No More Killing Rock Stars: My Interview With ‘90s Queen, Mary Lou Lord

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The first time I discovered Mary Lou Lord, I was jealous. I was 17 and just finishing Heavier Than Heaven, a 2001 Kurt Cobain biography by music journalist Charles R. Cross, and feeding my  hunger for anything and everything grunge. At this stage of my life, Nirvana was my obsession. It was really bad. I transcended into realms of fandom that were unhealthy and weird, and ended up moving to the Northwest years later (not kidding). But I remember feeling a streak of jealousy when a brief romance in 1991 between Mary Lou Lord, a Boston musician, and Kurt was suggested in one of the chapters. Then I felt insane pretty much immediately because I acknowledged my own craziness.

Though Lord has never fully divulged the details regarding her once “in-bloom’’ (I couldn’t help myself) encounter/relationship with Kurt (and really, it’s nobody’s business), her career as a singer-songwriter in the ‘90s extended well beyond rock and roll myths.

With multiple albums, a spot on the Kill Rock Stars label (who released my favorite Mary Lou album, Martian Saints, in 1995), yearly performances with Lilith Fair, and a musical partnership and friendship with the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (that birthed songs like “Figure You Out”), Lord’s title as queen of the 90s’ (indie) folk scene is well deserved.

Currently, Mary Lou Lord remains a dominant figure in the Boston music scene, starting her own Boston chapter of Girls Rock Camp, a non-profit, feminist organization that teaches girls the importance of music through practice, education, releasing albums, and regularly performing throughout the city. Her daughter Annabelle (a guitarist, pianist, and avid ukulele player) is an up-and-coming musician herself, already playing at open mic nights and recording songs — and she’s not even 15. Geesh.

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I asked Mary Lou some questions about her role as a mom and musician, her advice to other musicians with kids, and her thoughts and feelings on Girls Rock Camp.

What’s your involvement in Girls Rock Camp?

I first got involved in Girls Rock Camp because I was looking for a music camp for my daughter who was 10 at the time. I knew that other states and cities had GRC chapters, but there was none here. I decided to start one in Boston because I felt there was a need to have a GRC here in our culturally rich city.

How important is a camp like this for girls?

I think having music camps for girls is great. We don’t just work on music in these camps. Our first focus is always to provide an environment that makes the girls feel good about themselves and their own self-image. We help to give them a few skills on how to creatively express themselves through music, as well as provide an environment that is not so much based on how well a person plays, or how many notes someone might play, but more on a what-do-you have-to-say type of approach in songwriting, and so forth. The girls really support each other.

What do girls gain from participating?

The girls gain self-confidence, new friends, and an understanding of how music works, bands work, songs work, etc.

What is it about an instrument that’s so empowering?

I think music and instruments played within it (especially big loud ones) are empowering because they are vehicles for self-expression and if someone is shy or timid, these instruments can surely get attention right off the first note!

Are there other Girls Rock Camps around the country?

Yes. There are many, many chapters of GRC now. There are now GRC’s that have formed in Japan, Sweden, and the latest I heard is that they are setting one up in Bahrain!

How long is the camp, and what are girls learning exactly?

The camp is a week. The first day the girls all meet and form bands. At the end of the first few hours we have about 10 individual bands. We anticipate this from the registration process months before. We have 10 bass players, 10 drummers, 10 singers, and about 17 guitarists and five or so keyboard players. So, it works out to about 10 bands. So, the first day is “Band Form” day. The second day they name their new bands. Throughout the week they are writing a song together that they perform at a large venue in a show for the community. Also through the week, they are having lessons on their selected instruments. We have about 50 volunteers to teach, assist, and coach the bands.

Who are they?

The teachers and volunteers are generally made up of women in the Boston music community who are in their own bands, or just fans of music.

Is music history taught?

We do have a “women in rock history” workshop. We go over music from the 1920’s (the roots of rock and roll) all through the decades, and we discuss the women and the music that helped shape what music has become over the years.

How can one become involved, or even become a volunteer?

In order to become a volunteer, you fill out an application provided on the Girls Rock Campaign Boston website.

What is it like being a parent while also being a musician?

Being a parent and being a musician is great. My daughter Annabelle has been listening to music all her life, as I always have music playing, or am involved in musical projects. She sees that music is something that makes me very happy, and in turn this makes her happy as well. At times, especially in the beginning when children are small, it’s a bit difficult regarding the schedules that musicians usually keep… late nights are out of the question. But all in all, it’s wonderful.

Are you raising her to love music as well?

Yes, I hope my daughter will get a good sense of what music can mean, and by that, I hope she will always know that it’s a great way to express what you feel. I’ve also told her many times, “If you play music, you will always have a friend.” SO true.

What kind of music does she like to play?

My daughter is really beginning to understand the magic of great lyrics. She loves songs that provide deep metaphors. Right now she is listening to a lot of Elliott Smith, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, etc.

What advice would you give other prospective musicians who are parents? And do you think they should raise them to love music?

I don’t know if I would be able to give any other parents advice — especially if they are musicians. But I guess I would say to them, or even other parents, even if they are not musicians, is to start the child VERY young on an instrument such as the piano or violin. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t stick with lessons when I was a kid, out of laziness. Most kids will NOT want to go to lessons or practice, and I think it’s one of the only times in the world where I do think that a little bit of “force” is necessary. I think it’s up to the parent to be consistent in keeping the child in lessons, making sure the child practices, and listening to the child play, and always always be encouraging through the process. This is an area in which too many parents don’t want to hear the kid whine about having to go to a lesson when they would rather be doing video games or something. But it is the parents job to be consistent with lessons, and for them to understand that it will not be easy, but the kid will surely be thankful when they’re 17 or 18 and CAN READ the wonderful language of music!

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