Songwriter Lera Lynn on Duets Album ‘Plays Well With Others,’ Stylistic Evolution
Lera Lynn has a classic quandary on her hands at the moment: she can’t actually perform her latest album while she’s on tour. Plays Well With Others, released in June, paired Lynn with a wide assortment of duet partners, including John Paul White (who produced the album at his studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama), Nicole Atkins, Rodney Crowell and more. Aside from having one of her band members handle the other vocal parts on a couple songs, it would be difficult to cover the entire range of what appears on the album.
“I knew when I was making the record [that] I can’t really tour this record. I can’t afford to take all those people on the road, ” she says, easing into the day at an East Nashville coffee shop shortly before she’s set to return to the road.
Still, Lynn shouldn’t have any shortage of material for her shows, with a series of contrasting solo releases and singles stretching back to her debut, 2011’s Have You Met Lera Lynn. That album showcased her as a vocalist fluent in classic sounds but with a modern perspective. It also set her up as a potential new star in Americana, though her output in the last seven years has allowed her to dodge easy classification. The Avenues, released in 2014, tempered her folkier tendencies with otherworldly, gauzy textures, while 2016’s Resistor played it more straightforward with shades of angular indie rock. In between, she had a breakout moment on Season 2 of HBO’s True Detective, playing a haunting (and haunted) bar musician in several scenes and writing a handful of impossibly dark songs for the show.
Plays Well With Others connects the dots between these points, stripping things back for simple country balladry or reveling in unusual combinations of chords for swirling, psychedelic effect. As ever, Lynn’s malleable voice shines, angelic on the Roy Orbison homage “In Another Life,” and mysterious on a cover of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” with Shovels and Rope, bringing out the best in all of her partners. But as per Lynn’s tradition, the next one probably won’t sound anything like it.
“If you just keep doing that, it becomes a category of your own: the unclassifiable,” she says. “That’s the best thing you can hope for, is that you are your own thing.”
Where did you get the idea to do a collaborative record?
Honestly, the title for the record hit me one day. I think I was mowing the lawn or something and I was like, “Plays Well With Others.”
Did you see that Phil Collins is releasing a retrospective with the same title?
I did, yeah. A couple of my fans made sure to let me know, like, “Fuck this guy!” I’m like, “Dammit, he’s totally gonna do a better job!”
Were there any specific pairings of people or duet partners that served as an inspiration?
I don’t know about inspiration. Obviously, I’ve been exposed to a lot of duets in my life, because we all have — especially country duets. But I didn’t want to write anything that was novel. I didn’t want to have novelty-style country duets. I was hoping to write songs that were true to the style of each person I was working with. I wanted us to meet in the middle stylistically. I wanted each voice to come through and not be crafted after something else. As it turns out, duets are really challenging to not make cheesy or novel.
How did you choose your collaborators?
I just thought about friends, people I’ve worked with who I respect, who work hard, who sing well and write well. And, “Are you going to be in town?” was a big part of this.
“Lose Myself” with John Paul White was the first thing I heard from the album, which made me think of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin. It’s very sexy and breathy.
I think those two words were used when were tracking — “John, keep it breathy and sexy. It’s gonna be really hard for you to be sexy, I know.”
What did John bring to the table for this album?
Obviously he knows a lot about doing a duet. We got together and it all fell into place really quickly. What does he bring to the table? He’s a great writer. He’s a great singer. I’ve worked with a couple of producers actually producing me in the vocal booth, singing, and saying, “Maybe watch the way you’re singing this word,” or “Change that vowel sound,” or “Breathe here instead of here” — that level of producing. That’s rare to work with someone like that, and John was like that, which I really appreciated. Because I want it to be as good as it could possibly be.
“Breakdown” with Andrew Combs is really interesting, with its odd chord progression, but it’s somehow still really catchy. How did that one come about?
Andrew came with the chords and I think he had the first line. I remember going, “Oh my god, there’s so many chords.” Like, Jesus, dude! It seemed like Andrew had listened to my previous records before he came over — not like it informed him or influenced him, but he thought, this will work with Lera’s thing and he brought those chords over. When we were writing I happened to be trapped in this relationship that was really intense. I think everyone can relate to getting to the point in a relationship where you should probably get out, but you still really love the person, but you hate them too. [Laughs]
“Least Favorite Life” from True Detective and “Fade into Black” from Resistor employ similarly odd chords and dissonance. How do you approach writing in that way?
I rely on harmony and dissonance a lot to convey feeling rather than melody. Because I’m not a super-strong singer. I’m not gonna pull off an Adele, bring-down-the-house vocal performance. I’m always looking for something a little bit off, that’s what I crave in music and other people’s music. I’m just trying to get myself off musically. [Laughs]
It creates a lot of tension, hearing your voice against those unsettling sounds that you want to hear resolved.
I’ve always fought against having a sweet voice, because I don’t want to have a sweet voice, dammit, but I do. So how I balance that is with the dissonance.
It’s interesting to hear you say you won’t pull off an Adele-type song, but you seem perfectly capable of belting with power. Do you mean that’s not in your wheelhouse stylistically?
I’ve not really attempted it stylistically, maybe it’s because I’m afraid I can’t really do it. I don’t know. I recently co-wrote a song with someone and we recorded a demo of it and it is one of those super belters. I feel a little embarrassed by it. I don’t know if anyone will ever hear it.
Embarrassed sometimes means you…
Should do it? Ahhhhhh! Go towards what you fear.
You’re in that territory on the Nicole Atkins duet, “In Another Life.”
That felt more like a crooning kind of song. There are moments, those Roy Orbison — there’s a grand ending. We both have that in common, that Roy Orbison, Chris Isaak singing thing. We both appreciate that.
Looking at your work so far, it’s remarkable just how different every one of your releases is. Do you feel like you need to make big changes between every album?
No… We changed what I was [originally] doing so I could start touring and we toured that way for about two years. And then it was time to make another record and I was like, “What do I do? I want to make a rock record. But everyone’s going to be confused. This small fan base I’ve built is gonna be like, ‘What the hell is this? I thought you were an acoustic trio.'” So we made The Avenues, which was an attempt to bring what I wanted to do and what everyone thought I would do together. And Resistor was still me trying to move closer to my original vision for music, which is not acoustic-guitar based.
What was that original vision?
I don’t know anymore. [Laughs] Rock, with a “W.”
You mean, “rawk”? That vision can be a moving target too.
Absolutely. And everything you do informs what you do next. And after The Avenues, when I did the True Detective thing, and I thought, “Shit, now I’ve gained all these new fans doing all this really, really dark, stripped-down music but that’s not the record I want to make.” I don’t want to alienate those people. What do I do? OK, we’ll do a little bit of Americana, a little bit of rock, and some of the dark, stripped-down stuff. The best records are made when you’re paying attention to all the voices to some small degree.
That’s interesting, because you’ll probably hear other people say they have to shut out all the voices to function.
It’s a privileged position when you can tune them out. You’ve already established yourself as an artist, I think. Maybe I’m going about it entirely from the wrong side. But as a new artist, you’ve gotta keep your fans. They’re the ones who pay the rent.
You just have to trust that they’ll follow you if you want to pursue something new.
And you have to gain their trust first. So I think that was always in the back of my mind. And god, I have written a lot of different styles of songs in making records. Pop stuff or full-on rock. It can be difficult to choose a direction when you are in love with so many different types of music. That’s the other thing that has guided my records and that’s the reason why they are so varied, because I like so many different things. I don’t want to do just one.