If you try to call Lydia Loveless on her cell phone and she doesn't pick up, you'll get the following message:
"Hello, you have reached firebrand cowpunk badass Lydia Loveless. I can't come to the phone right now because I'm too busy saving country music..."
Loveless recorded it long enough ago to sometimes forget it still exists. While the rural Ohio-born artist burst onto the alt-country scene earlier this decade with tunes like "Back on the Bottle"—which, in true outlaw fashion, Loveless wrote and released before she was even of legal drinking age—her cheeky greeting ignores the fascinating growth of her music since the rowdy rock-meets-honky-tonk hybrids of her high-octane, unfiltered 2010 debut.
Along with an odds-and-ends collection of previously released material, Loveless's 2017 output consists of an EP of club-ready remixes of "Heaven"—her dreamy, Smiths-with-synths original from last year's Real—and a somber, stripped-down cover of Justin Bieber's "Sorry" that served as the b-side to "Desire," a leftover from the Real sessions.
"My number one song on Spotify is that Bieber cover," Loveless laughs. "It's amusing, but it must have done something to broaden my fan base."
For longtime fans who have followed Loveless since the raucous twang of her early releases, the nineties pop influence on her more recent work may be a bit surprising. But for the twenty-seven-year-old Loveless, those influences felt natural.
"That's when all of the boy bands and pop singers were coming out, which was the biggest thing that made me even want to be a musician," Loveless says. "I thought I was going to be like Britney Spears and dance around with choreography, but obviously that didn't work out."
Despite those ambitions, her novice guitar skills and limited budget helped the familiar sounds of country music win out when she first started writing songs. She says she gravitated toward old country records because they were what she could afford—it was easy to find Hank Williams records in dollar bins, she says. As a novice guitarist, she could teach herself how to play some of Williams's slow, sad tunes.
While Loveless's songwriting has remained brutally honest, her palette has broadened as she's honed her guitar chops and become more comfortable with her band. Compared with recording 2011's Indestructible Machine—her second album and first with most of her current bandmates—communicating her vision is far simpler.
"It's much easier to get your own language within a band," she says. "Just stupid stuff like saying 'Do a Todd Rundgren bass line' where a song can develop into something that isn't just the first thing you grab onto because it's easy."
That ease shows on Real, where Loveless escapes genre confines by adding electronic accents and pop polish to her refined sense of melody on arrangements that expand far beyond the rootsy implements of banjo, pedal steel, and fiddle. Loveless hopes that expanding her stylistic tool kit will help her continue to break away from being pegged to just one genre.
"Once you've been deemed a country artist, it's really easy to be pigeonholed and it's harder to make yourself accessible because [some people] won't even take a listen," she says, noting that it's even tougher for a female singer to break out of that niche due to an undercurrent of sexism. "Almost every show I play, someone comes up and says, 'I don't like women singers, but you were really good' and they think that's a compliment. It's not like 'I hate women' but it's this deeply buried thing where some men are kind of embarrassed. They feel like it's emasculating to enjoy a woman's art."
For Loveless, an outdated, outgoing voicemail message isn't the only part of a phone call that fails to reveal her current situation; she retains a central Ohio area code despite moving to Morrisville in early August. After undergoing a dark period in her personal life that included a divorce from her former bassist Ben Lamb (which Loveless addresses throughout Real), Loveless says she's found peace and anonymity—along with increased access to touring bands and terrific food—since arriving in the Triangle after more than a decade in Columbus.
"I wouldn't say I'm in the backwoods, but it's definitely quieter," she says. "Getting away from all the familiarity is nice, and I'm doing way better now just with some distance from some of the bullshit I was going through."
A recent tour accompanied only by guitarist Todd May—her first such string of dates in eight years, she guesses—also helped give her some space while getting back to playing her songs at her own pace. She'll wrap that run with a two-night stand at the Cat's Cradle Back Room this weekend.
"I like acoustic performances because they can be more relaxed and funny, and it's not the end of the world if you make a mistake, because it's obviously supposed to be intimate and fun," she says, adding that her varied sets will draw from a broad range of material. "I don't have to worry about whether we've rehearsed this song in a while, but it's more about what my comfort zone is."
For her first "hometown" shows since moving to North Carolina, perhaps she'll find more comfort in her new surroundings—and then finally update that voicemail greeting.