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."
As time went on, Lord took heat for the number of covers she performed; critics assumed that she did so to disguise her own deficiencies as a songwriter. That's changing to some degree: She penned four of the thirteen songs on Shadow on her own and co-wrote three others with Nick Saloman of the cult band Bevis Frond. But she bristles at the suggestion that she's a lesser artist because she enjoys interpreting the creations of others: "I was reading this interview with Joni Mitchell, and she was saying how she loved the old Motown songs and the Brill Building stuff, and how back in the day, A&R people went around finding songwriters and matching them up with performers. And then she said, 'Then me and Bob Dylan came along, and I guess we really fucked up a lot of stuff for a lot of people.'" Through a laugh, she says, "And it's like, 'Yeah, Joni, I guess you did.' Because after that, everybody had to be a songwriter if they were a singer, and a lot of people's egos got involved. It was like, 'The song is good because I wrote it. That's why it's good.' But that wasn't necessarily so.
"The way I look at it is, the early Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and even someone like Hank Williams didn't write all their own songs at first. They played songs that they loved, songs that they respected, and that's how they learned. I think in order to be a great songwriter, you've got to be a great fan, and a lot of people fail to recognize that. So I've tried to play songs that I love that wouldn't get heard otherwise, and I feel proud of that. There will come a time--and I know this--when it will just be my songs, but when it does, I'll be able to go into it with a clear conscience, knowing that I respected the songs that kept me alive and made me do it in the first place."
In the early Nineties, Lord started getting noticed by talent scouts--and her liaison with Cobain raised her profile another notch. But the key to her transformation from street performer to major-label prize was BMG publishing executive Margaret Mittleman, who took an interest in Lord in 1993, around the same time that another of her discoveries, Beck, was bursting onto the scene. "She was very highly regarded," Lord says. "And because of her good luck with Beck, everyone wanted whatever else she had. And I just happened to be the next person."
His Indie World, a Lord EP on the Kill Rock Stars imprint, and a series of showcases for decision-makers like Irving Azoff made the singer a hot property. The bidding war that resulted dragged on and on because Lord refused to settle on a suitor. "I just wasn't ready," she insists. "It wasn't like I was holding off for a better deal. I was just being careful--and luckily, I had BMG with me. I took them by the hand and said, 'You know what? I don't want to get screwed over, and I know you don't, so will you protect me?' And they did. I was ready to sign a couple times, and they said, 'No, you don't want to do that, and here's why.' So it wasn't just little Mary Lou from the subway walking in there. And that made all the difference."
In the end, Lord signed with Work because of its size--seemingly huge but actually quite small. "I talked to them when they were just starting, and they didn't have a staff yet. They didn't even have an office. So I figured there wouldn't be any turnover--that I wouldn't lose anyone who was really behind me, because there was no one there to lose."
Since then, Work has become an industry force thanks to its success at breaking Fiona Apple. When, shortly thereafter, the company made it known that it considered Got No Shadow a priority, the pressure on Lord increased exponentially. In her mind, she's dealing with it as well as can be expected, but she confesses that her nerves sometimes get the best of her. "It's fun for me to play on stage because I've got a band, and if I fall back, they kind of catch me," she says. "But it is a little bit frightening when everything is riding on you, and when you know that you owe the audience a little bit more because they've already paid. On the subway or on the street, people don't expect anything; they don't know me, and they don't know that I've got a deal. But now that I'm the headliner, I feel like, 'Oh, my God, what happens if I just suddenly faint in the middle of all this? What happens if I have a big old anxiety attack up here and run off the stage?' In the subway or on the street, it's my own free will; if I want to leave, I'll just leave. But with concerts, there's definitely more of a commitment there. This probably will sound terrible, but I look at it a little bit more like a job. It's like, I took this on, I asked for this, so now I've got to come through and be responsible."
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Even so, Lord hasn't closed the book on busking. She performed an impromptu set in the Boston subway in early March, and rather than lining up a club date during Austin's South By Southwest Music Conference a couple of weeks later, she staked out a spot in front of a Kinko's copy center and did her thing there. "I like to do that as much as I can, especially when things get crazy," she says. "It makes me grounded. I can be playing, and a 45-year-old nun might come up to me and say, 'You know what? That made my day.' And that's what it's all about to me."
Well, almost. Lord likes the sight of her guitar case filled with quarters, but she's not averse to making profits on a larger scale. And according to her, she knows just how to do it: "I'll go on tour with the Kelly Family."
Mary Lou Lord, with Slim Dunlap. 8 p.m. Monday, April 6, Bluebird Theater, 3317 East Colfax, $6, 830-