MARY LOU LORD
HAS IT ALL
by A.J. Wachtel
The first time you see and hear Mary Lou perform you realize she’s incredibly talented; just listen to the passion and emotion in her voice. She’s got the look. She’s got the ability to write a great melody or do an even better cover of a song than the original version; and her presence onstage and off is of the highest caliber. As an artist, Mary Lou Lord has it all.
Noise: I’ve heard you are currently writing a book. Fact or fiction?
Mary Lou: Yes, I am in the process of writing a book about my life. I have no idea if anyone will find it interesting or not, but I do have many stories to tell.
Noise: You play every Tuesday night on the North Shore. What else are you up to these days?
Mary Lou: I co-host an open mic with Bob Leger up here in Beverly every Tuesday night at Kitty O’Shea’s. I don’t usually play at the open mic due to the amount of performers we have every week. I like to give everyone a chance to get up on the mic. It’s really a lot of fun. It’s become a weekly social event which I’m so happy to be a part of.
Noise: You first gained notice playing acoustic guitar and singing in Boston’s subway system. You even named your music publishing company On the Redline Music. If you were head of the MBTA what would you do to make the T more artist-friendly? Care to share a cool story about those days?
Mary Lou: Yes, I did a lot of subway performing over the years. Park Street on the Red Line and in Harvard Square; I played outside in the summers when the subways were too hot. If I was head of the T, I would assign every subway station a busker-friendly spot to perform in and not make it so difficult to obtain a permit. Those permits are a pain in the neck, especially for traveling buskers who might not be in town long enough to obtain a permit.
A cool story… well, yes I played in the subway for 18 years so there were many stories, but here’s one of my faves: there was one day I had just finished performing at Government Center on the Blue Line and for a laugh and sort of a joke, I said over the mic, “If anyone has an extra Bob Dylan ticket to tonight’s show, I’ll be obliged”… there were only about nine or 10 people on the platform at that time—airport bound. And after I said it, a guy stepped forward and said “I have an extra one.” What were the odds of that!? He showed me two tickets he had. The show was at Great Woods. Turns out the guy was on his way to the airport to catch a bus to Mansfield to go to the Dylan show. He had front row center seats! My car was parked at Wonderland, so we just left the station right there, got on the T, and from there I drove us to Mansfield to see Dylan. He turned out to be a really great guy. He was a guitarist and dishwasher at a place in Peterborough, New Hampshire, called the Folkways Coffeehouse. What a great night!
Noise: You became friends with Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain in the fall of ’91 before the group’s rise to fame. Decades later, do you think the correct things in his life and music are being remembered? Care to share a cool Lord/ Cobain/ Boston story that no one knows?
Mary Lou: I do think the songs that Kurt Cobain wrote are what people remember now. Songs and the recordings are what matter in the end. There are tons of kids these days just discovering Nirvana’s music, and from what I can tell, they don’t care about the story behind the music as much as they care about the songs and the music itself. Which of course, is a great thing. They are un-biased. I think it’s gross however, that every time I hear Courtney mentioned, she is suing someone or saying shitty things about someone… as usual. To me, it’s such a waste. She had the potential to use her fame, her wealth, and her name to do so much more than what she ended up doing—which was basically nothing. She could have helped build organizations to empower young women, young people, or some sort of charity and humanitarian foundations. She did nothing but serve her own selfish and self-possessed needs.
Hmm. a Kurt Cobain story… well, here’s a short one. I met him at the Rat one night. They were trying to get in on the guest list to see the Melvins. The door guy was giving them shit like, “I don’t see your name on the list”… they were like, “No Nirvana on the list?” Door guy: “No.” Me: “You should let them in.” Door guy: “Who the fuck are you?” Me: “You should just let them in.” I went back downstairs and about 10 minutes later Kurt came up and said, “Thank you for helping us get in.” I asked him where they were staying… “Howard Johnsons”… I asked if he wanted a ride back to the hotel later… “Yes”… Later when we were leaving, I started to unlock my bike… Kurt said, “I thought you said you’d give me a ride?”… Me: “ Yeah, get on.”… I peddled him on the back rack of my bike to the Howard Johnson’s. We sat on the wall in front on Comm. Ave. until the sun came up. That was the night we met. Great times.
Noise: Do you and Courtney Love get along?
Mary Lou: No, Courtney Love and I do not get along. I don’t think anyone gets along with Courtney.
Noise: Your recording of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” was featured in commercials for Target stores. Did this help your career any and have any fans ever come up to you and mentioned it?
Mary Lou: The Target commercial people contacted me and told me they wanted to use my cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle.” I asked them, “Why mine?” I told them they should use the Daniel original, or Yo La Tengo’s, but they didn’t want anyone else’s. So I contacted Daniel’s manager and asked if I should do it. I got a big thumbs up. I’m sure that back then, it was Daniel’s biggest pay day in his career. I was very happy to have been a part of that. Unfortunately, the commercial was released to air on 9/11/2001… so, the commercial wasn’t seen very much. Everything was messed up. Especially commercials. It was 9/11 news straight for that entire month. So no, it was a blip on the radar… but Daniel was paid very well for it… and yes, people adore that song. I’m also happy to know that Daniel is now finally getting the attention he deserves. In fact, when I met Kurt, he told me that I was only one of the five people he’d ever met that actually knew of Daniel’s music. I felt the same about Kurt. I knew virtually no one in 1991 that was familiar with Daniel. I think that’s one of the reasons Kurt and I bonded right away.
Noise: Any advice to young artists struggling to get their music heard in these tough times?
Mary Lou: My advice for young people would be to write and write and write. Also, to play wherever, and whenever possible in any public setting. Never wait for a club to call you back. Pick a subway or a spot with people around—and go play. Put music up on YouTube. Also, never sign anything without a GOOD entertainment lawyer present. Also, there is no need of having a manager until you’ve sold at least 5,000 records yourself.
Noise: In 2001 you released Live City Sounds with you playing live in the Boston subway. Did you have any problems doing this? Could this event be done today?
Mary Lou: I did record Live City Sounds myself in the subway. It was genius. I bought a portable dat recorder at Guitar Center—which is what I used to record this record on. I used a credit card to buy it. I had it for about a month, and then I returned it. Guitar Center has (or had) a policy that you can buy a product (as long as it’s not a microphone), and if you’re unhappy with it, you can return it within 30 days. I also bought five speedy CD burners that I had going 24-7 for that month in which I burned about 5000 CDs (or more). I did the artwork myself and had them all packaged and printed. The only money I spent on the actual recording, was having it mastered at the wonderful M Works in Cambridge. And the CDs themselves were pretty inexpensive, as I bought 5,000 in bulk. Then, after this, I did a deal with a label called Rubric that picked up the rights for this record. I think over the years, I sold about 15 thousand right out of my case. Not sure how many Rubric sold. And no, I do not think this could be done today. No one buys CDs any more. They want vinyl, and with the vinyl, they want a download stick with it.
Noise: In 2005 you announced you suffered from a rare vocal cord affliction. You became more involved in A&R and started Jittery Jack Management. What’s behind the name and who are you currently managing? What’s the similarities and differences for you between performing and working behind the scenes?
Mary Lou: I have a rare vocal disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. It’s the same condition that Linda Thompson (of Richard and Linda fame) has, Diane Rehm, Robert Kennedy Jr., and Daryl from Run DMC. It’s a nerve to muscle thing that makes the vocal chords shake. There is no solution to this except botox injections to the vocal cords, which I have not had as my insurance won’t pay for that. It was really hard for me emotionally when I first got diagnosed, but it’s been so long now, it’s just part of me, and I do the best I can.
Kevin Patey is my ex-husband. He is the lead singer of the Raging Teens and his stage name is Jittery Jack. He still plays semi-often and he just came out with a new record last month. He is also the general manager at T.T. the Bear’s. He’s a great guy. We started a management company in 2005, but we soon realized that we weren’t really cut out for it. It hurts too much when you invest time, money, and faith in a band, and the moment they get big, they bail on you for something bigger—or they move to LA… it was too emotional. I suppose working behind the scenes is harder in one way, but easier in that it really is the band that breaks their asses…touring, etc., but as a manager, you have to take care of all the little details that can certainly take up a shit load of time for very little returns. A nearly thankless task. I’d rather do music!
Noise: In 2011, you used Kickstarter to help raise money for your next project. What are the pros and cons of this service?
Mary Lou: Yes. I did a Kickstarter and I’m in the process of making the record for the project. The pros are obvious, but if I could give some advice: make sure the project is close to done before venturing into one. It’s harder than it might be… great idea, but in reality, it’s a whole different ball game. Make sure you’ve got the bird in hand before you sell it!
Noise: You have a 14-year-old daughter. Is she a musician too, and do you ever share the stage or studio with her?
Mary Lou: Yes, Kevin and I have a daughter… Annabelle. She just turned 14. She is an amazing young woman. She has a very sensible ear for music in that she is totally drama free. She loves Elliott Smith, Big Star, and Dylan. She sings like she speaks, which is something that makes me very happy. So many young people today have this strangely affected singing style in which they are singing in a totally different way than they speak… so much so, that at times I can’t understand the words. To me, the words should be heard and understood… not buried in a weird affected singing style. So yeah… I adore Annabelle’s voice, her style, and her sensibilities. She’s a great kid. I don’t know how I got so lucky. I’ve truly been blessed.
Noise: What’s in the future for Mary Lou Lord?
Mary Lou: My future? hmm… not sure… just going to finish this record and hopefully do a tour with Nick Saloman from the Bevis Frond. He has a new record on the way as well.