Laura Bell Bundy made her name starring on Guiding Light and in Broadway musicals like Legally Blonde, Wicked, and Hairspray, but the 29 year old Kentucky-born songwriter always had her eye on a country music career. So let’s take a moment to congratulate this smart, no-nonsense chick on having it all: Her split-personality debut, Achin’ and Shakin’, drops tomorrow (it’s one-half achin’ songs, one-half shakin’ songs), and she’ll perform its campy, catchy first single “Giddy On Up” on this Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. There will unquestionably be quite the production number.
Ms. Bundy hit Los Angeles this month for a couple warm-up gigs at local gay clubs — gotta show the fanbase some love — and we sat down for a chat about her unconventional album concept, attraction to “dirty, unshaven” men, and something called “Cooter County.”
Entertainment Weekly: You flirted with a lot of labels before settling on Mercury Nashville.
Laura Bell Bundy: Yeah. It’s like dating. I didn’t put out until I hooked up with Mercury. I was a total c—tease for a while.
Were you shopping your self-released album, Longing for a Place Already Gone, as a demo?
I guess so. That was kind of the proof that I was a singer-songwriter. My showcase was Legally Blonde.
I don’t know how many legit musical theater people sound like they could have mainstream recording careers.
That’s what people were nervous about at first at the label. We had guys, like, “This is a Broadway singer! What makes you think she can do a record?” But I already put out a country record that they could listen to and go, “It sounds like a country record.”
Then why did you need the Broadway show as a showcase?
It’s different when you hear someone sing out of a CD player, and then you see what they’re capable of doing live. They go see a Broadway show, and they go, “Okay, actually, she can sing.” And Legally Blonde was not, like, Oklahoma. It was musical theater pop.
At one point I was under the impression you were being set up as the next generation of Hee Haw or something.
When I first came to Nashville, I wasn’t pitching to get a record deal. I was just figuring out where I would move. I was tired. Not sick of Broadway, just tired. And I’d put music on the back burner for so long I was ready to commit to it. When I first got to town, I talked to CMT and a couple different places about doing a modernized Hee Haw, or a variety show. I figured I would do another independent record, and because I had the TV show, that would sell the record. I didn’t need a record deal. I was the f—ing anti-pitch when I went in, like, “No, I don’t really need one. They aired Legally Blonde on television and my record was next to Legally Blonde on iTunes, so I made money! I don’t need this!” But the kind of stuff I want to do — the kind of video I want to make, or the kind of performance I want to do at the ACMs — you have to have a machine. I think I ended up with a very human and creative machine.
I think country is the last genre that still requires the machine.
I totally agree with you. A lot of the music I listen to is indie rock. It’s not on the radio. I was kind of going that route with my country music. Indie country. Which would work, if I was playing on Americana stages. Unless I had a television outlet like Glee. So that was why CMT was one of the first places I went. I said I want to do, like, a Dolly Parton special meets Carol Burnett, and bring that form back to this genre that’s been lost. I mean, they call it Entertainer of the Year, not Singer of the Year.
Yes. Yes they do.
[makes an electronic cricket noise]
Why not just focus on the entertaining and simplify it? Just do the fun-time TV show and Shakin’ record, and then surprise everybody with your laid-back Achin’ Dusty Springfield side later? Why combine them and confuse the nice people?
I moved to Nashville and all I wrote was slow stuff. And then I wrote “Giddy On Up,” and once [Mercury Records chairman] Luke Lewis heard “Giddy On Up,” he said, “I want more like that.” Because I’m not just one person.
Yeah, but nobody is.
You’re not having 360-degree entertainment unless you’re making ‘em cry, too. You don’t just make people laugh and make people dance. You have to make ‘em feel something. Achin’ is that outlet. And the Shakin’ side tells a story. “Giddy On Up” is the breakup. “I’m No Good For You Baby” is that point where you’re numb after a breakup and all you want to do is drink. Then you go to “Rebound.” It’s the process of losing love, getting over it, and moving on.
Why lead with Achin’ instead of Shakin’ on the album?
I originally wanted to lead with Shakin’. But when you hear the Achin’ after the Shakin’… I don’t know. It just feels better [this way], like you whet your palate with the Achin’ first. And men connect more with Achin’ side. Then the younger female and also your gay audience connects more with the Shakin’ side.
[The Emotions’ “Best of My Love” starts playing on the stereo in the bar] This song reminds me of the Shakin’ half of your album. Country-style Emotions.
It’s like the Staples Sisters meets old country. Or I like to say, Dolly Parton meets James Brown meets Bonnie Raitt or Beyonce. Or Minnie Pearl.
What did the Shakin’ songs sound like before production?
A couple of the songs just sounded like acoustic uptempo songs. The verses sound really really country. The choruses sound like old soul. And a lot of the choruses have a rapping section. But they’re never slowed down and pretty. I hate that in a fast song. Drives me crazy. Save that for Creed. I want something I can dance to.
What indie rock do you listen to?
I love M.Ward. And I love Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst. I love My Morning Jacket. So I love the Monsters of Folk. That was like my dream cream tour. That was the best thing I could ever see. Right now I’m into Edward Sharpe, and AA Bondy.
You like the hairy boys with guitars.
I do. I like dirty boys with guitars. With long hair. Unshaven.
Will there be a Jamey Johnson hookup down the road for you?
Will you just build a nest in his beard?
[laughs] “Jamey, I was thinking I’d like a little bacon on my salad. Can I take it out of your beard? Do you have any cheese?”
Let’s talk about the character-driven teaser thing you did for the record, which reminded me of that Amy Sedaris Wigfield project.
“Cooter County”! I knew people weren’t going to watch a CMT variety show just from my name recognition, unless they’re 13 years old or gay, so I was trying to figure out how you could do a show that was interesting enough that it wouldn’t matter, like how Tracey Ullman started out. So I thought, What if I took all my characters, made up some new ones, and created a sketch show meets a soap opera?
Does it exist in a longer format besides the teaser?
Yeah. There’s a family tree. It’s sort of set up like the Roman Empire. There’s a murder mystery and this whole thing. I want to do an internet television thing with it. We’ll put it up on Wednesdays because it’s Humpday. Goes with cooters. We also created CooterCounty.com, which is the government website, and the CooterExaminer.com, which is the newspaper. It’s kind of like a white trash Onion.
Are you prepared for the country music industry to take all these weird spiky edges you have and file them down and turn you into another pretty blonde?
They haven’t done it yet. I don’t think they will.
The genre is very safe at the moment. And what you are doing on the back half of this record, at least —
[nods] Is not safe. Which is why I don’t feel like I’m going to have to sell out. I really thought I was going to have to, but they gave me free rein. I think it’s not about watering me down — it’s already crazy. It’s more about, How am I gonna top that?
What if the radio programmers freak out?
We already prepared for that. We knew “Giddy On Up” was risky. It does not fit contemporary commercial country radio. I wasn’t listening to a lot of country radio when I wrote the record. New York doesn’t have a country station. So I was kind of like, “Here it is!” And everybody was like, “Oh. God.” We anticipated that the country music audience might find “Giddy On Up” to be jarring. That’s why we made the video, didn’t give it to radio first until we had it on CMT. It won’t be jarring if they’ve already seen the video a couple times, and it tells a story, and it’s interesting and fun. And then they call and request it on the radio. We actually went ahead and did an Achin’ video, “Drop On By,” but it’s not out yet. Slow, sultry, I’m in a bathtub, I’ve got red wine, it’s really chill. Representing the opposite side. [The “Drop On By” video debuted today on CMT.com.]
My issue is that I don’t yet buy that you’re not just doing another character on this album. You have a very strong character voice — like you’re playing “Sassy Country Girl.” What’s going to make you relatable outside of that character?
Probably the live show. It’s like Beyonce and Sasha Fierce. People put on different faces all the time for different situations and different emotions. It automatically comes from who you are. And this is the time that I’m actually being myself. Everybody else who knows me knows me as playing a character, not as a human being. So now I’m being myself. Who I really am is put in this album. All the songs come from experiences I’ve had, emotions I’ve felt. These are songs I want to hear. I want to hear a song that’s not about a soccer mom. I want to hear a song about a woman who’s in a quarter-life crisis. Think about Barbara Mandrell, those songs where she would admit to being the other woman. My philosophy for the songwriting is, I like to scare myself. “Do one thing every day that scares you” is an Eleanor Roosevelt quote. I really try to live my life like this. I feel like when it comes to songwriting, if it scares you, you’ve said something that people have been waiting to hear and they’re afraid to admit to themselves. I’m personally starving for someone who can say those things that I’m afraid to admit.
You wrote all these songs but one?
All but “Drop On By.” It’s the best song on the album. I couldn’t let anybody else sing it. I wanted to write it, but I couldn’t write a slow song that was happy.
[EW orders a Makers Mark.]
I love that you drink Makers. I have a song called “Bourbon and Boys Give Me the Blues” — “Either way in the morning, I’ll be screwed.” It got cut. “Buy me a Makers and tell me the truth / Are you a strong one / What’s your proof?” There’s another one called “More Than My Phone Is Dying” — “Can we get a plan with a good morning kiss? What about nights and weekends?” I had like 30 Achin’ songs. At some point you go, “Don’t jump!”
How has it been trying out this material live in gay clubs?
Really great. I wear chaps and sequined underwear. We made underwear that say “Giddy On Up” on the front and “Giddy On Out” on the back.
Of course you did. That’s an unconventional way to get yourself into the country music scene, where the gays are not exactly central to the audience.
That’s not getting myself into the country music scene. That’s appreciating the fans I already have, and keeping them in mind by doing dance remixes and stuff. I know I have a strong gay following. I’ve had a lot of very strong gay male influences in my life. My two best friends are gay men. I kept writing all these ballads, they’re me speaking about life. But how am I gonna do the live show I wanna do if I don’t have something I can dance to? And since the Shakin’ side tells that story, we can do, like, the Bette Midler of country shows.
Who do you want to open for?
I’d love to open for Brad Paisley, because of his sense of humor. I could open for Sugarland. They’d be good, just based on their fans. And I’d love to open for Darius Rucker. I think a lot of his fans are not your typical country music fans. I think I probably have not your typical country fans.
Where do you think you’ll fit into the current country female hierarchy? There’s the young blondes with the internet fanbases fighting it out, there’s the more mature ladies biding their time…
I don’t know.
Where do you want to go?
Straight to the f—ing top.