For Laura Love, a life full of anything but
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 27, 2002) – If anyone has a right to be resentful about the cards she was dealt, it’s Laura Love. She grew up in a poor household in Lincoln, Nebraska, “not quite black enough for some folks and not quite white enough for other folks,” referring to her mixed-race ancestry. Her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic who variously tried to kill herself and her two daughters -- that is, when she wasn’t busy setting their house on fire or totally out of the picture, confined in psychiatric hospitals.

In and out of foster homes and orphanages, Love and her younger sister learned mostly to fend for themselves. Until she was a teen-ager, she thought her father was dead. Then one day she discovered the saxophonist Preston Love – in whose band her mother once sang -- playing in a nearby bar. She introduced herself to him, and he was cordial enough, but he resisted her attempts to establish a relationship with him over the next decade.

“The whole first part of my early adulthood I was pissed off,” said Love in a recent phone interview from Seattle, her adopted home for the last 15 years.

“Why did I have to grow up in such a creepy household? Why did we have to have fires in the house all the time? Why didn’t I get a dad in my house? Why did I have to find out my father is married to another woman and I have all these brothers and sisters I don’t know about?”

But when Love found her calling in music, she underwent a fundamental reappraisal of her past and her legacy, a wholesale paradigm shift that undoubtedly helps the singer-songwriter – who performs with her duo partner, Jen Todd, at Club Helsinki on Friday night at 9 – cope with painful, unhappy memories.

While they might have failed as parents, Love has learned to appreciate what she gained from her mother and father as musicians.

“For the last ten or fifteen years I’ve been so grateful for everything,” said Love. “They gave me for free this gift. I’m able to make a living at music, and I never had a music lesson. Not only does the genetic thing work for me – it gives me a way to express myself.”

Love has been expressing herself in song now for over a decade, with eight albums to her credit, including a pair on Mercury Records and her most recent, “Fourteen Days,” on Rounder/Zoe, and countless theater, festival and radio appearances, including Carnegie Hall, Montreal Jazz, Telluride, Falcon Ridge, “Prairie Home Companion” and “Mountain Stage.”

Love’s expressive talents will also soon be found on the printed page. She recently garnered a deal with Hyperion for “You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes,” a memoir of her colorful upbringing – a mulatto “Angela’s Ashes” of the Midwest, if you will.

“It’s about how music kept us together while mom was in and out of mental institutions, crazy but always loving us,” she said. “It’s about growing up poor in Nebraska, and all the things we encountered -- my sister and I – and how we came out standing on our own two feet.

“It took me something like seven or eight months to write it all down. To actually write it and get a publisher just blows my mind.”

When the memoir is published, probably in early 2004, it will be packaged with a CD of original songs, all autobiographical and based on episodes and themes from the memoir.

“I do write songs occasionally about the feeling of growing up in this chaotic household,” she said. “But as awful as it was, a lot of time there was a thread of love. But this album is all about that. Every song is a true story.”

Love’s musical style is an eclectic blend of singer-songwriter folk with a host of other influences, including bluegrass, Celtic, funk, r&b and country.

“I didn’t have a lot of records growing up,” said Love. “Mostly I just listened to AM radio. But before one corporation owned every single radio station there was more variety. You could hear Bob Dylan, the Weavers, and Dave Brubeck next to Sly and the Family Stone. They didn’t insult you by saying you only had to listen to one thing. I’m not such a moron that I can’t focus on two different kinds of music. And I think most people are like that -- completely capable of and receptive to hearing different kinds of music.”

Love, who plays bass guitar, established a national reputation for herself performing with her band, which variously includes guitars, drums, violin and other instruments. Her quirky eclecticism embraces yodeling, African percussion, gospel, Rodgers and Hammerstein and fellow Seattleites Nirvana – she even recorded a version of one of Kurt Cobain’s songs, and before she was a folkie she played bass in a grunge-rock band.

“With the band for me it’s much more of a feel-good, party experience -- it’s a
celebration,” she said. “All these voices backing you up can really create a big, party kind of atmosphere, with a lot of dancing.

“With the duo it’s more of a sit-down kind of show. We still do lively songs, but we also do more ballads. I’m much more engaged in a duo show -- not to say that I phone in a band show. But it’s almost as if you’re talking one on one with people in a duo show. They’re more personal and intimate.”

The way Love sees it today, her parents’ shortcomings made her an independent, capable person.

“I never look at my checkbook and think, I know I don’t have any money, but I’ll write this check anyway and maybe mom and dad will cover it for me,” she said. “I know how things work. I accept responsibility when I screw up, which is often enough. I look at trust-fund friends, or people that had a very easy time growing up where things were always given to them, and they’re just unable to function as adults.

“I certainly think it’s possible to have a happy, stable childhood and to be a happy stable adult. But it doesn’t happen too often. Thank god things were screwed up.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 27, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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