Interview with Shelby Lynne: On Her Own Terms

After Sunrise and all the critical acclaim that went with it, the label rushed you back into the studio for Tough All Over [1990] and Soft Talk [1991]. You tried to play it their way with in-town musicians and writers and it just didn’t work out. Nashville tried to put you in a box. You once told me you were so miserable during recording that you would cry in the studio. You began to develop a reputation as someone who was hard to work with. You wouldn’t take any shit!

Absolutely. I hated Tough All Over. It’s not what my heart was telling me to do. I had no power. I was this kid being put through the Nashville machine. After Soft Talk, I knew I had to take control. Hell, if I wasn’t going to be embraced by country radio, I might as well make critically-acclaimed albums! I wanted to cross genres and not make that silly-ass country pop.

That’s when you left Epic, hooked up with Judds mastermind Brent Maher and made the great country-swing album, Temptation [1993], on an indie label.

That’s right, and I started writing my own songs. Music is supposed to be a joy. If I have the privilege of making records for a living, and that’s what I’m here on Earth to do, make it be fun! I consider Temptation the real beginning of my career. I went from there to doing another country record [1995’s Restless] that was, well, pretty good, I guess, but it was time for me to go. I can’t even listen to that record anymore.

How much do you think the 1999 move away from Nashville that resulted in your breakthrough pop re-invention of yourself, I Am Shelby Lynne [2000], helped?

I’m not sure that’s a re-invention. I was growing up and finally in control. I had to leave the Nashville years behind. As much as I learned there, I knew I needed to write my own songs. People use the word ‘re-invention’ a lot. I just think I came out of my shell. People accuse me of being a control freak, but who knows my music better than me? I put all of my belongings in a bag and went to California. I was listening to the Sheryl Crow debut and liked the production. I was totally on my own, getting no help from my so-called Nashville team. I was broke. I wound up getting in touch with Sheryl’s co-producer Bill Bottrell and as soon as we started working together, I knew it was right.

It got you the 1990 Grammy for Best New Artist 11 years after your debut!

We recorded all over the place, wherever we were, and I still prefer doing it like that.

Then, with Love, Shelby [2001] and Identity Crisis [2003], two of the best damn pop records of the new century, I really thought you were going to bust big as an international superstar, but it never happened.

I love those records. And I ignored the critics. You have to know and believe in your own art. They all wanted I Am Shelby Lynn again and anyone who knows me knows I don’t ever do the same thing again!

So in 2005, I was expecting more of the same great pop when Suit Yourself came out, intimate, sexy, pure Shelby, it was like me and you all over again. You even included studio between-song patter that gave it an off-the-cuff flair. With the previous two, there was a bit of a distance between us. But on this one, I’m right there next to you, practically holding your hand.

Yeah, it was a great experience. I did it at my buddy Brian Harrison’s house. I assembled my favorite guys. It took a week. And it sold 12 copies. It’s like, I mean, the record labels don’t know anything about music! This has been going on forever. And y’know what? They’re going to put themselves right out of business because of it. Labels have been screwing artists for so long, they deserve to go out of business! The bigger artists don’t give a damn because they’re not affected, but most artists still have to worry about paying the rent as well as making great art. Labels aren’t interested in promoting anything that costs them any money. All these unsigned artists out there wish they were signed. I’ll tell them something right now. I’ve had record deals since I was a teenager. Sure, I’ve got a name. You put out records long enough, people are going to know who you are. But it’s not the end game. Folks should know that.

I’m sick of these damn labels. I’m just going to stay on the road and do my own thing. What gives labels the right to even have a damn opinion about my art? They’re just supposed to take the art and sell it and shut up. There’s a lot of acts who don’t have the kind of name I have and they’re out there on the road making a good living. They’re working their asses off but they’re doing it! They don’t answer to anyone but themselves. If I can say anything to those cats out there busting their balls, driving their vans, doing it for the love of the music, I’d say do not sign with a major label! Because the money you’re making now you’ll never see again. It’s just not worth it. You work your ass off to make a record and you’re on pins and needles all the time worrying about being dropped any minute! Labels always look at what your last record did. They’re not looking at the music for what it might offer. They’re just looking at a bunch of numbers and going to lunch.

Your last record, Just A Little Lovin’, was a tribute to Dusty Springfield [1939-1999] on the Lost Highway/Universal label.

I was happy with that one. Considering the market today, it didn’t do too bad. But I don’t think about that shit. I wanted it to be successful, sure, but I’ll only go so far. That record should’ve been bigger. They didn’t push it properly. What’s the point in having acts like me on a label if you’re not going to put anything behind it? Dusty was a great pop singer. I figure any career has one covers album. That was mine. She was alive for too short of a time and was a true diva.

So what label is the new album coming out on?

I don’t know. I’m working on it. Lost Highway dropped me. I played ‘em the new record and they just didn’t know. Fine. Fuck you, goodbye. And that’s that.

Catch Shelby Lynne at Zankel At Carnegie Hall in NYC on Dec. 12.