We Spoke to the Woman with the Bashed Up Knees Who Plays Guitar in the Bleak-Ass Bar in 'True Detective'
Her name is Lera Lynn and she exists in real life also.
The current season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective has been polarizing. Most people fell in love with season one for its Southern Gothic surrealism, Matthew McConaughey saying things like “time is a flat circle” in the distinctly haggard voice of someone who smokes 40 a day, and everyman Woody Harrelson being all “stop saying odd shit.” With four main protagonists and none of the on-the-nose existentialism of its predecessor, the second season has been a comparative slow-burner, despite its opening gambit being the body of a murdered city manager found dumped at the side of a road with his dick blown off and his eyes burned out with acid.
Set in the fictional city of Vinci, California (allegedly based on the real life city of Vernon, California), season two stars Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn as three detectives and a Godfather-style gang lord respectively, all with varying dark pasts and some sort of sexual defect. You’ll find no comic relief in the interplay between characters this time around (unless you have a very, very bleak sense of humor), just a lot of intense glaring peppered with soliloquies about smashing rats to death in a basement. Like season one, it’s a complex investigation into the darkest, most fucked up aspects of humanity, but this time it blends LA noir with Lynchian mysticism and opts for a more gradual plot build. Also, everyone is perpetually vexed to the point of hernia.
Cool. Now that you know a bit about True Detective season two, you’re ready to meet Lera Lynn, a singer-songwriter from Nashville who has been setting its infinitely depressing tone to music. If you’ve seen the show, you might recognize Lera as the woman with the bashed up knees who plays guitar in the bleak-ass bar Frank (Vince Vaughn) and Ray (Colin Farrell) meet in to exchange information, drink heavily, and stare furiously at each other. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you may have heard Lera’s music anyway; it made such an impression on fans that she shot to number one in the global viral charts on Spotify. One of the most prominent tracks “My Least Favorite Life," which sounds like Chelsea Wolfe singing the blues, racked up over a million YouTube hits in a week.
After hearing her album The Avenues, Lera was selected by producer and True Detective’s music supervisor T-Bone Burnett, who describes the bar as: “The beating heart of the show [...] That bar is where True Detective happens. That’s the psychosphere. Something feels very central about it.”
With just a few days left until Sunday’s season finale, we caught up with Lera to talk about writing for True Detective, subreddit theories, and what it’s like playing a dive bar gig where your only two audience members are Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
Noisey: Hi Lera. So first off, I’m curious to know how you got involved with True Detective. How did it all come together?
Lera: My manager sent some of my music to T-Bone [Burnett, True Detective’s musical supervisor]. She had worked with him previously on Raising Sand, which is a collaborative album by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, and she thought we’d work well together. We met up for lunch in Nashville and initially she was talking about using the title track from the EP that I released last year called “Lying In The Sun,” which in the end was not used, but then asked if I would be interested in trying to write some songs for the show and collaborating with T-Bone. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. So he flew me to LA and we wrote and recorded several songs together in just a couple of days. He invited Nic Pizzolatto over to check out what we had done, and he really loved it. T-Bone said, “Well, how do you feel about making this girl the singer?” and Nic said, “We’ll have to make her fit the part somehow, but okay.” And the rest is history.
As well as writing music for True Detective you actually appear in it too, as a performer in show's dive bar. How would you describe your role in the show?
The plot has all been very mysterious to me. I was never allowed to really see the scripts outside of the scenes that I was a part of, so I’m watching the show as it unfolds. But if you were to take a step back, take pieces of the story that have been revealed, and try to put them together, you’ll see how it all links. The show gives you so much information very quickly, so I think those [bar] scenes are a nice reprieve. They give you a chance to digest everything a little.
I heard you had to wear grease in your hair and stuff to make you look more like the kind of person who would regularly play a dive bar.
Yeah [laughs]. My favorite part of the costuming was when the whole department would come at me with sandpaper and wire brushes and scissors. There would be like six of them putting dirt on me, ripping my dress, cutting the sleeves... That’s probably never gonna happen to me again!
Have you played dive bars like that in real life?
Oh god, countless. It’s a rite of passage. I’m still kind of playing them. Those are some of the best experiences too though. I’ve played everything from a patio in a sports bar to three people in the top floor of a church. You come across some weird places, but that’s a rich life. If you’re scraping by there’s just so much to learn in those moments, I think. I still appreciate playing in dive bars.
I read that one of Nic Pizzolatto’s cues for “My Least Favorite Life” was to write a song about a lover who dies and turns into a crow. Did Nic give you and T-Bone much direction in terms of what he wanted from the songs?
That’s right. I mean, HBO are really tight about leaking any information and I was no exception there either. I was just kind of sent very ambiguous information through T-Bone. Not so much about the character or the role in the show, just the tone that Nic wanted to capture. He gave me a little information, like, this girl is super fucked up, she’s trapped in this dive bar playing this incredible music for no one. So I helped myself to a good bit of scotch before we’d record and try to make it as lazy and relaxed as possible. Catatonic.
Was this the first time you’d done music for TV or film?
It was. The only other thing I’d ever done was the theme song for Squidbillies, which is an Adult Swim cartoon. They have different artists do the theme song. Very different to writing for a character though, so yeah, this was basically the first thing I’d done for TV.
Was working on the True Detective score a step into darker musical territory for you or are there themes there you think you would have explored anyway?
I think T-Bone thought that I was capable of doing that because he heard something in my music, he could hear me hinting at that darkness. It’s definitely a part of who I am as an artist, it’s just so rarely celebrated.
Did you have to get in character to write the music or was it stuff that came out quite naturally?
I’d say it was probably 80 percent natural and 20 percent getting in character or, you know, just trying to sing with as little affect as possible. That took a little bit of work. [Nic] wanted very languid performances and it was difficult to do that because we’d just write the song and then immediately set up the mics and I’d record it. It’s difficult to play guitar in time and then sing way behind the beat very lazily and relaxed when you’re still learning the words and the chord structures. You’re like, “Wait, how does this song go again? I’m supposed to be high right now…”
I think it helped with the visceral characteristic of the performances that we didn’t have time to perfect and over-analyse. They were all live performances and it reflects what’s actually happening in the bar, like, a girl can sit there and play and sing and sound just like that.
Was it always a given that you’d be in the show too or was that a decision that came afterwards?
We’d written a handful of songs and played them for Nic and T-Bone of course asked me first if I’d want to do that and said that he’d pitch the idea to Nic, so I didn’t know if they were going to say yes or no. But initially we were just working on the music and having me play it live came second. It’s a lot easier than trying to teach somebody else the phrasing of the vocal and how to play those guitar parts in an odd tuning and all that. Might as well have the person who wrote it do it and save some time, right?
What was it like filming the scenes? A dive bar gig is a dive bar gig but it kind of goes up a few notches when your only two audience members are Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
Yeah! I remember the first time I saw both of them—they both have such a presence, and they’re so kind to everyone. You can really tell everyone enjoyed working with them. Being in music, I’ve had my fair share of experiences with famous people and I just try to give them their space and not get on their nerves! They approached me on the set and introduced themselves, which was entirely unnecessary, but very appreciated. Like, yes, I know who you are. [Laughs] They were both also so appreciative of the music. I think the first scene that we shot there was music on set, and obviously music has the power to really elevate film and I think they were very inspired having that element on the set.
I read a theory that the bar is supposed to represent purgatory. Like, a space between life and death where Ray is waiting, and the bartender is some kind of angel waiting to take him away, but he still has reasons to live through the other characters—Frank, Ani, Paul, his son, etc. Do you think there’s any truth in the idea that it’s a visual metaphor for Ray’s state of mind?
Like purgatory, where everyone is just kind of trapped? That’s an interesting idea. I can see that. It’s so interesting how people are so engaged in the story, trying to figure it out and what it all means. Like “I hate it! I love it! I love it.”
Are you still working on anything else at the moment?
We finished working on True Detective maybe a month or two ago. But I’ve been working on my next record in Nashville. I think we’ve done maybe 25 percent of it so far, so I’m just writing and recording a lot and really enjoying that process. I was raised in the South—Georgia, Texas, Louisiana—so I think there’s always going to be certain elements of the South in my music, but I think you’d be really hard pressed to call my next record country or Americana. I’ve been kind of heading down this path of unclassifiable music in terms of genre, and I think this record takes that even further.
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