Interviews are part of the job for musicians like Shelby Lynne, which mean answering the same questions over and over. We take pride in avoiding these standard questions and in learning about the artists through their songs.
Sometimes we fail.
When faced with stock questions, an artist will often go into autopilot and recite rote responses, but Shelby called us out. This one started well, with a discussion about the job satisfaction that comes with songwriting and how the iPhone has changed her life, but then we got sloppy, made some assumptions, and asked a Captain Obvious question.
Shelby's reaction reveals a lot about who she is and what she stands for. She's a non-conformist, existing on the periphery of country music. And in Nashville, the center of country music, non-conformists aren't always welcome. However, to fans of restlessly creative artists, Lynne is an icon. Case in point is Just a Little Lovin', her 2008 tribute album to blue-eyed soul singer Dusty Springfield. It was a daring and ultimately rewarding career move and a step way outside the box.
When Lynne won the 2001 Grammy for Best New Artist, the irony wasn't lost on her. "Thirteen years and six albums to get here," she commented upon receiving the honor. However, it's almost as though she's a new artist every time she puts out an album. I Am Shelby Lynne, which led to her Grammy award, was dubbed alternative country, whereas the 2011 release Revelation Road leans closer to autobiographical singer/songwriter material.
Here's the unfiltered interview where we found out the hard way that Lynne doesn't tolerate mediocrity and won't live in the past.
Shelby Lynne: Well, more than anything, I want to write good songs. And in my experience in writing songs I've found that the more honest and personal they are, the more people like them. People respond to honesty more than any other thing. So I get more enjoyment out of the creative sense of it than, say, the emotional sense of it, if that answers your question. I'm not really into cathartic, I'm into making creative work.
Songfacts: One of the things I've noticed about your music is that you're restless, at least stylistically, which I think is a positive trait. Because you've done swing music and you did a Dusty Springfield sort of album. Do you sometimes feel a little restricted by being labeled a country artist?
Shelby: Well, it can be restrictive when I obviously have proven that I like it all. People feel comfortable putting you in a box. I don't really have any control over that. I just continue to make the music and hopefully people can look outside of the category and decide on their own and call it what they want. It really doesn't matter, as long as people enjoy it.
Songfacts: Does it feel like work for you when you write songs, or is it something that tends to come naturally?
Shelby: Well, it comes naturally, but it's kind of a good work feeling. I mean, no matter what kind of job you have, just like my job is to make music, you always feel good when you have created something or finished a project that is worthy of attention. So it's good work, I enjoy it.
Songfacts: So it's almost like the equivalent to somebody that does a blue collar job and they come home and they feel like they really got a lot done, you've kind of had that feeling of accomplishment when you complete a song?
Shelby: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. It's just like planting a garden, or writing a song, or making a deal, or putting a new set of tires on a truck. It's an accomplishment. No matter what the job, it's a hopefully fulfilling duty. And I'm lucky that I get to create music, which is our greatest communicator, I think - when we can tap music to talk to each other, communicate. So it's a wonderful job to have. I'm very blessed.
Songfacts: Do the melodies usually come first or do you start with a lyrical line and then build from there?
Shelby: It's happened both ways. There's no specific pattern or routine. I like to let it come the way it comes, and if it's music first, I have my iPhone ready, and if it's lyrics, I do the same.
Songfacts: You're not the first artist I've talked to that really loves the iPhone. That must be a great tool for a creative artist to be able to capture it as soon as the inspiration comes.
Shelby: I tell you what, I do love my iPhone. I was just telling someone that it kind of replaced the napkin. (laughs)
Songfacts: It's an electronic napkin.
Shelby: It kind of is, because you don't have to have a pen. You don't have to go, "Anybody have a pen? Anybody got something to write on?" It's like your phone is there and, God, we love it. You're right, it's the electronic napkin.
Songfacts: You said what really affects listeners is when you express your emotions and it kind of touches people. Do you have a relationship with your audience? Do they send you emails or letters or tell you about how songs affect them?
Shelby: Oh yeah. Of course. I have a great relationship with people who enjoy my music, because I think they understand me. It's a wonderful feeling to have complete strangers turn into your not-so-strangers through music. It's the great goal when you're a songwriter to communicate with people. It's a wonderful feeling to be understood as a writer and a performer.
Songfacts: I wonder sometimes if you think that your audience understands you better than the people at the Grammys who gave you a Best New Artist Grammy years after you had been making albums.
Shelby: I don't know what the question is.
Songfacts: I guess sometimes it's like fans understand more than the industry. I'm part of the industry, so we like to package and compartmentalize and label people. And audiences, they know what they like and they like what they like. Do you think audiences sometimes are better at understanding the artist than maybe the industry that's supposed to be the professionals?
Shelby: Absolutely. The only people that matter are the audience. The industry doesn't know shit, we know that.
Songfacts: You're right.
Shelby: They're just lazy and trying to put everybody in a box. "Oh, she's country. Oh, she's country." You know, well, you're damn right I'm country. But have you heard this? You know, the industry gets on my nerves. And anybody who creates music or creates anything, the industry gets on your nerves. That's why art and business don't mix. Unfortunately you have to have business to get your art out there, but it certainly is not very creative. So having my own label, I tried to make the business part creative, too. So that's what my team of people do. We make business creative.
Songfacts: And do you think that you're more content now that you have your own label?
Shelby: Let me think, huh. What do you think?
Songfacts: That's a dumb question?
Shelby: I swear, I think it's the dumbest I've had today, man. (laughs)
Songfacts: Well, let's move on to something else. I was reading that your song, "One With the Sun," was inspired by a conversation you had with Willie Nelson. What were you talking with Willie about?
Shelby: I'm not going to talk about the past.
Shelby: I'm tired of all y'all reading the old shit and asking me the same tired questions. You all need to come up with some new ones.
Songfacts: So what would you like to talk about?
Shelby: No, no, no. That's your job.
Songfacts: Okay. Well, what are you working on these days? Are you preparing an album?
Shelby: Yes. I'm always preparing an album. I don't know what the hell kind of album. It'll be a Shelby Lynne album. I'm going to spit out a live DVD this year - I won't say wanting to do it, because I'm not a big fan of live stuff. I like live performance, because it's in the moment. And it's a moment in time of the people that were there and the experience and the whole thing. But I have reneged and decided that I'm going to put out a DVD.
Songfacts: Oh, wonderful.
Shelby: Good. I'm glad you like that idea. I'm going to put that out this year and then in the meantime I'm going to write a new record and I've started it, but I don't know what it is yet. So I've got all kinds of things working.
Songfacts: So tell me about this DVD. Where was the performance at?
Shelby: I just did a two-week run in Europe, so it's mostly that. I'm not finished with it yet. I'm not sure of everything that it'll include, but I'm planning on doing a live thing and Europe was a lot of fun and crowds were wonderful. And I might take a lot from that. So that's the plan. I'm still working on it.
Songfacts: How are European audiences different than, say, audiences in the States?
Shelby: Oh, they're not different. They're just as great. They just speak another language. I mean, I have to say that anybody that comes to see anything is a lot of fun, no matter where, here, there everywhere. It's just a privilege to go sing for people who enjoy it. It really is. Everybody seems to have a good time and that's all that matters to me.
Songfacts: Do you have any favorite places to play when you tour in Europe?
Shelby: Any favorite places? My favorite places are where people show up.
Songfacts: Yeah. (laughs) I imagine you don't have a problem with that, though, or do you? Have you ever had any experiences where a really small audience showed up and you were wondering where everybody was?
Shelby: No, the smaller the better, it's great. When I play concerts for small little audiences, it's wonderful.
Songfacts: Do you ever sneak out and do club shows just for the fun of it?
Shelby: No. Why would I do that? I play clubs for a living. I don't really need to sneak out and do it.
Songfacts: So this DVD that you're planning, do you think it's going to be sort of a career retrospective or are you going to include --
Shelby: Oh, hell no. It's current.
Songfacts: Okay. So you're thinking maybe, what, the last few recordings?
Shelby: It's live performances. So it'll be from this tour.
Songfacts: I see. The new album is really intimate. Was it difficult to replicate that intimacy when you have a lot of people in the audience, or did you just kind of put yourself in a frame of mind where you could just recreate that feel?
Shelby: Well, it's just me and a guitar. So it's not hard to be intimate with me and a guitar.
Songfacts: Wow. So you didn't even take a band?
Songfacts: My goodness. Wow. That's brave.
Shelby: (laughs) Well, it's fun.
Songfacts: Yeah. I'll bet that meant that you could change the shows around. Did you kind of from night to night depending on how you felt?
Shelby: Oh, yeah. Oh, I do. I change it around every night, you know, somewhat. I have a list of songs and I mix them up or whatever. But if I get tired in the middle of a song and don't want to do it, I stop it and do something else.
Songfacts: Wow. What freedom. That's wonderful.
Shelby: That's what I'm talking about, baby. It's like, this is my game. I don't have to worry about musicians bitching about, "Well, you changed the key," I'm like, "Well, yeah, sure did." Nobody to fire but me. (laughs)
Songfacts: I like your attitude.
Shelby: I'm glad.
Songfacts: Did you ever do covers? And if so, on this tour did you do any songs by other artists?
Shelby: No. Not really. I mean, this whole tour has been about me and my songs.
Songfacts: Well, you said that you have this album that you're in the process of creating. Have you been writing songs for it?
Songfacts: Are there any songs that you're particularly proud of already?
Shelby: I haven't gotten that far.
Songfacts: Okay. What kind of a style, what kind of a direction...
Shelby: I don't pick directions. No, no, no.
Songfacts: Are you collaborating with other artists on it?
Songfacts: It's all you.
Shelby: Right now it is. Unless some magical elf appears and I'm like, "Hey, let's write."
Songfacts: I know you said you didn't want to talk about the past. However, I really love the Dusty Springfield covers and style that you did. Can you tell me a little bit about what her...
Shelby: I don't want to talk about the past. We're moving forward, Dan.
Songfacts: Okay. Well, let me ask you this, then. What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Shelby: Let's see, I just bought on iTunes this classical meditation music. Isn't that exciting?
Songfacts: Classical meditation music?
Shelby: Yeah. Sometimes I just like to zone out and listen to really beautiful sounds without hearing any lyrics.
Songfacts: Oh, I see. Right. So you can just kind of meditate.
Shelby: Yeah. Here's something really, really beautiful that's, you know, I don't have to think.
Songfacts: Well, I would imagine, Shelby, if you had your own label and you're your own producer, and like you just told me, you're your own band, you have a lot of responsibility. So maybe you need a time to just kind of step aside from everything.
Shelby: Yeah, Dan, you're right. Absolutely. I think that we have to take care of ourselves and sometimes classical meditation music does that for me. (laughs)
Songfacts: Do you think any of those sounds will make it into your new music?
Shelby: I wish. And hey, don't put it past me, man. You might say, you know, I'll be damned if she didn't put some classical meditation music in that damn album.
Songfacts: Well, when I get the new album, if I hear some of that, I'm going to say, I knew. I knew even before she was finished.
Shelby: And you'll have to call me and we'll have to talk again, because that would have to be the funniest thing I've ever heard.
Songfacts: Do you have any favorite songwriters?
Shelby: Yeah. Chuck Berry, Kris Kristofferson, Joni Mitchell. Need I say more?
Songfacts: Have you met your heroes?
Shelby: Neil Young. I have Kristofferson and I've met Joni Mitchell for one brief second one time at a Grammy thing. And Willie, Willie, of course. I love Willie's songwriting. Yep. You know, there's so many great songwriters, but once you get asked the question you can't think of anyone. The first three won't bend.
Songfacts: Yeah. You'll always leave out somebody, so it's probably an unfair question, right?
Shelby: Yeah. Jimmy Webb.
Songfacts: I talked to Jimmy Webb one time. What a wonderful guy.
Songfacts: Well, let's wind things up. I want to ask you since you're an accomplished songwriter, what advice would you give to songwriters that want to become accomplished like you. What would you advise them to do?
Shelby: Don't be afraid to stand apart from the crowd. Be an individual.
Songfacts: And you know what, Shelby, that's something that you have done. So you can say those words and mean them, unlike some people that tend to fit into the machine. You stand on your own two feet and I really respect you for that.
Shelby: Dan, I thank you for noticing. I really do. And I've had a good time talking to you.
Songfacts: Nice to talk to you, Shelby. You have a great day.
Shelby: You, too, baby.
We spoke with Shelby Lynne on March 13, 2012. Dan had better luck in his interviews with Roger Hodgson and Graham Parker.
Get more from Shelby at shelbylynne.com
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