Morning Coffee and Shots of Soul with Lucie Silvas

By: Lauren Tingle

The first time I met Lucie Silvas she was performing an intimate house concert at Leslie Fram and Lanny West’s home last spring. Her voice sounded smooth and clear as a bell, like the love child of Roy Orbison and Dusty Springfield as she played selections from her captivating album Letters to Ghosts. When the floor opened for questions, I raised my hand and asked, “What is your diet? Because you sound like it’s all milk and honey.”

When we met at Ugly Mugs for morning coffee almost a year later, Lucie looked like a fresh-faced East Nashville angel in an ivory cardigan, white blouse, blue jeans and tan boots. She was coming off a crazy few days at work. The Thursday before our chat, her 6:00 a.m. flight to Austin for South by Southwest was overbooked. When she arrived at Nashville International 4:30 a.m., the security line was snaked all the way to the airport entrance with spring breakers and other travelers. She tried flying standby, but no dice. She tried flying to Dallas but with the three-hour drive to Austin, she wouldn’t make her 5:30 p.m. set on time. Luckily, organizers understood. This sort of travel blunder happens to at least one act every South By Southwest (Lucie did get to play the conference via Periscope). The night before, Lucie played iHeartRadio’s inaugural live broadcast of the Eldon Thacker Show from City Winery.

Lucie spooned the decorative froth from her latte like it was ice cream while we caught up on work. When I took notice, she said in her Kiwi-British accent, “People joke I have the palate of a child,” and we laughed while the baristas blasted the greatest hits of STAX, Hi, Motown and Muscle Shoals throughout the coffee shop. When Ray Charles launched into “Night and Day,” Lucie paused and said, “Oh my gosh, I love this song so much.”

You could live in any music city. How did Nashville become your home?
The first time I came to Nashville was autumn 2007, and I didn’t know anything about it. My friend Jon Green brought me here. That first week, I met Barry Dean, Busbee and Luke Laird in this little house. Everyone was singing a song with their guitar. Obviously they were amazing songs. I thought, “People don’t do this in London. Successful songwriters just don’t hang out in houses like this.” Over time it’s changed so much. I know there’s other music places. There’s Austin, L.A. and New York. But there is nothing like Nashville. You feel like everybody knows each other. Everyone is supporting each other and helping each other. Very quickly I got to know such a strong group of friends. Even at times when I get cabin fever and I want to get out and see somewhere else, when I fly back to Nashville, I feel at home.

How did you meet your husband, John Osborne?
That took a while. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds now. I was living in England when I met him in the hallway at Chrysalis. We were both songwriters there. When we met, I felt an instant sort of connection with him. I just liked him. He was goofy, funny and I just found him to be really sweet. We kept in touch when I went back to England. I was going through a huge breakup as well and I was really nervous to spend time with anyone. But we kept seeing each other and got along so well. Every time I’d got back to England, we’d text all the time. But it was hard to navigate it. I had no plans to live in Nashville at the time. But then I decided to come for longer periods of time. I’d come for four months at a time. That’s when things started to develop more between us. But it wasn’t until 2011 or 2012 that we really made a go of it. I said, “I’m going to live in Nashville for good. We can’t do this anymore.” But ever since the day I met him, he’s been such a strong fixture in my life even as a friend. He came in and influenced me a lot when I was going through a very pivotal time. When you meet people like that, they just have such an impact on the way you see things. And these new people opened up to me. I didn’t really have my heart in England anymore from then.

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I like this one. I might have to keep her around.

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That’s a beautiful story. What was his reaction when he first heard you sing?
Thank you. That’s funny. He talks about it, which is really sweet. I was writing with Charlie Worsham. We were in this room with the door shut. John says that he and Donny Fallgatter from Kingbilly had their ears against the door listening. When they did the Kingbilly is Your Friend night at Code Blue, John said from the stage, “We’ve got a British person here and she can sing! Oh my God!” He used to have those reactions when we’d stay up late at night singing and playing. I’ve still got recordings of it. We’d sing things like “Summertime,” that jazzy song my mum used to sing to me. He’d sometimes put his guitar down, stop and say, “I can’t listen to you anymore.” And it was just very sweet. I was the same with his guitar playing. I’d listen to him play and think, “I can’t believe I’m sitting in a room with someone I like so much that plays with so much heart and soul.” There’s a lot of talented people in the world. He’s just such a soulful person and the way he plays, you fall in love. I wouldn’t blame anyone for falling in love with him when he plays guitar.

Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell did a podcast interview and joked with each other about how Jason makes new girlfriends every time he plays live.
It’s so funny. Before they released “Let’s Go There,” T.J. and John were playing Dave and Busters. This girl was sitting next to us and she was really sweet. She didn’t know I was John’s girlfriend at the time. When John played his solo for “Stay a Little Longer,” she said something I can’t say out loud, but it was something about the effect it had on her from the waist down. She just came out with it really loud and I busted out laughing. I just said, “I agree.” She was completely enamored. Afterwards they said, “Oh, this is John’s girlfriend, Lucie.” Then she said, “I can’t believe I said that in front of you!” I actually found it really funny because she was a very likeable girl. She wasn’t saying it in any sort of threatening way. She was just very enamored. T.J. is another matter entirely. I don’t see him that way because he’s my brother-in-law. But girls and the way they react, it’s pretty funny to watch.

That’s a riot. Talk about the importance of having that support system in your journey in music. One can’t do this alone. It takes a village.
It does, and people don’t see that. There’s your machine and people you work with or in my case, a couple of people. But it’s your friend network. It’s so important.  When I had my first record out in 2004, I had nobody to show me what a radio tour was like. I was clueless. I had been singing and playing my whole life, but I have never been inside the walls of a record company doing a showcase. I really didn’t understand the depth of it. Sometimes I think that’s a good thing. You innocently go into things, and you just play. You don’t worry about who’s in the room. That’s the best way to be because very quickly you can get tainted by climbing some ladder. That’s not the mentality I ever want to have. I just want to play. Watching what John and T.J., Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, J.D. McPherson and Holly Williams have done — watching those journeys and being able to ask advice — or just being able to hang out and not talk music — knowing you have a family of friends here, really helps you remain grounded. Someone said to me recently, “Pretend it’s life and death, but know that it isn’t.” Go onstage and just perform. Do it for your love of it. You don’t want to take it home with you. You have to switch it off and be with your family. Even with my group of friends, we go off in different directions and when we come back together, it’s all normal again. I think it’s essential to your well being. I just want a very balanced life, a great touring life, to sell records and connect with people. That’s been a very consistent thing for me. People change, the business changes and my whole life has changed. But I still have the same friends I’ve always had. I still feel exactly the same.

Working on new music, what kind of elements of the human condition are you exploring and what parts of your life are you looking into? What can fans expect next?
Obviously, I’m still promoting Letters to Ghosts. But I’ve started to write new songs for a future record. I’m wanting to do even more of a throwback record with a modern sound that has a very retro feel to it. The more I go along, the more I’m drawn to those influences I grew up with. The soul singers I listened to — Roberta Flack, Etta James or Nina Simone — it’s like they were such tortured souls. Those voices are another planet to me. But I have my own way of expressing. I think you’re always evolving, I don’t think you can ever say this record is me for eternity. This record is where I am right now. Your next record is going to be something else. It’s going to be evolved. I’m excited about getting older and creating records that are wiser. Even with this album, I want it to reach as many people as possible, but I’ll keep making music.  There’s so many great records coming out and the biggest thing for me is soul. There are influences like that on Letters To Ghosts like “How to Lose it All,” the background vocals were reminiscent of my favorite Jackson 5 records. They had those slightly out-of-tune backing vocals and if you solo them, you’ll hear how imperfect they are. I want to go even more into that way of recording.

What were your first memories of soul music?
My mum was such a great singer. She used to sing Judy Garland and Nat King Cole to me. But my dad was constantly playing Jackson 5 and Jackie Wilson. We’d sing that in the car and we literally had five-part harmony. I wish we had recordings of it. My mom’s from Scotland and we used to do these really long drives. Back in those days, the roads weren’t as good as they are now, so it would take 11 hours to get from London to Glasgow. We’d sing the entire way. We also had The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac and The Carpenters. Those songwriters made me think about lyrics differently and think about expressing emotions through music.

Going back to Letters to Ghosts. What track or tracks do you hope fans pay attention to?
There are two. I pick “Pull the Stars Down” because it’s about the people in your life and how much you need to be present for them, listen to them and have them really listen to you. That has gotten me through some of the hardest times in my life — times I did not know what to do next. I like that idea of stars being lowered down so you can touch them — when you think things are really bad or impossible and someone comes along saying it’s actually easy. John very much did that for me. “Roots” is a very pivotal song to this day. When you write songs, your subconscious is talking and you don’t know that it is. Later, you listen back and you think, “God, I was in such a hole that I didn’t realize that I knew how to get out of it.” Five years it took me to get over an old relationship of torturing myself and going back. Then there’s a numbness you feel when it’s over because you don’t know what to do with yourself. Where do I put all the emotion? You don’t want to let go of this sadness or this pain because, if you do, you feel like you’ve lost part of who you are in a way, not realizing that you can make new memories. “Roots” is very much about that. I’m trapped in a prison of my own choosing and I like it. I don’t want to be free because that’s too scary. I thought if I let go of that person, it meant nothing. I’ve realized something so profoundly different about that now. I was with the guy for nine years and I will probably never be in the same room with him again. And that’s fine. I didn’t realize that that would ever happen. So, that’s the torture song.

For the next collection, have you been working with some of the same songwriters from Letters to Ghosts and will John be part of the production process?
I don’t know if John will be involved or not. We haven’t even gotten that far. But I’m sure I’ll work with the same songwriters again. We’ll always write together if they’ve got time. And I’m always looking to write with new people. Tomorrow, I’m writing with Scott Schwartz from The Shadowboxers. I think he’s such a musical person. I feel like Scott and I would come up with something a little bit different. But I’m always looking to write with new people. I want to find new talent.

What is your secret to personal strength?
I don’t achieve this all the time, but every day I just try and let go. If you do that everything becomes a bonus. I don’t like starting my day with expectation and it’s hard not to because I want to be a successful person. I want to make myself, my family, the people who work with me and have put time into me proud. I have that drive every day. I work every single day and will never quit even if I hit walls like we had with this album many times. It may deter me for a day or two, but it never lasts. My dad’s like that, as well. I’m just like him in that way. So, I just hope I can always keep a good balance and not compromise myself.

Lucie is on tour through the summer. Don’t miss her at Indio, California’s Stagecoach Festival on May 1, Nashville’s CMA Music Festival on June 10 and Milwaukee’s Summerfest on June 29 and Denver’s Laid Back Festival featuring Gregg Allman and ZZ Top at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on September 25.