Musician, Indestructible Machine
By Travis HoewischerPublished January 1, 2013
Do you wanna come to dinner with my family?
Since the night in 2008 when I saw a doll-sized 17-year-old with fair skin torch Etta James’ I’d Rather Go Blind, I’d been slightly fascinated by the origins of who I would come to know as Lydia (Ankrom) Loveless.
It’s hard not to be. As a music journalist, her timeline is a conveyor-belt of ready-made music scribe touchstones: home-schooled, performs in basement bars by the age of 15, adopts stage name vaguely borrowed from either a retro porn actress or legendary country singer, marries her bass player (more than two decades her elder), Dad’s a preacher-turned-bar-owner on the drums, both helping to bash out fearlessly honest songs about whiskey and women, whiskey and men, whiskey and God …
Of course, I want to come to dinner with your family.
Our meal of spaghetti and meatballs and vinaigrette salad seemed just like the many I’ve sat down for in my home; the siblings taunt each other and tease their parents, and bring up old stories with the express purpose of topping each other with embarrassment.
The only difference this night is that the one passing me my plate is on a national record label, just finished a European Tour, and has been pegged by the Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, and SPIN Magazine as one of the next great artists in the United States.
Once the table starts clearing and taunting subsides, it’s clear that the “heir apparent to Loretta Lynn” is also an idiosyncratic introvert, hell-bent on convincing the word that she’s far more boring that bad-ass.
I’ll be the judge of that, I say, setting my iPhone to record.
“I’m gonna need more whiskey for this,” she says.
I want to start by having you elaborate on being home-schooled. I was never home schooled, and I was never friends with kids that were, so I’ve always been kind of fascinated by it.
We were SUPER home-schooled …
Did you say “super” home-schooled?
[laughs] We were home-schooled by nuns … in the woods … No, we grew up already on a farm. I don’t know to describe it without making it sound like my parents were craaaaaazzy. But, literally we were the kinds people that went to the woods. My dad went to the country to be away from the system, and raise his kids the way he wanted to. I never really had another way of life.
My problem now, is I can’t function on that level … I’m so … myself [laughs]. I never had any ambitions other than, ‘I’ll be a writer.’ A novelist! If novelist doesn’t work out, I’ll just be a musician … I never had any f*cking realistic ideas at all. Now, it’s like, ‘Ugh, maybe I might want to get a degree [laughs].
Well, when you’re out on the road, you’ve got plenty of time to start on that novel.
I wish. I just need to be more self-disciplined. That’s the thing; people are always like, ‘so what’s going on in your life now? What do you like to do?’ Um, I don’t like to do anything. I just read books and write songs.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading _How To Read a Book _[laughs].
Are you serious?
Yes [laughs]. It’s this book that was written in 1940. It’s basically about reading a book so that you understand it more, and actually pick up the message. But it’s incredibly f*cking boring [laughs].
So, here you are dissecting a book about dissecting a book. In other interviews, you seem to be a little perplexed when someone tries to extract too much literal meaning from your lyrics.
I feel like a write a lot of lyrics out of my ass … lately, it’s been, ‘Oh, I have to write a song now, because that’s what I do.’ People are like, ‘She writes songs about making men cry …’ I don’t think about what I’m writing; I just write it and then it exists.
I can see why that would be hard to relay to a music journalist.
Lately, I don’t know how I even write anymore. Before it was never like I was writing an album. But now, I’m on [Bloodshot Records], so they’re like, ‘When’s the album going to be delivered?’ It’s not an album; it’s a bunch of songs. ‘What’s the concept?’ I have no concept. Let’s call it These 10 Songs [laughs]. I’m probably far less interesting than I used to be. Now that I’m actually traveling to places all over the world, I get less interesting [laughs]. Here I am in such-and-such, I hope I can get a good meal … I sure do like food. [laughs]. Maybe me and [husband] Ben can sneak off and have sex and it’ll make this trip, ‘The Time We Had Sex in New Mexico!’ Let’s face it, we’re gonna get drunk, we’re gonna play the show, we’re gonna eat the food … but we’re doing it in Belgium!
So, you sit alone in your house a lot, and read books. So how did you go from wild-ass teenager to 22-year-old spinster …
I know! How did I get here? [laughs] That’s my fear … people are always like (in a school marm voice), ‘Lydia Loveless, we’re concerned for her … why does she drink so much … but, now they’re like, ‘We can’t wait ’til she gets older so she can write songs about maturity’ … but what’s maturity? [singing] Brushing my tooth/I’ve got a hole in my tooth/found a cavity … don’t have health insurance … [laughs]. Tryin ta get this record releaaaaased/hopefully, so I can pay my gas bill … That would be interesting [laughs].
Can you remember the first song you ever wrote?
(It’s these questions the rest of the family can’t leave be; her brother Nate answers me first with, ‘Yeah! It was called Goo Goo GaGa, Gitchy Gitchy Goo.’ Other sister Jessica contemplates whether there’s still a cassette in the house from the kids’ first recorded music.) There was ‘Babies Everywhere.’ [laughs] And ‘Blurry Vision.’ It was literally just me playing the guitar on open strings, yelling, ‘Blugh-wy Vision, OOOOOHHHHH, Blugh-wy Vision!’ [laughs].
This is the worst part of being a successful musician, isn’t it? Having to talk about your “process?”
Yeah, I think it’s kinda hard. I’m sure it’s a lot more interesting when I’m doing it.
Has that process changed at all since writing on an indeterminate timeline to now having a label involved?
Lately, what I’ve been doing is renting a studio and I’ve just been playing guitar … for a while. It used to not be part of my way, to write songs on guitar, but I’ve been getting a lot better. It’s been easier for me to come up with melodies through playing. I guess I just try to write as much as I can in my journal. I usually draw from words more than music, but I’ve been trying to play more off moods. Today, I was playing some hymns. I just wanted to see where that would take me.
Yeah, you’re kind of going to work now.
I’m trying to treat it that way. I wish I were more of a professional about everything. But, I just like music.
You and your family all played together in revered local band Carson Drew, but what other bands happened before that?
When I was a kid, I desperately wanted to be in a band and all my friends were these irresponsible sh*theads. My friend wanted to started a pop band and I was so excited. I wrote these lyrics and she actually took them to her English teacher, and she thought they were great. I thought it was so cool to hear that from an adult. See, when I was a kid, I thought of adults as actually cool people. Being home-schooled, I did things on my own. I went to dance class as a decision of my own accord, as opposed to ‘you must do this for school.’
You looked for validation more from adults than kids.
Yeah! I still don’t give a sh*t what my peers think. I don’t have any friends that are my age.
(Perhaps that’s because Loveless’ age is fairly relative. A week after our dinner, we reconvene at Bernie’s Bagels and Deli, a legendary basement hole that is infamous less for either of the nouns in its name, and more for being a rusty launching pad for many of the city’s rookie bands. Carson Drew, the band comprised of Lydia, her sisters, and father, played the stage behind us many, many times. And, as if to underscore the inauspicious nature of Loveless’ creative incubator, when we walk through the front door, there is a homeless man taking a nap on the steps).
This place is in the canon of just about every musician in Columbus, but especially for you, playing shows at 15 years old. This seems like a coming-of-age playground.
That’s kind of embarrassing [laughs]. Sometimes, I talk about it in interviews, and people say, ‘How weird, that she was in bars that young,’ but pretty much your first show in Columbus is going to be at Bernie’s, unless you know someone. At first, it was like, ‘What is this scary place?’ [laughs].
Did your folks ever legitimately worry about the scene here?
Probably my mom did. I remember I met my first boyfriend here, and he was doing acoustic versions of GG Allin songs; he played Needle Up My C*ck or something like that, and my Dad was like, ‘You need to get out of here and go for a walk.’ I was like, ‘Umm, I’m dating this guy now.’ [laughs] That was my parents’ dream come true.
You said you always hate when people call you ‘old soul,’ but you certainly have a veneer of cynicism. You have sharp edges.
Yeah, definitely. I guess I hate the old soul thing because I just am myself. Calling myself that sounds like I’m trying to say I’m out of this world, or I’m above you. But I’ve always been this way. When I was a kid, I didn’t like any of my friends; when I started playing music, it was so cool to meet older people because I felt like I could relate to them a lot more.
Do you feel like your teenage years were fairly standard, even if it doesn’t seem that way on paper?
Yeah, I mean those are hard times and I went through a lot then. I think it’s pretty much the worst time in anyone’s life. If someone said, ‘Oh, [being a teenager] was the best time of my life,’ I’d think they were insaaaaaane for thinking that. I was just so anti-social. I’d ask my mom if I could go to a sleepover; she’d say ‘no,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yay!’ [laughs] Internally, I was like, ‘Cool! I can stay in and read Richard Hell poems and write about butt sex in my journal. [laughs].
Did you really write about that?
Well, Richard Hell wrote about butt sex in my journal [laughs]. GOD, imagine finding that journal! Who IS this person?
Home-schooled, her husband is 20 years older than her, playing underage in bars … do you feel like your Cliff Notes bio gives people the wrong idea about you?
It’s funny because people will be like, ‘She was raised on a rock-and-roll lifestyle!’ Really? I wasn’t even allowed to go trick-or-treating; we weren’t allowed to paint our nails, and we always wore these old Presbyterian dresses – until we were fairly old. My dad was a pastor for the first part of our lives … he didn’t buy a bar until later. That’s the nice part about our family – we’ve always just done what we wanted to do.
Wait, so your dad did have a bar?
Yeah [laughs] it was called The Underground, in Coshocton. That’s another thing that always gets turned around in interviews. So, you met a bunch of famous people and that’s why you wanted to become a musician? I definitely didn’t want to become a musician because of my dad’s bar filled with dirty old blues players … I almost never went there. I didn’t sit there at the shows ’til 2 a.m., thinking, ‘I wanna be in Iron Horse! I wanna be in Symmetry! [laughs] That’s why, now, I’ve done so many interviews, I’ve almost forgotten my life story at this point … I’ll end up reading an article and be like, ‘I don’t even know how I grew up.’ [laughs]
Most 22-year-olds don’t have people molding a mythology around them.
Yeah, it’s so weird. I’ll read that my songs are about ‘suckin’ and f*ckin,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s not really what I thought of that song; it was very personal and important to me.’ They’ll hear one line where I hint at ‘sexual activity’ and think, ‘Oh, Lydia Loveless is a crazy party animal who will bang your brains out on the bar.’ No, I’m actually pretty boring. I’ve always been a pretty monogamous, boring … hard drinker [laughs].
Well, people do make those quick connections. And in your case, a lot of your early lyrics do mix booze and men in healthy doses.
Because those were things I liked to write about; I’m not necessarily saying, ‘You should watch me drink this whole bottle of whiskey; it’s gonna be so cool.’ I’ve read other reviews where people say I’m bragging about my drinking … I don’t even wanna talk about it – that’s why I wrote a song about it. Just get it off my chest and move on.
When you were younger you obviously had a level of cultural intelligence beyond your age; so, did you have an idea that those songs would get that attention?
I guess I’m talking about my second album. My first album, I was definitely going for something there. I definitely wanted to be the wild woman singing country songs you normally wouldn’t listen to …
Like the lyrics, “girls suck/ they suck and suck and never get enough.”
Which now, I’m totally embarrassed by. I just want to scratch that Track Three off all those albums. Unfortunately, that’s the album that old people want to buy; when they hear that, they probably yell, “AHH!” and their soul flies out of their body [laughs].
You seem to get a kick out of that, even if you are a little embarrassed. You and your sisters all like to take the piss a little bit.
Yeah, it’s pretty funny to me. We’re all that way. Growing up in the country, we had to entertain ourselves and we used our imaginations a lot. By the time we moved to the city … we all had fake names, and a band, and costumes that we wore on stage. I remember one time I was doing some volunteer work for an animal rights organization, and I had to explain to them, ‘Well, my name’s not really Loveless and my dad’s name is not really Parker …’ She’s like, ‘Why do you all have fake names? Are you in the Witness Protection Program? [laughs] I’m like, ‘No, we’re just very theatrical.’ When I write something, I don’t feel like it’s my manifesto or anything …
… ‘Cause Lydia Loveless isn’t even real?
Yeah [laughs], I mean, I pretend it is. Well, for the most part, it is, at this point. I am that character – I slipped into it and now that’s who I am.
So what’s the division between the different Lydias?
I have no idea. I’m bipolar probably, and have just never been diagnosed. It depends on how I wake up. If I wake up feeling good that’s Lydia Loveless; If I wake up and am like, “I’m fat and I’m ugly and I hate myself …’ that’s Lydia Ankrom [laughs]. And [by marriage] Lydia Lamb … I forget I have like eight f*cking names. It’s like All About Eve [laughs]. Going into the bank is always fun. I go in with a wad of cash wearing a mini skirt and knee-high boots and it just looks totally wrong. No, use my other name! And then, because I don’t drive, my husband is sitting in the corner in a chair, so it looks like I’m walking in with my pimp! [laughs]
Did you and Ben have a honeymoon?
No, we went on tour shortly after. We are pretty much broke, so we just had a party in our backyard.
Do you think most people – outside of the music industry – would be surprised to know that SPIN-endorsed musicians are broke?
Well, you don’t get paid for every article that’s written about you. It seems exciting – which it is – being in SPIN was the most awesome thing that ever happened in my life. It was right next to Nick Lowe’s album review, which I thought was so freaking cool.
Let’s stay on that for a second. Your self-deprecation and self-confidence seem to be at equal levels, and you downplay your success somewhat. But, do you ever allow yourself that moment to go completely bonkers for a second and soak it in?
Yeah, I mean, I went to Barnes and Noble way too early that day, and they didn’t have it. I wanted to ask, and then tell someone, ‘Because I’m in it!’ Which I did not [laughs]. It really was awesome. I don’t get too many of those moments anymore. Hopefully I get that with my following albums.
Since you’re touring a lot, is it hard to recreate those moments on stage? Does it become too routine?
That’s the only way, with music anymore, that I get that feeling. It would be awesome to say everywhere we go is a new adventure, but a lot of times it’s just eight hours in the van. If you play a really fcking awesome show, it’s the best feeling in the world. Even if it’s not a particularly good show. I just played a [local show], and we got there at 5 p.m., thought we were gonna get a soundcheck, and everyone got wasted, and everyone was arguing with the promoter, and the security guards were getting out of hand, shoving my dad up against the wall … so we were just like, ‘Fck it; we’re at least going to rip this stage to shreds.’ I played ‘My Kind of Lover,’ by Billy Squire, even though no one knew it, I mooned the crowd and rolled all over the stage, and slid around [laughs] … it was probably terrible to behold, but you don’t get too many feelings like that. It was like, ‘Well, you paid to see this, so now we’re gonna give you a show!’
It’s got to be pretty surreal to be a 22-year-old from Coshocton playing Europe.
It was pretty amazing. We were taking pictures of toilets … like, ‘Everything’s so different!’ [laughs] Everything was just funny and awesome. It’s nice to go someplace where everyone and everything is so different. In America, essentially everyone feels the same. It was great, though; everywhere we went, they were like, ‘Ohio will save the election, yes?’
Is it weird to know you have fans around the world?
Totally. One guy came up to me recently to take a picture and he dropped his camera; he was nervous. I was like, ‘Why in God’s name would you be nervous?’ That’s kinda crazy. Sometimes women will bring their daughters to shows, and they’ll come up and say, ‘My daughter just loves you, but she’s too nervous to meet you.’ Stuff like that is so cool for me.
So, how about 32-year-old Lydia? How do you think you’ll be looking back on this time in your life in another decade?
Well, I need to challenge myself more. Maybe live somewhere else for a while; also, if I picture a series of articles floating over my head – which often happens – I’ll never write another good song. So … I need to just not give a sh*t.
Columbus is such a contrast from the farm and Coshocton; how does Columbus, specifically, play a part in your identity?
I grew up in the country, but also I became the person I am now, in Columbus. My main feeling about Columbus is we’re just so friendly. I feel like people here are much more willing to help each other out than other places. I think that kind of goes for the whole Midwest. A lot of people might look at Columbus like a small city; I go to the sh*ttiest of places, and they’ll be like, ‘I’m so sorry you’re from Columbus.’ I’m like, ‘Obviously, you’ve never been there, have you? It’s actually a very cool place.’ I hate dealing with people that somehow think they’re better than you; I never find that here.