Lord Knows

Mary Lou Lord is smarter than the average busker.

Mary Lou Lord has a lot of heroes, including Elliott Smith and Shawn Colvin. But the act whose career she would most like to emulate is more unlikely: the Kelly Family.

Anyone who has seen the Kellys, a prefab combo of willowy siblings who make the Hanson brothers seem like Black Sabbath by comparison, has likely wondered: Is this group for real? But Lord has actually seen them in the flesh. She encountered the brood when she was a struggling folk singer hoping to shake a few coins from folks relaxing on the Boston Common.

"It was about ten years ago, and I nearly got into this huge fight with them about who was going to play there," she recalls. "They were little kids then, and it was the most insane thing I've ever seen--this big Irish family coming out for tip season. And I was like, 'I don't want to fight with a five-year-old kid.' So I told them they could play there, and I watched them for about an hour--and after it was over, I gave them a couple of bucks. But then, about four months ago, I saw their infomercial--you know, the one that guy who used to be on MTV [Alan Hunter] does? And I found out that they'd sold a ridiculous amount of records--35 million, I think. It was weird."

The size of these sales figures didn't suddenly convince Lord, 33, that the Kellys' music is good: "It's horrible," she says. But like Lord, who has been a regular fixture in Boston's subways for years, the Family built its first audience by busking. And she firmly believes that this background contributed to the collective's success. "Their playing in the street to everyone in the world had to have something to do with it," she says. She adds, with something approaching earnestness, "So they're my role models now."

Lord is probably joking, but there's no denying that she's more savvy about the business part of the music business than are most of her peers. She recognizes that her subway past can be used to her advantage: "If we can market it right through the media, people will go, 'Oh, my God, that must be that girl I saw' and make the connection that way." And although she admits to being mildly annoyed that she's still best known in some quarters as a former consort of late Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain, she understands that the long-ago relationship makes good copy. "If someone's writing something, they want it to be eye-catching," she acknowledges. "Plus, a writer needs an angle, and a lot of times an editor will say, 'Get that one,' because it'll get the most notice. But when you listen to the record, you realize that there's a lot more going on than just that."

Got No Shadow, the album to which Lord is referring, proves her point. The disc, her first for Work, a Sony-affiliated imprint, is a gently melodic collection of charming hum-alongs that bridge the gap between Sara McLachlan-style emoting and the more musically intriguing world of alterna-pop. Lord is a traditionalist with a becomingly modern sensibility, as her choice of guest stars emphasizes: Both Byrds founder Roger McGuinn, who adds his twelve-string mastery to "Lights Are Changing," and Good Will Hunting soundtracker Elliott Smith, a contributor to "Shake Sugaree," sound perfectly at ease in this setting. Because Shadow's production, by industry heavyweights Tom Rothrock and Rob Schnapf, is so subtle, those addicted to instant gratification may be underwhelmed by the platter. But given enough time, Lord's beguiling vocals, which manage to be simultaneously airy and substantive, and gorgeous ditties such as "She Had You" should eventually break down the defenses of listeners on either side of the modern-rock fence.

In other words, Lord's latest is a crossover waiting to happen--and if it does, she says that she'll feel considerable satisfaction. "I think people expected this record to be absolutely ridiculous," she says. "But then they listen to it and they realize, 'This isn't a bunch of bollocks.' And that makes me feel good."

So, too, do the songs of Karen Carpenter and Olivia Newton-John, which Lord fell for while growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. Before long, music was her everything, and she wanted to be involved in it any way she could. She majored in voice at the Berklee College of Music, then moved to London to become a studio engineer. But being behind the scenes wasn't for her. In the beginning she knew how to play only one song on guitar--John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery"--but that didn't prevent her from playing it endlessly for unsuspecting pedestrians. "At least it set me apart," she says. "Everyone else was playing 'Streets of London.' That's the 'American Pie' of England."

Don McLean's "American Pie," in Lord's estimation, is the all-time busking cliche, followed closely by Paul Simon's "The Boxer." But even though riding these warhorses might have netted Lord more contributions, she refused to do so. Instead, in London and back in the States, she concentrated on learning tunes by worthy songwriters who weren't receiving the attention they deserved. For example, she was an early and enthusiastic advocate of tunes penned by Colvin, whose wins at the recent Grammy awards left Lord feeling as thrilled as if she'd taken home the baubles herself. "I watched the whole thing on TV and just cried," she says. "It was just so amazing, because I've seen the span of her entire career, from when she didn't even have a record deal to now. It was great."

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