Of the many moving pieces of True Detective’s often convoluted second season — and there were quite a few — one of the most immediately intriguing was the recurring presence of singer-songwriter Lera Lynn. As the resident musician of a bar frequented by main characters Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) and Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Lynn’s downtrodden solo performances pushed the show’s soundtrack firmly into the diegesis — often making it the focus of the scene for almost uncomfortable amounts of time. (The season premiere featured a minute-long sequence of Semyon and Velcoro quietly listening to Lynn’s performance.)
Lynn would reappear throughout the season’s eight episodes with a new, haunting song each time, to the point where the singer’s presence began to feel less incidental than a deliberate indicator of something, contributing to the dreamy surreality that defined the season’s best moments. When the season finale depicted Lynn’s character packing up her guitar and silently leaving the bar for the final time, the moment carried a sense of strange portent, considering that the character had no dialogue outside of the music.
“I walked away thinking that the role of the singer was like that of a Greek chorus, perhaps,” says Lynn, speaking over the phone ahead of her Sept. 23 show at WorkPlay. “It doesn’t seem that, in the subject matter of the lyrics, the character is necessarily foreshadowing or summarizing the story, but it’s more like an emotional or spiritual tone that I think the character set for the other characters in the show.”
The appearances on True Detective pushed the 31-year-old Lynn — who had already self-released two albums and an EP — into the national spotlight. It was, in fact, the title track from her Lying in the Sun EP that caught the attention of T Bone Burnett, the legendary producer in charge of curating and composing the show’s soundtrack.
“[Burnett] had heard my music because my manager mailed it to him, the old fashioned way,” Lynn laughs. “He wanted to use that song, so we met for lunch in Nashville. He asked if I wanted to try writing some music with him for the show. Of course, I obliged.”
Lynn’s writing process with Burnett included finishing incomplete songs each had started independently. For some songs, such as “My Least Favorite Life” — arguably the soundtrack’s breakout hit — Lynn and Burnett incorporated lyrics written by Roseanne Cash.
“She contributed some really stunning lyrics [for that song],” Lynn says. “[Then] T Bone and I wrote the music together in a couple of hours, maybe less, and recorded it right then. And that’s what you hear.”
The songs that Lynn would eventually perform in the show’s smoky barroom all drip with melancholy pathos, reflecting the desperation and anxiety of the show’s characters — a quality that isn’t necessarily prominent in Lynn’s solo work. Her latest album, The Avenues, is a collection of country-tinged tunes that are relatively upbeat; even songs like the ballad “Standing on the Moon,” have a certain shuffling momentum to them. Lynn’s most-viewed song on YouTube, meanwhile, is a bouncing bluegrass cover of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me.” But darkness, she says, has always been inherent in her work.
“I think T Bone saw that my relationship to darkness in music is strong,” Lynn says. “I think more so live than it is on the record. And that’s mostly because it’s a very difficult way to build a fan base, to develop new fans through very dark, morose, slow music that is just loaded with metaphor. It’s not like I was necessarily stepping out of my skin to do it, it’s just that he encouraged it greatly.”
“It was really a blast, and it’s really rare that someone wants you to do that,” she adds. “Everyone’s [usually] very concerned with, ‘How many [beats per minute] is this song?’ and ‘How soon do we get to the chorus?’ and ‘Is it a major key?’, you know? It was really fun to work on something where I was encouraged to make it as sad and [expletive] up as I could.”
“I think I could go further,” she adds, laughing.
The success of the show’s soundtrack, combined with Lynn’s own fiercely independent streak, makes that a distinct possibility. Lynn, who aside from her True Detective work (released on Universal Music Group subsidiary Harvest Records) has never worked with a major label, remains adamant that the only thing she wants governing her creative direction is her fan base.
“I think there’s a reason that indie music is a thing,” she says. “I think it’s our culture’s way of rebelling against mainstream music. And that’s not to say that there aren’t great things about mainstream music, but typically music that’s not highly marketable has more room for substance. I think that’s a big reason why a lot of artists choose not to work with labels. For me, creative control is of utmost importance. It’s just always been easier to have control, where I don’t have to answer to anyone else.”
Lynn is already “about eight songs” into the recording process of her third studio album. “I wouldn’t say that [True Detective] has stylistically influenced the next record,” she says, “but it has certainly opened a lot of doors for me, new creative avenues I can explore that I didn’t feel like I had an audience with previously.”
Lynn’s Sept. 23 show at WorkPlay — which, unlike her performance in True Detective, will feature a full band — should give attendees a varied sampling of her catalog. “I play a little of everything,” she says. “I play from my earliest record to songs that I’ve written, you know, yesterday. There will be stuff from True Detective. [. . .] It’s very dynamic.”
Lera Lynn will perform at the WorkPlay Theatre on Wednesday, Sept. 23. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; the show begins at 8 p.m. For more information, visit workplay.com.