Lydia Luce is a Nashville songwriter who has survived a fair share of calamity in order to bring her sophomore album, Dark River to life.
As she was preparing to begin releasing singles for this phenomenal new album, it quickly became apparent that the universe had other plans. Not only was the world seized in the grips of a global pandemic, but a tornado ripped down her street, launching her neighbor’s roof through her bedroom window. Lydia, her roommate, and her partner, weren’t harmed in the incident, but it certainly reordered her priorities in a hurry, causing her album to be delayed, as well as initiating an epic couch-surfing odyssey.
Now that Dark River is out, there is hardly any question as to whether it was worth the wait. Through her new album, Lydia will involve you in emotionally intelligent conversations about inner strength, trust, self-reliance, and preservation through perseverance. Using the sounds and cultural forms of Amaciana and indie-folk, she has brought to life a mature pop album, that invokes the abstract earthen poetry of Nico Case, the swell and sway of emotions that could overwhelm the heart when conjured by the Carpenters, as well as the earnest, interior-interrogating song-smithery of Aimee Man.
The title track “Dark River” is reminiscent of Neko’s penchant for crafting triumphant, declaratory statements around pungent and evocative imagery, and the plangent pop-embracing mince of “Tangled Love” benefits greatly from the addition of some mellifluous strings and a confident Spanish guitar rhythm, while”Never Been Good” builts speed and then exhales its tensions like colt loosening up its muscles after a long trailer ride. It’s a perfect album for thinking about the promise of a new day while delighting in the budding leaves and flowers of the early days of spring.
You can take in the whole of Dark River, and read our exclusive interview with Lydia Luce below:
Why don’t we start with the backpacking trips that you did while writing your new album? How long were you out in the mountains?
I took a couple of trips while planning out the record and thinking about the songs. And one of the trips, was actually a writing retreat that I just took by myself to the Northwest. That was around Mount Hood. I ended up hiking quite a bit but didn’t really write any songs. I just did a lot of processing. It was a really weird trip because I was really sick, I was completely alone, I had gone to kind of try purposely isolate and to hash out some songs for the record, but I just got really super sick and quite lonely instead. That was a kind of a different experience than I was hoping for.
And then the other trip was another solo trip, where I also seeking isolation to prep for the record but on that one I was more just journaling. I was in Colorado and hiking really big mountains, and that was a great trip. I think one of the things that I learned from that trip was just the timing of isolation and how it’s not always this grandiose thing. It’s not always so romantic. Like, “Oh, I’m going to go be in the mountains and be by myself and create!” Sometimes it’s not awesome. And then other times it works!
I also think it depends on what’s going on in your life around that time. Maybe you didn’t need to be alone right then. But anytime I’m alone I feel that I’m forced to sit with myself and process life and the things that I might be running from.
Do you often backpack by yourself?
I’ve done it quite a bit. And really it’s just camping trips. With one of them, I was just kind of had a base, and then I was hiking from around that base. I don’t know if I would do a backpacking trip where I would take off for a month and be by myself in the Pacific Northwest, but it intrigues me.
I do love camping alone in Nashville. It’s not the West. It’s not epic, but we have beautiful things. We have this really beautiful lake that I like to go camping out on by myself. I do it in the summer, in the spring, and in the fall. I’ve done it quite a few times where I kayak out to a little island and go camping. I love that. I like being by myself in nature. But there’s a time for it. And then there’s a time to be with people.
Do you feel like you do your best thinking about your art when you’re by yourself?
Yes, I do. I think that a lot of the work that comes even before the song, even before I sit down and really try to hash out a song, comes from isolation, and it comes from being alone to process things. It’s an opportunity to be completely with yourself and let whatever’s comes up, come up.
And usually, for me, the writing process kind of works like, “I’ve experienced this thing. I can take that experience and process it.” And I have to do that before I can put it into a song. So oftentimes that period of isolation, if I’m out camping or whatever, it’s kind of like that prep work, where I might get little nuggets of ideas or something.
And after you’ve mined those nuggets of inspiration you bring them back to the studio. How does the actual process of putting a song together work?
Well for this record we had a group of musicians that I’ve been wanting to work with her very long time. This time the songs were already hashed out by the time I entered the studio. I had picked the songs and then my co-producer, Jordan Lehning, and I, we brainstormed: “What is this record?,” “What is the intention behind it?,” “What does it want to be?,” “Who are the people that we want to work with?,” “Who will help to deliver those songs, and add to those songs, and get them to where they want to be for this record?”
So I knew the record I wanted to make and I knew I wanted to step it up sonically. I knew I wanted to step outside of the folk and Americana world a little bit with this record, and lean into… I don’t know, not necessarily a specific genre, but just, like, letting the songs be what they wanted to be.
I feel it’s very apparent on the record that there’s no specific genre. So we had an intention before we went into the studio and we knew who we wanted to work with, and what players, and why. Kind of what you would call pre-production, I guess. But even more so for the selection of the songs, to make sure they fit this entire message of the album.
Did you select collaborators based on the song?
So for some of the songs we had a core band. There were a couple of songs where we’re like, “Oh, my gosh, this percussion player, we need him!” But for the bulk of the record, we had a core band. And we tracked most of the songs live and added overdub strings later. We also overdubbed some of the percussion too. Like on “Tangled Love” which has a lot of percussive sounds, that was added later. We wanted to give each song what it wants. And so not having a formula for the whole thing was really important.
Yeah, I think that tracking live can really add something to a record. Is this something you’ve done on past records?
Yeah, I think that’s usually how we do it. There’s something really cool about getting everybody in the room and tracking together. So we recorded at Southern Ground, in Nashville, which is, sadly, no more. It was this beautiful studio, and it was where we recorded January 2020. But they actually put it up for sale in March. So we recorded one of the last records to be made there. But the main room was kind of set up so that we could see each other while we were tracking, which is really awesome.
Right, you get to have that live dynamic in that setting.
Yeah, It’s fun to play with people too. I’m such a fan of getting everybody in a room together. It’s great for brainstorming. And when everybody’s so talented and respectful of each other’s voice and skills, it just creates this really awesome collaborative experience.
That’s really awesome. It really comes through in the music, for sure. Especially on the title track. How did you come to select “Dark River” as the title track of the album?
You know, it wasn’t exactly that I was picking it because I loved that song the most, or because I felt that it was the song that was representative of the entire body of work. This record was way more vulnerable and experienced than the records that I’ve put out before. It’s just more raw in terms of messages and lyrics. I don’t think that the songs fit into boxes. I think they’re what they are. But for me, picking the title and the record cover are very hard for me to do. I thought I would call the record Labyrinth for a while. [Laughs] I went back and forth for so long. And then, at some point. I just said, “Ok, this is it. I’m stepping away.”
Do you think there is a song on Dark River that does kind of encapsulate all of its themes?
Yeah, standalone, I don’t think “Dark River”‘s the whole thing, but I do think it’s a part of the core of it. On “Dark River” I’m kind of talking about creating space, setting boundaries, taking back your energy and creating a sacred space for yourself to be healthy. Not saying yes to everything. Not giving too much of yourself. I think that’s a really great lesson for everybody to learn. And it was just something that kept coming up for me and, you know, still comes up.
And then there is “All the Time” which is a song about self-love. I don’t even know if that’s the best word to describe it, but it’s about loving yourself and being able to take care of yourself first, so that then you can be the best version of yourself for everybody else. Sort of like, putting your own mask on before you help someone else, sort of thing. Another big theme is trusting your own intuition. So “All the Time” and “Dark River” carry that message, but the rest of the songs as well. They were all difficult to share at first, but they’re pieces of my story and a pieces of me.
Is trusting your intuition something that you find hard to do normally?
I think it can be challenging. I started songwriting later in my musical career. I’m a violinist and classically trained. So I was pursuing classical music for a while, then session work, and songwriting came later for me.
I went to music school and I took a songwriting class there, and just remember being told what’s good and what’s not, and I’ve just realized that that is not necessary for anybody to put themselves through. Music is so personal and everybody has an opinion on it. The songs I write are for the people who like them, and they’re for me. So getting away from the good / bad spectrum and learning to trust what feels right is big for me.
So if I’m going to co-write, or if I’m working with other people, and somebody has a different opinion than mine, I now know to stand up for myself and my voice and my opinion and my creative intuition. These are all just very important lessons to learn.
Do you have any advice for young songwriters who maybe find themselves in a similar situation, or a writing class, where they maybe are learning things that go against their intuitions?
I think it’s just really important in any educational setting to recognize the person that is in authority over you doesn’t have all the answers. Not to be, you know, rebellious, but you should take every opinion about your art with a grain of salt and know that no one’s right or wrong. There are no answers to art. Everybody’s just creating from this sacred place that’s true to themselves.
So yeah, I don’t like that about music school. Especially with songwriting and stuff. I think it’s nice to have tools that help you get through mental breaks and stuff, and tools that help you with the consistency of your work and writing, but when it comes to somebody saying, what’s good or bad about your art, I think, it’s subjective. Take it with a grain of salt. And trust yourself! I think it’s really hard when you’re a young writer to trust yourself. Or at least it was for me.
Right, and in school you’re there to learn new skills not be judged.
So something else I want to talk about is the fact that you almost lost your house before the album was released due to a tornado. First of all, what happened? And second, did it end up delaying the album at all?
So the tornado happened March 3, , which as everyone knows, the world’s kind of closed at the end of March. So that whole month delayed the album. But my house wasn’t destroyed. It was severely damaged though. And I was out of the house for that first month and a half, two months of the pandemic, which was crazy. It was just my roommate and I at the house at the time of the tornado. My partner was out of town when it happened, but when he came back we ended up bouncing around from different location to different location because we couldn’t live at the house. We were just trying to figure out where we were going to stay. First, we got an Airbnb, but then Airbnb stopped. We had friends that we stayed with, but then it was also COVID, so everybody was freaking out. I ended up staying in this woman’s garage, turned little one bedroom with a mini-fridge and a microwave for like two weeks. She was like a friend of a friend’s coworker. I didn’t know her at all. It was crazy.
But as for the time of the storm, it was me and my roommate at the house when it happened. I was actually in my bed and I might have just fallen asleep just as I heard the sirens. We have sirens that go off all time. We hear them quite often. So I think we’ve been kind of desensitized to them a little bit. And when I first heard it, I was just like, “Oh, whatever.” And so I looked at this Twitter and this account called National Severe Weather. My friend had told me about this account a week before, telling me, “This is the only weather account you should follow.” So I went to it and there’s a video of this guy saying, “If you’re thinking about going downstairs, stop thinking about it, and go down right now.”
So I went to my roommate’s bedroom and knocked on the door, got her, and as we were going downstairs together the tornado was just then passing over. After it passed we slowly started assessing the damage, and it was really late at night, one in the morning or something, and the last thing I looked at was my room… and there were parts of somebody’s roof that had gone flying through the wall. There were pieces of my neighbor’s roof that just been bouncing around my room and ended up sticking through the ceiling. So that was insane. Like you can’t fathom the damage at the time. It happened so quickly.
Afterward, all my neighbors were out in the street and a lot of my neighbors had experienced way worse damage than I did. A lot of my neighbors, to this day, have no home. They’ve had to completely tear down their houses. So as far as the damage goes, like, we got really lucky because our insurance company worked with us and covered the damages. A lot of my neighbors are still trying to get new roofs or new homes. It was a really crazy experience. All and all, I feel very lucky that my situation turned out the way it did.
But it didn’t end up delaying the album at all? That was COVID.
I mean, we were going to start rolling out songs last spring, and then we ended up waiting until the end of the summer. I didn’t think about the record that much last year. My thoughts were about, “Oh my gosh, I needed a new roof!” Like I had to make so many decisions. I didn’t know anything about the type of roof that I had or the decisions I needed to make to get a new one. So my brain was not on the record and all for having a good month and a half. I was trying to get back in the house. And then, you know, start sheltering in place, and not in my actual house either. So it delayed the record, but at the same time, it wasn’t the only factor. COVID was big too.
Right, right. And at the time that this happened, nobody knew how bad the pandemic was going to be, or what you actually needed to do to protect yourself. I can’t imagine the stress at that point.
Yes, it was crazy. I also learned a lot about the Nashville community during that time. It was insane the number of volunteers. Like, I had to turn people away, there were so many. People really came together. I mean, the next day, after the disaster, I had had about 20 friends on my lawn, removing debris for me from my house and clearing the glass. It just really made me grateful to my Nashville community.
Did you know most of the people who helped you clean out your house?
Yeah. I’ve never lived anywhere with this kind of community. It reached a point where people were asking if they could come help, and I was like, “I think we’re good, I have enough help. Help somebody else!” At that time, my songwriting friends were even getting chainsaws to help tear down trees from people’s yards. It was insane and cool to see.
Wow, so has that community momentum been maintained?
Yeah, that was right before COVID hit, but we’re all still very much together, even though we can’t be in crowds, or amongst large amounts of people just yet. I do see them and we do check in on each other. And it’s been a hard year for everybody in different ways, due to other things than just COVID. We make a point of checking in on each other outside of social media. So the community is still there, even if we can’t physically be together. We’re just all waiting to have a group hug.
Speaking of community, there is now apparently a mural of you at a Nashville venue? Is that your handy work?
Oh, I didn’t paint that. I wish I did, but I didn’t. The mural is in the basement of a venue in Nashville that was also affected by the tornado, called Basement East. We’re both on the East Side and I had done a couple of things with them to just help with relief for people that are still trying to get back in their homes after the tornado. They’ve been really great to me and really supportive of my record. So supportive that they let me put up a mural done by a woman named Kim Radford. She is a local artist and she did an incredible job with the mural. It’s a kind of reimagination of the record cover on the side of the basement. I feel connected to that venue in a bigger way now because we both experienced that tornado, were hurt by it, recovered, and now my face is on their wall.
So has the venue been able to get fixed up this past year?
Yeah, now they’re rebuilt, which is amazing. It looks awesome in there, and they’re looking forward to shows happening this year.
Is that gonna be a permanent mural? Or is it just for the promotion of your album?
I don’t know. It’s definitely not permanent, but I think it will be there till they decide it won’t.
Right. Or god forbid something else happens.
Let’s hope not. We actually did a benefit to continue tornado relief to the people that were affected with The Basement. And like I said, there are still people that are struggling with their insurance and have other problems. But one thing I would add is that they’re still accepting and encouraging donations. The organization called the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. And if anybody wants to donate to them, that’d be awesome!
Photos courtesy of Lydia Luce.