Addresses: Record company--Mercury/Polygram Records, 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019; phone (212) 333-8000.
Laura Love's restless, musically adventurous spirit has carried her in a remarkable array of directions. A bass player with a unique vocal style, Love has performed everything from grunge to jazz to bluegrass. She has covered songs as diverse as Hank Williams' I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, Jackie DeShannon's Put a Little Love in Your Heart, and Kurt Cobain's Come As You Are. Most remarkably, she has melded her own funky, folky genre from African and Caribbean rhythms, Irish melodies, and R&B. She calls it Afro/Celtic. "Love has a powerful raspy voice not unlike Toni Childs, and she uses it to full advantage--howling , crooning, and even yodeling," Lahri Bond wrote in Dirty Linen magazine. "These tunes usually have spiritual underpinnings that give Love's lyrics a simplicity with a lot of depth. Love often strings together 'nonsense' words that serve as rhythmic connecting devices similar to scatting or African chant."
With self-deprecating wit, the singer described her sound to Billboard as "more like confusion than fusion.... I don't really devour a lot of music, but (I) hear snippets here and there at festivals without meaning to. Some of it just sinks in--the really emotionally grabbing stuff--and sticks with me. But I've always loved Appalachian--the high lonesome, bluegrassy, mournful, minor- key white soul music--and I love black soul music."Time magazine music critic Christopher Farley has described Love as more traditionally folky than musically exotic, believing that Love could be a descendent of Joni Mitchell, and her songs address typical coffeehouse subject matter. "Love has a voice rich with dark shadings and rural twang," Farley wrote. "She calls her music Afro/Celtic, but it's mostly front-porch folk with a few twists."
Love made her jazz-singing debut for a "captive audience" at a penitentiary in her home state of Nebraska in the early 1980s. She was 16 years old. Later, she developed a following in the Seattle music scene, where she played grunge rock in the early years of her career. Eventually, Love found--or, more accurately, created--her own niche. "The Afro-Celtic label doesn't communicate the full flavor of Love's songs," Nelson George wrote in Playboy. "(Her) songs have bright, lilting melodies that contrast nicely with lyrics that focus on poverty and pain. But Love isn't as heavy- voiced or didactic as Tracy Chapman. Her vocals are lighter, higher-pitched, and less guarded than those of her fellow pop- folkie. As pained and bitter as the songs ... are, Love suggests there's room for optimism."
In concert, Love delivers "ebullient performances filled with the kind of charisma and joyfulness that in October 1994 brought a Carnegie Hall audience to its feet after she had taken the stage with only her bass as accompaniment for her vocal acrobatics," a contributor to Good Times magazine reported. "From mixed ancestry," the contributor continued, "Love writes from the point of view of the perpetual outside, a perspective that might make anyone else despondent and bitter. Not Love, however. She gave all of her angst and her thrift store clothes away when she left grunge music behind."
In the early 1990s, Love released three records on her own label--Z Therapy, Helvetica Bold, and Pangaea. Her songs received airplay from public radio, college stations and adult alternative stations- -and led Billboard in 1994 to declare Love one of the nation's best unsigned acts. Her music also captured the attention of Dan Storper, a New York clothier who operates the Putumayo World Music record label. In 1995, the indie label released the Laura Love Collection, which features 11 songs culled from Love's early records. The sampler, George wrote in the Playboy review, "serves as a vibrant introduction to her work."
That same year, Love took a characteristically adventurous musical detour and recorded an album of traditional bluegrass music with country crooner Jo Miller. Miller, a fan of Love's music, conceived the joint project. "I'd heard Laura with her own group, the Laura Love Band, and I loved her Afro-Celtic sound," Miller said, "but I'd always leave saying, 'Now there's a bluegrass tenor.' " For material, Miller and Love turned to compositions by bluegrass greats including Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe, who single- handedly created the genre and its trademark "high, lonesome sound." Love was initially hesitant to pursue the project, but soon agreed. "I didn't know anything about bluegrass before my connection with Jo," she said, "and, although I hesitated a bit at first, she convinced me that if I'd ever been high or lonesome I could probably sing this stuff."
Love has said her experience working with Storper showed her that she could work with a record label and maintain her musical independence and integrity. She previously had turned down record deals. "They approached and I said, 'Thank you very much, that's great, but it's not possible to put out a good major label record and achieve corporate ideals of commercialism and hit-making,' " Love told Billboard. "I felt our goals are adversarial--and still do. To think (in terms of) trying to write a hit is a bad way to think of things. Trying to say something you feel might be a better thing and real motivation. So, (signing with a major label) wasn't for me."
At least, that is, until she met Danny Goldberg, head of Mercury Records, and learned that he had managed Nirvana and was close to Kurt Cobain. At the same time, Love's homegrown business operation was increasingly difficult to manage as she and her band (guitarist Rod Cook, accordion and African 'tongue' drum player Julie Wolf, and percussionist Chris Leighton) gained popularity. "We started doing bigger and bigger festivals and it got harder to do everything ourselves--driving the van to the gigs and unloading everything, and now we had four records to carry around," Love said. "Plus, it was taking more and more time administering my label, so there was less time performing and writing music, and it was time to do another record." Mercury released that album, called Octoroon, in 1997. It is vintage Laura Love--an eclectic sound and lyrics addressing social injustice, the environment, and religious hypocrisy. "There aren't many artists who've built up a 10,000 or so fan-club base without having a major label behind them," Mercury marketing vice president Marty Maidenberg told Billboard. "So we're not going to change her formula too much.... She's such a breath of fresh air that when people hear her ... they realize how special she is and fall in love with her."
by Dave Wilkins
Laura Love's Career
Laura Love is a bass player, singer, and songwriter from Seattle, where she got her start playing in grunge rock bands. Love later found a unique niche in a hybrid style of music she calls Afro/Celtic. She self-released three albums before signing with Mercury Records. Her major-label debut, Octoroon, was released in 1997.
- Selective Works
- Z Therapy, Octoroon Biography, 1990.
- Helvetica Bold, Octoroon Biography, 1990.
- Pangaea, Octoroon Biography, 1992.
- Jo Miller and Laura Love Sing Bluegrass and Old-Time Music, Rockin' Octoroon, 1995.
- Laura Love Collection, Putumayo World Music, 1995.
- Octoroon, Mercury, 1997.
- Billboard, April 19, 1997, p. 18.
- Playboy, September 1995, p. 26.
- Time, May 12, 1997, p. 85.
- Additional material from the Harmony Ridge Music homepage on the World Wide Web.