“The indie artist is the alley cat of Athens.”
So says singer Lera Lynn, an Athens resident and former lead vocalist of Birds & Wire, a pop outfit that garnered quite a bit of attention from the locals. Lynn ultimately struck out on her own in the seemingly saturated music town, which she sees as a perfect setting for nurturing musical creativity.
“Those musicians showed me that I can do this if I want it badly enough. Moreover the sense of community is very strong in Athens. Everyone is related musically by at least one degree, seemingly. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together, at least in my head. The town is littered with venues and people are dying for an excuse to host events so there are ample opportunities to perform.”
Athens is a long way from Lynn’s hometown of Houston, where she lived with her family until she was about 12. “In search of work, my parents made their way east and finally settled in the suburbs of Atlanta. Though my time living in Texas was short, I’m amazed at how much I still connect with the western sound. That must have always been present in the music my parents played around the house, along with Appalachian sounds.”
In momma’s footsteps
Another part of her current affinity for music comes from her talented mom. “My mother used to sing in rock and country bands when I was a child. She would practice at our house through a PA and I would stand beside her, singing along, into my hairbrush. It was always a part of life in our house. As I grew into a teenager, music became an escape from the occasional hostility that unfolded at home. Those experiences have shaped just about everything in my life in some way, and I can finally say now, for the better.”
The ability to create music comes from a number of sources, as the combination of the known becomes the new. Lynn’s early influences blended well with the exposure to the unique and innovative music in Athens. “Living [here] has also exposed me to a plethora of styles and approaches. It’s interesting to step back and notice all the influences you’ve picked up over the years; they always end up being nuances that you once loved but thought you’d almost forgotten and there they are, part of you. Perhaps what I’ve noticed most lately are the differences between eastern and western country music. I definitely identify with both equally and try to twist them into the same braid.”
In addition to the ephemeral “Athens Sound” Lynn has been greatly affected by many Georgia artists as well. “Part of Georgia’s music culture that influenced me later in life is soul. One of my all-time favorite musicians, Ray Charles is from Georgia, as is Otis Redding. That definitely makes the third cord in my braid.”
Making an impression
Lynn’s current work tends to be a bit more on the country/folk side of the fence, but still does not stray as far from Birds & Wire as one might expect. Her light vocal style may seem a bit airy at times, and comparisons to Gillian Welch and Nanci Griffith aren’t too far off base. But she has a dark sense of humor that permeates a lot of the material, and can also belt out a honkytonk heartbreaker with the best of them. For example, her gender-bending “Good Hearted Man” could just as easily have been a hit (minus the profanity) for that other Lynn—Loretta, in her heyday.
With recent successful endeavors such as winning the 2011 Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest in the country category and the Independent Music Vox Populi Award for best alt.country song, Lynn is making an impression on people involved in the Americana scene, which leaves her a little nonplussed. “If it helps people to categorize things, then I say go for it. But personally, I’m indifferent to genre at this point.” Lynn’s winning song at both Merlefest and the IMA was “Bobby, Baby,” a gothic biographical ode to her late father. The Merlefest song award has been a real boon for her.
“Ben Lewis, who plays guitar in my band, encouraged me to sign up for the contest. I thought, ‘What the hell, why not?’ To my surprise I made it to the final phase of the competition, and we set off for Merlefest. We were treated like royalty. It was such a blast. When they announced that my song had won, all I wanted to do was run out to the moon bounce they had set up and bounce my brains out! Winning that contest has given me credibility as a songwriter. They think that maybe you really do have something worthwhile. It’s a nice feather in the ol’ cap.”
Upon listening to her work, one can’t help but notice the maturity and precision in Lynn’s songwriting. Her songs tell rich and sometimes discomforting stories, in a very authentic and convincing way. It is a task she finds somewhat natural and spontaneous.
“Songwriting is never a calculated or routine process for me,” she observes. “I generally write alone, though I’ve been trying to collaborate more lately. Ideas often come to me randomly and I scramble for a piece of paper or my phone recording app to get it down before I forget it. I’ve written at least six songs while sitting on stairs. Who knows why? At least once a week, in waking, I will dream I’m playing an entire song, fully fleshed out with the band, and I’ll think, ‘remember this… I’ve got this… just a few more minutes of sleep…’ Of course I rarely remember it once I’m awake.”
Sadly, we can only speculate on those lost tunes.