[Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late Records; Sep. 25]
In early September, the day before Lydia Loveless’s 30th birthday and a few weeks before the release of her sixth album, Daughter, the punk-country musician appears on a Zoom screen from her home in Morrisville. When asked whether she identifies as a Virgo, she’s emphatic: “Hell yes.”
Virgos are not known to be particularly generous with themselves, and Loveless immediately rattles off a deadpan list of Virgo traits she identifies with, including being hyper-critical, perennially unhappy, and a control freak.
“Hopefully I also have some of the good stuff,” she adds with a laugh. “But, you know. We’re famously not emotional.”
Restraint may be the stereotype provided by the stars, but Loveless’s music is anything but unemotional. Her songs are full of bruised personal fault lines—lying, cheating, regret, sex, sexism, desire, depression—transmitted at the mercy of Loveless’s cow-punk intensity.
Daughter, which she’ll release September 25 on her own label, Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late Records, has a good bit of that, but it’s an intensity grounded in the perspective of a seasoned artist who’s been through the industry wringer and come out stronger. There’s been a sea change for Lydia Loveless, and you can sense it. Listening to Daughter feels like catching your balance on a beam: a totter followed by a firmness of feet and flood of relief.
Daughter is her first record in four years and the first since she moved from Ohio to North Carolina in 2017, following a divorce from the former bassist in her band. For a while, after moving, Loveless’s voicemail greeting lingered in punk purgatory, between earnest and wry, with the edge of someone who is used to being described from a distance.
“Hello,” it began, “you have reached firebrand cowpunk badass Lydia Loveless. I can’t come to the phone right now because I’m too busy saving country music.”
The jury may be out on the salvation of country music, but the raw, ribald Daughter makes a convincing case for her work on it. The record is, by Loveless’s own admission, her most vulnerable music yet. The title track is a punk cri de coeur that asks what it is to hold value outside a patriarchal relational framework—what it means to exist beyond sexual object, mother, daughter, or sister.
“What is my body worth to you without your blood in it?” she sings with her flamethrower contralto. “Is my story worth a read without your name on it?”
“I spent a large part of my twenties being like, ‘Guide me, relationship’ instead of taking charge of my life and figuring out who I want to be,” Loveless says. “I’m turning thirty tomorrow. I feel a little terrified of being in my thirties, but also feel relief. I don’t really feel like I can’t say what I want, or ask for what I want, anymore.”
Loveless was born one of four children in rural Coshocton, Ohio. She grew up homeschooled on a farm with a preacher for a father; when she turned nine, he split from the church and bought a country-western bar—a detail that looms large in the Lydia Loveless mythos. It’s easy to see why: Her music has the haunted edge of someone who cut their teeth singing at dirty dives.
She says, though, that while she has some fond memories of drinking Shirley Temples with wizened bartenders after dance practice, the bar was sold when she was still young, and it was never the backwoods honky-tonk that the press paints it as. More influential were early experiences playing music with her family. When she was 14, her family lost their family farm; they also formed a New Wave–influenced rock band, Carson Drew, named for the intrepid fictional detective’s father. That band, composed of her father and two older sisters, disbanded when she was 17.
But by then, Loveless had begun striking out on her own, with her own country flair. In 2007, she began working with two Cincinnati-area producers on The Only Man, which took nearly three years to release, and which she had little creative control over.
It was a frustrating period, but it did attract the attention of the alt-country label Bloodshot Records, known for launching talent like Justin Townes Earle and the Old 97’s. Loveless joined the fold and leaned back into controlled mess with her breakout album, Indestructible Machine, in 2011, which she recorded in a devil-may-care whirl and released just after her 21st birthday.
There’s mythology to growing up in a honky-tonk, and there’s mythology to being a woman who comes to prominence at a young age. Indestructible Machine established her as a wry, gifted songwriter, unafraid to touch rough-and-tumble subjects like stalkers and serial killers and oral sex and drinking and addiction. Her voice quickly earned comparisons to Neko Case and Lucinda Williams and gigs alongside Americana heavy-hitters like The Mountain Goats, Indigo Girls, and the Drive-By Truckers.
At the age of 20, Loveless married Ben Lamb, her bassist, who is nearly two decades older than she is, and they hit the road. Three more acclaimed albums followed: Somewhere Else in 2014, Real in 2016, and Boy Crazy and Single(s) in 2017.
In early 2019, following her divorce and move to North Carolina, Loveless released a statement on Instagram that bravely detailed “casual predation” from the Chicago musician Mark Panick, the partner of Bloodshot’s Nan Warshaw. The predation, she said, included years of groping, verbal sexual harassment, and alarming comments on her Facebook.
“I didn’t know who to tell about these behaviors because I felt afraid, as for me, shows are work events and Mark was a part of the label from my eyes—my label,” she wrote in her statement. In response, Bloodshot co-owner Rob Miller issued an apology, stating that the label had “failed” Loveless, and Nan Warshaw stepped down. That same month, the label released a statement addressing the allegations against Ryan Adams, who’d been with Bloodshot in the late nineties.
“I still feel enraged every time I see a new story,” Loveless says in reference to #MeToo. “But also, I think we all know that it’s been since the dawn of time that things have felt this way. It’s just louder now.”
Daughter makes it very clear that Loveless is disenchanted with platitudes. In “Love Is Not Enough,” a single from the album released in July, Loveless sings that “being kind is just a phrase you wear on a T-shirt.” It can—and does—double as a song about heartbreak, but it was written in the aftermath of the election and what she describes as the “toxic positivity” of phrases like “Love Wins.” Yeah, sometimes. But not always.
The pandemic has laid bare the empty calories of bumper sticker activism; listening to the album while walking around my neighborhood—which is tattooed with phrases like “Everything Will Be Okay”—it felt all the more resonant. “Daughter” is a particular standout in its songwriting, musical craftsmanship, and timeliness. Loveless wrote it in 2018, amid the Kavanaugh hearings, when the phrase “As the father of daughters” became a very specific form of political currency. In turning 30, Loveless says that she is coming to peace with the decision to not have children; in a particularly raw chorus, she asks, “If I gave you a daughter, would you open up?”
“I’d see billboards on the side of the road imploring people not to hurt women because they were somebody’s daughter or sister or mother,” Loveless said in a press release for the album. “And I was living as an individual for the first time, and don’t have maternal desires. My family was in turmoil, so defining myself as a daughter or sister didn’t give me much comfort.”
Daughter was recorded in The Loft, Wilco’s Chicago studio, with Tom Schick (Norah Jones, Wilco, Mavis Staples) as producer and bandmates Todd May, Jay Gasper, and George Hondroulis. The album is the first that Loveless has played piano on, and the room to experiment is evident.
Loveless is the first artist on her new Honey, You’re Gonna Be Late Records label. With an uncertain future ahead of the music industry, she doesn’t know when another artist might be brought on. For the present, it’s given her time to be creative and experiment away from the crowds and shows and commentary.
And, on her remote Morrisville property, she’s found a new normal. There was a brief encounter with a ghost, at the beginning of the year—Loveless’s home sits on the site of a plane crash—when she and her boyfriend, the magician Michael Casey, separately heard the distinct sound of a woman humming. (Loveless admits her fervent desire to have a paranormal experience belies the stereotypes of rational Virgos).
But the ghost has left the couple alone during the pandemic—she says this with reluctance—and in her new home, she’d found quiet: A place to walk around barefoot, to experiment, and to write new songs. With this freedom comes hope, though maybe not the bumper sticker kind.
“I don’t know if I’m optimistic or not,” she says, “I guess I’m just trying to live and not ‘let the bastards get me down.’ I’m trying to be more hopeful.”
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