very own Yamaha acoustic when I was 15 that I started to really spend time with it. They had already taught me basic chords which was enough knowledge for me to figure out popular songs by ear. I almost immediately started writing my own (horrible!) songs and recording with my Tascam 4-track recorder (that’s how I know they were so horrible).
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Joni Mitchell, McCartney and Lennon were my first obsessions when I started writing. Later I got into Dolly Parton and Jeff Buckley (weird combo, I know — I’m sure it gets weirder). Lately I’ve been reviving my love for Harry Nilsson. I think A.A. Bondy is great. J.J. Cale, come on! There’s so many!
What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.
I can’t remember the first song I ever wrote because it was awful and I wanted to burn it out of my memory. But I can remember some of the songs I wrote just before I started making records. One was called “Widow’s Lament.” It was a waltzing, old-timey country song about my uncle who had recently passed, making my aunt a widow. It’s told from her perspective and she’s speaking as if he’s just out on the town and coming back later. The last line is “I’ll be with you baby, if it’s the death of me.” Sounds heavy but it’s sung with hope, so chin up, kid.
What’s the last song you wrote or started?
I swear I’m not obsessed with death but it seems to be one of those things you can’t not write about when it’s happening. My grandmother recently passed and I wrote a song on the plane to her funeral that I’m not sure anyone will ever hear called “For the Last Time.”
What’s the best song you ever wrote?
Uh, probably the one everyone likes the least? I don’t know…
How do you go about writing songs?
For me they happen in a lot of ways. Sometimes it all starts with a guitar line or a lyric. Sometimes I leave a song unfinished for years and sometimes I write the whole damn thing in a couple of hours. I try to keep the freeways open.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
I’ve labored over lyrics. I’ve had them pop into my head while doing routine things. I’ve dreamed them. I’ve mouthed sounds while singing until they turn into lyrics. My approach is to make them happen somehow!
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Death – kidding! Well that’s true, actually, but there’s much more, too. Love. Mostly death and love in all their permutations.
What’s a song on The Avenues you’re particularly proud of and why?
I usually most dig the songs that no one else notices. I really enjoyed recording the last track, “Sailor Song.” We all sat really close together in the same room and tracked it live, only once. We had a mic set up near the open window that captured the desert wind and sounds like a boat gliding across the water on the recording. That song is about death and love (surprisingly), but coming from a completely imagined scenario, where a sailor loses his wife at sea in a horrible storm and spends the rest of his life sailing around trying to find her.
What’s a lyric or verse from The Avenues you’re a fan of?
“La Di Da” opens with a pretty odd lyric: “Like a flag on a crane, in the wind and the rain, I’m gonna tear you up/ As the world’s flowin’ by, we’ll be high in the sky, on a lie that is love/ We will sing we will dance, we can bank on the chance, that it’s more than just lust.”
Are there any words you love or hate?
I hate the words heart and love because I can’t stop using them! It drives me nuts.
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Someone approached me after a show once and said that “Letters” spoke to them so clearly about someone in their life. He was in tears and apparently going through a lot and he told me that song really helped him. It made me tear up too. It was the most victorious moment of my career and a great reminder of why I write songs with substance that will probably never be on the radio (knock on wood).
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
I write a lot and most of it will never be read by anyone else. Lately I’ve been enjoying writing phrases or one liners that I use in conjunction with visual art. You can say so much with so little in that medium.
Any advice to aspiring artists?
Be prepared for numerous ups and downs. The path to success looks like the Rockies. You just gotta keep on keeping on and try to remember why you started the journey in the first place as often as possible.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Harry Nilsson. He’d probably be a pretty fun hang. Roy Orbison would be a trip too.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
There’s an LA-based singer/songwriter that I adore completely, Amy Blaschke. I found out about her through Joshua Grange, who also produced her record Desert Varnish (2012). That record is what sold me on working with Josh in the first place and it is one of my all-time favorites! She writes unlike anyone I know. I love her changes and her lyrics. Just stunning and very understated, soulful and odd.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
Jesus, who comes up with these questions!? Just Kidding. That’s tough – I might have to assume I could only hear one song the rest of my life to answer this. I might spend the rest of my life trying to find that answer with no song playing! I can tell you what I think are some elements to great songs.First, it should be able to stand alone or with full-on production. There should always be a sliver of hope but not too much! And it should haunt you in your sleep – it should elicit strong images and feelings, memories and dreams. Now I just sound like a phony. Great way to end the interview!