Laura Love’s restless, musically adventurous spirit has carried her in a remarkable array of directions. A bass player with a unique vocal style, Love has performed everything from grunge to jazz to bluegrass. She has covered songs as diverse as Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, Jackie DeShannon’s Put a Little Love in Your Heart, and Kurt Cobain’s Come As You Are. Most remarkably, she has melded her own funky, folky genre from African and Caribbean rhythms, Irish melodies, and R&B. She calls it Afro/Celtic. “Love has a powerful raspy voice not unlike Toni Childs, and she uses it to full advantage—howling, crooning, and even yodeling,” Lahri Bond wrote in Dirty Linen magazine. “These tunes usually have spiritual underpinnings that give Love’s lyrics a simplicity with a lot of depth. Love often strings together ’nonsense’ words that serve as rhythmic connecting devices similar to scatting or African chant.”
With self-deprecating wit, the singer described her sound to Billboard as “more like confusion than fusion.… I don’t really devour a lot of music, but (I) hear snippets here and there at festivals without meaning to. Some of it just sinks in—the really emotionally grabbing stuff—and sticks with me. But I’ve always loved Appalachian—the high lonesome, bluegrassy, mournful, minor-key white soul music—and I love black soul music.” Time magazine music critic Christopher Farley has described Love as more traditionally folky than musically exotic, believing that Love could be a descendent of Joni Mitchell, and her songs address typical coffeehouse subject matter. “Love has a voice rich with dark shadings and rural twang,” Farley wrote. “She calls her music Afro/Celtic, but it’s mostly front-porch folk with a few twists.”
Love made her jazz-singing debut for a “captive audience” at a penitentiary in her home state of Nebraska in the early 1980s. She was 16 years old. Later, she developed a following in the Seattle music scene, where she played grunge rock in the early years of her career. Eventually, Love found—or, more accurately, created—her own niche. “The Afro-Celtic label doesn’t communicate the full flavor of Love’s songs,” Nelson George wrote in Playboy “(Her) songs have bright, lilting melodies that contrast nicely with lyrics that focus on poverty and pain. But Love isn’t as heavy-voiced or didactic as Tracy Chapman. Her vocals are lighter, higher-pitched, and less guarded than those of her fellow pop-folkie. As pained and bitter as the songs … are, Love suggests there’s room for optimism.”
In concert, Love delivers “ebullient performances filled with the kind of charisma and joyfulness that in October 1994 brought a Carnegie Hall audience to its feet after she had taken the stage with only her bass as accompaniment for her vocal acrobatics,” a contributor to Good Times magazine reported. “From mixed ancestry,” the contributor continued, “Love writes from the point of view of the perpetual outside, a perspective that might make anyone else despondent and bitter. Not Love, however. She gave all of her angst and her thrift store clothes away when she left grunge music behind.”
In the early 1990s, Love released three records on her own label—Z Therapy Helvetica Bold, and Pangaea. Her songs received airplay from public radio, college stations and adult alternative stations—and led Billboard in 1994 to declare Love one of the nation’s best unsigned acts. Her music also captured the attention of Dan Storper, a New York clothier who operates the Putumayo World Music record label. In 1995, the indie label released the Laura Love Collection, which features 11 songs culled from Love’s early records. The sampler, George wrote in the Playboy review, “serves as a vibrant introduction to her work.”
That same year, Love took a characteristically adventurous musical detour and recorded an album of traditional bluegrass music with country crooner Jo Miller. Miller, a fan of Love’s music, conceived the joint project. “I’d heard Laura with her own group, the Laura Love Band, and I loved her Afro-Celtic sound,” Miller said, “but I’d always leave saying, ’Now there’s a bluegrass tenor.’” For material, Miller and Love turned to compositions by
Laura Love is a bass player, singer, and songwriter from Seattle, where she got her start playing in grunge rock bands. Love later found a unique niche in a hybrid style of music she calls Afro/Celtic. She self-released three albums before signing with Mercury Records. Her major-label debut, Octoroon, was released in 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Mercury/Polygram Records, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019; phone (212) 333-8000.
bluegrass greats including Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, who single-handedly created the genre and its trademark “high, lonesome sound.” Love was initially hesitant to pursue the project, but soon agreed. “I didn’t know anything about bluegrass before my connection with Jo,” she said, “and, although I hesitated a bit at first, she convinced me that if I’d ever been high or lonesome I could probably sing this stuff.”
Love has said her experience working with Storper showed her that she could work with a record label and maintain her musical independence and integrity. She previously had turned down record deals. “They approached and I said, Thankyou very much, that’s great, but it’s not possible to put out a good major label record and achieve corporate ideals of commercialism and hit-making, ’” Love told Billboard. “I felt our goals are adversarial—and still do. To think (in terms of) trying to write a hit is a bad way to think of things. Trying to say something you feel might be a better thing and real motivation. So, (signing with a major label) wasn’t for me.”
At least, that is, until she met Danny Goldberg, head of Mercury Records, and learned that he had managed Nirvana and was close to Kurt Cobain. At the same time, Love’s homegrown business operation was increasingly difficult to manage as she and her band (guitarist Rod Cook, accordion and African ’tongue’ drum player Julie Wolf, and percussionist Chris Leighton) gained popularity. “We started doing bigger and bigger festivals and it got harder to do everything ourselves—driving the van to the gigs and unloading everything, and now we had four records to carry around,” Love said. “Plus, it was taking more and more time administering my label, so there was less time performing and writing music, and it was time to do another record.” Mercury released that album, called Octoroon, in 1997. It is vintage Laura Love—an eclectic sound and lyrics addressing social injustice, the environment, and religious hypocrisy. “There aren’t many artists who’ve built up a 10,000 or so fan-club base without having a major label behind them,” Mercury marketing vice president Marty Maid-enberg told Billboard. “So we’re not going to change her formula too much.… She’s such a breath of fresh air that when people hear her… they realize how special she is and fall in love with her.”
Z Therapy, Octoroon Biography, 1990.
Helvetica Bold, Octoroon Biography, 1990.
Pangaea, Octoroon Biography, 1992.
Jo Miller and Laura Love Sing Bluegrass and Old-Time Music, Rockin’ Octoroon, 1995.
Laura Love Collection, Putumayo World Music, 1995.
Octoroon, Mercury, 1997.
Billboard, April 19, 1997, p. 18.
Playboy, September 1995, p. 26.
Time, May 12, 1997, p. 85.
Additional material from the Harmony Ridge Music homepage on the World Wide Web.
Singer, songwriter, bassist
The music of Seattle-based artist Laura Love has been labeled as Afro-Celtic or folk-funk; it merges the rhythms of urban styles with the stringed-instrument sounds of folk and acoustic music, using the whole fusion to support an impressive set of original songs. After the 1997 release of her major-label debut, Octoroon, Love became one of the folk scene's brightest stars. But few of her fans knew the difficult personal background from which her music grew. She told of that background in her 2004 memoir, You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes.
Of black, white, and Native American background, Love was born Laura Jones in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1960. Her father Preston Love was a jazz saxophonist in nearby Omaha, but Love met him for the first time only when she was 16 and sneaked into a club to hear him play. For most of her childhood, she believed that he had died. Love was raised by her mother, Winifred Jones, a former jazz singer (who used the name Wini Winston) who was studying at Nebraska Wesleyan University during her intermittent lucid periods.
Survived Group Suicide
Planned by Mother
Most of the time, however, Love's mother was in the grip of mental illness. Love's earliest memory was of her mother being taken to a mental hospital by police when she was three. Love and her sister were dragged through a nightmare of shelters, social service bureaucracies, substandard housing, and foster homes for years, first in Lincoln and then in Omaha. Love's memoir, You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, is a matter-of-fact litany of these woes, the culmination of which was an episode in which Love's mother instructed her and her sister Lisa to hang the family Siamese cat in a noose, after which the three would hang themselves together and look forward to the afterlife to come. The plan was fortunately scotched when the cat struggled out of its noose.
In addition to dealing with painful situations created by her mother, Love faced racial prejudices from both white and black schoolmates. After moving to a new predominantly black school in Omaha, Love wrote in You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, "The only real difference was that here I became 'that high-yellow bitch that acts like a honky and think she so cute' instead of 'the only nigger at our school.'" A bright spot for Love came when she sang "Anticipation" at a junior high school assembly, accompanying herself on the guitar; she brought the house down. "There in the Everett Junior High School auditorium, soaking up all that positive energy, I understood that I would never do anything else for the rest of my life but sing," Love wrote.
Love left home at age 16, and this added hardship made it difficult to follow through with her teenage wish of singing for a living. However, Love did manage to sing whenever she could. She sang for inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, and she performed on one occasion with her father's band, although he showed little interest in being part of her life. Moving first to Portland, Oregon, and then to Seattle, she enrolled at the University of Washington and graduated with an honors degree in psychology in 1989. By that time, however, she had already begun to immerse herself in the vital music scene of her new hometown. Starting out as a bassist with enthusiasm but few skills, she soon took on lead vocal duties with a proto-grunge band called Boom Boom G.I.
Formed Own Label after
Her first band "was loud and bad," Love told the Omaha World Herald. "The first review we got said that we were annoyingly pointless." She took the review to heart and joined another band, an all-female outfit called Venus Envy. In 1989 she struck out independently, forming a label of her own called Octoroon Biography and releasing her debut album, Menstrual Hut. She developed her distinctive mixture of urban and Americana sounds over the course of four albums, aided by the crack instrumental sounds of performers such as fiddler Barbara Lamb.
Sales of Love's albums mounted, and 1994's Helvetica Bold got the attention of a New York City clothing-store-chain owner who set out to organize a Carnegie Hall concert featuring music he felt was underexposed. Love was offered the chance to perform one song, to be chosen by the concert organizer. She bowled the audience over to such a degree that she landed on Billboard magazine's 1995 list of the country's ten best unsigned acts, attracted notice from the New York Times, and gained an opening-act slot at one of the city's legendary clubs, the Bottom Line. The world music-oriented Putumayo label released her album The Laura Love Collection.
Signed to the major Mercury label, Love released Octoroon (the word denotes a person who is one-eighth black) in 1997. The album included a nod to Love's Seattle background in the form of a cover of Nirvana's "Come As You Are," but also featured the traditional pieces "Blind Bartimus" and "Amazing Grace." Love followed that album up in 1998 with Shum Ticky, which featured a guest appearance from rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot on a new version of "The Clapping Song."
Used Liner Notes to Locate Mother
Love's 2000 album Fourteen Days was more political in nature than her other work, having taken shape during Seattle's anti-globalization demonstrations in which Love participated. That year, she also began making notes about her childhood, at first without any intention of having them published. Having moved in with her life partner, Pam, Love became a foster mother to a seven-month-old girl named Khristy. She also cared for large numbers of homeless cats. For many years she lost touch with her mother, but she was able to locate her in 1998 after including a plea for help in the liner notes of Octoroon.
Love released Welcome to Pagan Place in 2003 and followed it up the next year with You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, conceived as a companion to her memoir. She decided to publish the book, she told the Seattle Times, because "I wanted to put a name and a face to what [some politicians] call welfare queens, the dregs of society, the drain on our economy." Hard as her childhood had been, Love argued that without the support of social welfare programs, it could have been much worse. "Society made an investment in me," she told the Times, "and it has been spared a very angry person who would have cost much, much more."
You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, Hyperion Books, 2004.
At a Glance …
Born Laura Jones in 1960 in Lincoln, NE; daughter of Preston Love, a jazz saxophonist, and Winifred Jones (also known as Wini Winston), a jazz singer and student; committed to life partner, Pam; foster mother to one child, Khristy. Education: Attended University of Nebraska at Lincoln; University of Washington, Seattle, BA (honors) in psychology, 1989.
Career: Musician, 1980s–; performed with Seattle bands Boom Boom G.I. and Venus Envy; formed own label, Octoroon Biography, 1989.
Addresses: Label— Koch Records, 22 Harbor Park Drive, Port Washington, NY 11050. Web— http://www.lauralove.net.
Menstrual Hut, Octoroon Biography, 1989.
Z Therapy, Octoroon Biography, 1990.
Pangaea, Octoroon Biography, 1992.
Helvetica Bold, Octoroon Biography, 1994.
The Laura Love Collection, Putumayo, 1996.
Octoroon, Mercury, 1997.
Shum Ticky, Mercury, 1998.
Fourteen Days, Zoe, 2000.
Welcome to Pagan Place, Koch, 2003.
You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, Koch, 2004.
Love, Laura, You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, Hyperion, 2004.
Boston Globe, April 27, 1995, p. 57.
Columbus Dispatch, January 7, 1999, p. 5.
Omaha World Herald, June 18, 1995, p. 22; November 21, 1995, p. 36; September 3, 1998, p. 50.
Seattle Times, January 20, 2005, p. H9; August 8, 2004, p. K1.
Tampa Tribune, November 17, 2000, p. 16.
Washington Post, August 18, 2004, p. C3.
"Laura Love," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 13, 2005).
Laura Love, www.lauralove.net (February 8, 2005).
—James M. Manheim