Laura Love Biography
Survived Group Suicide Planned by Mother, Formed Own Label after Negative Review
Singer, songwriter, bassist
The music of Seattle-based artist Laura Love has been labeled as Afro-Celtic or folk-funk; it merges the rhythms of urban styles with the stringed-instrument sounds of folk and acoustic music, using the whole fusion to support an impressive set of original songs. After the 1997 release of her major-label debut, Octoroon, Love became one of the folk scene's brightest stars. But few of her fans knew the difficult personal background from which her music grew. She told of that background in her 2004 memoir, You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes.
Of black, white, and Native American background, Love was born Laura Jones in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1960. Her father Preston Love was a jazz saxophonist in nearby Omaha, but Love met him for the first time only when she was 16 and sneaked into a club to hear him play. For most of her childhood, she believed that he had died. Love was raised by her mother, Winifred Jones, a former jazz singer (who used the name Wini Winston) who was studying at Nebraska Wesleyan University during her intermittent lucid periods.
Survived Group Suicide
Planned by Mother
Most of the time, however, Love's mother was in the grip of mental illness. Love's earliest memory was of her mother being taken to a mental hospital by police when she was three. Love and her sister were dragged through a nightmare of shelters, social service bureaucracies, substandard housing, and foster homes for years, first in Lincoln and then in Omaha. Love's memoir, You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, is a matter-of-fact litany of these woes, the culmination of which was an episode in which Love's mother instructed her and her sister Lisa to hang the family Siamese cat in a noose, after which the three would hang themselves together and look forward to the afterlife to come. The plan was fortunately scotched when the cat struggled out of its noose.
In addition to dealing with painful situations created by her mother, Love faced racial prejudices from both white and black schoolmates. After moving to a new predominantly black school in Omaha, Love wrote in You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, "The only real difference was that here I became 'that high-yellow bitch that acts like a honky and think she so cute' instead of 'the only nigger at our school.'" A bright spot for Love came when she sang "Anticipation" at a junior high school assembly, accompanying herself on the guitar; she brought the house down. "There in the Everett Junior High School auditorium, soaking up all that positive energy, I understood that I would never do anything else for the rest of my life but sing," Love wrote.
Love left home at age 16, and this added hardship made it difficult to follow through with her teenage wish of singing for a living. However, Love did manage to sing whenever she could. She sang for inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, and she performed on one occasion with her father's band, although he showed little interest in being part of her life. Moving first to Portland, Oregon, and then to Seattle, she enrolled at the University of Washington and graduated with an honors degree in psychology in 1989. By that time, however, she had already begun to immerse herself in the vital music scene of her new hometown. Starting out as a bassist with enthusiasm but few skills, she soon took on lead vocal duties with a proto-grunge band called Boom Boom G.I.
Formed Own Label after
Her first band "was loud and bad," Love told the Omaha World Herald. "The first review we got said that we were annoyingly pointless." She took the review to heart and joined another band, an all-female outfit called Venus Envy. In 1989 she struck out independently, forming a label of her own called Octoroon Biography and releasing her debut album, Menstrual Hut. She developed her distinctive mixture of urban and Americana sounds over the course of four albums, aided by the crack instrumental sounds of performers such as fiddler Barbara Lamb.
Sales of Love's albums mounted, and 1994's Helvetica Bold got the attention of a New York City clothing-store-chain owner who set out to organize a Carnegie Hall concert featuring music he felt was underexposed. Love was offered the chance to perform one song, to be chosen by the concert organizer. She bowled the audience over to such a degree that she landed on Billboard magazine's 1995 list of the country's ten best unsigned acts, attracted notice from the New York Times, and gained an opening-act slot at one of the city's legendary clubs, the Bottom Line. The world music-oriented Putumayo label released her album The Laura Love Collection.
Signed to the major Mercury label, Love released Octoroon (the word denotes a person who is one-eighth black) in 1997. The album included a nod to Love's Seattle background in the form of a cover of Nirvana's "Come As You Are," but also featured the traditional pieces "Blind Bartimus" and "Amazing Grace." Love followed that album up in 1998 with Shum Ticky, which featured a guest appearance from rapper Sir Mix-a-Lot on a new version of "The Clapping Song."
Used Liner Notes to Locate Mother
Love's 2000 album Fourteen Days was more political in nature than her other work, having taken shape during Seattle's anti-globalization demonstrations in which Love participated. That year, she also began making notes about her childhood, at first without any intention of having them published. Having moved in with her life partner, Pam, Love became a foster mother to a seven-month-old girl named Khristy. She also cared for large numbers of homeless cats. For many years she lost touch with her mother, but she was able to locate her in 1998 after including a plea for help in the liner notes of Octoroon.
Love released Welcome to Pagan Place in 2003 and followed it up the next year with You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, conceived as a companion to her memoir. She decided to publish the book, she told the Seattle Times, because "I wanted to put a name and a face to what [some politicians] call welfare queens, the dregs of society, the drain on our economy." Hard as her childhood had been, Love argued that without the support of social welfare programs, it could have been much worse. "Society made an investment in me," she told the Times, "and it has been spared a very angry person who would have cost much, much more."
You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, Hyperion Books, 2004.
Menstrual Hut, Octoroon Biography, 1989.
Z Therapy, Octoroon Biography, 1990.
Pangaea, Octoroon Biography, 1992.
Helvetica Bold, Octoroon Biography, 1994.
The Laura Love Collection, Putumayo, 1996.
Octoroon, Mercury, 1997.
Shum Ticky, Mercury, 1998.
Fourteen Days, Zoe, 2000.
Welcome to Pagan Place, Koch, 2003.
You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, Koch, 2004.
Love, Laura, You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes, Hyperion, 2004.
Boston Globe, April 27, 1995, p. 57.
Columbus Dispatch, January 7, 1999, p. 5.
Omaha World Herald, June 18, 1995, p. 22; November 21, 1995, p. 36; September 3, 1998, p. 50.
Seattle Times, January 20, 2005, p. H9; August 8, 2004, p. K1.
Tampa Tribune, November 17, 2000, p. 16.
Washington Post, August 18, 2004, p. C3.
"Laura Love," All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (January 13, 2005).
Laura Love, www.lauralove.net (February 8, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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