She sounds truly imperiled as her words spill out of her like blood from some fresh, deep wound.
“I feel like I’m gonna die,” Lydia Loveless sings, though that might not be the most accurate way to describe her actions: Singing is a conscious act, and this feels different, her words reflexive and involuntary, like the sound you make when you drop something heavy on your foot.
Here it comes again.
“I feel like I’m gonna d-i-e-e-e-e-e-e!” she repeats, holding on to the final word as if it was, in fact, her final word.
At that moment, you might not be able to feel Loveless’ pain, but you can feel her feeling it, palpably, jarringly, on heart-in-a-vise lament “To Love Somebody.”
It’s the same sensation you get when you drive by the scene of a bad accident: You shudder at the wreckage even if you weren’t involved in the collision because it brings you this close to real carnage.
You can’t help but think of your own mortality afterward.
This is what Loveless does: She brings you within inches of the desperation, the ecstasy, the longing and the loneliness that cling to the contours of her tunes like a tight dress.
She does so by really, really, truly, seriously, unmistakably sounding like she means every word she sings.
Her songs have a lived-in quality to them — the upholstery’s stained and checkered with cigarette burns, the kitchen table is piled high with empty beer cans and the front door is unlocked.
So, come on in.
“I’m a pretty open person,” Loveless says, noting how this quality leads others to, in turn, open up to her. “I do end up having a lot of heart-to-hearts with people. I can be a bit of a therapist for people. I like that, because I like meeting people and hearing their stories. I think people feel pretty close to me sometimes.”
It’s hard not to, really.
When we catch up with the 23-year-old singer-songwriter on a recent Tuesday afternoon, she’s doing her laundry in Austin, Texas, in town for the annual South By Southwest Music Conference.
She punctuates the end of most thoughts with a laugh, one that’s more self-effacing than tickled.
She’s every bit as unaffected and forthright as she comes across in her songs.
About those songs, they tend to get Loveless classified as alt-country, which means they’d sound equally at home in a rock dive or a honky tonk. There’s a dirt-beneath-the-fingernails feel to them, whether Loveless and her band are conjuring their best barroom bluster or leading a slow dance.
On her recently released third album, the aching, unvarnished “Somewhere Else,” Loveless sings of desires sought and desires fulfilled, of going to a party, snorting cocaine and then immediately bursting into tears at the thought of an ex-lover, of yearning to taste the wine-flavored lips of her man, of being reduced by loneliness to staring at the wall like it was a TV.
The emotions are raw, and so is the sound of the record, earthy, uncluttered and largely free of studio embellishment.
Loveless never puts on any airs, which may be at least partially attributable to her background: When she first struck out of her own as a musician in her late teens, it was in the “really scummy punk scene” of Columbus, Ohio.
Loveless grew up on a farm in a rural part of the state before that, raised in a musical family where her two sisters, her brother and her father also played in bands.
When they moved to the city, Loveless sought to distance herself from the music associated with her youth, only to return to it later, in a roundabout way.
“I grew up in the middle of nowhere, in the country, so I kind of have that redneck identity, just as a person,” she says. “I’m a bit of a hayseed, so I guess that was what sort of led me to (country music), but I always hated the pop country everyone would listen to. It made me really angry.
“So, for years, I was just completely, staunchly anti-country music,” she continues. “And then once I moved, I got really nostalgic for the country and started listening to Hank Williams and Hank III. I liked the way it was just so brutally honest and simple.”
Brutally honest and simple — Loveless is describing the appeal of her influences, although she could just as easily be doing the same of herself.
“I don’t want to hide what I feel, because then people might not be able to feel as deeply about it,” Loveless says. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Maybe someone will get offended by that and I shouldn’t say it,’ ” she adds, and there’s that laugh again, “but ultimately I try to do what’s best for the song. I think the more honest you are, the more people can find themselves in it.”
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow on Twitter @JasonBracelin.