A Night at the Movies with Lydia Loveless
On a Saturday night at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival, the Logan Theater feels like it’s not showing a screening as much as hosting a film premiere.
The official “world premiere” of Who Is Lydia Loveless? took place a week earlier in the singer’s adopted hometown of Columbus, Ohio. Its lead character stood on a red carpet with a wide smile and a can of Yueng Ling next to director Gorman Bechard. For more than six months, he had stuck a camera in front of Loveless in her home, in the studio, in the band’s van and on tour chronicling the many details and moments that make up a rock band’s lives.
As Bechard paced nervously with anticipation, Chicago felt like a homecoming of sorts for the singer. A contingent from Bloodshot Records, the label that had signed her after a SXSW showcase when Loveless was just 20, gathered. Photographer David T. Kindler, who had been shooting Loveless since he first saw her at American Music Festival at Fitzgerald's Night Club in 2012, arrived. He had spent the morning shooting her for the fashion blog Some Girls Style and tonight would see ten of his pictures in the film. Today was also Record Store Day and the release of “One Voice,” the gorgeous harmony-rich Wailin’ Jennys cover that closes Bechard’s documentary about animal rights A Dog Named Gucci. Producer Dean Falcone painstakingly put the record together, layering Lydia Loveless’ voice in two verses, one interspersed with those of Aimee Mann and Susanna Hoffs and later in the song’s culmination, where the three are joined by Norah Jones and Neko Case.
Inside the theater, Bob Ferguson stood in the lobby representing the festival’s charitable partner Oxfam--but he was also known for his memorable scene in Bechard’s documentary Color Me Obsessed: A Film About The Replacements. One night as the legendary band took the stage, guitarist Bob Stinson was nowhere to be found. Out of the corner of his eye Ferguson saw that there was someone playing pinball and realized it was Stinson. By the time the guitarist finished and headed to the bandstand, bandleader Paul Westerberg was so pissed off he tried to kick him off the stage. Another Replacements memory was shared in the film by fellow-Chicagoan Scott Wickman. At Taste of Chicago in Grant Park twenty-five years earlier, he left the show only to get in his car and hear on the radio the emotional news that the Replacements had just broken up. Tonight he was coming as an associate producer of Who Is Lydia Loveless?, the singer who was born less than a year before the Replacements laid their guitars down on a Fourth of July in Chicago.
If Color Me Obsessed looks back in time through the eyes of the Replacements’ most passionate fans, Who Is Lydia Loveless? is told in the words of an emerging young artist, who, at the age of twenty-five, is still writing her life’s story. The film provides an inside look as it follows Loveless through the creation of her new album Real. We get to see Loveless from writing a new song, to the first time her band in rehearsals and then records it in the studio (and later in front of a live audience.)
“I don’t know if I’m shy or massively obnoxious,” Loveless says deadpan in one of the opening scenes, hoping that by the end of the film she’ll know. It’s a hint of the introspective cross self-examination to come. Loveless uses self-deprecating humor to mask her insecurities, a person who considers herself socially awkward and admits that she felt she never fit in.
Growing up home-schooled on a cattle farm in eastern Ohio, Loveless regales the chronology of her life and theatrical punk-rock family. She traces the beginning of her anti-authority roots to a rule that she and her siblings weren’t allowed to play Eddie Money in the car because her father said he once was a cop. She never took to piano. “You want to Bach, I want to rock,” she quipped. Early forays into music were built around taking up bass and playing with her drummer father. Eventually Loveless found it was time to strike out on her own and “fire” him, realizing “It’s hard to meet dudes with your dad in the band.”
If there was any doubt that Loveless could carry the story for nearly two hours, this fear quickly dissipates. Her engaging and reflective thoughtfulness are juxtaposed with a natural ability to throw out hilarious one-liners. The narrative is hardly scripted and the story tells itself with Bechard’s generous attention to Loveless' journals and notes and her openess to the camera that frame the larger stories the two want to tell. The movie’s pacing allows the story to develop and you become immersed without feeling you’re being rushed through it.
Last summer when Loveless stepped onstage the first night of her summer tour, she began the show by saying, “Howdy. We Are Lydia Loveless.” In Who Is Lydia Loveless?, it’s the band that emerges as the star of the film. For guitarist Todd May, she is an old soul who has attracted “old dudes” like him around her. May concludes that he has the easiest job because he just has to paint the songs that Loveless writes. When drummer George Hondroulis peers into the camera, it’s with conviction. “She’s the reason why we’re here.”
Loveless is willing to reveal the inner workings of her songs, admitting she’s prone to initially "hate everything" until she lets her band develop ideas around them. It’s a realization of her own growth and would have never taken advice in her earlier years. All the years wiser, Loveless sees herself on the sidelines of observing herself and others which has made songwriting easier.
Loveless largely wrote her first album The Only Man when she was fifteen. The pervasive twang and honky tonk soundtrack cast Loveless as alt-country. Loveless’ own tongue-in-cheek promo portrayed herself holding up a sign as a struggling country singer. Today she dismisses the labels of years past like “outlaw country” and “Saving Country Music” almost mockingly. They haven’t been on her radar since that album which seems a lifetime ago. Still labels cling and Loveless laughs about going to shows and seeing posters that try and entice concert goers into thinking they'll be seeing a descendant of country queen Kitty Wells. “I mean in what fucking way are we going to be able to play a Kitty Wells show?” she says asks out loud.
The story of her band is a larger metaphor for today’s music business and what’s left of it. Making it as new artist in world is fraught with diminished expectations where digital streaming and a culture that believes music should be free has made it hard to earn a living. Loveless grapples with this. She reminisces about her values in which hard work and working her ass off helped her earn money to buy music and anticipate the experience of a new release.
As she and her four bandmates set up and tear down their equipment and pile themselves into one van, being on the road is a taxing experience. As band leader, Loveless thinks as much of making each night different and unique as much as she does about the economics of keeping her group together. How will she be able to support the musicians who have families themselves? In a poignant moment, she describes a safety net in terms of being able to buy a transmission when their touring van will need it.
A celebratory live concert recorded in Columbus is interspersed throughout the film. It feels like a victory for the band and all of their sweat equity earned throughout the documentary. In the end the film makes you feel that it’s not as much like you’re watching the band as much as you feel like you’re inside of it. And if the tedium and boredom that marks life on the road is documented, the film brings to life the realization that they’ve discovered something truly special. When bassist and husband Ben Lamb describes the pure energy and feeling that electrifies him hitting an F chord on stand-up bass, it’s something that money can’t buy. And when he looks around, he realizes he’s playing with his best friends. It reminds me of something bluegrass musician Monte Moncrief told me once. It was a life lesson he learned over decades of playing. At the end of the day, it really comes down being with the people you like to be with.
“I Hope I Opened Myself Up”
At the documentary’s conclusion, Loveless walked down to the front of the theater to sit with Bechard for a discussion moderated by a Chicago radio personality.
“I hope I opened myself up,” Loveless says of the last nearly two hours. “I hope I came across as honest and really open and raw because that’s what I want life to be.”
Bechard, who says he has never seen her do the same show twice, tries to frame Loveless’ performances in the continuum of landmark rock history. He tries equating it to Rod Stewart & The Faces in 1971, or the Rolling Stones in 1969. Loveless smiles at the Stones comparison but smirks at the Stewart analogy though Bechard believes that that’s where the Replacements came from. His wider point is that rock and roll has become too watered-down and safe, citing Vampire Weekend as ruining the genre in New York.
It’s something Loveless has no doubt heard before from the director and lifelong rock and roll evangelist. “Who has afforded New York lately?” she shoots back as if it's her way of to saying the comment is beside the point. “That’s not what I care about. What I care about is when the last time you went to a show and loved it? It doesn’t matter where you saw it but did you fucking love it?”
The moderator can’t help but hone in on a comment Loveless makes that people are afraid of rock and roll. “I think that people are afraid of themselves,” Loveless responds trying to put it into a broader context. She then starts to refer to herself on the screen as if it’s in the third-person. “I hate to get into the ranty ‘Who Is Lydia Loveless?’ but honesty is important to me. I want everyone to let their guards down. Not just me but the audience. I want everyone to feel what I’m feeling when I’m playing my songs.”
“Boy Crazy” is a song that Loveless wrote when she played bass in a punk band. It has a mystical transcendent energy that feels like it emanates from a supernatural force. When someone shouted it out in Harrisburg last summer, Loveless replied that “’Boy Crazy" "cannot be requested….It can only be felt.” In the documentary, Loveless is like a woman possessed in a strange animal frenzy that takes her atop the guitar amplifier and behind the stage’s black curtain. But in the climactic conclusion, Loveless falls down with May’s amp getting in the way slashing her leg wide open. It’s something that took her to the hospital and she says cost her two grand.
“It’s not about ‘Oooh we’re crazy onstage and falling off of amplifiers,’” she brings up for clarification. Loveless assesses it in the context she judges every show. Did she play good? Did she play bad? In the end it comes down to making someone else feel good about her music.
At the end of the concert, she expressed amazement that people had come to be in a documentary featuring “fat kid with acne from Coshocton, Ohio.” Maybe she’s just a nerd who is very passionate. Passion in the end is a currency that transcends everything, maybe even the songs she’s able to write and the luxury of being able to go in the studio and record them.
This Time It’s For Real
For the past year, Lydia Loveless has been leaving snippets of songs of her forthcoming album Real as if they were a trail of cookie crumbs. There was the evolving dissonance of “Out On Love,” an arrangement that developed in the studio and played out on her summer tour. Most recently the melancholic pop hook of “Clumps” was filmed on a street corner at SXSW. It’s easy to imagine how a full band arrangement could make it into a great radio single. The live performances of new songs like “Desire” make the film Who Is Lydia Loveless? seem like a cliffhanger for the release of her first album in more than two years.
As she left the screening, I caught her in the hallway. Standing alongside rows of classic movie posters, we spoke for a few minutes. Although she’s written a few new songs recently, there are no plans to go back and change Real.
“I really feel like the album is done and that’s good,” she shared. “I don’t want to touch it anymore. I don’t want to fuck with it.”
The singer says the album was born out of a lot of pain and loss, including death and the end of some relationships. While describing it being more intense, she adds that it’s “poppier” too using the word at the risk of making it sound like a Britney Spears album. Gasper’s play on steel and twelve-string acoustic guitar is woven within the loops he created. And having Todd May in the studio to do harmonies, helped, she said, make the subject matter easier.
I had to ask her how she felt inside seeing the film the first time. With an exasperated laugh, she said one word: relieved.
“I was so scared because I thought people were going to think I was full of shit or bitching, it was nice to see people laugh.” She paused and then said that her greatest joy is that it’s a good representation of the whole band and how they interact.
Was it hard to allow the filming while she was literally playing songs for the first time? She said it wasn’t because it didn’t seem like anyone was in the room.
“It was easy to forget that there were people there. It’s harder now when I see it.”
Then she reflected on the experience. “I think that’s what’s great about the movie. It doesn’t try to delve into how I write a song because I don’t even know how I did it. It just comes out of me.”
“You can never really share your creative process with someone,” she went on. “You can tell them how you do it but you can’t tell them how to do it. I don’t even know what my creative process is.”
As we finished talking and she started to walk up the the runway, I heard her mutter something under her breath as she looked Bechard’s way.
It seemed like a just reward but maybe not enough for someone who had been willing to reveal so much about herself.