She released a stellar album called Real last year, but there may be no better example of what singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless can do than the single she put out a few months back. Over a backdrop of spare, delicately picked acoustic guitar and spectral keyboards, Loveless pleads in her torn, emotional twang with a lost lover, singing "Let me redeem myself tonight/ I just need one more shot at second chances" before tearing into the chorus of "Is it too late now to say, 'Sorry,'" sounding like she's near tears.
If those lyrics sound familiar, it's because the song, "Sorry," was a No. 1, multi-platinum-selling hit for Justin Bieber.
Yep. Lydia Loveless turned a Biebs song into a haunting lament that jettisons the song's electronic-dance arrangement and strips it down to the core.
"I was listening to the terrible pop music I like to listen to and thinking 'I want to cover that,'" Loveless says. "So I started figuring it on that crappy Garage Band-app keyboard. And then I had my guitar player Todd May put that great reverb-y guitar on when we recorded it. It wasn't the most thought-out thing, but I suppose you could say it's haunting.
"It's not the most delicately produced song to begin with," she adds with a laugh. "It sounds like a bunch of shit falling down the stairs. So I wanted to take that out of the song."
The other song on the single is called "Desire." It's a gritty mid-tempo rocker that features Loveless' stark declaration that "there's no hope for desire if you don't show up tonight." It was originally recorded for Real, and like the rest of the album, it's a wrenching song written in the middle of what she calls the "very slow" ending of her marriage to her bassist Ben Lamb. The track was left off of the album for a couple of reasons.
"Sequencing was a problem," she says. "At the risk of giving away industry secrets, a vinyl album can't be very long without it affecting the quality. So it just didn't end up fitting. There were discussions of leaving off a song called 'Heaven,' but I was a lot prouder of that song, and 'Desire' was just so much more emotionally draining at the time. The thought of doing it every night was kind of depressing to me."
"Heaven" is perhaps the most out-of-the-stylistic-box song Loveless has recorded since her 2010 debut, The Only Man. Rather than the country-influenced roots-rock that she normally plays (think Son Volt meets the Drive-By Truckers), "Heaven" is a tight, funky bounce of a song fueled by a propulsively strummed acoustic guitar.
"I really honestly thought that song was never going to exist," she says. "I had a dream about it, and it was really difficult to convey to the band. When you have five people and you hear like a thousand different layers it's hard to rehearse and record that. I think I just eventually said, 'Pretend we're the Smiths and play it that way.' I was just happy to get that song recorded and out of my brain."
Much like the other songs on Real, Loveless' voice is a thick but clear howl of pain, and the album simultaneously seems like a breakup classic and a plea for one more chance. There's even a moment on "More Than Ever" when she audibly breaks down in tears.
"A lot of the stuff I write isn't about me or embellished, but that record was definitely about a shitty time for romance," she says.
When Loveless sings these songs onstage, there's a real sense of release, and she says it's easier for her to deal with her emotions onstage than off; singing seems infinitely more comfortable than making conversation for her.
"I'm definitely a mood-driven person," she says. "I've had socially triggered anxiety my whole life, and I have good days and bad days, but I'm definitely shyer in life than onstage. I guess it's sort of a power thing. And when you're performing, there's so much adrenaline, and that can keep you going; I don't act or talk like the person I am onstage, necessarily. It's a lot easier to tap into something more powerful up there."
On the flip side, it has to be difficult digging into a series of songs about her divorce onstage every night, right?
"I've never had a real problem with that," she says. "As a songwriter I can tap into different aspects of songs over the course of a year. I can find different things and meanings in a song so it doesn't have to be so laborious. If anything I'd be more worried if I were bored than if I'm emotional."
And some different material in her set might be helping as well. Loveless' label, Bloodshot Records, is prepping a reissue of her 2013 EP Boy Crazy, augmenting its original five tracks with six non-album singles. These songs are, for Loveless, a reminder of a very happy time in her life.
"I really wanted to have a vinyl version of it," she says. "It was a good time for me, because I'd just finished up [her third full-length album] Something Else, and I just kind of kept writing. I'm not the most prolific writer, so that was a really good time for my productivity."