Bleak beauty: Nashville’s Lera Lynn brings her noirish, sad songs to the Iron Horse

  • Nashville singer-songwriter Lera Lynn brings her noirish mix of Americana and indie rock to the Iron Horse Feb. 1. Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

  • Nashville singer-songwriter Lera Lynn plays the Iron Horse Feb. 1. Photo by Sean Money and Elizabeth Faye

  • Though she started her career with a more country sound, Nashville singer-songwriter Lera Lynn turned to a darker sensibility, including elements of indie rock, on her most recent album. Photo by Sean Money and Elizabeth Faye

  • Lera Lynn’s 2016 album, “Resistor,” explored a darker sound than that of her previous records.

  • In addition to releasing three albums and an EP, Lera Lynn also had a recurring role in 2015 as a dive bar singer in the HBO series “True Detective.” Photo by Alysse Gafkjen

Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Her lyrics can be pretty stark. Consider the first two lines from the chorus of “Scratch & Hiss,” a song about a passionate but tortured relationship: “We’re holding hands and twisting knives / Staring without blinking into each other’s eyes.”

Then there’s her voice: sometimes melancholy and detached, sometimes low and vaguely menacing, or edged with disgust, such as on “What You Done,” in which an unnamed person is called out for his lies and hypocrisy: “You get your way playing sycophants and slaves / A coward with a gun.”

But Lera Lynn wants you to know she’s not as dark and moody as her more recent music and onscreen persona — she played a strung-out barroom singer on the HBO drama “True Detective” — might suggest.

“I think I’m just an average person who’s sometimes happy and sometimes sad, just like a lot of people,” the singer-songwriter, who’s 33, said during a recent call from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. “But I do see a certain beauty in sadness.”

And, she added with a laugh, “writing sad songs can be great therapy.”

Lynn, who comes to the Iron Horse in Northampton Feb. 1, has been making waves in the last few years with a sound that’s generally been tagged as Americana but also — especially on her most recent album, “Resistor”— taps into indie rock and pop.

In fact, her three full-album releases reveal a musician willing to experiment as she seeks her own sound — from the country-sounding “Have you Met Lera Lynn?” in 2011 to the mix of folk, pop and jazz that largely informs 2014’s “The Avenues” to the more brooding indie-rock sound of 2016’s “Resistor.”

Lynn, born in Texas but raised mostly in Georgia, says she once played in some indie bands when she lived in Athens, Georgia — the launching pad for R.E.M. — and her early switch to playing more acoustic-based music was partly a function of having to find a way to present her songs as a solo artist, or as part of an acoustic duo, when she began getting gigs as an opening act for other musicians.

“Part of it was me trying to find my own voice, but there was also the reality that it just wasn’t [financially] possible to bring a band on tour with me,” she said. “So I had to find a different way to write and perform.”

But, Lynn adds, her musical inclinations eventually pointed her in the direction of “Resistor,” which is built around baritone guitars, swirling keyboards and layered vocals; among a number of harder-edged but spare songs, there’s one flat-out rocker, the propulsive “Drive,” and the slower “Little Ruby,” built around a repeated grungy guitar riff. 

Lyrically, the album — Lynn and her longtime musical partner, guitarist Joshua Grange, co-produced the disc and and played nearly all of the instruments — also has a darker edge, with songs about betrayal and revenge, desire and sorrow. But Lynn says listeners shouldn’t assume those lyrics represent some kind of definitive statement about her.

“I like to think I’m still experimenting, still exploring,” she said. “I don’t want to keep making the same record.”

From violin to guitar

Lynn’s first instrument was the violin, which she took up as an elementary school student in Atlanta to play in her school’s orchestra. Then her family moved to another school district that didn’t have an orchestra, and the violin fell by the wayside.

She took up guitar instead at age 14 — both her parents played a bit — and eventually started writing her own songs. She heard varied music growing up in her home: Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, Hank Williams and other country artists, even hard rockers like Van Halen.

“I think all those bands and artists had some influence on me, or inspired me in some way,” she said.

She also got a degree in anthropology from the University of Georgia, though it took her awhile to find her way to a final subject of study. “I kept switching my major, from English to photography to journalism, before that,” Lynn said.

And while she figured the writing she did for her college classes didn’t hurt her when it came to songwriting, all Lynn really wanted to do was play music. She’d gotten an early taste as a regular performer during high school, playing in a Mexican restaurant, “and I thought, ‘Yeah, this is pretty good. I’d like to do this.’ ”

Though her earlier records, particularly “The Avenues,” earned good reviews, her big break in terms of exposure came in 2014-15, after she’d been introduced to T. Bone Burnett, who’d heard some of her songs and also knew her manager at the time. He flew her out to Los Angeles to co-write some of the songs for the second season of the noirish “True Detective”; those sessions also involved Rosanne Cash. 

Burnett “really encouraged me to stretch my legs when it came to songwriting,” said Lynn.

In short order, Lynn also was cast as a recurring character in the show, the heroin addict/musician who performs in a dive bar where the main characters hang out. It was her first-ever acting performance, Lynn says, and a good overall experience, though being made up with hollowed-out cheekbones, discolored teeth and needle marks took some getting used to.

The worst part, she said with a laugh, “was that I hated having to face Colin Farrell looking like that.” (Farrell played one of the detectives in the show’s second season)

But the program gave Lynn a whole new legion of fans, and she did her biggest tour to date; she also performed on the David Letterman show.

Though Lynn’s gotten a lot of attention for her songwriting, she also has impressed critics with her singing — Rolling Stone cited her “fantastically sultry tone” — and her vocal range. On the crystalline folk ballad “Standing on the Moon,” for instance, her voice is sweet and a little breathy. On “Drive,” by comparison, she begins in a low register, then soars on a double-tracked vocal on the chorus.

Looking back, Lynn says the experience of writing the bleak songs for “True Detective” (one title: “My Least Favorite Life”) probably set the stage for some of the songs on “Resistor.” But she says she was also looking to explore the idea of “beauty in sadness” in different ways.

She has some new music coming this year, she added, and she’ll also be returning to TV, though she wouldn’t provide details. But, she said, “I’m going to keep trying new things.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Lera Lynn and her trio will play the Iron Horse Thursday, Feb. 1 at 7 p.m. Texas singer-songwriter Jarrod Dickenson opens. For tickets and additional information, visit iheg.com.