Lindsay Lou had some reservations about the cover of her new album, Southland, her first not to bear the name of her backing band the Flatbellys. That much is understandable, as the photo depicts the singer/songwriter/guitarist perched on a rock in the woods, nude except for a hat and her long hair.
“We woke up at 3 a.m. and snuck into Cummins Falls State Park, just outside of Nashville,” she explains. “There’s this beautiful waterfall that draws people from all over the area, people from different political backgrounds and religious backgrounds, all sharing in this common, unifying experience of submerging into nature, cooling down in the river. Everybody takes their clothes off to swim—not to the degree that I did, but what’s the difference?”
The photo stuck with her—partly because she liked how it conveyed both strength and vulnerability, or perhaps strength through vulnerability. “The thing I love about that image is the light of the sunrise coming over the waterfall and lighting up the mist. I like seeing myself as part of that beauty, as part of something much larger than myself.” But there is still a stigma attached to the nude female body, despite it being 2018 and all. So she called up her grandmother and asked her advice. “She said, if you’re not being radical, it’s a wasted life. Don’t shy away from it, because that’s what the world needs. Love is radical.”
Nancy Timbrook ought to know. Lindsay Lou says, “In 1969, after dropping out of high school to get married, she decided she wanted to be a teacher. She got her GED and went to college, all while raising eight children.” Taking a job at a school in Detroit, she heard her students routinely dropping the f-bomb, but rather than scold them, she turned it into a lesson, even writing FUCK in big letters on the chalkboard. She spent the night in jail; later, she was the subject of a Time magazine article called “Obscenity: The English Lesson.” Grandma Timbrook remains one of Lindsay Lou’s greatest influences, musical or otherwise.
“She’s a radical woman.”
That’s what Lindsay Lou aspires to on Southland: radical in every sense of the term. The album chronicles a period of great change in her life, not just the move from Michigan to Nashville and all the mixed emotions of leaving home, but an even more remarkable change in her music. Building off the bluegrass-stained acoustic pop of 2015’s Ionia, Southland is her boldest album, her most daring, with clever interpolations of pensive folk, spry rock, twangy country, high-flying jazz, old-school R&B, swampy southern soul, even a little bit of punk. Her confident synthesis of so many different styles and sounds may be the most radical aspect of Southland.
Lindsay Lou spoke with the Bluegrass Situation from her front porch in Nashville, where she occasionally jams with her neighbors (which is all the more fun when Billy Strings live across the street). “It’s elevating to be surrounded by so many people you admire and just to be part of what’s happening in the scene. Moving here felt like coming home even though we had never lived her before.”
You’re home again after a long tour of Europe and Australia.
We did a month in the UK, and then we did our first tour of Australia for another month. That was nice. I got to spend my birthday on the northern beaches in Sydney. What I found was that they’re really happy you’re there and really eager to hear you play, and I think the kind of music we play demands a certain degree of listening. We played this outdoor festival in Dorset, in southern England, and we played to this huge crowd of mostly young people. I was really floored by how everyone was engaged and listening to us, even though they were all drinking and partying. Once we started playing, they were all really engaged. And that is encouraging.
Was that the first time you’ve played some of these songs, or did you have a chance to work these songs out before recording the new album?
Even though we just released it, this album will be two years old in November. We made it and then we thought, “Let’s hang on to this and see if we can put together a proper team to release it.” I don’t know if I’ll ever do that again. The way the music industry works now, I think it’s best to release things right after you make them, when they’re fresh and they’re still real to you. So we played these songs for a year onstage before we ever released the record. But now I’ve already got a new batch of songs.
You could pull a Kanye and create the album cover on the way to the release party.
That’s basically how we did Ionia. We recorded it in October 2014 and we had it in hand for a Germany tour by November. It was a crazy feat, but it pays homage to that moment and to the realness of the music you’ve created. That’s the way to do it. But talk to me when we start the next one and maybe I’ll have a different opinion.
Southland seems to map out a period of great change. Does that protracted release schedule change your perspective on these songs?
Totally. My relationship with my songs is always changing. I find myself singing songs that I wrote years ago and feeling like, Man, this was such a truth to me at the time and now it means something completely different. But a record is a record of time. I love that when you listen to a song that you’ve been listening to since you were 10 years old, and all of a sudden you hear the lyrics for the first time. Whatever is happening in your life, your experiences—everything gives those lyrics a new context and a new meaning. I think of a song as a baby. When I write a song, it’s like, Oh, I have a new baby. And then I get to see that baby grow up and take in influence from all of the people who were part of its upbringing. It’s exciting to see a song take for from other people who aren’t me.
The title track on the new album, “Southland,” for example. We made the record in eight days in Maine with Sam Kassirer, but we felt like it needed one more track. I sent a handful of new songs to Sam, and we whittled it down to that one, “Southland.” I went back to Maine by myself and I recorded that song. I played electric bass, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and sang lead and all of the harmonies. That track is just a bunch of me on top of myself, like those early Joni Mitchell recordings where she’s singing all her own harmonies. But I can’t do it live. The band breathed their own life into the song, so it takes a new form.
And the band continues to change, which means the songs continue to evolve.
The band has been evolving since the beginning. What happened was, the Flatbellys was this cool, traditional bluegrass band of young college kids that I met and ended up marrying one of them. Josh [Rilko], who I married, is the only original Flatbelly left in the band. When we made that first record, it made sense to tour as Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, since we thought people already knew who they were. So when we were getting ready to put Southland out, we didn’t feel like that name was reflecting us anymore. We were going through another lineup shift and going out into some new territory. We couldn’t think of a better name, so we just dropped Flatbellys.
It’s not a complete change, and I’m not sure it was the right time to make that change. It might have ended up causing confusion for people, because people were coming up to me asking if I’d hired a new band. Josh got a haircut and PJ doesn’t have his beard anymore, so I guess it looked like I was with a whole new group of people. And we’ve added a drummer to our live performances, which is a huge change. But the music is what it is no matter what you call it.
But the music on Southland sounds very different from anything else you’ve done. Especially with music that might be described as traditional or acoustic, is there a risk in branching out that way? Is there a chance you might alienate a portion of your audience?
I think there definitely is. But as an artist you have to do what feels like your own truth. If it doesn’t feel like honesty, if it doesn’t feel like the art that you want to create for yourself, then it’s not going to have the elements of truth that art has to have. If you’re making it only to keep certain people in your audience, then it’s going to have a certain sense of falsity to it. But I’ve been on the other side that. I listened to a lot of punk rock when I was a kid, and I always hated when a band would start to sound more polished. It’s like they’re selling out because I love what they were and I don’t love what they’re becoming. But I’ve discovered as an artist, I have to put that aside. I have to do what feels right to me.
I was just talking to Andy Falco from the Infamous Stringdusters, and he was going on about how all of us are just trying to create art that we’re proud of. That’s what we’re all working toward. I find myself listening to a lot of my peers, like the Wood Brothers and Greensky Bluegrass and Billy Strings and the Stray Birds. When I listen to their music, I feel like I’m listening to right now. I’m listening to the world through their eyes. And that’s what I’m trying to do—create something that sounds like the world I’m living in.
I don’t think you could find a more compelling or complex subject than that, especially at this particular moment in history.
I don’t want to shy away from the ugliness. It’s a part of the truth, we’re all experiencing it, so there’s desperation and there is sadness and loss and it’s all in there right alongside the beauty and the positivity. I think on this record more than any other record I’ve embraced that sadness and instead of running away from it. In my youth I wanted to sugarcoat everything. I wanted to put a positive spin on everything. It felt like that was how you make it through a tough time: You just have to be super positive about it. But as I’ve come into myself as an adult, I’ve found that you can’t run away from it.
That reminds me of the line in “Go There Alone,” the one that goes, “All we are is blind, but if we can hear the music, we’ll be alright.”
That was a cool songwriting experience writing that song. It carries a lot of weight for me as an artist. I wrote half of it, and when I got together with the guys for a musical retreat—which we do periodically—I played them as much of that song as I had. I told them that when I stop, just say the first things that come to your mind. They did that, giving me some good words and phrases to play with. When everybody else went to bed, I stayed up all night putting it all together. That was where that line came from. And I believe that’s true. Music is a way of moving forward, but also a ways of creating beauty in the face of all the roadblocks we run into. It illuminates our blind spots. Creating beauty is a radical exercise.
Don’t miss Lindsay Lou on the Bluegrass Situation Stage at Bourbon & Beyond, held Sept. 22-23 in Louisville, Kentucky.
Photo credit: Scott Simontacchi