The very first sound we hear on Lera Lynn’s new album is a low-throated shaker, perhaps an African gourd, covered in a net of seashells? “To answer your question,” Lynn says, “It’s a box of Runtz candy.” Just another instrument for an artist making an album completely alone, at home. This shimmering track “Are You Listening?” proposes good advice, because every note and beat tells a story of self-reliance and resourcefulness.
The project, released October 23, is called On My Own, because that’s how she made it, playing every instrument and mixing every part. Yet this is no spare, singer-with-guitar project. It follows the thread of Lynn’s history of ruminative lyrics set to washy, watercolor sound and ear-tickling percussive ideas. From her debut in 2014 through four subsequent releases, like most artists, she’s worked with other musicians and producer/engineers to translate her mind’s ear into a final recording. Here, working entirely alone, she climbed a learning curve and fought through technical challenges to make an exceptional, sonically lush album. Besides boxes of candy, she used paint brushes and a stretched canvass among her “drum” sounds. She bought gear as needed off Craigslist. And she mastered the difficult technique of stacking harmony vocals.
The solo flight album is a fascinating sub-genre. Prince used to do it. Steve Winwood made the brilliant Arc of a Diver that way. Jacob Collier makes some of the wildest and most intricately layered projects in popular music. But besides being difficult technically, it messes with your head, putting every creative decision on the artist without consultants. Why even take it on? In Lynn’s case, she made a version of a single song following a thread of inspiration, and she liked the result. “And then I did another one. And that went well. And then I did another one and I thought, Hmm, maybe I can do an entire record this way,” she says. Not everybody backed the idea. “One producer that I had been working with, that I was sort of interviewing, cautioned me against doing it, he thought it was a really bad idea. And I said, great. I know exactly what I'll do.”
That first song she committed to a mix was “It Doesn’t Matter,” a slow swaying brood that starts simply enough, with a vocal figure and a second harmony line. Then Lynn sings lead over an acoustic guitar or two. But as we hear the layers accumulate and the parts emerge into a chamber music kind of swoon, the scope of the job – inventing, performing and engineering – becomes clear. Listen closely to the beat, and it’s clear this is one of the songs with paint brush on canvass percussion, a twist on the technique jazz drummers use with brushes on a snare drum.
Lynn had that equipment close at hand, because she’s been painting in her Covid downtime as a symbiotic compliment to her music. “I had my easel and supply set up in the same room where I was recording,” she says. “And so in a way, that's how I could shift my brain into producer brain or listener brain or creator brain. When I would get stuck with a track or (was) uncertain about a decision that I had made or a direction I was going, I would stop recording and paint for a little while and clear my mind. And then I go back and listen. And the answer would be pretty clear to me how to move forward.”
On My Own stands in marked contrast to Lynn’s prior release, the highly collaborative Plays Well With Others, a 2018 album made in Muscle Shoals, AL for that town’s indie label Single Lock Records. It was a series of duets written and recorded with the likes of Andrew Combs, Rodney Crowell, Nicole Adkins and label founder/songwriter John Paul White. The company she keeps testifies to how admired Lynn has become since emerging from the Athens, GA scene nearly a decade ago. Her self-released debut Have You Met Lera Lynn? feels like a southern gothic update of Tammy and Loretta. With 2014’s The Avenues, she developed the atmospheric and reverberant sound that’s now something of a signature, while 2016’s Resistor leaned on pulse and electronics to concoct a hybrid of 80s new wave and Americana.
My favorite track on the new record, “Dark Horse” brings a bit of all those prior influences together. It opens with a vintage Ace Tone rhythm synthesizer sound Lynn favors over a bass line played on a low organ. She says this was part of a conscious departure from the guitar as her habitual writing tool. “And it ended up being really weird kind of major over minor harmonic thing that I would never have done with just the guitar in my hand. So that's a door that opened for me just focusing on drums and bass and writing the melody and then playing the chords later on.” And we hear the sculpting of harmony vocals, not only spooky in their tonal purity and harmonic sophistication, but offset in singing style from her lead line. The chorus blossoms into a surround-sound saturation that’s rare on singer-songwriter albums.
It's an album made in isolation, during isolating times. But it sounds like a coming together.