Remembering Austin singer-songwriter Laurie Freelove

Laurie Freelove, left, with Two Nice Girls bandmates Kathryn Korniloff and Gretchen Phillips in the 1980s. Contributed/Scott Van Osdol
Laurie Freelove, left, with Two Nice Girls bandmates Kathryn Korniloff and Gretchen Phillips in the 1980s. Contributed/Scott Van Osdol

A brief online obituary confirms the recent death of longtime Austin singer-songwriter Laurie Freelove, 60, though with no details on the circumstances: “Laurie was born on July 23, 1956 and passed away on Sunday, January 22, 2017. Laurie was a resident of Austin, Texas at the time of her passing.”

An original member of the folk-rock group Two Nice Girls, who helped pave the way for openly LGBT musicians in the 1980s, Freelove got a major break when an English record executive heard a tape of her subsequent band Fifty Words for Snow while in town for South by Southwest in 1989. That led to a solo deal with Ensign/Chrysalis, whose roster at the time included the likes of Sinead O’Connor and the Waterboys.

American-Statesman writer Don McLeese interviewed Freelove for an extended feature story when her debut solo record, “Smells Like Truth,” came out in 1991. In Freelove’s memory, we’ve retrieved that article from our archives and are re-publishing it in its entirety:

By Don McLeese
Austin American-Statesman
Originally published Aug. 15, 1991

When Laurie Freelove headed west from Maryland after college, she had degrees in painting and studio art and a plan to live the Georgia O’Keeffe fantasy in New Mexico. Unfortunately — or fortunately, as it turns out — she ran out of money in Austin. She’d heard this was a nice place to live, so she stuck around. If there wasn’t as much attention paid to the visual arts here as Freelove expected to find in Santa Fe, there was plenty of opportunity to play music, her other artistic passion.

Nine years later, the result is “Smells Like Truth,” a debut album so strikingly original that it could well change the rest of the world’s preconceptions about Austin music. Whatever the richness and diversity of the artistry in this town, there’s an impression that Austin spends more time looking back than looking forward, that its assortment of blues-rockers, roots-rockers, singer-songwriters and even guitar-jangling “alternative” bands are out of step with the times.

Being out of step isn’t necessarily bad in times like these, but the fact remains that Austin is a town where people expect to find throwbacks or traditionalists rather than modernist visionaries. Though Austin is justifiably proud of plenty of music that couldn’t have come from anywhere else, it could occasionally stand to be shaken up by an album that sounds like it has come out of nowhere.

Enter Freelove — and, yes, that’s her given name — whose music sounds nothing like anything else that’s being made here, and little like anything from anywhere else. In fact, there’s an unearthly quality to her musical atmospherics, made from sounds one can’t always readily identify as instruments, that makes an inspired match for the dreamlike quality in her suggestive, allusive songwriting.

If such descriptions sound suspiciously “new age,” rest assured that Freelove’s artistry has way too much of an edge to serve as sonic wallpaper. Her debut is very much a painter’s album, one that strives for meaning that’s beyond words, filled with elemental imagery that almost demands to be touched — or tasted or smelled — before it can be understood.

“I called it ‘Smells Like Truth’ because that song is addressing things you can’t articulate,” explained Freelove. “I defy almost anyone to describe the sensation of smell, and how instructive it is in a person’s ability to relate to the world. It’s sort of like a bottom-line truth: If it smells bad, stay away from it.”

For comparison’s sake, Freelove will likely be linked with Sinead O’Connor, her labelmate on Britain’s Ensign Records (distributed here by Chrysalis), with whom she shares the services of co-producers Chris Birkett and Kevin Moloney. Her music additionally recalls the more extreme flights of fancy of Kate Bush. Whomever one hears in Freelove’s music — comparisons have ranged from the Marianne Faithfull of “Broken English” to Patti Smith to Yoko Ono (?!) — what Freelove and the others mainly have in common is an assertive artistic presence that otherwise resists comparison.

Though ‘Smells Like Truth’ reflects Freelove’s extended residency in Austin — much of it was recorded here (as well as London and Dublin), and features crucial contributions from percussionist Paul Pearcy, keyboardist Leah Rummel and vocalist Jeff Jackson — it shows evidence of her exotic upbringing.

“I think moving around is probably pretty traumatic and crisis-filled for any kid, ’cause when you move, everything shifts,” she said. “I didn’t go into culture shock when I left the United States and went to Europe, but I did go into culture shock coming back. There was a sort of blandness here that I wasn’t accustomed to, an emotional numbness I wasn’t ready for.

“It was like I walked back into a cartoon with no dialogue. I’m not saying that this is coming back to the United States, but this is what it was like coming back to my hometown and my suburban high school. I just had this great sense of there being a world out there.”

She remained in Maryland through college, but was determined to spend her life somewhere warmer. After running out of funds in Austin, Freelove continued to paint but turned more toward music as well. She’d been writing and playing her own songs since grade school, but had performed only occasionally at college coffeehouses. In Austin, she became a founding member of Two Nice Girls — her claim to a smidgen of fame before ‘Smells Like Truth,’ but an experience from which she has sufficiently distanced herself that the group isn’t even mentioned in her official bio.

“I hope people won’t harp on that, because it was so long ago, and I was in the band for a very short period of time,” said Freelove. “It was not the sort of music I ever wanted to make, so it was a good thing that we parted. … I didn’t want to make music by vote. I didn’t want to become a mouthpiece for feminism or whatever the political flag was at the moment. I wasn’t into talking about sex all the time. I wasn’t into being famous.”

It’s ironic that Freelove now finds herself managed by the high-profile Benson-Vale team (Asleep at the Wheel, Darden Smith et al.) and given a high-powered major-label push, because the speculation after Freelove left Two Nice Girls was that she wasn’t nearly as career-oriented as her bandmates — that she was too much the artistic purist. While Two Nice Girls has continued to flourish without Freelove, it’s plain that her music couldn’t have progressed in the direction of Smells Like Truth within the context of that band.

Freelove’s solo debut represents the latest result of an unlikely London-Austin connection, the ongoing relationship between Ensign’s Nigel Grainge — who is largely credited with the discovery and development of Sinead O’Connor, the Waterboys and its World Party offshoot — and Austin manager Shannon Vale. The first fruits came with the collaboration between Vale’s client Darden Smith and Britain’s Boo Hewerdine for Grainge’s label. Since then, Vale has taken on the trans-Atlantic management of Hewerdine, who served as one of the co-producers (and songwriting partner on one cut) for Freelove’s album.

Grainge became interested in Freelove during a South by Southwest visit, when he read a review in the Music City monthly of her independent Fifty Words For Snow cassette. The tape contained four of the songs that would subsequently form the core of ‘Smells Like Truth.’ Even so, the album ultimately represented a process of discovery and great growth for Freelove, with all the resources at her disposal that high technology and a major-label budget allow.

The cover of Laurie Freelove's 1991 album "Smells Like Truth."
The cover of Laurie Freelove’s 1991 album “Smells Like Truth.”

“The most fun part of putting the music together is trying to give it a landscape, so you can actually hear what the music is for,” she said. “That’s what I think a lot of modern music is missing, an environment.

“I’m very interested in order, not necessarily the usual order of things, but the kind of random order, like the science of chaos. The arrangements and the artwork that I do all reflect that sense of everything having a pull, each factor relating to another factor that it’s working with or against.”

After nine Freelove originals, the album ends with a hauntingly ethereal rendition of Tim Buckley’s “Song to the Siren.” Though Freelove’s album works much of its magic in a similar manner to that of Buckley’s soaring, passionate soundscapes, she came to his atmospheric artistry second-hand.

“I heard ‘Song to the Siren’ first in This Mortal Coil’s version, and it practically knocked me down on the floor,” she said. “There’s so much music out there that’s in and out, in and out. And then something will just stop you dead in your tracks. That’s the kind of music I want to make all the time. To me, that’s what music is for.”

As for where she takes her music from here, Freelove will soon embark on an unconventional tour — invitation-only performances at art galleries, museums and the like, which will stress the visual element of her artistry along with her music. If such a promotional strategy seems strange for an Austin artist, Freelove’s ambitions extend well past the horizons of so much stereotypically Austin music.

“I can’t really say I’m part of a community of musicians here,” she said. “I sort of feel more akin to people like Peter Gabriel. That’s a big leap, so I’m flattering myself to say that, but my aspiration is to work on that level.”

Author: Peter Blackstock

Music writer for the Austin American-Statesman and Twitter: @Blackstock360

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