West Virginia Proud: A Talk With Country Americana Songwriter Olivia Ellen Lloyd & A Look At Her New Single ‘Shepherdstown’

Olivia Ellen Lloyd is a proud country artist, ignoring the stigma the name might imply. Despite the stereotype of the genre becoming a manufactured cash cow (centered around drinking, trucks, girls — you get the point), she proudly calls her songs “country music with feelings”. 

Lloyd was born and raised in West Virginia, a state that was deeply instrumental in creating what would eventually become country music. She learned to play guitar from her father, and began writing songs at the age of 14. Lloyd calls herself a songwriter first and foremost, and each of her songs chronicle her personal life experiences. 

“Emily” is the first single of Lloyd’s upcoming album, and is a deeply personal track written about a friend who tragically passed away while studying abroad. Even though the song is obviously personal to Lloyd, she writes in a way that connects the listener and makes them think about the “Emily” in their own life. In the chorus, Lloyd sings, “I’d turn mountains into valleys if it would bring you home”. The phrase is universal; almost anyone can think of a deceased loved one they’d make sacrifices for just to see one more time. It makes for both a personal debut from Lloyd and an emotional thinkpiece for her audience. 

Her next single, “Shepherdstown”, which dropped yesterday October 30th, details her life growing up in West Virginia, an area her family has lived in for generations. The single features some of the classic country elements absent in a lot of modern hits, including a twangy steel guitar and tongue-in-cheek lyrics. It narrates the life in a small town where everyone knows everyone, for better or worse. The final lyrics follow Lloyd’s difficult decision to leave Shepherdstown, a city rich with family history, but tainted with the heaviness of loss.  

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Lloyd spent a majority of her twenties as a nomad, wandering from Ann Arbor, DC, Guatemala City, and Dallas before finally settling in Brooklyn. Throughout the journeys, she never stopped writing, and crafted an album spanning the decade of her life — one filled with grief, loss, and most importantly, growth.

At its soul, country music is a genre of storytelling. It’s one of tall tales, folklore, and using songwriting as a vice to detail the artist’s life. A sonic autobiography, if you will. For these reasons and more, it’s easy to see why Olivia Ellen Lloyd fits seamlessly into the genre and stands behind it.    

Lloyd’s debut album, Loose Cannon, is set to release in February of 2021. We interviewed Lloyd to learn more about the influence of her hometown, her songwriting, and much more.

So I was hoping you could tell us how you got started making music?

I am a third generation musician, so I was surrounded by and making music for as long as I can remember. My grandmother was a music teacher and my dad was a local musician. He practiced every night in our living room, and one day when I was 12 or 13 I decided I wanted to play guitar too. He bought me a cheap Washburn guitar, printed off a few basic chord charts and told me I could come out and practice with him once I got the chords down. My first gig was playing John Lennon’s song “Imagine” at my Presbyterian Church when I was 14. After that, I started writing songs and never really stopped. 

And who are some of your biggest musical influences? 

That’s a tough one. Obviously my dad is hugely influential and inspirational to me, but he was never a prolific songwriter. However, I strive for his gentleness and his unruffled attitude, and he had a beautiful singing voice.

I was raised on Joni Mitchell and John Prine, and their writing is still the pinnacle to me.  I love the classic country sound too – Patsy Cline grew up a few miles from me in Virginia and her sound is very much native to the area. What a voice! And Jenny Lewis seems to get better every year. I discovered Rilo Kiley when I was fourteen and never fully recovered. Her solo album (The Voyager) still gets pretty frequent play in my house. Lastly, I have to credit fellow West Virginian Hazel Dickens. A trailblazer in many ways and a beautiful songwriter. “West Virginia, My Home” is the best song about West Virginia currently in existence. 

You’ve lived all over the U.S. it appears. Which city in particular do you think influenced you the most artistically? 

West Virginia is still deep in my sound and in my heart. I am the first person in my family to have moved away — my mom’s family has been in the area for longer than WV was a state. A friend recently said he can hear both West Virginia and Brooklyn in my forthcoming album, and that feels accurate. I really found my footing as a musician here in Brooklyn, and I owe a lot to the musical community here. Don’t let anyone tell you New York is full of jerks! I have met the sweetest souls here. 

You describe the music you make as “country music with feelings.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

I love Country Music. I think  labels like Americana et al can be useful in placing oneself on the genre spectrum, but as a person from Appalachia, I don’t take kindly to people claiming “country music” as being what we hear on mainstream radio and “Americana” being reserved as something else (mainly, something more refined? I don’t entirely get it). I think all of the focus on sub-genretization de-emphasizes what Country Music is and kind of lets mainstream country claim the genre when most of that music doesn’t remotely resemble the soul of country music. While I’d never get angry or upset by someone calling me a folk or Americana musician, I do want to be clear about how I see my music. I am a songwriter first and my music is deeply personal and emotional. But I am proudly and squarely a country musician. That being said, you do have to qualify it a bit — being that mainstream country music is what it is these days (and it’s typically just pop music…). So the “ for people with feelings” caveat hopefully sends notice that this isn’t all songs about improbable hay bale parties or sticking boots up asses (although I’d love to write a shit-kicking song one day). 

Your new single, “Shepherdstown” was named after your hometown in West Virginia. Could you shed a little more insight both on the town and the song?  

I could write a whole article about my sweet and strange little hometown. It’s the oldest town in West Virginia, and four generations of my family have lived there. My grandpa has a street named after him, and he was mayor for a long time. The song is about when you’ve worn out your welcome in a small town, and it has happened for me in Shepherdstown several times over the years. It’s a bit of a drinking town, and a few times in my early 20s I found myself uncovering some unpleasant truths about the place or finding myself running through the same two scenarios over and over again, like I was caught in a loop and stuck in a bad routine. The song’s also about my failed marriage, and how I tried to tie myself to that town when what I really needed was to spread my wings. It’s about staying too late at the bar so you don’t have to go home. It’s about my father and friend and teacher who all died when I was a young adult and whose spirits seem to hang around me when I’m home. I call the song a ‘wink-and-a-smile’ but there’s a weariness at the edges too. 

What was the songwriting process like for the track, and how long did it take for you to write?

I’ve written and re-written this song so many times. I initially wrote it in 2016 right after a mentor died by suicide. It’s a complicated and nasty situation, but I found myself looking at the town from an outsider’s perspective for the first time and noticing how we all cope (or don’t cope) with stress and trauma. It had some cool lines but it never felt finished-finished. I re-wrote it in 2018 to fit a kind of funky string-band vibe which I loved, but my producer pushed me to re-work it again in 2019 and add a chorus. I’m really proud of the final product, and I think I needed it to sit and let the drama of the moment pass so that I could focus on the actual structure of the song. A lot of my more personal songs work that way- I write them when I’m feeling raw and unsure of its meaning and have to wait for the moment to pass and the stress to subside to really craft it into a song that’s for public consumption. 

What can fans expect from your album Loose Cannon, which is set to release in 2021? 

A deeply personal collection of songs I’ve been ready to share for a while now. I’ve been sitting on some of these tunes for nearly a decade so I am giddy to share them. I feel that I am most honest in songwriting, so you can expect heaps of honesty and hopefully a couple of memorable tunes. 

And where are you recording the album? Who is involved in the production of it? 

The album was recorded partially at Conveyor Studios in Bushwick, and partially in homes and apartments and parents’ basements all over the country. We laid the beds at Conveyor and had earmarked some time to go back in the studio and finish overdubs in March 2020 but…you know, the world fell apart. So we got tracks sent to us from Pennsylvania and Oregon and God knows where else, and my producer (Mike Robinson) and I put the finishing touches on it in his basement studio in Brooklyn. 

Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of music?

I have a dog, Hilly, who occupies 90% of my emotional space. She’s wonderful and I recommend rescuing a pit bull, they will give you all the love. I’m a runner (sometimes) and a reader, and I recently re-watched The Sopranos, which really holds up. 

What goals and aspirations might you have for 2021? 

Oh man,  I just want to get through this year. I’d love it if people hear and connect with my music. I don’t know if it will happen in 2021, but the second it is safe to tour again, I can’t wait to hit the road. I went out for two weeks and it was exhausting and exhilarating and really the whole reason I got into music. I miss live performance so much. I also have already started writing the next project, and I have dreams of going back to West Virginia to track it. So we’ll see if I have two cents to rub together after this year.

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