Lera Lynn explores singular vision with new album, ‘On My Own’

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Photo by Alysee Gafkjen

In the midst of a pandemic that brought an abrupt and unexpected end to touring and, consequently, a primary source of revenue for most artists, Lera Lynn experienced both sorrow and joy. Like so many, she has dealt with the ramifications on her career and livelihood, and of course, the isolation brought on by COVID. At the same time, she wrote, recorded, and produced an album, aptly titled On My Own, and gave birth to her first child. If there is a silver lining to the stay-at-home orders, it’s that she has been able to spend unlimited time at home with her newborn son.

Lynn is no stranger to bests and worsts, and as such, she is able to navigate with experience, prescience, and an intuitive sense of self. But it didn’t come without years of work. Born in Houston and raised in Georgia, she grew up an only child in a home filled with traditional country music and classic rock. By the time she enrolled at the University of Georgia, in Athens, she was a prolific singer, songwriter, and guitarist, booking gigs while completing a degree in anthropology. Post-college she moved to Nashville, and in 2011 released Have You Met Lera Lynn to rave reviews. From there followed a tour with k.d. lang, collaborations with producer T Bone Burnett and Rosanne Cash, a recurring role as a bar singer on the second season of HBO’s True Detective, and a half-dozen releases, including 2018’s duets album, Plays Well With Others.

When it came time to create On My Own, Lynn thought she would record an album as she always had—with a producer. As the songs began taking shape, she recorded her ideas and raw, personal lyrics alone at home, using an M-Box, Pro Tools, and an SM7 to track her vocals and guitars on top of drum loops and bass lines. In doing so, she discovered a sense of freedom in working alone, and what might have been demos steadily evolved into the sessions that became her new album.

On My Own cover – Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

With On My Own out in the world and your vulnerability exposed, how do you feel about what you’ve released, and how does it feel to finally have it out there?

It’s interesting that you use the word vulnerability. I guess there’s a part of me that is maybe trying to ignore that. This was a pretty vulnerable thing to do. I’m feeling good. My mind is so focused on doing things that I’m starting to plan time to work on the next record and I’m already shifting forward. But it feels good to have done it. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to finish this record because I was working alone and didn’t know if I could make it happen.

To have done it and put it out there, I do feel a good bit of satisfaction. It’s inevitable, whenever you create art, that you try to consume it through someone else’s perspective, so I’m trying not to dwell too much on listening through other people’s ears and mindset, which I’ve done a lot of in the past.

Did you miss the camaraderie and input of other musicians?

Oh yeah. A big part of the attraction of working alone was to eliminate any other voice saying, “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” “Don’t sing that way,” “That lyric is not right,” and what have you. But once I did remove those voices from the scenario, it was kind of terrifying because you have no idea, as you’re traveling down the path, whether you’re headed in a good direction or not. You’re just going on what feels good and hoping it makes sense to other people.

That, and you can edit your own work forever instead of letting it go.

Absolutely. I had to set a hard deadline for myself and stick to it. Otherwise, you can endlessly tweak and perfect, and while I wasn’t interested in making a record that sounded perfect, now I listen back to it and I’m like, “That could have been better.” It’s not so much about getting the right note as it is about emoting the way I intended to, expressing myself the way I intended to.

Looking back, I think a track or a song or a vocal could have been a little more compelling if I had spent more time here or there, but there is something that is lost the more you work at making it perfect. There’s a sweet spot when a song is new and you’re still learning it while you’re tracking it, and I think that spontaneity comes through when you’re recording. The more you perfect it, the more life it loses. At least, that’s what I tell myself!

This album was almost a year in the making, including the writing. What was going on in your world during that time? You talk about finding yourself, coming to terms with yourself, and writing about it. Was that mental and emotional process ongoing while you recorded the songs?

The entire year was spent processing a lot of those things, and working on the record alone was a vehicle for that process. I think you can hear it from song to song, me looking for the right channels for expression. I don’t know if that’s something that comes across to the audience, but I can hear it.

If I liked the way something sounded, I recorded it and started building on top of that.

You worked in reverse: drum loops, synth, bass, guitar, melodies, lyrics. Can you tell us more about that process? Did you go in with ideas, riffs, verses, choruses, words, anything?

For the most part, I did not go into the studio with any plans. I wrote “A Light Comes Through” before I started the record, and there was another song that I wrote one morning with an acoustic guitar and then went in and tracked, but otherwise, I would go in, start messing around with a keyboard or a drum loop sound, and just follow the muse. If I liked the way something sounded, I recorded it and started building on top of that. Sometimes I would have a basic track, write some lyrics, and then completely erase what I had done and start over because I was going to change the form of it. The process of creating really dictated the direction that the songs went, for sure.

You work in visual arts, painting, and your videos are artistic and complex. Do you “see” your music while you compose? If so, does that influence the lyrics?

It does. I think a lot of songwriters visualize a movie when they’re writing. That helps me tell a story that I hope is easily understandable, or at least relatable, for other people. So yes, I absolutely do. With this record in particular, because I didn’t have a collaborator, and because I would get stuck a lot, doubting my decisions and my direction, I would often take breaks and paint to please my palette and gain a little perspective on what I was doing. I found it was really helpful. When I did go back to recording, it became clearer to me that “This is working and this is not working, and I need to do this next.”

Which guitars and amps did you use on this album?

I used several guitars, as one does when they love guitars! I had my trusty mid-’60s Guild Starfire that I used a good bit. I also used a 1957 Gibson 225 a lot. That is my partner’s guitar, but he never plays it, and I’m trying my best to commandeer it. It’s a really special instrument. I have a Fender Jaguar that I tour with regularly that’s all over the record, as well as an Elite Series Tele that was made probably five years ago, and I have a cool mid-’60s Silvertone Speed Demon on the record.

As far as acoustics, I used a Gibson J-50 quite a lot that was made in 1962, and I used a couple of acoustics that were revamped by Scott Baxendale, a luthier in Athens, Georgia. He does interesting work. He takes vintage guitars that were stock guitars from J.C. Penney or Sears, old Silvertone, Harmony, or Kay guitars, redoes the bracing, and resets the necks. They’re very special instruments because they’ve had all that time to dry out and become reverberant, the wood has aged, and they’re really tough. I have a 1957 Kay Jumbo that he did for me that’s on the record that I’ve toured all over the world with, and just in a regular guitar case on a plane, it’s always in tune when I take it out. I love that thing.

I have endorsements with Fender and Guild. I lean on my Jaguar a lot because it’s a versatile guitar. It has so many different pickup positions that you can use, and you can blend pickups, so when we’re traveling light, I choose the Jaguar. But that said, I always have to have my Guild Starfire because that guitar has so much character and depth. There are certain songs that no other guitar works for. It’s my first Guild and my first electric guitar. I got it probably fifteen years ago. I often use the Starfire when I am playing in open D-minor tuning, which is the tuning for a lot of the music from True Detective. That’s my favorite guitar of all time. But sometimes you need that Tele sound, something a little thinner and brighter. It’s difficult for me to narrow down guitars when we go on tour, but sometimes you have to travel light. I think my top two would be the Jaguar and the Starfire.

When it comes to an acoustic guitar, I often pick the Jumbo, which I’ve had for about eight years. It’s a road dog and it sounds great. I can put medium strings on it and really dig in. It gives me a lot of dynamics live, especially in a duo situation, when I need to use a single instrument to achieve a lot of different sounds.

Fender has given me multiple amps, and they’re great too. They’re awesome for the road. You always know what to expect. Even if we can’t travel with our own Fender amps, we backline Fenders because we know they’re going to be solid. When I was recording, I used a 1966 Blackface Princeton, which is a special amp that we don’t tour with if we’re flying, because it’s too dangerous for it getting lost or damaged. I also tour with an amp made by Tyler Amp Works out of Brooklyn, which is essentially a Princeton model. It’s an amazing amp. What I love about that amp is you can use Input 2 for acoustic guitar. There’s a great mid knob on the back that you can tweak and get a really good acoustic sound with.

Do you miss the road?

I do miss it. This year has been bittersweet because I have a baby and I can’t tour because of COVID, so it’s odd how that all worked out. Obviously, it’s a really scary time financially, not being able to tour, but I’m happy to have the time at home with my newborn. I would have been at home at least for the first couple of months, but we had planned to be on the road late in the year.

Obviously, there has been a lot of change happening this year. A lot of it has been painful and a lot of it has been necessary.

How did you become involved with [Nashville nonprofit advocacy group] The Equity Alliance?

I was invited to contribute to a show that Devon Gilfillian was organizing for The Equity Alliance. He’s a Nashville artist and I have a lot of respect for him. He’s really talented and very hardworking, and when he invited me to be a part of the benefit, I was, of course, eager to do so. Obviously, there has been a lot of change happening this year. A lot of it has been painful and a lot of it has been necessary. We have been forced to truly look in the mirror and examine how we’ve been living, things we’ve been complacent about, and things we’ve been allowing and ignoring and sweeping under the rug for so long.

When you align yourself with a cause, any cause, we know what happens, especially courtesy of social media. What is the artist’s role? Some people believe artists and public figures should just focus on their craft. Others believe there’s a responsibility to use your platform. Still others believe that everyone has the right to voice an opinion, period, regardless of who they are and what they do.

I’m with the last group. Of course, artists are also humans, and they have a right just like anyone else to express their opinions. I tend to avoid talking directly about politics because it’s really complicated. I have friends and family who vote differently than I do, and they have their reasons. Although it might be difficult for me to understand, I respect them and respect everyone’s right to make those decisions and have them be different from mine. However, for me, there’s a line when it comes to human rights. There’s a very clear right and wrong, and I do not hesitate to speak up. It seems so clear to me that everyone should be treated equally, no matter who you vote for.

How has motherhood affected your sense of responsibility regarding the world your son has entered?

Before, I didn’t listen to the news and watch world events and think, What’s it going to be like forty years from now? Now I am very concerned about, Is it going to be a safe place for anyone, and will it even be here? When I reflect on my role in life as a mother and as a musician, there’s the fear of will music be enough for me to provide for him, all the normal fears.

Is all of this affecting your songwriting as you begin work on the next album?

How could it not be? This has been the most profound year of my life, and I have a feeling that goes for a lot of people. Things that I could never have predicted — having my first child, buying my first house, releasing a record — there have been a lot of ups and downs. This isolation from the pandemic has certainly had an effect on me. Isolation is a lot easier when it’s self-imposed. It’s easier to navigate because you can always break it and go see people.

Photo by Alysee Gafkjen

You’ve stated in previous interviews that you hope this album will serve as inspiration for women to record, produce, and engineer their own work. The experiences that got you to this place are filled with lessons. Could you share some of the wisdom you’ve gained?

It starts with learning to trust your instincts. I have doubted and mistrusted my choices my entire life, but I ultimately would always follow my gut. That’s what led me here. That’s what led me to this place where I’m an independent artist, and I’m able to release records, tour the world, make a modest living, and survive.

Becoming a mother has forced me to trust my instincts and intuition when it comes to keeping someone else alive. It’s interesting how that takes over. It has taken me 30-some-odd years to trust my instincts fully. There are so many people along the way who will try to tear you down and make you doubt yourself and tell you that you don’t stand a chance, but ultimately we always know deep down what we have the most passion for, what we’re best at, what we’re capable of, our own potential, and we have to trust it, follow it, ignore the people trying to tell you differently, and just push on.

I remember feeling ageism in my 20s. Marketing is brainwashing all of us, and even though I know better, it’s still there. “Should I wear makeup or not wear makeup? Do I have to put it on? I should put it on. Do I have to wear heels? They’re so uncomfortable.” It’s such a pain in the ass, that constant back and forth, and I admire that a lot of young women are rebelling against those norms.

The things that are happening in the world really make everything else seem ridiculous — even the thought of putting out a record and talking about a record right now falls in that category. I often have to remind myself that music does serve people in a big emotional way and people do need music. It’s easy to lose perspective of that when you’re making it, and you’re concerned about how it’s being received, your streaming numbers, etcetera. But the bigger point of it all is to connect. The only reason for me to do music is to connect with myself and the people listening, and give them a line to the ether, because that’s what music is for me.

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