Lord, Mary Lou
Mary Lou Lord
Mary Lou Lord is a singer-songwriter who is best known for championing other songwriters' work as much as for her own delicate compositions. She perfected her talent by performing on street corners and subways in Boston and London. Anders Smith-Lindall of University Wire called Lord "perhaps the perfect antidote to our MTV age. She achieved her stature the old-fashioned way: Busking on street corners, performing for hours for just a few dollars in subway stations, gradually honing her playing and writing and singing," wrote a Michigan Daily reviewer. "She feels a sense of responsibility to keep alive the songs and stories of writers like Daniel Johnston, Elliott Smith and Peter Laughner."
Lord began working in music while still a teenager, as a disc jockey for a college radio station in Boston. She briefly attended Berklee College of Music, then moved to London where she began what has become a hallmark of her career—busking in the subway. Upon her return to Boston, she continued singing on street corners and in the subway. "In eight years of busking, she refined her talent and determined what music she liked to play," according to All Music Guide.
Lord's initial name recognition came, not from her music, but rather from a "brief but subsequently well-publicized romance with Kurt Cobain," as Trouser Press referred to the 1991 relationship. She and the lead singer for Nirvana became involved prior to his much more public relationship with Courtney Love.
Lord was subsequently discovered by an executive from Kill Rock Stars, an independent label based in Olympia, Washington. The label released her self-titled album in 1995, followed by the EP Martian Saints in 1996. Throughout her career, Lord has covered artists as diverse as Shawn Colvin, Richard Thompson, Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, Magnetic Fields, Led Zeppelin, John Cale, and others. At the same time, she has been just as diligent about perfecting her own songwriting.
In 1995 Lord was still unsigned to a major label. Rolling Stone noted that in the frenzy of Boston band signings that year, "The biggest prize remains up for grabs. Singer/songwriter Mary Lou Lord, who honed her sparse, breathy style playing Boston subway stations and nearby Harvard Square, is at the center of a fierce bidding war among at least seven labels (Capitol, MCA, American, London, WORK, Giant and Elektra), with several offering her six-figure deals." Lord told the magazine's Matt Hendrickson that the art of the deal did not matter as much as the art of her songs. "The only thing that's important is the music that I write, because I don't think anyone will give a s*** about anything else in 20 years. … People can talk and talk, but when you deliver what comes from inside, that's what remains."
Lord made the jump to the majors when she finally signed with Sony's Work Group label. The Boston Herald's Tristram Lozaw noted, "Lord avoided being victimized by the recent record company shufflings and firings. … 'I watched and waited for a long time before I signed with Work Group, which was formed by the two guys who started Virgin Records in the U.S. It's a very cool, low-key atmosphere,'" said Lord, according to the Herald article.
For her major label debut, Got No Shadow, released in 1998, she teamed with Nick Saloman of the Bevis Frond to write most of the songs. This was the first full-length project Lord had released. Her backing band included members of the Foo Fighters and Presidents of the United States of America. She told Lowaz she hoped to shoot her first video in her favorite busking spot. "Thousands of people have listened as they passed by. Think how cool it would be if they saw me on MTV and recognized me as the girl in the subway."
"Both her originals and covers are models of simple, gratifying melody and uncomplicated rhythms," wrote Joan Anderman of the Boston Globe, about Got No Shadow. "And although Lord is endowed with a less-than-electrifying singing voice, she chooses her notes beautifully, wending her way through a song with the same sort of fragile grace that her mentor, Shawn Colvin, exudes."
Critic David Okamoto found Got No Shadow to be "little more than Polaroid pop: bright, colorful, instantaneously gratifying, and doggedly committed to the idea that capturing a moment can be as noble a pursuit as creating 'art.'" He added that "the key to her appeal is the disarming impact of her hushed, childlike soprano, a weathered voice hovering in the gray areas between confidence and doubt, love and disdain, soft-hearted optimism and hard-luck disappointment."
Trouser Press felt that Lord's "move into major label clutches didn't make her a star, but it did produce one tremendous album that frames her singing and creative personality with skill and sensitivity."
The relationship with Work Group was short-lived. Lord contended that the security of the label deal changed her personal life. "I got [lots] of money. I lived in this ridiculously expensive apartment. … and I just drank," she told the Boston Globe. "And then one day I woke up and I didn't have money anymore and I went, 'Oh, what am I going to do?' So, it was just all or nothing, you know. Idle hands make work for the devil."
For the Record …
Born in 1970, in Salem, MA; married Kevin Patey (a musician); children: one daughter. Education: Attended Berklee College of Music.
Disc jockey for Boston college radio station, c. 1983; began career busking in London, c. 1990; signed to Kill Rock Stars, released self-titled album, 1995; EP Martian Saints released, 1996; signed with Sony's Work Group label, 1997; Got No Shadow released, 1998; recorded Live City Sounds independently, 2001; released studio album Baby Blue, 2004.
In 2001 Lord returned to the subways of Boston to make Live City Sounds, which was recorded live and sold by mail. "Each of the 16 tracks, recorded on a portable DAT, is coated with her charming persona, soft almost breathy vocals and warm acoustics." Wrote Gala M. Pierce in the Chicago Daily Herald. The album included previously recorded tunes such as "She Had You," "His Lamest Flame," "Speeding Motorcycle" and covers of Big Star's "Thirteen" and "You're Going to Make Me Lonesome When You Go."
After a five-year hiatus, Lord released Baby Blue in 2004. The album was made in about nine days, collaborating with Saloman. She told Sarah Rodman of the Boston Herald that the album "wasn't this thing that was meant to compete or be over the top … It was just a lovely Polaroid and not a fixed-up, fluffed-up, proper photo shoot." Rodman found the project "rife with sparkling and clean piano licks, smoky harmonica runs and warm acoustic and electric guitars. It plays to Lord's delicate yet steely roots-rock strengths and examines themes of past, present and future."
Lord is married to Kevin Patey, also a musician, and during her musical hiatus she gave birth to their daughter. She admitted missing her daughter while she was recording in London, but confessed that she reached a point where she simply had to return to her career. "I'm a very good mom, but I didn't want to be just a mom," she told Rodman. "I am a musician and I do write songs and some people like me." She told the Los Angeles Times, "I want to bring good songs to people who might not otherwise hear them."
Real [cassette], Deep, 1992.
Mary Lou Lord, Kill Rock Stars, 1995.
Martian Saints (EP), Kill Rock Stars, 1996.
Got No Shadow, Work, 1998.
Live City Sounds, independent release, 2001; reissued, Rubric, 2002.
Baby Blue, Rubric, 2004.
Boston Globe, January 30, 1998; February 2, 1998.
Boston Herald, February 21, 1997; February 20, 2004.
Chicago Daily Herald, January 24, 2003.
Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 24, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, January 31, 1998.
The Michigan Daily, September 16, 1997.
Newsday, March 28, 1995.
The Record (Bergen County, NJ), February 2, 1998.
Rolling Stone, June 15, 1995.
"Mary Lou Lord," All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (March 2, 2005).
"Mary Lou Lord," Trouser Press,http://www.trouserpress.com/entry.php?a=mary_lou_lord (March 2, 2005).
Mary Lou Lord Official Website, http://www.maryloulord.com/ (March 12, 2005).
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