One of Nashville's most unique events - both musical and not so - is upon us. What event might that be, you ask? Americanafest - Nashville's tour de venues filled to the brim with all forms of American music, much of which includes twang and strings alike. So with all that in mind, Now/It's is fortunate enough to feature one of Americanafest's showcasing artists, none other than the fiddle master turned singer-songwriter, Lydia Luce. In the seven (!?) months that Lydia's been in town, she's managed to extend her roots into the musical communities of East Nashville and the like, and cemented herself as an indispensable facet of the upcoming wave of Nashville's Americana scene. So if you're frequenting the Americanafest stages this weekend, be sure to pop by the legendary Station Inn on Saturday around 8pm to see what will undoubtedly be a highlight of the festival.
Now/It's: Nashville met with Lydia Luce at Cafe Roze in the Porter Road neighborhood on Nashville's East Side.
Lydia - How’s it going?
N/I - Going well. How are you?
Lydia - Good.
N/I - Thanks for meeting up with me.
Lydia - Yeah! Thanks for pushing it back. I have two Airbnb’ers right now, and they are stoned out of their minds, and they set the alarm off, and they didn’t know how to properly open and unlock the door, and I thought that the cops were going to come. It was a mess. But now they’re sleeping, and hopefully they’ll be okay [laughs].
N/I - Well you can only hope. So how long have you been doing the Airbnb? I assume this is your house that you’re Airbnb’ing?
Lydia - Right. I’ve been doing it a few months. I have two twin beds, so I always get these girls that come for the weekend, and they’re trying to party, so it’s usually pretty fun. These guys are still fun, it’s just like [laughs] “Hey guys!” They just got here this afternoon around three. Well actually, they got here at two and pulled out a bottle of Fireball [Whiskey] and were ready to go.
N/I - Ah, very cool [laughs].
Lydia - Yeah! I love Airbnb, though. It’s so great.
N/I - It is. Where I live, I can’t host anybody, but I pretty much travel exclusively through Airbnb, now. It’s nice.
Lydia - It’s so good. So great.
N/I - So outside of that excitement, has it been an otherwise easy day?
Lydia - Oh yeah! It’s so beautiful out today. I had some little rehearsals for Americanafest, and I’m trying to…. I guess you could say I’m trying to discover my live sound, so I’ve been working with my guitar player on that. I recorded a bunch of songs that are really new, I basically wrote them two weeks before I recorded them, and so now listening to what I want to take from them and how they translate live is interesting. I play fiddle and guitar, but there are no strings on the songs, which is unfortunate, so that leaves me to figure out what roles I can play live.
N/I - Does it make you role easier or harder because there aren’t any strings?
Lydia - Not really. It’s just different. I guess it’s a long-ish story, but I recorded six songs with Eric Masse, and five of the songs I had written two to three weeks beforehand. But at the same time, I had a bunch of other songs from even before that. I had moved here from LA and had planned on recording with him - we had been planning on it for months - and I got here and started planning on jumping into co-writes. So I wrote a bunch of songs right before the record, recorded those songs and I guess I listened back and was like “So much new stuff has happened!” [Laughs]. So the live situation is good, because it’s making me be more thoughtful.
N/I - Okay. So to be more cognizant of how one direction can catch on in the right way or the wrong way?
Lydia - Totally. So I’m now putting [the recording] on pause - we were going to do a full record - but now it's on pause. Ian Fituchuk - who's co-producing - and I have been talking a lot about discovering my sound, because I feel like I draw from a lot of different things, but sometimes I feel like it doesn’t translate. So now I’m sitting back and just having fun with it. I’m working with different producers - this guys Josh Grange - we’re working on a tune and just experimenting, but also making sure that from now on I have control over the strings….
N/I - Well that’s kind of your forte, more or less. I would imagine that would be the most immediately useful asset in defining whatever “your” sound is. Is that right? Even though, you did mention that these most recent recordings have no strings on them.
Lydia - Yeah, there aren’t any strings on them, so now I’m like “Okay, if we’re going to go back and do stuff, I’m going to find where I can fill spots.”
N/I - Figure out wherever you can fit them in.
Lydia - Right. Strings are so much a part of me, I feel like as I’m trying to figure out what all of this other stuff means to me, that should never be left out. Because it’s half of what I do, and I just love strings. It sounds so good.
N/I - Well it’s kind of indispensable with any americana or bluegrass or even singer songwriter type music.
Lydia - Yeah. I just like the vibey type stuff. My favorite players are like that. I’m putting together a band for Americanafest, and I’m so excited. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this guy, Austin Hoke, his cello music. Freaking stellar. It makes me so happy.
N/I - So with that, are you arranging the strings parts, or is collaborative, or is just let Austin take the wheel?
Lydia - Well, so I had heard him play with Joe Pisapia - who was one of the co-writers for the new songs. So I went to a show of his and heard Austin play, and it was so…. Just the whole band was great. I think I cried at one of his shows.
N/I - Really?
Lydia - Oh yeah. I was basically like “This is what music means!”
N/I - What show was that?
Lydia - He was doing a Tuesday residency at The 5 Spot, and I was like “Man, he’s just so great.”
N/I - Was it heavy?
Lydia - Yeah. He’s just like a deep guy. His music is really powerful. But Joe asked me a little while ago to come in - he’s releasing a record in January, and it’s going to be insane - but he asked me to come in and play strings on three or four live music videos, and I had never heard the parts. It was the day of, and he was like “Hey man, what are you doing tonight?” [Laughs]
N/I - “Hey do you want to hang out? Oh yeah, and do you want to play on these songs?”
Lydia - Yeah! And I don’t even think he had heard me play strings, actually. It was almost as if he just got an itch of “Hey that other thing you do could be cool. Do you want to come play with us?” So it was him, his brother, this guy Sam Smith was playing piano, Austin [Hoke] was playing cello, and all those people there were just…. listening. I think that’s so cool. I just had a conversation about it with someone today: half of music is listening, and people get caught up in parts. That was a really awesome experience.
N/I - It sounds like it. Was that something new to you?
N/I - Oh, totally different.
Lydia - But they both have really awesome takes on music. Sam’s music is a little more parts structured, while when I play with Peter, we really only play with one other person, and it’s just this vibey sort of “What are you doing?”
N/I - A little more ethereal?
Lydia - Yeah. Feeling each other out. I just love both of those types of performance settings. So that’s what this video thing [with Joe Pisapia] was - it was us sitting in a circle, playing together. I think the keys player and I were the only two that didn’t already know the tunes, but it was this whole thing where I would listen to whatever Austin was doing, and then we would meld our parts together just by listening. Without the music, you can’t really do that unless you’re totally invested in what’s going on and what the other person is doing, and you feel it out.
N/I - Sure. You have to let it develop and then you embrace as much of it as you can.
Lydia - Yeah. It’s so cool. Joe sent me a video of one of the songs, and we’re all smiling and looking around like “Wow, this is so cool.” I want to incorporate that into my stuff, so Austin’s going to come in and just kind of kick ass [laughs].
N/I - And so will that - Americanafest - be the first time you’ve done it with that crew?
Lydia - Yeah! Totally.
N/I - And is Joe playing with you at Americanfest?
Lydia - I don’t know [laughs]. Maybe?
N/I - You’re not sure?
Lydia - I haven’t asked him yet [laughs].
N/I - That’s fair. So are you still kind of forming everything then?
Lydia - I’m kind of just planning to do a four part band, and if I can have guests, that would be really cool.
N/I - It definitely would. So how did you come to meet and know all of those guys?
Lydia - I met Eric first, through this guy Paul McDonald, and then through my dad’s college friend, who was Paul’s old business manager. Super random sort of “Hey, my daughter’s moving to Nashville,” and they were from Alabama, so it was like “Let’s hang out.” And then I met Paul and just thought, “Whoa! Who is this guy?” He was just so kind. He was so immediately willing to help out. He introduced me to people. He was making a record at the time, with Jordan Lenning, who I've been thinking about reaching out to because he's a string dude.
N/I - So, as someone whose knowledge of string music is an appreciation at most and nominal otherwise, what benefit does working with a “string dude” have?
Lydia - Yeah. I think if anything, it could just stretch my mind. I think he would understand where strings fit in the song. His string arrangements are really cool, and strings can serve so many purposes. You can have a strings part as a solo instrument, you can have the whole group of strings serving as a solo section, but then you can also have them be this vibey, ethereal kind of thing.
N/I - Sort of like outward layers of the composition.
Lydia - Oh my god, yeah. Sometimes it can play the role of a pedal steel.
N/I - I was about to say, I would imagine it could effectively serve the same purpose.
Lydia - Exactly, so that’s what Josh [Grange] and I have been talking about, because he is obviously an amazing steel player. We were starting to record one of my tunes - this song “Helen,” about a volcano - and sent it to him, and he was like “Yeah, let’s freaking do it. Let’s try some shit.” So he just presses record and I play my fiddle, and then we just start stacking stuff, and I hate dictating music. I’m not good at it, and I hate it. So I feel like, as far as my string arrangements go, that’s the wall.
N/I - The limit. So that’s where having someone like Jordan help out would come in handy.
Lydia - Jordan would be cool. Eric brought Ian [Fitchuk] in to co-produce, and then he and I started writing together with this guy Todd Lombardo. So, anyway, I think Ian introduced me to Joe, and we had this whole hippie healing session, like “This dude is awesome!” He gave me some lamps when I met him [laughs].
N/I - Well that’s always a nice perk.
Lydia - It was so cool. I’m just slowly plugging in.
N/I - Yeah, into Nashville and everything. And then you have the Americanafest thing. That was kind of a recent development, at least after the lineup announcement.
Lydia - Yeah, kind of. I actually forgot to apply, so I messaged Sam [Outlaw]’s manager - Michelle - who’s on the board. I messaged her a while ago, and I said “Oh my gosh! I forgot to apply!” and she messaged me a couple weeks ago asking “Do you want to play?” and I was like “Hell yeah, let’s do it.” So I got really lucky [laughs].
N/I - Well that’s super cool, though. I mean, Station Inn, that’s about as solid a spot to play during Americanafest.
Lydia - Right! The first time I came to Nashville, I actually went to The Station Inn, and that was the first venue I went to here in town, and I played in their bluegrass jam, which is a bunch of really intense players. I remember this one woman who was playing fiddle too, but she was way better. She was a regular. It was…. It was a birthday trip, so I think this would have been 2012?
N/I - Okay. And you went to Berklee, but then you moved here from LA?
Lydia - Yeah. I went to grad school at UCLA.
N/I - Nice. For music, I assume?
Lydia - Yes. For viola performance.
N/I - That’s pretty cool. I’m not familiar with what that program entails, but it sounds interesting.
Lydia - I don’t think most of the world is aware it even exists.
N/I - I mean, at the same time, there are masters programs in music, so there are probably bound to be plenty that are based in performance.
Lydia - Yeah. So I actually worked at The Smithsonian when I graduated from Berklee, because I wanted to be an ethnomusicologist. I had spent a few summers in Ghana and I was studying drum and dance stuff, so I graduated and decided that that was my thing. So I got a 9-5 working at The Smithsonian.
N/I - What were you doing at The Smithsonian? Archival stuff?
Lydia - Archives, a lot of going through contracts. Like Lead Belly’s contracts, just really finding relatives that were mentioned on these other pages…..
N/I - Just to find confirmation of things?
Lydia - Well they wanted to make sure the royalties were going to the right family members. And a lot of them have so many family members that it’s hard for the Lead Belly royalties to go to everyone that’s entitled. The coolest thing I did there was - Unesco put out, I think 112 records through Folkways, the record label of The Smithsonian - and it was music from all over the world. Incredible stuff. So I went through and listened to the records, read the liner notes, and made little blurbs for the website. That was probably my favorite thing. I would work on four throughout the day, every day. So I was consuming these sounds that were so foreign to my Western ears.
N/I - So was it mostly Eastern music?
Lydia - All over. Aboriginal, Inuit, Bahraini music.
N/I - If there were 112, then effectively every country must have been represented.
Lydia - Totally. Some of them I really had no idea where they were located.
N/I - Like a random Tajikistani record or something?
Lydia - Really. It was so cool, but I just got tired of it. I wasn’t playing.
N/I - Understandable. A 9-5 has its benefits of security, but it can also detract from creative output.
Lydia - Totally. And I was drained from all of that, so I didn’t play for half of the time. But then I became so restless, I applied to graduate programs. So I chose UCLA because they also have a world music program - they’re one of the best ethnomusicology programs. Their music program is definitely more classically focused. So I got a scholarship on viola, and was practicing a bunch. I took a day off each work week, because I was like “This isn’t for me, I need to find a way to trickle out of this.” My boss actually went to UCLA for ethnomusicology. He was so supportive, he was so awesome. So I took lessons from this woman - I think she was the concertmaster of the Baltimore Symphony? She was incredible, she was this force of a woman. So I took lessons once a week and got my chops back up classically so I could get a scholarship and ended up teaching at UCLA, so I got scholarship and a teaching assistant gig. I was teaching chamber music.
N/I - How was that?
Lydia - It was interesting. Some of it was cool. I was really into the groups that were performing contemporary music, not just Mozart and all that. Then I started teaching this course on how string players go about getting jobs in the real world. Because so many classical musicians go to school….
N/I - It’s years worth of school, and then when they come out, there are hardly any jobs.
Lydia - And when you’re practicing eight hours a day, there are certain skills you don’t develop in order to go out and get a job. So that was cool.
N/I - Yeah. I would imagine that’s probably pretty interesting, or at least applicable for the students. I’d think it’s a unique perspective for you to teach that and say “This is how you act normally in a business proceeding,” and “Don’t beg for a job, but let them know you want it.”
Lydia - And the reality is so many students go into these programs thinking they’re going to get an orchestra job, but there are so few positions to do that. Hundreds of musicians will apply for one chair, and they’re probably not going to get it.
N/I - Exactly. You see the same thing here in town with folks that come in wanting to be the “President of All Music” types, but it’s them and everyone else here, more or less. So you have to taper expectations.
Lydia - You have to learn how to be creative.
N/I - Or be creative, right.
Lydia - Yeah. I think it’s…. So my mom is a classical conductor, and she taught me that you have to be willing and able to do a lot of different things in the music industry, because you never know what you’ll be doing. She taught, she conducted, she played organ, she did so many different things, even if she didn’t love all of them necessarily. But you have to be down if you want to do anything.
N/I - Right. You have to hustle, and if that means wearing a bunch of different hats, then so be it.
Lydia - Do it, yeah. And sometimes it’s fun, and it makes whatever it is that you love that much more meaningful. Maybe not, meaningful, but more so purposeful. If I was to just do my sing song-y writer thing I would drive myself crazy.
N/I - Oh sure, yeah. And there are some people that can do that, but I feel like for some people, you have to do a lot of…. Not juxtaposition, but at least something to scratch whatever other itch there might be.
Lydia - Definitely.
N/I - So that’s LA. Did you start playing out more once you hit LA?
Lydia - Yeah, so I started writing towards the end of my first year. I just hadn’t written in so long. It was just kind of like doing a lot of string sessions - and I love that stuff too, I really love it - I did lots of classical stuff. I did some contemporary music, and then started writing, just because I felt like I needed it. I went on tour with a friend, who actually lives here, and he’s a singer-songwriter.
N/I - And who’s that?
Lydia - Charles Johnson. He’s like my brother, he’s so great. So I went on tour with him during my Spring Break. I got back, and then I was like “What am I doing!? This is so much more fun. And I can be free with my playing.” So I started writing when I got back, and then moved to Nashville for that summer and was just like “This is so fun, this is what I want to do,” or at least add it to the mix.
N/I - So that’s 2015-ish?
Lydia - Yeah. 2015, I think. That sounds right.
N/I - And then from there you obviously graduate from the graduate program, and then…. Like how do you get involved with Sam Outlaw? Because he’s out in LA, right?
Lydia - Yeah. After I came back and got super into the songwriting thing, I started…. I played fiddle a little bit with this bluegrass band. But how did I meet Sam? I started playing fiddle with some of the country scene - this girl Jamie Wyatt - she’s actually the one that introduced me to Sam. And I had heard his music, and was really interested in playing with him. I had actually opened some shows with Jamie, and she was just really cool. But I met Sam at this thing called the Grand Ole Echo, which now, I’m friends with the guy who puts it on, and I’m actually hosting a Grand Ole Echo. I do these house shows at my place, so it’s like my house show with Grand Ole Echo Americanafest thing, that Sunday.
N/I - Nice! And what’s your house show series called?
Lydia - It’s called Lockeland Sings.
N/I - Yeah. A lot of people I know have played it.
Lydia - Right. Emma Hern’s played.
Lydia - Yeah! It’s been really fun. It’s definitely the best way to meet people, too. I’ve only been here for seven months.
N/I - Well that’s the beautiful thing about Nashville - and I’m sure plenty of other places - but Nashville seems to have a slightly more intimate scene as opposed to being in New York, hoping someone of interest to you might show up at a cool show.
Lydia - Like someone who might assist in your career.
N/I - Yeah. Which isn’t to try and make it seems insensitive and cutthroat, or calculating, but at the same time, if you can find some benefit from going out to a show, I would imagine it’s got to be nice.
Lydia - Yeah, definitely. And in these kind of settings, it’s so much more open. You can have a Miller Lite and kick it with somebody that’s heard you and is super down to have a meeting, or just catch up. It’s just so much more chill. And I love the guy that runs the Grand Ole Echo, so it’ll be fun. I actually think he’s going to be crashing at my place. My mom is going to be there, too. She’s sleeping in my bed, it’s going to be a full house for Americanafest. So it’s going to be a really crazy week. But it’ll be fun.