Her breakout year just behind her, the rocker with a punk country sound is still touring while planning her next recording.
On an early December morning at a Short North coffee shop, Lydia Loveless is trying to catch her breath-literally, because she has a cold, but figuratively, too. The Columbus-based musician just returned from more than two months of touring all over the country with her band.
"I never thought I'd go to California, and now I've been there three times," she says. "It's been surprising to go to random places I've never been in my life and have big crowds there. These people drove six-and-a-half hours to see us in Iowa. . . . It's been a really weird year."
Weird is one way to describe all that's happened to Loveless recently. Local music fans knew her from her regular gigs around town, but midway through 2010 recording companies outside of Columbus started to take notice. Loveless hit the road with her group and by early 2011 she had signed with Chicago's respected Bloodshot Records, a rootsy label responsible for releases by Ryan Adams, Neko Case, Old 97's and Justin Townes Earle.
In September, just a week after her 21st birthday, Loveless's Bloodshot debut, Indestructible Machine, came out to rave reviews in outlets such as SPIN and the Chicago Tribune, both of which put the record on their lists of top albums in 2011. Popmatters.com swooned over the brash newcomer, saying, "If you believe in rock-and-roll, you pray for people like Lydia Loveless."
Loveless says her career path could have gone in many directions as a young girl growing up on her father's Coshocton farm. At one point, she wanted to be a chef with her own cooking show. Then it was writing novels. In more recent years, she toyed with the idea of opening a shop and selling fresh pasta before realizing she was "terrible at making pasta."
"I always had unrealistic goals that didn't seem unrealistic at the time," she says.
Her father, Parker Chandler, says she always has been the most focused and determined of his three daughters. He tells the story of Loveless as a 2-year-old, spying a distant sandbar on a Florida beach. "She wanted to go see it and she just took off," says Chandler, who's also Loveless's drummer. "We followed her the whole way. She tromped through all that sand, made her way to the end of the sandbar, stopped, turned around and went right back to where she came from."
Chandler also mentions the time Loveless took an interest in basketball, and even though she'd never played the game, by the end of the season she was the starting point guard. And at age 11, Loveless was determined to get into the ultra-competitive Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan. She did.
"When I got home from there I started to wear tweed and write poetry a lot," she says. "I went through my Bob Dylan phase. I would write this sexually charged poetry that I didn't know anything about. Looking back, it's like, how could I write that when I was 11?"
Loveless didn't care much for piano lessons as a child. She went through several instruments and then started a pop band that soon fell apart. But everything clicked when her older sisters started the group Carson Drew with their father. At 13, she joined them after a sister taught her how to play bass.
Carson Drew toured throughout Ohio and even made some trips to New York City. Coshocton, though, was a hike from any major city, so Chandler moved his family to Columbus, which gave the kids more opportunities to gig. Eventually, Loveless broke out on her own.
In any review of Loveless's music, you'll read the words "country" and "punk" quite frequently-and often next to each other. She got both sides honestly. "I grew up listening to rock-and-roll," Loveless says, "but I lived in the country. People are always trying to figure out where I get these country influences. Just being a hayseed, I guess, and watching Coal Miner's Daughter too many times. But I remember punk rock and rock-and-roll playing around the house more than anything."
And once in Columbus, she says, "I would hang out at Bernie's a lot and absorb the whole punk rock thing. I think country and punk have a lot in common. I met a lot of redneck punks who would be singing David Allan Coe one second and Black Flag the next. That was inspiring to me."
In 2007, two Cincinnati-area producers wanted to make an album with the teenager-or, as it turned out, for her. The recording sessions for what eventually became her first album, The Only Man, are not moments Loveless fondly recalls. She says she had little to no creative control while the producers brought in all their own musicians to create a slick, polished, Nashville-style record. The process began in November 2007, but the album wasn't released until February 2010.
"They definitely helped me out with making an album, but it just took so long," she says. "It felt like an eternity. Everyone was like, 'The songs are so mature for a 19-year-old,' and I'm like, 'Damn it, I was 15 or 16 when I wrote those. That's not me anymore.' "
It was a dark period for Loveless, who felt as if her life had spiraled out of control. "For a while there, I was thinking, 'What am I doing with my life? I'm a loser and a failure,' " she says. "I lost like eight jobs. I was going through a lot, and that's how I ended up writing all those songs for Indestructible Machine."
Columbus attorney Steve McGann saw talent in Loveless early on. "When I heard her voice, I was just amazed at her natural talent," he says. "So I became a fan, but when you work with someone, this really is work, so the other thing I liked about Lydia was that she was really dedicated to this. She's young, but she's so professional and mature about realizing what it took to be a professional musician."
Through his artist-development arm, Westgate Management, he began to manage Loveless and released The Only Man on his small independent label, Peloton Records. He also helped set up a full band for Loveless, adding upright bass player Ben Lamb, who's now Loveless's husband, and later guitarist Todd May of the Mooncussers and Lilybandits.
"I was happy [The Only Man] was on Peloton, but I also knew she could take off, and I didn't have the resources to finance
what she needed. We needed a team and a record company to come in," McGann says. Enter Bloodshot Records. It wasn't easy, but McGann worked some connections to promote Loveless to the company. Loveless and her band, after driving 20 hours to Austin, Texas, ended up playing for Bloodshot owners Rob Miller and Nan Warshaw at the 2010 South by Southwest music festival.
"We saw her at some shitty little Irish bar . . . where no one cared what she was doing, and even in that horrible environment it was pretty obvious there was a diamond in the rough," says Miller, who was struck by her "powerhouse voice."
When it came time to record for Bloodshot, Loveless and her band went to Grove City's Sonic Lounge recording studio with engineer Joe Viers. And this time, Loveless knew exactly what she didn't want to do. "I literally told Joe Viers to listen to that first album, and I told him we're going to do the exact opposite of that album," she says. "I just took all my rage and emotion and went into the studio to blast everything out."
Loveless had complete control. The band played through the songs live, and usually they had what they needed in one or two takes. All the basic tracks were done in a few weeks, overdubs were kept to a minimum and the whole record was finished in just a couple of months.
If the cover art's depiction of Loveless guzzling a gas can didn't give it away, the first track, "Bad Way to Go," establishes her tough sound-fuzz-drenched guitars careening into back-porch banjo and punk-rock drums. And then there's her even tougher attitude, as she tells her man to "turn my heart to paper but seal it with a kiss so you can write me a love letter in the gravel with your piss."
The songs on Indestructible Machine have a world-weary attitude that belies her 21 years. But Loveless says not to read too deeply into her tales of booze and addiction. "People will hear a certain song and say, 'I just worry about her,' " she says. "I hate reviews that are like, 'If these songs are true to life, we worry about Lydia and just hope that she survives her 21st birthday.' I don't know . . . I just wrote that. I don't know where it came from. The things that I write about are different than the things I think about all day."
Overall, though, Loveless, McGann and Miller are more than pleased with the positive attention the album has received, even months after its release. Loveless and her band continue to tour behind the record, hitting up Southern states through February and likely heading overseas in the spring.
Loveless, ever determined, is ready to begin her next record, too. She used valuable time at home over the holidays to do some writing. And while she says the next recording could go in many directions, she has some ideas. "I was thinking like a Chris Isaak-type album," Loveless says. "I have this plot to get [guitarist] James Wilsey. He did all the 'Wicked Game' guitar parts. Now he just plays weird, instrumental desert music. I think that would be pretty awesome."
A musical left turn into the desert isn't likely to scare off Bloodshot and Miller, who says he hasn't the faintest idea of where Loveless will go from here. "That's what's exhilarating and a little terrifying," he says. "Here's someone with a genuine gift and the talent to back it up, and she's so young that it's still just so totally unformed. It could go in so many different directions. I'm just fascinated to see what might happen."