Storied hard-ass Shelby Lynne has better things to do than talk on the damn telephone long-distance to somebody she’s never met. Like work on her songs, for instance. Lynne, a country singer who spent a season in Nashville making records people (including her) sort of liked, reaped some cash after a surprise 2000 “new artist” Grammy sparked by her sixth album, I Am Shelby Lynne, a glimmering assertion of self that actually lives up to its imposing title; she used part of the money to build a modest home studio at her place in Palm Springs, where she’s lived for the past five years. Following the lukewarm reception accorded I Am’s follow-up, Love, Shelby, Lynne asked to be released from her contract with Island Records, and got her wish. So with no record deal and no particular direction or goal in mind, she’d just sit around the house writing songs, and then record them because she could.
“I was into it,” she says in her still-thick Alabama drawl. “I still am. I was in there when you called, actually. I wish we weren’t doing this right now, ’cause I got this song on my brain.”
If it’s anything like the ones on her bewitching new Identity Crisis, I’ve got no quarrel with her honesty. The record’s a retreat from the highly tweaked studio sheen that made I Am so mesmerizing and Love a little oily; tracked mostly at home, it’s an elegant collection of classically minded country and gospel tunes centered on Lynne’s singing and guitar playing, filled out in spots with restrained percussion, heartbeat bass, and some keys by Little Feat’s Bill Payne. Vocally, she eschews the great waves of multitracked harmonies that lit older tunes like “Killin’ Kind” and “Your Lies” from within, opting instead for a close-miked intimacy that would reveal the wrinkles in her smoked-syrup alto if they existed. (The exception is “Lonesome,” a thrilling countrypolitan production number Lynne says she would’ve pitched to Patsy Cline if she’d written it 40 years earlier.)
Lynne calls Identity “tasty,” which is about right: not tasteful, since the thing fairly bleeds hurt — particularly the lead single, “Telephone,” an incisive acoustic shuffle about drunk dialing, and “If I Were Smart,” a hushed Scarecrow lament — but with little bits of spice thrown in to keep you rolling it around, discovering new flavors.
“I just wanted to keep it simple,” Lynne explains. “The trick to this record was knowing when to stop, and I kept that in my head, because in the studio you can put cartwheels on the record if you want to. But I really didn’t want to do that. I wanted to leave space. Just because there’s a hole somewhere, it doesn’t mean you have to cram something in it. I like to have naked silence sometimes.”
Lynne says she enjoyed working at home alone and the contrast it provided with the recording of her last two discs, each made with a producer with his own sonic signature: I Am’s Bill Bottrell, the architect behind Sheryl Crow’s Vegas-twang Tuesday Night Music Club, and Love’s Glen Ballard, the guy who helped Alanis Morissette become an alt-rock infatuation. She especially dug learning her way around the recording gear. “I think a lot of the songs were inspired by my doing it by myself — staying up until 4 in the morning and learning how to patch in and out and do overdubs and coolness like that.”
Still, she doesn’t dismiss her collaborative work, and in fact defends Love when I suggest that its charms might’ve suffered from Ballard’s hit-seeking hand. “I don’t think it was more commercial at all,” she says. “I think it was a different record productionwise, and I love it.” She laughs. “I mean, I guess that would be my attempt at being commercial, but I don’t know if I have a commercial bone, you know what I’m saying?”
Lynne was relieved to find that Capitol Records chief Andy Slater did. “I was really wary of that whole corporate shit,” she says of her mindset after leaving Island, which she claims pressured her to make Love before she was through supporting I Am, “and I was eager to do something independent or on a smaller label. I finished the record purposely before I played it for anyone, so they would know that I had no intention of changing anything. When I met with Andy, he got it. He said, ‘I’ll put it out,’ and I said, ‘Okay.’”