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Q&A: Mary Lou Lord

January 9, 1998 12:00 AM ET

Mary Lou Lord has been making her fans wait for years for her new record, so it comes as no surprise that she makes her interviewer wait about 15 minutes. It also comes as no surprise that, when she calls from a car carrying her between appointments in downtown Manhattan, she's charming and without artifice. Her major label debut, "Got No Shadow," is a lot like that, too.

It's also a seamless collection of folk-rock that offers more than a glimpse of Lord's roots playing for passersby in London and Boston subway stations. Largely a collaborative effort with her mentor and songwriting idol Nick Saloman of the British psychedelic outfit the Bevis Frond, "Got No Shadow" comes two years after Lord's self-titled indie EP, a subsequent record label bidding war for her services and a spate of publicity she probably could have lived without.

As just about everybody seems to know by now, Lord was romantically linked with Kurt Cobain when she was living in Seattle, a relationship Courtney Love later accused her of capitalizing on for self-promotion. In the years since, of course, Love has traded her grunge for glitter and Lord has become too busy with the demands of the present to worry about the shadows of the past. Right now, those demands include her getting to her next interview on time. She won't, of course, but after waiting this long, what's another fifteen minutes?

After spending a couple of years being courted by various record labels and then getting material together for an album, was making "Got No Shadow" a cathartic experience?

No, not really. I went into it song by song, right from the beginning, seeing if they were up to par and picking apart the whole thing piece by piece. And it was actually very strenuous. I was in L.A., I was alone, and it was a lot of work. I had never done anything like that before. When I perform, it's always in real time, so there's an immediate reaction and response. And in the studio, it wasn't like that. The parts become pieces of a puzzle.

Did you feel pressure that people were waiting to hear what you'd come up with?

Definitely. I'm not the most prolific writer out there and I'm very fussy as well. But I think overall everything worked in my favor. At the time when the labels were coming around, a lot of indie bands were getting signed and all the girls were getting signed, I knew there was going to be a backlash and I didn't want to get caught in it. So I felt it was better to wait.

You've said that the album "sounds like me." What exactly do you mean by that?

It's got an old-fashioned LP kind of feel to me. I don't hear hits on it and I don't hear filler on it. I just hear good, strong, warm, personal songs. A lot of times, I'll buy a record on the strength of a single and the rest of the album is a piece of shit. But I don't feel this way about this record.

You've got a reputation as someone who has a great ear for picking out songs to cover. Did this come from the days you spent as a DJ and a busker in the Boston subways?

Oh yeah, from when I was a little kid listening to music and when I was deejaying. I got shut down as a DJ because I wasn't following a play list, but that was at the point where I felt I needed to learn how to play songs of my own.

What does playing subway stations teach you about audiences?

What I've tried to remember is that I can't expect every person who walks down those subway stairs to be an indie kid who loves the Kill Rock Stars label and Lois and Sebadoh. I've tried to keep my themes universal as a performer because you can't pick and choose who's going to come down that platform. I try to stick to good chord progressions and melodies and lyrics. Because when someone's standing there waiting for the train, each line has to be as good as the next one. Sometimes, you only have 20 seconds to reflect that person's life back to them so they notice you and give you a dollar.

What makes a great song?

A song that has a simple melody and interesting turnarounds in it. Something that can remind you of something you might have forgotten about, that puts you in a place where you've been before -- maybe childhood.

When you hear a song, how do you know it's the right one for you to cover?

If it's a love-gone-wrong type song, I'm on it! [laughs]. A song that's about a situation I've been involved in written by someone who can explain it better than me.

How do you hate to hear yourself described?

As a cutesy, sweetie-pie type or "folksy" or "syrupy sweet." Or that my voice sounds like a little girl's. I hate that.

I can't let you go without asking you about Courtney Love. During her feud with you she was, as you put it, your "best publicist." Has she stopped saying bad things about you?

Oh yeah. She's busy with her own life and at this point, all that stuff is so much in the past and has absolutely nothing to do with my music or what I'm doing. And there's really no point in talking about it because it's not going to bend my music or shape it in any way.

What do you think of her stylish makeover?

I think she looks great and I think it takes a lot to pull yourself together.

Think there'll be any songs about you on the next Hole record?

I highly doubt it.

OK, one last question. What's the best reaction people could possibly have to "Got No Shadow?"

The best thing that could happen is if some young woman or person came up to me and said 'You inspired me to write music' and gave me a tape of their stuff. If you can jolt someone into writing a song, if they feel they have no choice but to do it, I think that's just great. Because there's a point when you've listened enough to other people's music.

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