There’s a storm slowly brewing on Lera Lynn‘s Plays Well With Others, her forthcoming duet album marked by its nine striking collaborations. Much like her previous efforts, Lynn’s fourth studio full-length is mounted with heightened tension and emotionally-charged exchanges. You hear these touchstones of familiarity throughout while still finding Lynn expand and explore new found territory—much of which can be attributed to the all-star cast of rootsy Americana acts she enlists on the darkly intimate and compelling Plays Well With Others.
With duet veterans such as Rodney Crowell and John Paul White (who also co-produced the album with Lynn and Alabama Shakes‘ Ben Tanner) as well as a crop of up-and-comers by the likes of Andrew Combs and Nicole Atkins, Plays Well With Others is rich with diversity. Still, there’s a thread of commonality that weaves its way through from beginning to end. In addition to those four, Peter Bradley Adams, Dylan LeBlanc, JD McPherson and Shovels & Rope all join Lynn.
Beginning the Process
“I remember a couple of years ago, the record title came to my mind,” Lynn tells Wide Open Country. “Then I started writing more with people who I admired. It’s one of those projects that’s been in the back of my mind for a while.”
Lynn would book sessions with friends and contemporaries while she was at home in Nashville. Over the course of a couple years, the songs began to stack up. It all started with the alluring “Crimson Underground,” a song she wrote with Crowell.
“It was interesting that Rodney was the first person I wrote with for this record. I’d never written a duet before,” says Lynn. “I felt like he really taught me through the process of writing ‘Crimson Underground’ how to write a duet. He’s such an effortless writer. He’s the kind of writer who just gets on for the ride and doesn’t try to steer it too much. You have to be a great listener.”
Lynn and Crowell had struck up a conversation backstage at a Sheryl Crow concert, where he told her he’d had been listening to her albums the past few months while driving his car.
“He told me that he thought I was a poet. I was just floored,” says Lynn. “I told him thank you and said that I’d love to write with him sometime. I was so happy he was interested in doing so.”
On what’s one of the most sparse and bare bones moments of the album, Lynn and Crowell trade seducing verses filled with thoughts of temptation. Crowell’s weathered vocals set the tone with an almost tempered or refined charm. It’s a suave delivery filled with varying shades and degrees.
“In a way, he was sort of the overseer, in spirit, of this projects,” says Lynn.
A Common Thread
Throughout, Lynn explores relationships—primarily, through the lens of shadowy gloom and rare hopefulness. In many respects, they combine the effortless stylings of L.A. noir with southern gothic undertones.
She often drops into small intimate moments that are soon pronounced with a flood of candid and raw emotions. Songs such as standout “Lose Myself,” written with White, has an unavoidable tension that increases with every second. Lynn and White’s chemistry is undeniable as they play scorned lovers knowing that their best move is avoiding one another. Still, their attraction to one another won’t let either make a clean break. There’s a beautiful fragility to their exchange. It’s like walking on eggshells.
White, who Lynn says is oozing song ideas at all times, also recorded the 1966 David Houston country classic “Almost Persuaded.” There too, the pairing of Lynn and White have beautiful breakdown marked by gentle melancholic strokes of sweetness.
“We wrote two songs together in Rick Hall‘s office,” remembers Lynn. “One was ‘Lose Yourself’ and another one called ‘In Touch’ that’s kind of floating around. We’ll probably sing it on our tours together. I remember we were both crying while writing. I told him, ‘I swear, I don’t usually cry during cowrites.’ But we tapped into something that was really personal.”
On the Combs collaboration “Breakdown,” the two trade stinging punches with sharp precision. “There once was a time we’d fight for love. Now it’s tooth and nail, bone and blood,” sings Lynn over the driving and dizzying rhythms. They’re the bane of one another’s existence as they meld into one velvety vocal.
With “Wolf Like Me,” a cover of TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain, Lynn’s joined by the haunting harmonies of Shovels & Rope for a frantic and ghostly Tom Waits-meets-Appalachia-folk song. There’s the faintest of pouring rain bleeding into the microphones near the beginning just adds to the already hair-raising ballad.
Lynn and company recorded Plays Well With Others at White’s Sun Drop Sound in Florence, Ala. With White and Tanner by her side, the trio creates a shady and stark sonic palette without ever feeling dull or dingy. It’s like the darkly rich colors of a crimson rose or overcast skies of an impending torrential downfall. It’s vibrant and weighted with shadows. To set the mood, Plays Well With Others was recorded using only acoustic instruments.
“I wanted to be sure that we didn’t limit ourselves creatively when it capturing the actual sounds,” says Lynn. “I love all things electric, but I felt like it’d be a helpful common thread to tie all these songs together.”
A Balanced Approach
“I have several fears behind it. It’s a little bit scary,” says Lynn about the prospects of co-writing. “There’s pressure because you really hope you’ll come away with a song. That doesn’t always happen. Writing isn’t always a 50/50 split with work either. Sometimes you’re having an on-day and the other person is not and vice versa.”
Throughout, Lynn navigates and dodges missteps on Plays Well With Others.
“Being a young writer, I was afraid I wouldn’t have more ideas,” says Lynn. “I’ve kind of let go of that fear because they do keep coming. If you go into a co-write with an idea and you’re not really pleased by how it comes out, maybe it wasn’t that great of an idea. Come up with another one.”
It never feels like a tug of war struggle between Lynn and her collaborators. Rather, they seem to meet halfway for vivid efforts that highlight their best qualities.
“I wanted true collaboration. I wanted to make sure each artist’s voice came through with mine,” says Lynn. “It’s a great challenge to collaborate with someone and know when to fight for something creatively and when not to. I feel like all these songs were so well balanced in that way. Everyone’s really invested in these songs.”
Plays Well With Others is out June 22 on Single Lock Records. Lynn embarks on a short run of duet shows kicking things off at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley featuring White, Crowell, Adams, Atkins, Combs and LeBlanc.
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