Lydia Loveless was 14 when her family lost their farm. She won’t discuss the event, but she did write a song about it: “Everything’s Gone,” which chronicles her family’s tumultuous move from Coshocton, Ohio, to nearby Columbus, exemplifies the aggressive honesty that finds its way into the 26-year-old artist’s best songs.
”I’m sick of seeing the fear in my family’s eyes,” she sings, “I need to find the man who put it there and set his life on fire.”
Loveless has continued on that forthright path right up until the present. Her fourth LP, Real, released in August, is a tour de force – part cowpunk, part Eighties pop – that has helped establish Loveless as one of the biggest roots-rock acts of the year. The record debuted in the Top 10 on the Americana chart and quickly became Loveless’ fastest-selling album to date. In January, the singer-songwriter hits the road for a U.S. tour in support of Real.
But growing up the third of four siblings in a family of musicians, Loveless was the shy kid. “My siblings are very outgoing and normal, but for me going into a coffee shop was my absolute worst nightmare,” she says. So when Loveless joined a band with her father and sisters as a young teen, she was happy to play bass and keep to herself.
Meanwhile, the quiet teenager had bigger ideas for herself. “When I was a kid, I always daydreamed that I was going to be singing and writing songs in an awesome band that looked really sweaty and punk rock onstage,” she says. She tried to write songs in her bedroom, soaking up influences from her two older sisters, one of whom turned Loveless on to sugary pop like Savage Garden (“a huge influence”) while the other exposed her to darker alternatives like Tom Waits and Nine Inch Nails.
But Loveless hated everything she came up with until she wrote a song called “Let Me Leave” at 15. Her family band played New Wave–influenced rock, but “Let Me Leave” was pure country, a fast-paced Fifties-honky-tonk throwback that would end up setting the tone for her first two albums of irreverent yet traditional country.
Loveless quickly began garnering comparisons to renegades like Loretta Lynn and Merle Haggard, but she’s since all but discarded her strict country roots. Instead, Loveless’ two latest albums have cemented her off-kilter songwriting sensibility with sad-sack odes to sexual deviance and Midwestern boredom. One song begins, “Verlaine shot Rimbaud ’cause he loved him so/Honey, that’s how I love you.”
“I’m blown away by her sense of humor and how unfiltered she is,” says Patterson Hood, lead singer of Drive-By Truckers. “I like when someone can write a serious song that still makes me laugh out loud.”
On Real, Loveless nods towards the Replacements and Sticky Fingers–era Stones, but she’s more interested in pop craftsmanship than belonging to any one genre. She’s long cited Richard Hell, Hank Williams III and Britney Spears as her primary influences.
With her output growing increasingly accessible, has Loveless ever thought about signing with a major label? “Of course, everyone wants to be huge, but if it means sacrificing certain things, probably not,” she says. She hasn’t had any opportunities to “sign away her soul on the dotted line” lately, but Loveless does recall one particularly shady offer early on. “There was some Maroon 5 manager or something who rolled in and asked, ‘Would you be willing to do what it takes?’ And I was like, ‘Probably not for you.'”
Still, it’s not hard to sense admiration when Loveless discusses Swedish pop sensation Tove Lo, another songwriter with a penchant for writing catchy hooks about vulgar subject material. “She’s kinda the biggest thing right now and she writes all these songs about sucking dick and doing coke. OK, that’s cool. How did that happen?” Loveless briefly ponders the question, almost as if she’s contemplating her next move.
As for Loveless, for now she’s comfortable with the idea that her music ultimately doesn’t need to please anyone but herself. “I mostly write stuff that I would want to listen to myself if I heard it on the radio,” she says.