This article originally appeared in the March 13, 1993 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Before her first year as a performer was over, Mary Lou Lord had already played in some of the best-known venues in Boston: Harvard, Park Street, Central Square… and that’s only the ones on the Red Line.
Before anyone knew who she was or where she came from, most everyone had noticed that blonde woman singing on the subway. But then, the sight of a woman who sings like an angel, looks like the reincarnation of Sandy Denny, and performs songs you didn’t think anyone else knew (Big Star covers? Unreleased Dylan songs from bootlegs?) isn’t something you see on the way to work every day.
Fact is, Lord’s life as a performer tends to read like something an imaginative scriptwriter would have dreamed up. Cornered to chat over a few beers, she tells one amazing story after another, pausing every few minutes to ask whether I’m bored yet.
Here, for example, is how she started performing on subways: “I was going to the School of Audio in London, living in a little squat on Mile End. And there was no heat there at all, so after school I’d take my homework to the tube station, just so I could be somewhere warm and listen to the musicians for free entertainment.
“I had a friend who played down there, and one time he asked me to watch his equipment so he could go to the bathroom. He said, ‘If the police look like they’re going to bother you, just start playing.’
“So a few minutes went by and he didn’t come back. I was looking at his guitar and figuring ‘What the hell.’ I’d already studied voice at Berklee (where she left after two years) but I’d never played the guitar at all. I knew maybe two chords. But someone threw a pound coin in during the first song I ever did.”
Does she remember what it was? “Of course. It was ‘Angel from Montgomery’ (the John Prine song covered by Bonnie Raitt). I played it 250 fuckin’ times! I was just praying the trains would come, so people wouldn’t notice. I didn’t know anything else.”
With this month’s release of Real, an album-length tape on the cassette label Deep Music, Lord’s fans finally have some music they can bring home. Although parts of the tape are wonderful (like her versions of John Cale’s “Andalucia” and Led Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way”), it’s not an album she’s especially pleased with-mainly because it’s all acoustic and mostly covers and represents only the sort of music she played on the subway.
What it doesn’t represent is her double life as a rock-and-roller. Never your typical folkie, Lord was doing college radio in her hometown of Salem at age 13. “I remember walking about of a meeting, because they wanted me to play nothing but hardcore records, and I thought that was too narrow. I remember going ‘Forget this-someday I’m going to actually put something on record.’”
When she started playing local subways in the late ‘80s, she wound up meeting a lot of band members and DJ types who’d smuggle her (then underage) into rock clubs. “Those were the people I met, because they were the only ones who’d recognize the songs I did on the subway. After that, I started hearing about bands like the Pastels, Beat Happening, the Vaselines-the stuff that’s so basic that it has to give you a good feeling.”
Eventually she wound up roadie-ing for Dumptruck, a band she even joined for a short time (at one show, both she and Juliana Hatfield sang back-up for the group). Then came Chupa, a short-lived group she formed with Dumptruck’s rhythm section. Most recently, she giggled last fall with a grunge-folk outfit called Strumpet. They played only two gigs (one at Billy Ruane’s Middle East bash last fall) before the members scattered, but the mix of Lord’s vocals with a fierce guitar sound (also hers) was impressive indeed.
“At the time I was hearing these women singing in bands, like Babes in Toyland and L7, who had really growly voices; nobody had a voice like mine. So the idea was to have that kind of sweet vocal, with the guitar from Hell. But I still wasn’t writing exactly what I heard in my head.”
When we talked last week, Lord was energized from a recent trip to Olympia, Washington (about an hour from Seattle), home of a zillion misfit bands. “It made me realize I had to get everything I knew out of my head and develop a style out of nowhere. The only way I can find my own voice I to break the rules I’ve structured around myself. I just have to take it all and rip it apart-all the assembly-line, muso-wizard shit I learned at Berklee, all the covers I learned for the subway, I have to do my own songs now; I’ve played all the covers I’ll ever want to do.”