After recording her last album for a major label in a squeaky clean studio, Mary Lou Lord opted to burrow back underground — quite literally — for the recording of her live covers album, Live City Sounds.
“It’s an atmosphere that I’m very comfortable with,” says Lord of recording at a pair of subway stops. “I don’t feel any pressure. When you’re in the studio, you’re always looking at the clock, and on a stage I’ve never felt completely comfortable. I figured people have been so supportive and generous, why not give them exactly what they’d heard. It’s why they liked me in the first place.”
Beginning with the rattle and rush of one of Boston’s T-line cars whisking through a tunnel, Live City Sounds boasts Lord’s versions of songs by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Magnetic Fields, Big Star and the Pogues.
Lord’s choice of songwriters to cover stems in part from the transitory nature of busking, with performers afforded the narrowest of windows to make an impression. “When you play in a subway, often you only get two minutes to influence someone,” she says. “Each line has to be as good as the one before it, so it doesn’t matter where you come in. Even if you come in halfway through, it will touch you.”
Critical favorite Richard Thompson made the cut twice, with Lord updating both “Beeswing” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” “It conjures up feelings of passion and youth that make for a very good song,” she says of the latter. “Coming from a woman’s perspective who doesn’t play guitar that well, the more romantic side of the song comes out, not just the rebelliousness of the biker.”
In nearly a decade of busking, Lord says her debut in London remains her roughest outing. “I had a wicker basket for tips, and tips mostly come in coin form — nobody’s going to give you a five-pound note. This dude came up and he was sniffing a can of something. He had one arm missing and he had a dog with him that had three legs. He sat down next to me, and I didn’t have the guts to tell him to wank off. But I started to make a bunch of money and just as I was about ready to leave, the guy stood up and pissed all over the money. I just kind of shuffled off quickly. Now I know how to spot it before it happens.”