The most difficult album to make just might be the one where the artist knows people will be paying attention. After one obscure release and a second album that brought her a wave of acclaim, Lydia Loveless met the challenge earlier this year on her third full-length, "Somewhere Else" (Bloodshot). But not without some speed bumps along the way.
"Verlaine Shot Rimbaud" is in many ways the album's key song, about a passion so deep that it turns violent, based on the tempestuous relationship between 19th Century French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. It's anything but a typical love song, and it marked a turning point in Loveless' approach to writing.
"It was written out of frustration," says the 23-year-old singer. "I had wanted to reinterpret one of Verlaine's poems, but I hated the way the song was turning out. So I just started yelling things. About halfway through, I started realizing, 'I like this.' It freed me up and I had a vision of where I wanted the song to go."
She finished the verses – conflating desire and desperation – in a way that "opened the floodgates," she says. "I was writing songs that I thought of as spring cleaning – not terrible songs, but nothing I wanted to go on the road with, nothing that was motivating me. I needed to be better. 'Verlaine' lyrically was a different thing for me as far as storytelling. It's not that I wanted to shoot someone, but it took me to a different level lyrically."
The final piece locked in when she showed the song to her road-tested band.
"I liked the way it blended all my influences together, but didn't realize it was a breakthrough till I played it with the band, especially writing licks with Todd (guitarist Todd May)," she says. "The way it becomes less fluid in the verse, it reminded me of Richard Hell and the Voidoids. That's when I got giddy about it. I wasn't trying to write a song like that, but when it appeared, I had this braggy moment. 'This is awesome.'"
Loveless acknowledges that she had to battle a bad case of writer's block after her 2011 album, "Indestructible Machine," established her as a bold new voice blending country, punk and even pop influences. In a 2011 interview with the Tribune, Loveless had talked about wanting to expand her range as a songwriter. "I want to be comfortable to write anything and not worry about the genre," she said at the time, citing artists such as Richard Thompson as an inspiration.
But she didn't follow her own advice at first. After returning home after years of touring to write the next album, "I got locked up," she says. "I'd go play a show, and someone would write 'She sounds like Loretta Lynn,' and people would be disappointed if you don't sound like that. I got caught up in that, overanalyzing things, and forcing myself to be things I wasn't."
After "Verlaine Shot Rimbaud," the songs began to flow, and opened up some new areas sonically and lyrically. She acknowledges that after having marginal input into the sound and production of her 2010 debut, "The Only Man," she was learning on the job during the making of "Indestructible Machine." With "Somewhere Else" she was able to refine her approach, and even takes her first guitar lead on "Head."
"I focused more on my guitar playing and sound," she says. "I had no idea about tone when I made 'Indestructible Machine.' But I took guitar lessons for a while, and I had that lead on 'Head' worked out. I'd chicken out and not play it on the road, but Todd pushed me into that role in the studio. 'You need to play your (expletive) guitar.'"
She pushes herself as a lyricist too. "Everything's Gone" breaks from her usual diet of relationship songs to address how her family's Ohio farm was foreclosed when she was a child.
"We did lose our home in a very long battle that lasted most of my childhood," she says. "I didn't think about it for a long time, because I was raised in a religious family, and it was 'No crying allowed' and 'Don't get angry.' I don't think I had the mental capacity to write about it until the last couple of years. It's like post-traumatic stress coming out. I went hiking in the woods near where I grew up, total silence, the land, pastures everywhere. We always had open fields for horses and cattle. But a friend told me she had driven by my old house, and said the people that own it now had planted corn. Hearing that pissed me off, and set off the song."
It's a song that manages to be both personal and topical, which accounts for its power. In the same way, she personalizes a cover of Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know," a minor 1979 hit that ends the album on a defiant yet uplifting note.
"The album starts out more pop and goes downhill emotionally," Loveless says with a laugh. "It needed that at the end. I think it's one of the best pop songs ever written. It sounds a little melancholy because it's about people who want to tear up a relationship, but there's that amazing line: 'They've never heard about love.' That song is a dedication to my band, because people are always telling me I need to get a band that does this or that. 'They're too rock,' 'They're not enough country.' But I grew up listening to Britney Spears and the Clash. We're not that easy to pin down."
Greg Kot co-hosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: 10 p.m. April 25 and 8 p.m. April 27
Where: Schubas, 3159 N. Southport Ave.
Tickets: $12; schubas.com
Other recommended shows
Neil Young: On his latest solo tour, the singer-songwriter has been covering Phil Ochs, Gordon Lightfoot and Bob Dylan songs, and revisiting a few classics from Buffalo Springfield. 8 p.m. Monday-Tuesday at Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., $43.50, $63.50, $103.50, $153.50, $253.50, $353.50; ticketmaster.com
The Knife: The Swedish duo of Karin Dreijer Andersson and Olof Dreijer returns on the back of its fourth album, "Shaking the Habitual," an ambitious dive into drone that comes at the expense of the pop hooks on its earlier recordings. 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Aragon Ballroom, 1106 W. Lawrence Ave., $35; jamusa.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye