Saturday, October 25, 2008

Mary Lou Lord: Who is Mary Lou Lord?

Photos from the Internet

This is the fourth part of a series of articles or interviews that have been published before in magazines that no longer exist. This one was originally published in
Oculus Magazine, April/May 1997; an update follows.

Mary Lou Lord: Who is Mary Lou Lord?

Calling Mary Lou Lord at an ungodly hour on a Saturday morning, she was very gracious, even after only a couple hours of sleep. It seems that some strangers had followed her car the night before; then someone called her at 3 a.m. from his cell phone after tracking her number and address from her license plate. After the call, she was up, nervously trying to train Mona, her Pomeranian, “to sound like a German Shepard.” She pondered both puzzled and angrily, “He didn’t even know me!”

After two releases on Seattle’s Kill Rock Stars label (Mary Lou Lords and Martian Saints!), who Mary Lou Lord “is” is about the be upped on the music scene since her recent signing with Work Records. “I got a car and have more time to myself, but nothing feels different – though I feel inspired that this can happen. To be believed in is incredible to me!” And despite a potentially lucrative deal, both spiritually and financially, you can still find her singing in the train stations of Boston for money.

Mary Lou Lord, 1995
Performing in the subways is a very key part of who “is” Mary Lou Lord. She has been doing it for nine years, five days a week, seven hours a day, with approximately 10,000 people hearing her per hour, by her own estimates. Starting off knowing only one song – hoping the train would come quickly – she was forced to then learn two songs. Even at that stage, what kept her apart from most subway musicians was the quality of the songs she covered. Not going for the usual Beatles, To-10, etc., that one hears constantly (“I don’t know ‘American Pie’”), Mary Lou chose more obscure numbers, by the likes of The Bevis Frond, Daniel Johnston, and Jimmy Bruno, as well as “Joni (Mitchell), Nick (Lowe), Neil (Young), and Bob (Dylan),” as she states in one of her own compositions, “His Indie World.” She gained a more eclectic following, even for a subway crowd. People who would stop to talk were music lovers who recognized the tunes. “The difference was I was playing decent songs. They’d say, ‘I know what you’re doing, and it’s a good thing,’ even though I sucked.”

Starting out listening mostly to folk and “progressive” music, Mary Lou realized at some point that she had missed the whole punk movement. By listening to more modern DIY and punk, she realized their connection to folk (“three chords, a little rebellion, a little bit of politics”). From there she kept tracing other bands’ influences until she came to a roots music in itself – rockabilly. What impressed her were the songs. “Fuckin’ good songs rule,” she exclaimed, and then continued, “If it starts out being a song, it will continue being a song.” Turning her back on the electronics of the Progressive rock sound, she acknowledged the burning question, “Where’s the song beneath that sound that will last 20 years?”

Martian Saints!, 1997
The song is, in part, the reason she has covered some relatively underground artists while singing in the underground, as well as having covers-laden releases (for Mary Lou Lords, in total, thirteen songs, of which four are originals). “Others deserve to be heard,” Mary Lou posited. “A song can only have life if it’s listened to.” By listening to her records and then seeking out the originals, as she has done (and still does), a listener could potentially “help me help them.”

After meeting and befriending Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill (also on Kill Rock Stars) at The Rat in Boston, Mary Lou headed out to Olympia, Washington, a few years ago, landing a job at the Smithfield Coffee Shop. From there, it was just a mater of time before she was signed on her own merits. On Mary Lou’s first, self-titled Kill Rock Stars release, all but one of the cuts are “a girl and her guitar,” with simple production values, presenting her as most have heard her in the subways. The exception is the opening cut, “Lights Are Changing,” presented with a full band and friend Juliana Hatfield (an “oddball, weirdo, cool chick”).

Got No Shadow, 1998
After a well documented (elsewhere) friendship and feud later (to which she wisely refers, “Who gives a flying fuck?”) Mary Lou found herself back on the east coast.

Her second release, Martian Saints!, is more heavily produced and, consequently, Mary Lou is not totally satisfied with it. Describing it as “too slick” and suffering from “theremin-overload” (“except for my cut, ‘Salem ‘76’”), she expresses, as an example, the Peter Laughner cover of “Cinderella Backstreet” as “too foofy, not gutsy.” She promises the next release, on which she is working, will “make up for it.”

Live: City Sounds, 2001
Her list of associates has been and is pretty astounding, including members of bands as diverse as Helium, the Presidents of the United States, and co-label member Elliott Smith (referred complementarily by Mary Lou as “The absolute shit! He’s fragile in my eyes, and I want to protect him.”). As she heads toward recording her next album, Mary Lou is also happy with her friend and new collaborator, Nick Saloman, of the Bevis Frond, who also joined her on some of the cuts from Martian Saints! Apparently, she had found people who know who is Mary Lou Lord.

Baby Blue, 2004
Sad to say, Mona passed away this year (pictures can be seen at MML's Website, listed below). Meanwhile, Mary Lou Lord continues recording and performing/touring, but has never broken past the college radio / indie cult artist stage. While it may not mean riches for her, her audience is a more select, and appreciative group. She still champions Elliott Smith, who committed suicide. Whether she still sings in the subway I don’t know, but it would not surprise me. I keep hoping to run into her down there.


  1. Hey, I first found out about Mary Lou Lord after reading that she went on a date with Kurt. Which is irrelevant when I think of how cool her music is. Equally cool for me, was finding out she was on the same record label as Sleater Kinney. I wonder if she still sings in Subways (which is quite inspiring ) it would be great to see her play anywhere in New York one day.

  2. I heard her music before I found out her connection to you-know-who, and way after his doing a "Del Shannon." Mary Lou Lord's music is kind of precious, but not in that cutesy, lame way, but as a musical force. I have never seen her live either, but came close. Went down to a club to see her play in NYC, and found out when I got there that the Management had cancelled it. Still would like to go and hear her live.