T Bone Burnett is the award-winning overseer of the morose and murky soundtrack of HBO’s True Detective, and for season two he brought on Lera Lynn, a relative unknown who plays the weary singer-guitarist serenading Colin Farrell’s hard-drinking Ray Velcoro from the stage of a dive bar. Lynn also wrote many songs that play throughout the show in a collaboration with Burnett and Roseanne Cash. From her home in Nashville, Lynn spoke with me over the phone about her journey from the suburbs of Atlanta to the studios of Los Angeles. She plays Friday, July 3, as part of FitzGerald’s American Music Festival.
Erin Osmon: Can you tell me a bit about your background? Are you classically trained?
Lera Lynn: My mother was a singer. When I was very young she sang cover music in rock bands, and that’s where I got introduced to music. There were always instruments lying around but I’ve never really trained vocally or instrumentally—I studied violin for one year when I was 11 or 12, which undoubtedly helped—but I can’t read music anymore.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the Atlanta area mostly. I remember winning a talent show when I was a freshman in high school and that kind of gave me a nudge and some confidence. From that point on there’s been such a clear focal point.
How does your blend of country, folk, and Americana fit into the Nashville scene? There’s a strong legacy of hit making there, and what you’re doing can’t really be pigeonholed into the country genre or even the notion of writing “hits” . . .
Oh no, it absolutely doesn’t fit into that. I remember there was a songwriter back in Athens, Georgia—who also worked at the university—who said to me “I think you can save country music. You have to write country songs because I think you can save the genre.” I am very happy to be free from that burden [laughs].
You’ve self-released all of your records. Is that how you prefer to work, or are you entertaining offers from labels now?
I’ve had offers over the years, but the most important thing for me is being able to make the music that I want to make, and to be able to perform it the way I want to perform it. That’s not always in line with the business side of things. I’m in no hurry. I’ve made it this far. I’ve waited this long. I’ve struggled this much with no money. Obviously it would be nice to have help, and I would love to have a partner that appreciates my vision. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but that’s why I’m still an independent artist. I like to be in control of the art.
How did you hook up with T Bone Burnett for True Detective?
My manager [Sheri Sands, former Vice President of Rounder Records] sent him some of my music. They had an established relationship because they worked together on the Raising Sand record with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, which I’m a huge fan of. She sent T Bone an EP I released last year called Lying in the Sun, and he was considering using the title track from that EP in True Detective. We met for lunch in Nashville and I was nervous as hell. He was really nice and told me a little bit about what he was doing with True Detective. Then he asked if I’d be interested in writing for the show.
Then what happened?
He flew me to LA and we wrote a bunch of songs really quickly and recorded them in a couple of days. Then he took the recordings and played them for the producer Scott Stephens and the writer Nic Pizzolatto and those guys really seemed to dig it. So we kept working, and then T Bone brought in Roseanne Cash and the chips really fell into the right places.
What was the vibe when the three of you were writing together?
T Bone is very easygoing—I don’t think there’s much that could ruffle his feathers. I was a bit more worried. But he’s done it so much and done it so well and he knows to trust his instincts, and I typically do the same. He was very reassuring. He really helped me carve out an identity for the character, the girl that’s singing in the show.
Can you describe the identity you came up with?
The whole show has a very dark tone. Every character is broken and twisted and hiding something. So that girl needed to fit in. Also, it wouldn’t make much sense for a viable artist to be playing in that bar to four people. So we wanted to make the songs really heady and morose. The girl is not performing with much confidence. She doesn’t exude charisma. All of that sort of guided the process. Well, that, and a bit of Laphroaig scotch.
There is sadness in your 2014 record The Avenues. Was it much of a leap to go from that to this bleak stuff for True Detective?
I wouldn’t call it a leap. I’d say it was more like settling into an easy chair. I mean, my whole career has been people telling me that my songs are too slow and too sad, that no one wants to hear them on the radio, that no one wants to dance to them. So it was really nice to have the freedom to make it as dark as we wanted to.
Did you know that you’d be playing the character when you signed up, or did that happen over time?
T Bone asked if I’d ever be interested in playing the girl. So when I met Nic and Scott for the first time, Nic looked at me—and I just looked like a regular person, no serious drug problems—he said, “Well we’re going to have to do something to her for it to make sense. We’re going to have to give her a third eye or something.” So in the end, I guess I got off easy with just being made into a junkie.
What was it like watching yourself?
Oh, it was pretty uncomfortable [laughs]. Everyone wants to look their best on TV and I looked worse than I could ever look in real life. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself [laughs].
What do you have planned for your slot during the American Music Festival at FitzGerald’s?
I’m going to be playing with a full band and we’ll cover material . . . everything from my first record [Have You Met Lera Lynn?] to the more recent stuff. I’ll have bass player Robby Handley, who I met about 12 years ago when he was studying jazz bass; pedal steel player Joshua Grange, who produced The Avenues; and drummer Tommy Perkinson, who’s so great at adapting the drums from my albums for the live show.
Josh Grange has played with so many great artists.
Oh yeah, he’s just a monster. He could probably be the whole band if he wanted to. He plays with Sheryl Crow and we met when I was opening for K.D. Lang a couple of years ago. He was playing pedal steel in her band. We’ve toured a lot together as a duo and trio. He’s just one of those people who really understands my aesthetic and just knows when to be there. It’s almost like he can read my mind.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing and recording a new record right now in Nashville. Josh Grange and I are working together. I’m also doing a lot of touring, so I’m kind of recording in between shows.
Have things changed for you since the show aired?
I guess the biggest difference is that in the music industry there are a select group of people who make the decisions and hold the purse strings, and they have difficulty rationalizing any sort of risk on something they’ve never heard of before. I think the greatest thing that I’ve gained from being part of the show is that so many more people have heard my music now who might not have before. I don’t write anthems or dance songs, so people are scared to take a risk on that.