Lera Lynn released a stunner of a new record on Friday; fittingly titled Plays Well With Others, it features nine duets which were co-written and performed with an impressive lineup of collaborators (think JD McPherson, Rodney Crowell, etc.). Listening to it, you’d never guess that duets were previously uncharted territory for Lynn. From the sounds of our recent phone catch-up, the learning experience was a positive one which helped open her up to the idea of even more co-writing in the future. For now, she’ll be joined by John Paul White and Peter Bradley Adams to perform some of the tracks live at Alexandria’s Birchmere tonight (6.26), and then will stop in NYC for a gig at Bowery Ballroom tomorrow (6.27) – if you haven’t got tickets yet, I’d highly recommend grabbing some. In the meantime, grab a copy of the record, and internet eavesdrop on our chat below for the full scoop on Lynn’s process of making this latest body of work:
Brightest Young Things: So take me back to the inception moment of this record. What inspired you to do a full album of duets?
Lera Lynn: The title of the record just popped into my head one day, and the whole concept just came to me. I thought, “You’ve heard duets albums, but have you ever heard a duet record with several different artists where they get together and co-write every song?” I was excited by that challenge, and at that point I hadn’t actually written a duet. [Laughs] So I don’t think I realized how difficult it can be to write a conversation, essentially, that is relatable and relevant and not cheesy, and not about, you know, “You broke my heart!” or “I love you so much!”
BYT: What was the process like of getting the ball rolling, then? Did you start by mapping out who you’d ideally like to work with?
LL: It was a pretty slow and natural process, wherein during the breaks I’d have at home I’d say, “I wonder if Andrew’s around and wants to write for this.” So I’d reach out, and he’d say, “No, I won’t be back for another month because I’m on tour.” So it took a little while, but mostly I just looked to people I’d met or had toured with or admired. There were people like Andrew [Combs] and Dylan [LeBlanc], who were…I wouldn’t say “up and coming”, but newer artists, and I hoped to spread the word about their music. And then of course you have to balance that out with someone legendary like Rodney Crowell.
BYT: Did you feel like the better you knew someone, the easier it was to be able to co-write together? Or did the familiarity ever make it harder?
LL: I think it has advantages and challenges. Obviously it’s difficult to make yourself that vulnerable in writing, and in knowing a person…you know, it was sort of like, “How does Andrew write his songs? I want to peek behind the curtain, but at the same time, I don’t really want him to peek behind my curtain.” [Laughs] So there’s a certain level of vulnerability that comes with that. The other fear I had was, “What if we write a song but it’s not good? And then I have to say ‘Thanks for your time, but we’re not going to use it,’?” Luckily that didn’t happen, but yeah, obviously writing with someone that’s a total stranger can be a challenge as well. I’ve done it a few times, and I haven’t had a lot of success with it. It seems like you have to spend a little while (at least a few hours) just chatting with someone and getting a feel for where they are in their life, what their personality is like, in order to make the music appropriate for their voice, and to make it right when it comes out of their mouth.
LL: Duh, right? [Laughs]
BYT: Which session would you say was the most challenging, like in a good way?
LL: Hmm. I’m just going through the songs in my mind. Well, the song I wrote with Rodney was the first one for the record. He’s really easy to work with, but I was most nervous about that writing session for obvious reasons. I spent a good bit of time preparing and trying to come up with a seed, somewhere to start for the writing session, and I was super nervous. When he got there, he’s just got such a calm attitude and is so easy going that I felt like I could relax. And he was totally down to write that song and be the voice of temptation, or the devil or whatever you want to call it, and I think that was the session that I learned the most. Obviously he’s well-versed in writing duets and singing duets, so in a way, he kind of showed me the ropes and gave my the tools to do this whole project as it was the first song written for the record.
BYT: Was there anybody that you felt you showed the ropes to after that? You know, not in a condescending way, but was there anyone who was similarly a beginner in the realm of duets?
LL: I remember JD McPherson saying, “I haven’t done many duets,” and I said, “God, me neither!” [Laughs] We tried to just keep that one lighthearted. “Nothin To Do With Your Love” is the name of that track. It was like, “Let’s just write a really realistic song here. You’re an artist I admire, I’m an artist you admire. Let the listener fill in the gaps.”
BYT: And was there anything in particular that you did to prepare for sessions each time? You said you went into the Rodney session with a seedling of an idea, so was that generally how you tried to go about it?
LL: Yeah, and that’s typically how it works with co-writing, regardless of it being a duet or not. I usually try to have at least a song title or some sort of chord progression, melodic idea, even if it’s only five seconds long, just as a starting place. You have to be willing to completely throw that away, too, and start from scratch. I think the most important thing with co-writing is being honestly open to your collaborators’ input, really considering all of their suggestions in all seriousness. I’ve definitely worked with some writers who are a little more closed off in that way, and in the end, I don’t think you get a very good song.
BYT: It sounds like you used all the material you co-wrote this go-round. How and when did you feel that the LP was complete as nine tracks in total?
LL: I feel like nine is a nice round number for a record. If we’d have had time I might’ve written more, but I don’t know, I kind of like records that are a little bit on the shorter side. The record’s only a half hour long, and it’s the shortest record I’ve ever done. The songs are all short.
BYT: I know! I put it on to listen to the whole thing, and I was so surprised at how quickly it was over!
LL: But maybe you’ll listen to it again now! [Laughs]
BYT: Obviously! Alright, and maybe you need more time away from it to be able to answer this, but what is the biggest thing you learned about yourself and how well you do play with others as a result of this experience?
LL: That’s an excellent question. I learned that I’ve actually been afraid of collaborating with people for the majority of my career. It’s intimidating, like I said, because I think all artists believe on some level that they’re not the real thing, that they’re kind of a hack job, you know? [Laughs] And it’s like this big secret that you’re keeping from everyone. Even people that are really great that are masters I’ve heard say stuff like that, like, “I’m not really a guitar player,” or something, and you’re like, “SHUT UP, THAT’S RIDICULOUS!” So I think through this process, I kind of confronted that fear and just went for it. That’s been the biggest lesson. Everyone has different strengths, and in this day and age, I feel like all we do is compare ourselves to other people. And I’m just starting to realize that my strengths might not be the same as other people’s strengths, but they’re strengths nonetheless, and there’s something unique that each one of us brings to the table. Either people get it or they don’t, you know? [Laughs] I just mean in terms of collaboratos, you know? Sometimes it’s not the right match; you don’t complement each other in a way that promotes productivity or creativity, and that’s okay. But it’s hard to believe in yourself sometimes, to believe that you’re capable or deserving, and this project has been a great lesson in that.