Columbus Musician Lydia Loveless Finds Inspiration at Franklinton’s Secret Studio
The acclaimed singer-songwriter has embarked on a second career as a recording engineer since returning to Central Ohio.
“It sort of feels like an adult clubhouse to me,” Lydia Loveless explains.
The 32-year-old Columbus singer-songwriter is lounging in the lobby of Secret Studio, the homey Franklinton recording studio and event space that has become their workplace and second home. “I’m half-living here,” jokes Loveless, who has settled into the neighborhood since moving back from North Carolina in late 2021. (Loveless is genderfluid and prefers they/them pronouns.)
Loveless speaks with a mixture of introversion and the no-nonsense bluntness found in their songs, often punctuating frank observations with laughter. Hair cropped short, today they’re rocking large, round glasses, rainbow flip-flops and a fuzzy pink coat that spans most of their short frame. In other words, they look the part of a rock star.
That role is still very much part of Loveless’ job description—a new album is coming later this year, and a tour supporting the Drive-By Truckers stops at Newport Music Hall on May 13—but in the past two years, they’ve started working as a recording engineer, which they describe as the opposite kind of gig. “I’ve lived my life as a musician kind of stupidly and frantically, and when you’re an engineer you have to be really precise and know what you’re doing,” Loveless says. “So that’s helped me change a little bit, which is nice. Because God knows I’ve needed to for a long time.”
On the strength of brash, punk-tinged, classic country songs and a powerhouse voice like spiked lemonade, Loveless blew up locally as a teenager and released a string of acclaimed albums for the popular alt-country label Bloodshot Records in the 2010s. But for years, their life and career have seemed to be in constant upheaval. After their marriage to their former bassist, Ben Lamb, ended, Loveless relocated to North Carolina with a new boyfriend. Things fell apart with the record label, too; in 2019 Loveless accused Mark Panick, the life partner of Bloodshot co-owner Nan Warshaw, of a pattern of sexual harassment going back to when they signed with the label at age 19.
2020 brought a new album—the self-released Daughter, recorded with Wilco producer Tom Schick at Wilco’s Loft in Chicago—but first, more rupture thanks to a global pandemic. Loveless was visiting Columbus when COVID-19 started affecting daily life. Longtime friend Amy Turn Sharp and recording engineer Keith Hanlon, the founders of Secret Studio, invited Loveless to play the facility’s grand opening on March 13, 2020. Like most other events that day, it was canceled. Instead, Loveless recalls, “We were all sitting in Amy’s living room, listening to everybody panic and freak out about COVID.”
In July 2021, while still living in North Carolina, Loveless enrolled at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe. “To get better at home recording was my plan. I don’t know if I had any designs on being an actual engineer,” they say. “But while I was up here, my relationship was going to hell. So by the time I was done with the program, things were really bad.”
Loveless opted to break things off, return to Columbus and try to become an engineer at Secret Studio. While bouncing between Ohio and North Carolina in late 2021, they often crashed with Turn Sharp, who urged Loveless to go to the studio and write the songs that would become their forthcoming album. “Amy would force me out of the house to go write,” Loveless says. “Otherwise I was just, like, crying on the couch.”
Loveless has been working as an engineer at Secret since January 2022, recording artists like Cincinnati’s Sammy Kay and Indianapolis’ Jeff Byrd and regularly attending gigs and parties at the space. Being a part of its community has been restorative. “What I look for in a studio is a place that’s chill, and you don’t feel stressed out,” Loveless says. “Even though you’re working really hard and you’re usually on a time crunch, you don’t want to feel like that. And I never really get that sense here from anybody.”
There’s been camaraderie on the road, too, via multiple tours with cult-beloved, country-rock band Drive-By Truckers. Loveless even has a collaboration in the works with Truckers singer-songwriter Patterson Hood. “Patterson’s obviously a huge idol of mine,” they say, “but we’ve definitely become friends over the years.” Truckers multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez plays on Loveless’ upcoming record, too.
About that: Loveless’ band—now with Raleigh’s Mark Connor on bass, joining Columbus-based guitarist Todd May, pedal steel player Jay Gasper and drummer George Hondroulis—tracked the album at the Tractor Shed near Nashville with engineer Sean Sullivan, who has worked with artists like Sturgill Simpson and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. “It’s definitely the proudest I’ve ever been of something I’ve made,” Loveless says. “I think it melds the influences that I’ve always talked about for years but never really felt like I sounded like. I don’t think it’s going to get any ‘cowpunk’ references. It’s definitely more of a Paul Westerberg and power-pop influence in there.”
As for the lyrics, “I absolutely hate saying this, but it’s a post-COVID record, so there’s a fair amount of existential dread that everybody went through. But especially if you’re making art, it kind of felt really f------ embarrassing to make art at that time.” Still, Loveless says the new LP is more hopeful than the frequently bleak Daughter: “COVID blew up my life, and then I blew up my life again when I broke up with my boyfriend. So I guess that’s the overall theme is rebuilding everything.”
This story is from the May 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.