Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys - putting character in the songs


Their music sounds almost as if it’s untouched by modern technology. Beneath these vibrant acoustic instruments played with a sure sense of the American old-time and bluegrass traditions and their timeless songs of human emotions and relationships, however, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys share a reliance on mobile phones with just about every other musician on the planet.


In Lindsay Lou herself’s case, her phone is her best friend when it comes to songwriting.


“I tend to wait for inspiration to strike rather than going out and looking for ideas,” she says down the line from the group’s base in Ionia, Michigan. “But I always try to be open to suggestions and if an idea comes, wherever I might be, if I have my phone with me I’m okay. I can call my voicemail and leave a melodic hook or a lyrical phrase that’s struck me and work on it later. That way I won’t lose it or forget it and it’s amazing how a little idea can grow or be developed from a phone message into something that might make it onto a record.”


In the beginning, they were separate entities. The Flatbellys, which includes Lindsay Lou’s husband, mandolinist Josh Rilko, got together at Michigan State University to play traditional bluegrass. At an open mic session in town one night, the young woman her parents know as Lindsay Rachel Petroff got up and sang with them. Something clicked, not least between the singer and the mandolin player, but Lindsay Lou had studies in Human Biology, Spanish and Bioethics to complete (she holds a BA in the first two and a qualification in the third) and had plans to travel in Latin America. So they went their separate ways until Lindsay Lou amassed a collection of songs she wanted to record and Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys was born.


The Petroffs were a family of singers, ready to break into harmony at the drop of a hat, and Lindsay Lou grew up singing and listening to her mother’s record collection.


“She always listened to good singers, people with strong distinctive voices,” says Lindsay Lou, “and the first one who made a particular impression on me was Nat King Cole. I spent a lot of time listening to him, trying to make my voice sound as much like his as possible. I’d go over and over his songs, phrase by phrase. It became a real passion of mine. I didn’t think about singing jazz for a living, though, until I was twenty-one and I met this woman who sang Billie Holiday songs. That changed my life and I started listening to 1940s and 1950s jazz all the time.”


The meeting of jazz singer and bluegrass band might seem unorthodox  but the results are entirely natural. For Lindsay Lou, the character of a jazz singer, the idea that you need to have experienced the storyline in a jazz ballad to be able to sing it convincingly, can transfer into any style of music.


“I recently became completely hooked on this song, Blowing Away,” she says. “It was written by this guy from the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 1970s, I think [Eric Kaz, who also wrote Love Has No Pride for Bonnie Raitt], and I heard Linda Ronstadt and Bonnie Raitt singing it and the reason it made such an impression on me, apart from it being such a great song, was that these two really powerful women singing it just hit me in a certain way. They’re not jazz singers, as such, but they have character and that counts for a lot.”


With their first recording under their belt, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys set about clocking up road miles with a vengeance. In their first year together they played one hundred and twenty concerts, a total that was eclipsed and eclipsed again until they reached the two hundred mark. As we speak, they’re just about to leave for a run through Colorado. Travelling together and playing so much has the benefit of developing a close understanding and they recorded their latest album, Ionia, while living together under the one roof, using the living room as the studio. The downside of heavy touring – that performances can become churned out by rote – doesn’t apply in this instance.


“Everybody in the Flatbellys can play everybody else’s instruments,” says Lindsay Lou, “and they’ll swap around to keep things fresh. Plus, I’m always mindful that people have paid good money to see us and they deserve to go home feeling good. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to feel happy – sad songs can make people feel good too – but for me, when I’m in the audience, a good show is one that, just for that moment, takes me someplace else entirely and I hope we can do that for people who come out to see us.”


From The Herald, April 29, 2015.


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