Music » Features

Songs In A Minor Key

Southern-bred singer receives group support

by

comment
Reading her HighTone Records press release, one is clearly supposed to get the idea that Laura Minor is some sort of alt-country ingenue. That she had no idea of the vocal talent gestating inside. That music held no place in her former existence. That maybe, before she teamed up with songwriter Jared Flamm to perform a Gram Parsons tune at a party late last spring, she'd never tried to sing a note in her life.There are two fairly gaping holes in this story of the Southern-bred poet who, at 28, suddenly found herself in line to be the next Lucinda Williams. One, of course, is that anyone who knows the words to "Return of the Grievous Angel" has put in some heavy time listening to obscure records. And the other is this: Nobody, but nobody, could make a debut record as good as Minor's Salesman's Girl by happy accident -- not even with Cracker's David Lowery producing, and the talented gentlemen from the late, lamented Noah's Red Tattoo cranking out the tracks.

"I don't think it's as innocent as the marketing makes it seem," agrees Minor. "I've wanted to be in bands since I was a kid. I went to live shows three times a week."

She actually began making music in New York City. A Florida native who started her higher education at UF, Minor earned her MFA at New York's Sarah Lawrence College. In between writing a book and teaching kindergarten to pay the bills, she would work on experimental tuneage with various acquaintances.

"We'd get a bottle of whiskey and try to make music all night," she says. "Basically what came out was this warped Fiona Apple/Bjork thing with beats under it, like if Portishead were country."

Her tastes seem to sprawl from eclectic and ambient all the way back to roots Americana. Minor tells of performing Patsy Cline songs for family friends as a little girl, and that love for singing and nascent C&W styles stuck with her, even as she was getting into writing fiction and bands like My Bloody Valentine. By the time she arrived in New York, Minor had found her literary voice in poetry but was sufficiently interested in music to endure the subway gear-lugging and catch-as-catch-can scheduling that the city fosters.

Eventually, however, the financial pressures of living in NYC catalyzed Minor's decision to return to Gainesville, FL, where she began work on her Ph.D. and landed the first of many day gigs. When her computer blew up, taking a bunch of new poems with it, she became discouraged to the point of inactivity and started casting about for something music-oriented to do as a brief distraction. Enter songwriter and band-life veteran Flamm, introduced by a friend. She confirms that the fated Parsons duet -- a perfect Behind the Music anecdote if ever there was one -- really happened.

Beforehand, Flamm was sketchy about performing with a woman he'd never heard sing; afterward, he was sure they were going to be in a band together and wouldn't take no for an answer.

""Maybe we should get together on Tuesday' -- he hounded me to practice," Minor says with a laugh. "He got my number and called, came over and asked if I had any lyrics."

The pair spent days on end in Minor's attic, reshaping snatches of her poetry to fit Flamm's exhaustive backlog of melodies and chord progressions. ("We just kind of Frankensteined "em," she deadpans.) In his experience and compositional savvy, she found what had been missing from her earlier, more abstract efforts -- namely, songs, solidly built, catchy and reverent of American music's best traditions. They meshed perfectly with Minor's writing, an evocative mix of Southern Gothic archetypes and personal revelations. In a few months, she had a deal with Californian Americana label HighTone, and her "welcome distraction" had taken over her life.

Flamm enlisted multi-instrumentalist Aaron Carr, bassist Devin Moore and drummer Jeff Lataille, the final Noah's Red Tattoo lineup and one with years of playing together under its belt. HighTone, with its roster of seasoned roots songwriters with finite but loyal fan bases, was unused to developing emerging artists, and Minor and Flamm were equally inexperienced in making full-production records for an established label.

As a proposed recording schedule took shape, HighTone asked the twosome to draw up a wish list of possible producers but neglected to set any sort of budgetary or stylistic limits.

"It was hilarious -- they gave us way too much freedom. We didn't know what kind of money we were working with," says Minor. "Bjork, Rick Rubin, The Dust Brothers, it went on and on."

Alterna-roots icon David Lowery and famed engineer Brian Paulson (Beck, Uncle Tupelo, Replacements, Jayhawks) were also named, and may have been the only two serious options on the list. Conveniently, Paulson was already affiliated with Lowery's Richmond, VA, Sound of Music studio. Flamm and Lowery bonded over musical ideas, while Minor and Paulson were of one mind regarding the album's sound and production values. The entire Noah's crew ended up contributing songwriting ideas. With the help of a few session musicians (including ace pedal steel player Alan Weatherhead), Salesman's Girl was tracked in two weeks. Alternately melancholy and rocking, the disc may be the most well-rounded and pop-grounded insurgent country release this side of Old 97s' Satellite Rides.

"They're a wonderful group," says Minor of her bandmates. "I got really lucky, because they'd been playing together for so long. It was an easy situation to walk into. It was weird for them, because they'd always had that core group of people. But the first show was bliss."

Someone whose previous creative outlet was comparatively solitary, Minor is still coming to grips with the vagaries of live performance. But the lyricist asserts that the politics of academia and publishing had been wearing thin for some time, and that she couldn't be happier about the unlikely series of events culminating in Salesman's Girl. When asked if she sees her future in music or in a return to the literary life, Minor is, at this point, unwilling to speculate.

"I'd like to grow into something... you know, I love being here, but to say that I'm going to be here forever, it's not very wise," she says. "It's the very beginning. I can't see where it's going."

Laura Minor will perform Wednesday, August 14, at the Evening Muse.

Add a comment