Who Is Lydia Loveless? This Is the Year We Find Out
There is this moment in the trailer of Gorman Bechard’s new documentary Who Is Lydia Loveless? where the singer is entranced onstage in her own grueling self-examination. As she blasts the song's breakthrough line, it’s like she’s waving a victory flag of liberation. “If you think that I’m so fucking emotionally dead ... it’s because I am." Then she grinds out the first word of the next line, "why," in a whirl of exasperation as she exorcises the demons for everyone who has lived in a world in which they felt they never fit in. By the time she asks, “Why can’t you be more like them,” it’s as if she’s counseling herself in an alternative approach to primal scream therapy.
It’s the kind of riveting few seconds that make you rewind the trailer again and again -- the performance of a singer who has enthralled us with her excellent songs and redemptive performances that vary night after night and embody the true spirit of rock and roll.
Something akin to this happened to the director on the night he he sat in the front row of the Iron Horse on a summer night in Northampton, Massachusetts. That night it was just Loveless and her husband Ben Lamb on stand-up bass. As Loveless finished “Verlaine Shot Rimbaud,” she stood seven feet back from the mic singing the line “I just want to be the one you love.” The line filled the entire room and made Bechard know he wanted to make Loveless the subject of his next documentary.
In the Spring of 2014, Bechard, who directed the documentary Color Me Obsessed about the Replacements, posted an S.O.S. of sorts on his Facebook page asking, "Where is the good rock and roll?" He had only one album he liked that year by Angel Olsen and it was already May. Then friend and photographer Agatha Donkar -- whose many photographs are featured in Bechard’s documentary about Grant Hart of Husker Du -- wrote about her favorite under-the radar album. It was called Somewhere Else by the Columbus-based and Ohio-born Lydia Loveless.
“It was a love at first note,” he recalled. “I heard the opening chords of ‘Really Wanna See You’ and honestly I felt like I was listening to Pleased To Meet Me."
Bechard traveled to Minneapolis for the Replacements homecoming reunion tour shows but found himself incessantly talking about Loveless at every turn. Seeing her later at Webster Hall in New York further confirmed he made the right decision. Loveless laid on her back delivering “Boy Crazy,” in a moment he remembers as pure chaotic rock and roll.
Bechard initially recruited Loveless to be one of the voices on the Wailin' Jenny's song "One Voice" that appears at the end of his film called A Dog Named Gucci. The song is what the director describe as a a “We Are the World” of animal rights. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign to launch Who is Lydia Loveless?, the director spent much of last summer interviewing her at her home in Columbus, filming the making of her new album Real and going out on the road for a week with the band featuring Loveless, Lamb, guitarists Todd May and Jay Gasper, and drummer George Hondroulis. Holding his camera steady for two hours each show, Bechard saw the singer’s masterful ability to change her sets and reinterpret the songs that she first began writing a decade ago at the age of 15.
As we begin 2016, it’s exciting to unveil the new trailers from the film for the first time anywhere on No Depression. The film, which was co-produced and assistant edited by Colleen McQuaid, is expected to get a work-in-progress sneak preview at a film festival in late February. The director is hoping to hold the world premiere of the final film at a major film festival this Spring.
In the trailers, Loveless shows her self-deprecating humor. It became apparent in the first promo video of the film, during which she said everyone will learn why she is so tortured and loveless. Her intoxicating humor masks any of the singer’s insecurities and the underlying intensity of her emotionally gut-wrenching and gorgeously melodic songs -- songs that the director says makes her the best songwriter of today.
In another trailer, Bechard strings together a montage of talking heads. One after another they rattle off the confused comments in response to a simple question: “What do you think of Lydia Loveless?" “You mean the porn star?” one says in a response that’s come up more than a few times.
I had a chance to talk with Bechard as he was getting ready to begin mixing the sound of the film, launch a new post-production Kickstarter campaign and unveil the new trailers in time for the new year.
Steve Wosahla: How did the name of the documentary “Who is Lydia Loveless?” come to you?
Gorman Bechard: It sort of came to me because of the way people were describing her in so many ways. She’s described one minute as Patti Smith, the next as Hank Williams. The next is is “She’s Neko Case.” So then, it’s well, “Who is she?” It sort of became a running joke. She’d constantly be turning the camera and asking me “Who is Lydia Loveless?”
You posed a series of questions. Did you do the film to answer these or did they answer themselves as you were making up your list?
I think I’m posing the questions but I think that’s just it. Is she punk? Is she country? Is she a storyteller? My answer would be just yes period. Like every great band, she’s pretty much everything you need her to be. When you think of the Replacements, are the Replacements a great punk band? Sure. Is Westerberg one the great singer-songwriters, like a Dylan almost? Yes he is. Were they a great pop rock band? Yes. Could they break your heart with a ballad? Absolutely. It transcends being just great music.
In the trailer you ask a bunch of people the question “Who is Lydia Loveless?” and get a lot of confused looks.
I remember being with my wife’s family for dinner one Sunday and was asked “What’s the next film?” And when I said Lydia Loveless, literally a couple of guys are scratching their heads going, “The porn star?” When we were making the song for the end of A Dog Named Gucci, one of the rock stars said, “I’ve heard of Lydia Lunch and Patty Loveless but I haven’t heard of her.”
In Color Me Obsessed, like all of your rock documentaries, you approached the story of the Replacements retrospectively and tell the stories of some of the greatest bands that had broken up. In Who Is Lydia Loveless?, you’re telling a story about someone in real-time whose career is still evolving. Did that create some opportunities as well as challenges in this approach?
Well yes, because the story is always changing and you could go on forever. I guess what I’m trying to do is give that glimpse of her recording her fourth record and the tour in the moment --and where they are at this point in time and how they got there--and what they hope to be in the future. With the Replacements, I had a set story. It started with the Replacements handing over their audition tape to the break-up in Chicago. With Grant Hart of Husker Du, it was letting him narrate his story. With the Archers, it was very simple -- it was a concert documentary and I just wanted to put in a little bit of the personalities in between the songs. More than anything I wanted it to be a kick-ass rock show.
With Lydia, I wanted to tell the story of someone up and coming. I wanted to not only investigate where she came from and watch her record in the studio, watch her rehearse, watch her interactions and watch her onstage-- but I also wanted to look at stuff we normally don’t see a lot of. What are the finances for a band like this? Where does the money go? Who gets the money? Is Spotify good? Is Spotify bad? How does piracy affect you? What about the fans? I really wanted to go into all of that for a band that can still sell out 200-250 seat venues and bars but is still all travelling in an old Ford van. A good night is when they have a couple of hotel rooms. No one is rolling in the dough so to speak. So what is it at that point when you have amazing critical success and acclaim but you’re not there yet?
One of my favorite parts of the film is showing people how a song comes together. In "Desire," one of her greatest songs, we go from her conception of the song where she's playing the first verse on a guitar in her office, to bringing the song to the rehearsal space where they're working on the parts for the second verse, and then into the studio. By now we're on the third verse. We then go onstage where they're just kicking it.
In the trailer, she says, “I don’t think people really like rock and roll although they claim they do.” Where do you think that comes from?
Oh I think she’s one hundred percent right. I think people are scared by rock and roll. I think people want to think they like rock and roll but wake up people, Vampire Weekend is not rock and roll.
Is it because it’s morphed into other things or has become so watered down?
I think people like things that are safe and won’t give them anxiety.
In the trailer, you get at the generational differences in her audience. The fact that her younger fans see her playing with older guys and talk about the “suburban dads” at her shows like me. The first time I saw her I took my daughter. What do you make of that generational split?
I think we are looking for bands that we fall in love with. We’re looking for the early Clash, Elvis Costello and the bands that were real rock bands. That is why I believe she appeals to an older audience. We’re looking for people who know rock and roll and are not afraid of it. When you look at her lyrics, they speak to actual human emotions which I think a lot of songwriters are afraid to do. I think when people start to listen they think “this was the way my heart was broken, this is the way I lusted after this person, this is the way I felt when my friend died.”
You set out to deal with the issue of sexism for women in rock and roll. In the trailer she talks about being asked by an interviewer, “As a woman, do you find it a risk to write about darker subject matter?”
I wanted to look at what it’s like for a woman in rock and roll which it is different as much as we wished it wouldn’t be and she talks about it a a lot and I hint at in the trailer. She’ll tell me these things in the film where a guy playing rock and roll would never experience. You would never ask a twenty-five year old guy “What do your parents think about your lyrics because you’re swearing so much?” People will accuse her of playing up to older men just to get a rise out of them because she’s putting something provocative in her lyrics. I think when Lydia writes her lyrics, she just writes from the gut. To think for anyone to accuse her of pandering to her audience is just ridiculous. You just haven’t been paying attention.
When you talk about the great live shows you’ve seen, you include Lydia in the same breadth of the greats you saw and who pre-date her being born. Do you think she understands that context?
Yes. She has this crazy musical knowledge, You talk to her and even though she’s twenty-five years old she knows where she came from. The youth baseball example would be being an African-American and not knowing who allowed them to start playing in the league. I think people need to know their history.
In the end is her story the embodiment of every band out there trying to make it in today’s music business when at times it seems like there isn’t a business as we once knew it?
I think young bands could really learn from this, There’s bands that are only getting a few hundred dollars. Their guaranteed is around $1000 a night, I’m sure bands getting $200 would kill for $1000. But with larger guarantees come larger expenses. I really wanted to show that aspect. When you’ve got your small label deal with Bloodshot, things are going well and you’re getting really good reviews but is it sustainable? What do you have to do to take it to the next level?
What do you think is the next level and how do you get there?
If you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to keep trying. If you don’t you’re the one who gave up and your lack of success can be your own fault. But there also has to be talent there and here we have one of our greatest songwriters. Right now if you were to put a gun to my head and say who is the greatest songwriter on the planet, I would say Lydia Lovless. There’s no one else who’s even in second place. She’s not writing ridiculous little ditties about shaking your ass or ‘oh I broke my heart.’ She’s writing songs that adults can actually relate to. She writing about situations you can actually put yourself in and understand. She is Paul Westerberg in 1984. She is Bob Dylan in 1965. She is Jeff Tweedy in 1996-97.
Lydia is everything you want in a singer. Someone said this about the Replacements and having heard the new album many times, I can say she has songs for every occasion. She’s got a song for a funeral, a song for a wedding, she’s got a song if you’re in love, she’s got a song if your heart is broken, she’s got a song if you want drive really fast on the highway--and one if you want to sit at home and cry in your beer.