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Mary Lou Lord: From Street to Stage

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: January 14, 2003

Mary Lou Lord
w/ Adam Goldman, Matt Whipkey, Devon Baker
Thursday, Jan. 23
9 p.m., $7
Sokol Auditorium

13th and Martha

Look at the liner notes of Mary Lou Lord's Live City Sounds, the CD that she's supporting on a five-city mini-tour that brings her to Sokol Underground Jan. 23, and you'll notice that it was recorded in the fall of 2000, more than two years ago.

Seems Lord has had her hands full the past few years with something more important than music; namely, Annabelle, her 4-year-old daughter. This "tour" marks her first venture into the Midwest in "quite a while. I've been real busy with parenting and working on a new record," she said.

Not performing live is a dramatic change for the singer/songwriter who made a career out of 16 years of singing on the streets and subways of London and Boston as a busker -- a person who entertains in public for money. The lifestyle is so ingrained in Lord that Live City Sounds was recorded in Boston's Park Street subway station and in Harvard Square, with her pressing the "record" button on the portable DAT.



Like any other busker, her repertoire contains more covers than self-written fare. But the difference is in her obscure choices. Instead of knocking out well-known standards, Live is an indie music lover's dream, with covers of songs by Big Star ("Thirteen"), Richard Thompson ("1952 Vincent Black Lightning," "Beeswing)" The Pogues ("Sayonara"), Heatmiser ("Half Right"), The Green Pajamas ("She's Still Bewitching Me") Daniel Johnston ("Speeding Motorcycle"), and Magnetic Fields ("I Don't Want to Get Over You"), among others.

With only her voice and her Martin guitar, Lord takes the unfamiliar and makes it uniquely personal. Her throaty soprano embodies songs that are almost always about lost love and longing, sung in a voice of a person who's seen it all and survived, and just wants to tell you about it.

"I didn't plan on becoming a musician," Lord says in a thick, Boston drawl from her Beverly, Mass., home. "The money I made singing in the subway was awful when I first started, but I just kept doing it nine hours a day because I didn't want to waitress and I was meeting really fun people. A year after I started I met Shawn Colvin, and after that all I wanted to do was play this person's songs. It was before anyone knew who she was, and her songs hadn't been recorded yet so it was the only way to get them heard.

"Shawn got her record deal and I got better at performing and started making more money. The whole time I just wanted to be a producer, but that's not a world you can just walk into."

Instead, Lord recorded a number of EPs and singles of her own, which were released on tiny indie label Kill Rock Stars before catching the ear of someone at Sony, which released her 1998 full-length debut, Got No Shadow. The collection includes a number of originals (many co-written with Nick Saloman of The Bevis Frond) that she'd been singing for years on the street corner, including an ode to ex-boyfriend Kurt Cobain called "Some Jingle-Jangle Morning."

Shawn Colvin isn't the only artist that Lord has championed. Elliott Smith toured as Lord's opening act for a time, constantly receiving her encouragement because she knew that one day people would start listening to him.

"A year after I started I met Shawn Colvin, and after that all I wanted to do was play this person's songs."



"I don't get the same kick out of it anymore, maybe once in a while if the night's going good."


Her latest discovery is a Cadillac, Mich., songstress named Rachael B. Davis, who Lord says is "hands down the best singer I've met in my life. She's what you'd get if Sandy Denny and Eva Cassidy and Billy Holiday had a baby. Her performance is just stunning."

Lord first heard her music being played on a tiny college radio station. "I got her address and sent her a gushing fan letter and $20 for a CD," she said. "I got this very young, giddy phone call back, with her saying she'd never played outside of Michigan before. I invited her to hang out in Boston and set her up in the street and was completely knocked out. She moved to Boston, and in seven months won the Boston Music Award and was invited to perform at the Newport and Boston folk festivals."

Lord says she plans is to build a record company around Davis and keep her away from the major labels. "Some people should sign a record deal because their talent might be limited," Lord said. "Rachael doesn't have to sign with anyone. At the end of the day, she should own everything she creates."

Lord sees her work with Davis as a first step toward a career in publishing, producing and running her own record label. Until that happens, she still does her share of busking. "I don't get the same kick out of it anymore," she said, adding "maybe once in a while if the night's going good. I did it so long that I'd rather just sit there and listen to Rachael."

Or, for that matter, Annabelle, who insists on singing alongside mom in Harvard Square. "I can't say no," Lord says. "You just know they're saying, 'Mary Lou has the kid singing already. What a stage mom.'"

She tells young musicians to try their hand at busking. "I tell them to play in the street. It's worked out so well for me. Why wait for a club owner to call you back? If your songs aren't on the radio, you have to get them to people's ears somehow. If you're playing good songs and good covers, you'll meet music fans and good friends and DJs and journalists. It's a great way to get an audience, and you can do it as many times as you want."

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Published in The Omaha Weekly-Reader Jan. 15, 2002. Copyright 2003 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.