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Mary Lou Lord: Back Where She Belongs
By Matthew S. Robinson
(more articles from this author)
2001-07-02
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Having been raised in Salem, MA, Mary Lou Lord has gone around the world in a self-made career of music and memories which has now come full circle. Now a mother and a once and future recording star, Mary Lou is back in Salem and is taking stock of what she has and where she wants to go.

"I loved music since I was a little kid," she says.

It was this deep-felt love which pushed Mary Lou tot land a DJ slot at Salem State College's WMWM when she was only 13. Though her independent spirit and determination to play music she liked instead of the station playlist of "horrendous hard core" led to her being "let go" soon thereafter, Lord's musical fire would not be snuffed by one pink slip.

"I decided right there that I didn't want to spin vinyl," Lord recalls. "I wanted to have more to do with what went on it."

Being a good little Boston-area girl, Lord went to Berklee where she began to study production and engineering. Unfortunately, as this major was so new, there was heavy competition for class spots, and Mary Lou soon found herself on the outside once more. Still undaunted, Mary Lou packed up and moved to London, where she enrolled in the School of Audio.

As at Berklee, the coursework at SoA was very technical and, says Lord, "lots its sexiness quickly."

Living in a squatters tenement with no heat, Lord found warmth and space in the London underground system. It was there, while looking for new artists to record,that Mary Lou first found her own musical voice.

"I was watching a friend's equipment while they went to the bathroom," Lord recalls, "and I picked up the guitar and played a few random chords that I had learned at Berklee and someone threw money in the case."

Inspired by the apparent ease of income and musical discovery, Lord bought a Hondo guitar at took it to the subway every day after school. Her early repertoire consisted of only two or three songs, but they were usually enough to entertain the harried Londoners until the next train came.

"I prayed that the train would come quick," Lord admits.

However, Lord soon began expanding her personal chord library and improved steadily.

Learning songs that were near and dear to her heart , Lord found expression and fun in the tunnels. She also found her true calling.

"I realized that I could be a DJ again without someone else telling me what to play," Lord says.

Returning to The States, Lord took her new talents to the more familiar tunnels of the MBTA. She has not put down the Hondo since.

After three years of busking in the T, Lord met members of Olympia, WA-based band Bikini Kill, who had recorded with the Kill Rock Stars label. About a year after that, she happened to bump into KRS's Tinuvial, who liked Lord's sound so much that she requested a tape be sent to her in Olympia. That tape was later put directly on to a KRS compilation which, in turn, got Mary Lou some hot west coast attention.

Invited to Seattle, Mary Lou met many members of the then hot Seattle rock scene, including KRS head Slim Moon. After recording a 7" with Bikini Kill, Lord found herself the object of attention of many high-powered label people, including Margaret Middleman from BMG. With the help of the woman who had discovered Beck, Lord got a BMG publishing deal and, after some self-shopping, a label deal with the WORK group.

Unfortunately, the boom of the Seattle scene soon went bust and with it, Lord's big label career.

Though Mary Lou had a few months of tough times, she is back on her feet and back where she started, Back where she belongs.

"I have good ears," she says, "I know the difference between a song that's a load of shit and a song that's brilliant."

Unfortunately, Lord admits, this power does not apply to her own songs. As a result, she often has little confidence in her own abilities.

"It's very hard when you compare your own stuff to some of the best songs ever written," she explains, citing inspirational writers like Richard Thompson and Elliot Smith.

"I've been a listener longer than a writer," she explains. "Just to get myself up to speed as a writer to match up with the brilliance of songs I listen to is a very difficult feat for me."

Describing her self as her own worst critic, Lord goes onto say that, even when other people tell her that her stuff is fantastic (which they often do), they can't see how dissatisfied she is with herself. Nor can they know the "inner struggle" she must deal with.

"The songs I've been covering for a while are getting old," Lord admits, trying to push herself to be more creative.

Unfortunately, this self-imposed pressure often gets in Lord's way, further complicating her situation.

Lord often feels that she has to write good songs and that by "good" she must mean as good as her musical heroes, even though they have been playing and writing for many years longer than she has.

In the meantime, Lord admits to faking out her audience by covering little known songs which, she says, her devoted listeners appear to take as hers. "A lot of people think that the songs I play are mine because of the delivery and the stuff, but they're not," Lord admits. "Some people say it's brilliant because it's mine."

Though Lord may have confused some fans who do not know the true sources of some of her material, in the process, Mary Lou has given new voice and "new ears" to many songs that would have otherwise remained completely hidden under the rocks of obscurity. Though she may feel bad about her tactics, Lord's apparent sense of shame in misguiding audiences has rekindled her original fire.

"I've been a disc jockey," she says. "Now it's time to step out of that and put my own stamp on the vinyl instead of just spinning it."

With that goal in mind, Lord has been working with the likes of Nick Solomon from the band Bevis Frond and fellow busker-turned-star Kevin So. She is also going out to clubs and tunnels and hearing other musicians again, a luxury that was not allowed her during her WORK days.

"For a while when I was talking to labels and going through the bullshit, I stopped listening to music," Lord recalls remorsefully. "I'm being a fan again."

In the process, Lord is feeding her insatiable hunger for inspiration and rediscovering the love of music which set her on this crazy path at age 13.

Her recent pregnancy has given Mary Lou the time she needed to recoup and rediscover the joys and pleasures she had apparently lost sight of while being squeezed through the industrial machine.

"I'm excited to write my own stuff," she says. However, her self-imposed pressure levels are still high. Though she has experience at all levels of the industry, Lord still sees herself as under pressure to perform and to give her fans something that is ot only good enough for them but which is also good enough for her.

"I d rather put out an album of good songs that are covers and co-writes than a mediocre one of my songs," she says, "so I gotta' really work on this."

Having seen so many bands crumble under the pressures of "instant success," Lord is being cautious and taking her time with her next projects. Recently reunited with KRS, she has just released a split EP with Shawn Na Na. She has also gone even further back, taking her Maxi Mouse and the trusty Hondo to the streets and tunnels of Boston, making her own way while showing the way for a new generation (many of whom are now women, a statistic which gives Lord hope for the future).

"So many people think they need a venue or club, but they don't," Lord advises. "All you need is a guitar and an amp and to go out and play. Don't wait for anyone to call you. You can make a very comfortable living playing in the subway if you do it right and if you have the drive and the passion."

Having found her new inspiration and having rediscovered her own passion, Lord is ready to see what's out there and to make herself a part of it once more.

"It takes time to find music," Lord concludes. "It's a huge and expensive pain in the ass, but it's worth it!"


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