There is a sense of prophecy about Shelby Lynne’s eponymous and sixteenth new album. Although its stunning, stark front cover shot was photographed and approved long before the current pandemic, it captures the present times perfectly, showing Lynne, her mouth hidden behind what looks like a face mask.

The album is a co-project with film director and screenwriter Cynthia Mort, whose third-film-as-a-director ‘When We Kill the Creators’ is awaiting distribution, and which stars Lynne as a singer with heart disease battling to make art against the uncreative commercial demands of the music industry.

Mort has contributed lyrics to seven of the eleven songs, while Lynne has provided the remainder, written the music for it and also produced the album. ‘Shelby Lynne’ features session musicians on just under half its tracks, including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench who brings a glistening Wurlitzer to harmonic jazz ballad, ‘I Got You’. The overall framework of ‘Shelby Lynne’ is minimal, with Lynne playing on the majority of the tracks solo and using an array of instruments including guitars, piano, keyboards and drums.

The reflective, half-spoken, half-sung ‘Love is Coming’ finds her struck by the sudden impact of a surprising new love affair. ‘Weather’ is a soaring torch ballad in which Lynne reflects on her memories of a lost love in a room that she is about to leave for the last time. On the aching and softly smouldering ‘My Mind’s Riot’ she experiments with a saxophone for the first time since high school, while ‘Here I Am’, on which Lynne is accompanied by Billy Mitchell on cascading piano, is a sultry rallying to a lover broken down by life to keep faith in their relationship.

Pennyblackmusic spoke to Shelby Lynne by phone at her home in Hollywood about the new album.

PB: Did you call the album ‘Shelby Lynne’ because you see it as a statement of intent or purpose?

SL: Yes, for sure. There are a lot of different genres and kinds of music on the record, and it wasn’t becoming clear what I wanted to call it. I had never self-titled an album before, so I felt that it was a good time to do so. It is a very personal statement.

PB: Much of the album was recorded in parallel with the making of the film, ‘When We Kill the Creators’.

SL: Yes, the songs influenced the film and the film influenced the song. We made them both at the same time and over a three year period.

PB: How many of the songs appear in the film and which ones?

SL: ‘Here I Am’ is the only live performance on the album which is also live in the film, and the rest are studio versions of songs in the film. ‘Strange Things’, ‘Revolving Broken Heart’, ‘My Mind’s Riot’ and ‘Love is Coming’ all also appear in the film. It is about half of the tracks on the album.

PB: You don’t actually use very much instrumentation on ‘Shelby Lynne’. It is a very minimal album in a lot of ways. Every instrument has a place and there is nothing there that shouldn’t be there or is just there for effect. Was that your main intention with it from the start?

SL: Yes, as a producer I only tend to use instruments that are there to enhance the lyric of the song. Too much will take away from what is a great song, and so I really wanted to leave a lot of air and space in the record, and really bring out a lot of the beauty and the melodies in the lyrics. Too much just gets in the way.

PB: Many of your fans know you primarily from your live work as a singer and a guitarist, but you also play the drums, keyboards and piano on the new album. When did you learn to play those instruments? Is that something you have done for years?

SL: I have always been a bass player and a guitar player mainly, but when I started writing these songs with Cynthia Mort I went over to the piano for the first time. I can’t really play the piano, but I like the sound of it and was able to use certain sounds and notes from it in places where it was necessary. I am very much not a virtuoso at anything. I am a pretty good guitar player, but the rest I tend to take my time with and discover along the way.

I know a lot of stellar piano players, and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers plays on ‘I Got You’, and he is as good as it gets. When I really got in over my head, I was able to call Benmont and say, “Benmont, I need you to really play this thing,” but the rest of this record is not so much piano-playing but notes and sections. I could handle that part because a lot of times musicians are so expert at what they do that it turns into another thing, So, I chose to do a lot of that myself and keep it kind of under the radar a bit and more soulful but also more minimal.

PB: You also play the saxophone on ‘My Mind’s Riot’ which you hadn’t played since high school.

SL: That’s right (Laughs). I wanted to have the saxophone on that song. I think one of the great sax solos is in the Dusty Springfield song ‘The Look of Love’, and I wanted it to lean towards that. I thought, “What the hell! I will never be able to get a horn player to play something that simple,” so I just played it myself. That came down to a lot of my choices when I played the instruments on this record. It was about simplicity because of my inability to play great. I had no choice but to be simple. It would have been really difficult for a great horn player to play something of three notes.

PB: To return to the film, it is about the battle of art over commerce. What was the appeal to you of becoming involved in that film?

SL: I could certainly relate to it as an artist. Even though I have had a really long career and am very happy with the things that I have achieved in thirty years of making records, I have always found the commercial side of the business a real struggle. The non-creative parts of the business can really take an artist down and I could really relate to that in my own experience, so I was attracted to that subject in the film, and playing a character who was also struggling with that.

PB: How well did you know Cynthia Mort beforehand?

SL: We met five years ago at a party and started talking about art and writing, and I love films and she loves music, and it started off a great creative relationship at that point.

PB: You have done some acting before. You played Johnny Cash’s mother in ‘Walk the Line’. Did you have to do a lot of preparation for this role?

SL: I hardly had to do any preparation. I thought if I can’t pull this off I really ought to quit this acting business (Laughs). It really was so close to home. Acting for me is not as daunting as it seems. I feel that if you just try and be natural and not act you might be okay. I don’t claim to be an actor by any means, but it is fun and I would do it if it was an appropriate thing again.

PB: The film also features an appearance as an angel of your friend, the late singer-songwriter Tony Joe White. He apparently came into the film very spontaneously and very much on the off chance.

SL: I worked really closely with Cynthia throughout the process of making the film. It was a great learning experience for me, and we discussed every aspect of it as it progressed. She said, “We need an angel in the film,” and I said, “I have got the guy. I know the guy. I know the perfect person. Let me call him!” and I picked up the phone. I am in Hollywood. Tony Joe was in Nashville. I called Tony Joe and I said, “I have got this movie I am doing. I need you to come out here and be an angel,” and he said, “Well, alright.” That was just about all there was to it.

Tony Joe and I had been friends since 1997, so he knew that he could trust what I was saying. A week later he was out here and he stayed at my house and we did it, and thank God we did because the movie was always special to me, but having Tony Joe in this film gives me the true reason why this film was made. Those are the last moving pictures of Tony Joe. It is just crushing that he is not here with us, but it is good that we got him in the film because the following October he died. It is really amazing how the universe speaks to us that way.

PB: The front cover photo of ‘Shelby Lynne’ has drawn some controversy as it shows you with a face mask on. Is it true that you took that photo long before the current pandemic?

SL: It is unbelievable. I was doing the photo shoot for the album with Amanda Demme. I had a turtleneck on. I wear turtlenecks a lot, and we were just about finished with the shoot, and she said, “Pull the turtleneck over your face”, and when she took the shot I thought, “That has got to be the cover. It is great. It is saying 'Listen to the music. Don’t hear me talk.'" That was the intention, and then we get Coronavirus and the world crisis. Art speaks to us in more ways than we know, and that is probably one of the truest examples of it that I have ever seen. I really can’t get over how crazy it is.

PB: Your last album ‘Not Dark Yet’ with your sister Allison Moorer consisted of eleven covers and one original song, ‘Is It Too Much?’ You’re both experienced songwriters. Why did you focus primarily on covers?

SL: It was a time issue thing. Sissy and I had a window to do a record together which we had wanted to do for years. I had moved to Hollywood and she was in New York, so I said to her, “Sissy, we have got this time. Why don’t we make this record finally?” We realised that we didn’t have time to sit down and write ten songs. As much as wanted to, we didn’t, so we started pulling all of our favourites which we wanted to sing together. It was very much a time issue. We are going to write the next one.

PB: Is that your next project?

SL: I don’t know what the next project is. I have already got my next solo album in the can thankfully because God knows when I can get together with any musicians again, but, yeah, Sissy and I want to do another record together in the future. We don’t know when as things are so crazy right now, but that was one of the great accomplishments of my career.

PB: Final question! What are your plans for the immediate future?

SL: I am just going to hang tight like everyone else and see what happens. During this standstill it is not really easy to predict when you can rub shoulders with people again. I guess we are all in a holding pattern until we can see when we can get out there and do what we do.

PB: Thank you.

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