Playing dive bars populated with unsavory characters really worked out well for Lera Lynn, the Nashville-based singer/songwriter whose powerful songs and evocative singing were probably the most universally praised component from the just-completed second season of HBO’s True Detective. Born in Houston and raised near Atlanta, Lynn, 30, developed her chops in Athens, Ga., before moving to Nashville for a “change of scenery.” She independently released her second album, The Avenues, late last year, but her big break came when T Bone Burnett tapped her for a critical musical role in writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto’s second season of True Detective, starring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn.
The TD2 buzz around Lynn began before the eight-week run even started, when the trailer featuring her song “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For,” a co-write with Burnett and Roseanne Cash, generated more than 35 million social media views (the song will be featured on True Detective Music From The HBO Series, out Aug. 14 via Electromagnetic Recordings/Harvest Records in partnership with HBO). When the season began, Lynn was also featured in a striking role as a decidedly less-than-glamorous bar singer in the fictional Black Rose, where haunting songs like “My Least Favorite Life” served as the backdrop to tense conversations between the characters played by Farrell and Vaughn. In the season finale, Lynn’s version of the Burnett/Bob Neuwirth composition “Lately” (now available digitally) underlies the compelling final scene, and Lynn, who is managed by Sheri Sands and booked by Frank Riley at High Road Touring, has been on an upward arc ever since. She recently signed an exclusive worldwide publishing deal with Lance Freed at Rondor Music International, and begins a fall tour on Sept. 17 at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge as part of the Americana Music Festival. Billboard spoke with Lynn about her career and the impact of TD2.
How did playing in Athens, Ga., influence your music?
Athens is a really interesting sort of filter, all the music that comes out of that town has a very distinct, kind of rough messiness to it, which is one of the most endearing parts of the music. I’ve tried to hang on to some of that, and also tighten up a little bit at the same time.
What’s been going on with your career since moving to Nashville?
I’ve been in Nashville for a few years now, I’ve put out a few records. I’m an independent artist; I’ve always been an independent artist. It’s a long, tough road, but I think it’s a little bit more rewarding.
Did you gravitate to Americana-based songwriters and musicians and that music scene when you moved to Nashville?
I was already doing that before I moved to Nashville. In fact, I didn’t really move to Nashville thinking it was going to change anything for me musically. It was just time for me to have a change of scenery, to stimulate and challenge myself in a different way than I was in Athens. When I moved here, I was touring a lot, so I wasn’t really here very much. There’s so many talented people in Nashville, a lot of artists and songwriters I have a great deal of respect for. I don’t even really know what a scene is… what does that mean? (laughs)
That’s a good point, there’s a tendency for us music journalists to kind of peg things in a certain way, but I do see you’re beginning your tour at the Americana Music Festival. So are you like-minded with some of these artists that are part of that loosely-based gathering of musicians put under a certain category?
(Laughing) I guess I am like-minded. It seems to me that the majority of Americana artists are independent, they’re genre-bending. So, yeah.
How did you come across T Bone Burnett’s radar, and what led to such a powerful place on what I thought was a great series? I know a lot of people bashed the second season of True Detective, but I loved it.
You know, it’s so funny, I keep hearing people say exactly what you just said. I think the whiners just whine louder, or something. I’ve heard more people say they liked it than say they didn’t like it. My manager worked with T Bone when he was doing the Raising Sand record with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, she helped coordinate the release of that, and they developed a professional relationship. She just stayed in touch with him, and had been sending him my music, and he heard the title track of an EP I released last March called Lying in the Sun. He wanted to have lunch in Nashville to discuss the possibility of using that song in True Detective, which I was very excited about. We met up, obviously I was pretty nervous, I didn’t know what to expect. But he was an easy-going, fascinating guy, lots of ideas, lots of knowledge of lots of things. He told us a little bit about the show and asked if I’d be interested in possibly collaborating with him, or writing some for the show. Of course, I said, “hell, yeah.” So, he flew me out to Los Angeles a bit after that, and we wrote and recorded four songs in two days. He played those songs for the writer of the show, Nic Pizzolatto, who was very hands-on with everything to do with the show. I was really impressed with how present he was, making every decision and overseeing everything. The producer was also there, and they loved the music that we had done, and T Bone said, “What do you think about having her play the songs in the show?” And they said, “Hmmm, we’re going to have to give her a third eye or something, but OK.” And the rest is history, kind of like a dream. It was really fast, and fascinating to see how the whole thing works, and to see the level of talent and skill involved with everyone that’s on the set, the actors and everyone behind the cameras. It was really a very interesting experience.
Do you really play dive bars with no one in them but damaged detectives and gangsters?
(Laughs) I play dive bars, I don’t know if they’re the cool dive bars where damaged detectives and gangsters hang out. I’ve done my fair share of that, for sure.
Every scene you were in was pivotal, and the music really contributed to that. Also, it was a very plum spot for the song “Lately” in the final scene — that was very powerful. What did you think when you first saw the ending?
I thought it was beautiful. I knew nothing about the final script; I watched it just like everyone else did. I thought it was really beautiful and, yeah, what a great use of the music, I feel very lucky for that.
How has being part of this changed your life?
The most obvious and significant change I’ve noticed just right off the bat is record sales, and just interacting more with fans. People are become more aware of my music outside of the show, as well. The tour coming up will be the first big tour I’ve done since the show; we’ve been doing small runs here and there, and one-offs, and ticket sales have increased. That’s been really great, to show up to a town I haven’t played in a few years and there’s a bunch of people there waiting.
People beyond the detective and gangsters.
(Laughs) Yeah. Although I guess we wouldn’t really know, would we?
Are you very engaged in social media and has there been an impact there?
Yes, I try to answer as many messages and comments as I can and, yes, it has been a lot [of impact]. It’s been really cool, people send messages saying like, “this music helped me through a tough time,” or “it really moved me in an emotional way.” That’s why we do it in the first place, so it’s really great to hear that from people.
You sound a lot happier than those songs would lead one to believe.
Well, I certainly am. I was playing a character, writing for a character, performing as a character.
What’s the next move?
Right now I’m trying to write and record a record in a few weeks. I’ve been writing some along the way, but it’s kind of crunch time in Nashville for me. What I’m focused on now is getting a record made.
Lera Lynn Fall 2015 U.S. Tour Dates
Sept. 17 – Nashville, TN – The Mercy (Americana Music Festival)
Sept. 19-20 – Bristol, TN – Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion
Sept. 23 – Birmingham, AL – WorkPlay
Sept. 24 – Little Rock, AR -South on Main- Oxford American
Sept. 25 – Dallas, TX – Kessler Theater
Sept. 26 – Austin, TX – The Parish
Sept. 29 – Phoenix, AZ – Musical Instrument Museum
Oct. 1 – Pioneertown, CA – Pappy & Harriet’s
Oct. 2 – Los Angeles, CA -The Troubadour
Oct. 6 – Portland, OR – Mississippi Studios
Oct. 7 – Seattle, WA – Triple Door
Oct. 9 – Salt Lake City, UT – State Room
Oct. 10 – Denver, CO – Daniels Hall
Oct. 12 – Kansas City, MO – Knuckleheads
Oct. 13 – St. Louis, MO – Blueberry Hill
Oct. 14 – Louisville, KY – Headliners Music Hall
Oct. 16 – Knoxville, TN – Square Room
Oct. 17 – Nashville, TN – 3rd & Lindsley