Thanks to the new media landscape and prevalence of streaming services like Spotify, the genre of Americana is finally starting to get its due. Prominent artists such as Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krause, and Maria McKee have been bringing us this music for years, but only in recent times has the idea of Americana made its way into common knowledge.
Heather Anne Lomax is a bold and daring voice in today’s Americana scene. She is creating music that brings the raw roots of country, blues, and gospel into a modern language that is firmly grounded in time-honored tradition. When listening to Heather’s songs, one seems to understand that her music is coming from a legitimate place of experience.
Heather recently released the single and video “Better Luck Next Time” in anticipation of her LP All This Time, which will debut on May 1. I had a chance to speak with Heather about her background, style, and influences, and it proved to be a fascinating conversation.
You are originally from Kansas City, and now you live in Los Angeles.
I’d like to touch on some of the basics of your musical background: how and when did you start singing? Were you involved in the music scene in Kansas City first, or did that part of your life start after coming out West?
Good question. When did I start singing? Well, I mean, I’ve been singing since the age of 5. I did sing a bit in Kansas City. I was really more involved in the theater scene out there, more so than the music scene. I started to play out a little bit in Kansas City right before I moved to Los Angeles.
And then I moved to LA in 2000. I did a folk-rock thing, and then I noticed that everybody was doing that. I learned to play guitar from my college roommate and from a friend from the Ozarks in Missouri, and so I really loved these old songs from the Ozarks.
I decided to do more country, country-bluegrass, and that genre is really what I have been doing for the majority of my time in Los Angeles.
Now, you hit on something interesting there that I wasn’t expecting, so I’d like to backtrack just a bit. You said you were involved in the theater. Were you in musical theater? What roles?
I did a lot of children’s theater. Yes, I did some musical theater for sure. I did something called “Woody Guthrie’s American Songs.” Actually, I understudied for that, and it was a live stage performance of the life of Woody Guthrie, and that was really cool. I taught children’s theater for my bread and butter.
It was a really great experience, learning a lot of these old country tunes …
Well, that’s interesting that you did the show about Woody Guthrie, and that style ties directly into your style of music, bringing it back to where you said you were in LA, getting involved in folk-rock and then country and bluegrass. Do you think that your involvement in that show helped shape that journey?
Actually, it had a very small piece, but the reality is really more my experience with my friend who is from the Ozarks and her family. I would go down to her home in Versailles — they called it “Ver-sails.” Most of her family played an instrument and sang, and Saturdays, they would have their family come over and they’d set up the stage and have a generator and just take turns singing songs.
It was a really great experience, learning a lot of these old country tunes that I had never heard before, but that were really heartfelt and genuine and authentic and beautiful. So, that’s what really struck me; the pureness of that sound and the pureness of those songs really touched me. And so that was really the basis of my music from then on.
I had a group, a three-piece called the Ozark Mountain Thrush. That’s where that group started and was the catalyst for the rest of everything that I did.
It sounds like you got that music straight from the source, going straight to the culture, rather than just deriving it from an album that you heard.
Yeah, definitely. Absolutely.
I read in your press materials that you had previously recorded under a different name. Would you want to tell me a little about that story, and why you changed your name? Did this new change in your life have an effect on your approach to your music?
Yeah, my name was Michael-Ann, and I always say there’s a part of me that’s always Michael-Ann because I grew up with that. But three years ago, after a long journey of searching, I found my birth family. I found out who my uncle was, my cousins, my dad, my sisters. My mom is passed, so I couldn’t meet her, sadly.
I had taken a long journey and felt like it was the right thing to do after finding out so much about my family. I just felt a kindredness to my mom and to my dad’s side of the family. My mom was an artist. She played the piano and sang and danced and came out here and was supposedly on a Bob Hope Christmas show.
And then my dad’s side of the family, my grandpa, Stan Lomax, was a sports broadcaster. My grandmother, Betty Colker, was a dancer and a singer on Broadway. I always felt a little a bit different in my family, but it just really felt right. I didn’t feel like Michael-Ann anymore, and I just felt like this was a new incarnation.
It really did have a profound effect on my life. I mean, it really changed so much. I got to meet my father and sister, my cousins, and my uncle, who all were extremely gracious and welcoming. And I felt like this is really an affirmation of myself, and I’d always felt awkward being an artist in the family I grew up in. I just felt that it was the right thing to do if that makes sense.
So you had the music and the theater in the family.
Right. And what’s odd, I majored in broadcasting and theater in college, so radio, TV, and film. And it just turns out that my grandfather was a broadcaster, a sports broadcaster.
Well, that’s very special.
I like the chorus; it says, “What do you want from me, Lord; what do you want from me this time?” Can you tell me what inspired that, and does that plea reflect a particular moment in life?
Well, I get a bit leery to infuse my interpretation, because I feel like, sometimes, I want the audience to interpret the song for themselves. And if it speaks to them in that certain context of how they’re reading the song, then that’s great.
And a lot of times, it’s not a direct interpretation of something that has gone on in my life, and it’s more the sound of things or the verbiage that fit right in that situation. But all of that to say, “what do you want from me,” basically is dealing with a relationship that is up, down, all around. So, one day I’m up, the next day I’m down.
It’s sort of an exhaustive place that I was coming from, of what do you want from me this time? Okay, now you want this. It might change tomorrow. You might disappear tomorrow. That just kind of seemed to be the right chorus at the right time. Just people that can drain you, essentially.
It pairs well with the title All This Time because that’s something we end up asking throughout our lives, anyway.
Yeah. And All This Time, actually, the guitar player on my record, Zachary Ross, he said, “Why don’t you call the record All This Time?” Because it’s been all this time, as well, that I found who I truly am, found my birth family, and let me state that I still love my adopted family, and I still consider them my family. So, you know, I want to assert that, as well. But it just made sense that it’s all this time; things coming into fruition, in that sense.
I wanted to ask you about another song. Your song “Better Luck” was recently released on February 7th. Just from a personal perspective, that’s my birthday.
Oh, it is?
You’re an Aquarian.
Yes, that’s right! The lyrics to this song, just from a personal standpoint, mean a lot to me. “Pick yourself up, it’s your time to shine.”
I’m getting to a certain age where I’m trying to make things happen a little more and take it all in. So, you writing that song, myself having this past birthday, we had a bit of synchronicity.
… just another phoenix coming out of the ashes and rising.
Are you looking at this as a new period for yourself as an artist?
Yeah, I definitely do. This is sort of the phoenix from the fire, and I feel like I’ve had several of these experiences. But this one has definitely been just another phoenix coming out of the ashes and rising.
That song is about naysayers and people who tell you that you can’t be who you are or do what you do. So it’s meant to be a song of empowerment, and just the whole thing about better luck next time. Sometimes we just make bad decisions, or we — I wouldn’t even say bad decisions, because I feel like everything is for a reason, in my book, anyway.
Suffice to say, there are things that can drag us down. I think sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. So, you know, I really wanted that to be a song of rising and empowerment, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve had people in my life say oh, well, you’re not going to be this. Whatever daunting ball-and-chain you want to put on.
But it’s also the whole aspect of believing that you can do what you really want to do in your life and that you can achieve those things despite anybody’s opinion or any negativity that you may harbor. I think, in all, we are our own worst enemies, really. I think that’s really true.
We all deal with naysayers, but sometimes the worst naysayer is ourselves.
Right, and I think based on however you were brought up — I had a bit of a verbally abusive home where I grew up, my adoptive home. And, you know, was told, “You’re not gonna be anything, you’re no good,” this and that.
And so I think that you can really hang onto those words. A lot of times, that’s what is familiar, and that’s what you hold on to. And I think, to me, what’s really been a strong theme in my life this year, is really, yes, you can point a finger at other people, but the reality is working on yourself and seeing whatever patterns that you have changed or that you have created in your life; that you are really the ultimate artist of your life. You’re the ultimate person that has the say of what’s going to take place in your life and what you allow in your life.
A good message to be putting out, for sure.
Yeah. With that song, anyway.
Any statement you make in any song kind of informs everything you’re doing.
Yeah, for sure.
It sounds like you have an overall philosophy for what you’re doing with your music.
Yeah. I mean, there are songs like “Comfort Me,” which is about the passing of my mom, and “Six Foot Under,” which is about a narcissistic relationship, that are very pointed and leave clear-cut scenes. But, other songs, you could come up with your own interpretation.
I had kind of specific question — and again, this comes from a personal curiosity — regarding your influences. I read in your bio that Emmylou Harris is an influence.
Right. I love her.
Whenever somebody’s an Emmylou fan, I always wanna ask about their experience with the Wrecking Ball album. Do you like that album, or was that an influence on you?
I did. It was a shock because I was listening to Emmylou when she was on cassette tapes back in the day — I’m dating myself, I’m sure.
I’m there with you, no worries.
Yeah, but I loved her early stuff from the ’70s. The odd thing is, I didn’t really know much about her work with Gram Parsons until later, till I got to California, which is strange. But I love her, you know, “Rose of Cimarron” and just all of her early stuff. And then once she did Wrecking Ball, it was a bit of a shock.
But then I just hooked into it, and I went, okay, I get it. This is just a different configuration, and artists should be allowed to do that. We should be allowed, because we evolve as people, hopefully. And I just think, hopefully, people can still hold onto the fact that they enjoy the artist and how they interpret things, and not just “I want this to be strictly bluegrass.” But it was a shock at first, but I really admire Daniel Lanois, and I thought it was brilliant. And then I couldn’t stop listening to it. I wore it out.
I listen to it all the time, and I’m a huge Daniel Lanois fan, as well. The first song was written by him, “Where Will I Be.” It’s one of my favorite songs in my life. I see a lot of that almost spiritual reflection in your songs. Do you think in that way?
Absolutely. I mean, I was involved in the church for quite a while, and so that had a big influence, and I guess it still does, to some degree, in my writing. Yeah, but Emmylou, Maria McKee — I just love her — and I call them soul singers because they just sing from the soul.
And it is so apparent to me, and just so profound and touching. I feel like it’s really a blessing to get to hear people like Maria McKee or Emmylou Harris, that just feel like they come from the depths of their soul, from their toes, and bring their soul out for everybody to enjoy. Or weep to, in my case. I sure feel like I could sit in a corner and cry to them.
Sometimes the catharsis needs to manifest in one way or the other.
Right, right, right.
I definitely see that depth of spiritual reflection and need for catharsis in your music, as well. I can definitely see their influence.
Well, I’m a Life Path 7, so spirituality is a huge part of my purpose here, I feel like. You should have some of that, being a Feb. 7 birthday.
What was the classification again?
Life Path 7, my numerology. I’m a Life Path 7. Because you were born on the 7th, that will also play a part in your — I don’t know what you believe. The short answer is yeah. Yes, spirituality, definitely.
I have a Gibson J-200.
Excellent. Let’s talk gear. First of all, when you play live, do you play with a band, or do you do solo shows? Probably a little of both?
A little of both. Mostly right now, with this record, it’s been a band. The last record, I think it was fine to do more acoustic stuff, but this, I just like it a bit more electric. I like the sound a little bit more electric. Gear-wise, I have a Gibson J-200.
When does the full album, All This Time, drop, and how will you be supporting it? I know there’s been some trouble with concerts and tours lately, but what’s the rest of 2020 look like that you know of?
So the story is April 26 at The Three Clubs in Los Angeles, I’m supposed to have my record release party. And then May 1 is when it is officially out in the world. And then, yes, I am doing a tour. I’m supposed to do a tour; we’ll see. It was supposed to be northern California, Oregon, Washington, June 3 through 17. Then we’ll see beyond that, hopefully, more. I guess pending on what is going on with the coronavirus, but that’s the plan, away.
Yeah, I hope it goes well for you. I hope the picture is clear by the time we get to June.
I know, right?
What can we expect from Heather Anne Lomax beyond 2020? What do you think is going to be coming from you for the next several years, as an artist?
This record is really about catharsis, and I’m hoping that people who are going through struggles, that are needing to be empowered, needing to find a vessel, if you will, or a vehicle, for transmuting their struggles via song, I hope to do that with this record.
And I hope this record is encouraging and empowering for people. I think that’s the beauty of music, a lot of times, is that it has the capacity to uplift and transform, and to really kind of be a mirror to what’s going on in our psyche and our subconscious that we might not otherwise recognize.
I’m hoping the next record that I write is going to be a little bit more joyful. I’d love to do some cowriting. I’m open, you know, I’m really open to whatever. It’s hard for me to say, because it’s really what inspires me at the moment, and I’m not sure what’s gonna inspire me a year from now.
My grandfather’s cousin was Alan Lomax, who was the ethnomusicologist who recorded Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly. I started listening to a lot of things that Alan recorded, and he just has a treasure of music from all over the world.
I was listening to Cajun music recently, and Zydeco, and, like, wow, this is great. I was kind of inspired to write something like that. So it really kind of depends on what is inspiring me at the moment.
The sonics of this record were really inspired by Elvis Presley’s The Sun Sessions and American Sound Studios, and From Elvis in Memphis. I love Elvis Presley. He took from gospel, from country, from rockabilly, and just created his own beautiful art piece.
He had an amazing voice — amazing. So I really just studied quite a bit about him and took a lot from those two records, those two time periods, specifically. There’s that song, “Mr. Popular,” and that was inspired from the From Elvis in Memphis record.
All This Time” is kind of more along The Sun Sessions. We recorded this record live. I was in a booth with my guitar and vocals; Zachary Ross was doing electric; David Goodstein played the drums, and Jason Hiller played the bass. And so that was it. It was just the four of us, initially, because we wanted to capture that live sound. We mixed it to analog, and then we just added pieces from there.
There are some songs, like “Mr. Popular,” we added Ronee Martin with backing vocals. But that really was the only overdub, I think, on that.
That’s very impressive because it’s very tight. I wouldn’t have known that it was all a live performance. Again, the title just comes in and informs everything. All This Time, it’s all done live.
Right, right, it’s all done live. And, you know, to me, this record is sort of a mosaic of different sounds. “Heart Don’t Lie” is more of a country ballad. The first song is more rockabilly. “Mr. Popular” is blues. And that’s what I love, too, in From Elvis in Memphis, is that there was just a smattering of different genres all over that record. Chips Moman spearheaded that, and that won several awards.
It just showed his range, and showed his range as an artist, too. Like I was talking about earlier, people like to pinpoint you as, oh, well, this is just a country singer. This is just a bluegrass singer, or a rock and roll singer.
But there are those of us, hopefully, I’m one of them, that really like different styles of music and want to represent that, as well, want to experiment with that, or write music that’s kindred to that.
The variety of tastes that you have, I think, all find a unity in the album here, as you’ve expressed it, so I think you’re accomplishing that.
You did a wonderful job.
Thank you. You know who’s a master of that, Maria McKee did that, Patty Griffin does that quite a bit. You know, she’ll have blues and a country song, and then folk-rock. But the lovely thing about the umbrella of Americana music is that it can include all of those things and still be considered Americana.
Photos provided by management