“Music, to me, is like the tide,” says Lynda Kay. “It has an ebb and flow in the way it moves and changes.” As a singer, songwriter, and guitarist now five albums into her career, Kay knows all about that figurative tide, as she’s been riding it professionally and successfully for over twenty years.
Her story began in Dallas, Texas, where, at 13, she began teaching herself to play guitar. “My brother, who is four years older, plays guitar, and he was very much into Rush,” she says. “He had great gear in his room, a nice stereo, and a music collection I knew nothing about. I wanted to hang out in his room, so I begged him to teach me the beginning of a Rush song. I learned ‘Fly By Night,’ and I played that over and over.
“At age 13, I was also very much a girly-girl, so I wanted long, painted fingernails too. I wasn’t as talented as Charo and Dolly Parton, who play guitar with long nails, and I wasn’t that into Rush. It was hard to play, it was intricate, and at 13, doing my nails was much easier. It wasn’t the vanity as much as it was I didn’t understand at the time that guitar playing can take on many different forms.”
She never lost her love for music, but she opted to follow a more conventional path: a political science degree from Texas Tech University in Lubbock. From there, she attended and graduated law school, only to realize that a career as an attorney was not her calling. “I figured out that I found a lot more joy in my life from self-discovery and not following the rules. I had to figure out what came naturally and just do that,” she says.
Three years post-doctorate, she moved to Los Angeles. “It was a major leap in a short period of time, from thinking I would have a serious career to going to LA to be an entertainer,” she says. “I had a couple of parts that brought me out here, and I focused on acting solidly for about two years, maybe a little more. I did a lot of commercials, had some parts in television shows, small film roles, and an audition for a musical changed the trajectory of my career. I sang a contralto version of ‘Somewhere,’ from West Side Story, in front of a serious panel of casting directors who told me, ‘You’re totally wrong for the part, but would you sing us another song? Your voice is amazing.’ That never happens in auditions. Usually, you’re quickly ushered out the door to make room for the next candidate. But it was a different experience that time, and I took that as a sign that if I was able to soften the hearts of these jaded casting directors with my voice, then maybe I should create a live show which includes me singing. “At that point, I was going on 30 to 50 auditions a week while working full-time as a paralegal, and it was exhausting. I went to a venue, the Atlas Supper Club, where they were looking for an act to perform regularly. I put together a band and a show that focused on my musical and comedic talents, and I had that residency for almost four years.”
From then until now, Kay has been busy nonstop. In 2005, she married Jonny Coffin, musician, producer, and founder of Coffin Case. He co-produced her 2009 solo debut album, Dream My Darling, and produced her latest double-album, Black & Gold. They own and manage Coffin Case together, which gives her opportunities to apply the knowledge and experience of her law degree.
“It absolutely has helped me, and it helps us in our business,” she says. “I feel very fortunate that I finished that degree, even though I absolutely hated it. It is an extraordinary responsibility to have that knowledge. The training taught me that you have to keep a keen eye because there are many ways that situations can be manipulated to your detriment.”
In an almost full-circle turn of events, the artist who came to Los Angeles to pursue acting found herself back on television. She appeared in the FX series Justified and licensed several of her original songs for the program and soundtrack. Last year, she was cast in the Amazon Prime television series Goliath, where she co-stars as herself and showcases songs from Black & Gold. She will also return to Goliath for their upcoming fourth season.
And, of course, there’s her longtime endorsement with Gretsch Guitars, a sound that figures prominently on all of her recordings.
Black & Gold is a unique project that brings together Kay’s many styles and influences. Across the span of 20 songs, covers and originals, she draws from the music that defined her releases to date: the country/rockabilly Lonesome Spurs project from 2006, Dream My Darling, a 2013 EP, The Allure of Lynda Kay, and Sueña Mi Amor, the 2017 Spanish version of Dream My Darling. The contralto voice that turned heads in an audition years ago shifts easily in range and glides effortlessly across torch songs, pop classics, soul, jazz, rock, and even a gentle co-written duet with the late Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, with whom she shared a close friendship.
Lynda Kay was at home in Venice, California — near that previously mentioned tide — when she spoke with Guitar Girl.
Let’s go backward before we move forward. What led to your endorsement with Gretsch?
Around 2008, Jonny and I got a place in Austin because I was touring there a lot with Lonesome Spurs. I was playing with them at a rockabilly revival festival and Gretsch was a sponsor. At that point, I was playing tenor guitars — a Gibson and a custom-made James Trussart SteelCaster. After I played, Joe Carducci from Gretsch asked if I would consider playing their guitars.
He took me to their booth, and that was the first moment in my career that I felt like I had reached the level of professionalism that I had been striving for: I was being recognized for my craft by such an esteemed guitar company. From that point on, it was a big boost to my career. I’m still grateful to Gretsch, and as you know, I work with them to this day.
What did you like about the tenor guitars?
The tenor came along when I was playing the variety show in Los Angeles. I wanted to show my different talents. I tap-danced, I played a ukulele, and from there, a trip to a music store introduced me to the tenor four-string guitar and the baritone ukulele.
I found a tenor guitar for $300 at Neely Guitars on Sunset, and what I liked is they were not intimidating. I could easily teach myself guitar by learning the chords from a book. I learned a song at a time, and pretty soon, I knew a lot of chords. It was easy to tackle.
I then found a custom Gibson acoustic tenor made back in the 1930s, and my husband had an old electric Martin guitar that he didn’t play, so he did a trade for it. Once I got the Gretsch endorsement, I sold the Gibson, and that allowed me to finish an album I was working on.
Another reason why I continued to play the tenor was that when I was in the Lonesome Spurs, I could make a lot of jangly, rhythmic sounds with it in a duo. Once I got a full band back together, I decided I wanted to play with more finesse.
How have the Gretsch guitars influenced and inspired your sound? Listening to your music, the partnership makes perfect sense.
It really does make perfect sense for all the music styles that I play. One of the things I love about Gretsch guitars is how incredible they sound with just the strum of a single chord. Whether you have the heavy vibrato on or not, it rings out beautifully, and that sound inspired me to write several songs on Dream My Darling. That was when my musical path started diverging from three-chord country, and I became heavily influenced by that great Gretsch sound. Although all of the songs on this album are original, and mostly classic country ballads and roots Americana-type songs, several of which were featured on FX’s Justified, there were three songs that my Gretsch totally pushed me in a new direction that continues to this day. They were “Dream My Darling,” “What Lives and Dies,” and “Fly, Fly Away,” which was recently featured in Goliath.
Can you give us an idea of your songwriting process and also take us into the studio?
The guitar is an extension of my musical expression, and the versatility of Gretsch is the perfect tool for all my many moods and styles.
I go through songwriting periods, and I allow that part of my brain to zone in. I work on those for a while and get them to a place where I feel comfortable. Then I write some guitar riffs in my head and some on my guitar. I have to form a specific vision of what I want.
Being self-taught, my abilities are sometimes limited as far as chord structures and things like that, so I give it the best I can, and then I get together with my music director, John McDuffie, and work on arrangements. We create demo tracks that I go back and work with them on my own, I rehearse with the band for a couple of weeks, and we’re careful not to overplay or overthink the music. Then we go into the studio while the music is still fresh.
This album was such a joy. We recorded with the entire band at the same time, including two guitars, electric bass, drums, and keyboards. During those initial sessions, I didn’t play guitar. I sang with the band so that they were driven by the vocals as a guide. That gave us all a sense of what it would be like to play the songs live when you are just holding on for three-and-a-half minutes and playing for that moment.
How long were you in the studio?
We recorded the rhythm tracks for all twenty songs in three days, and I sang with the band on every take … the rest of it took two years! That’s because there are a lot of layers. We knew part of what was going to be layered on the songs as we started, but there was a lot of discovery along the way, and I enjoyed that too. By the time I came in to work on my guitars, we had the core tracks. I recorded some of the rhythm and atmospheric parts. The tones of the songs were set by my demos.
My final vocals didn’t happen until the last phases. There were still five more months of recording to do at the time I put my vocals together. We wanted to have all my vocals finished before the backgrounds, horns, and hand percussion. These songs took me some time to prepare. By the time I was ready to record vocals, I was averaging two to three songs a session, and I felt very proud of that.
What led to the concept of recording and releasing two distinct sounds and releasing them as one package?
Part of it wasn’t my choice, and part of it was all my choice. So many friends in the industry told me not to release it all at one time. When I recorded my EP, The Allure of Lynda Kay, at Capitol Studios, I had the time of my life. But I was disappointed that the producer didn’t finish a full album. We had all these incredible songs from this early ’60s music that I loved, so when my contract ended, I decided to record an album called The Lady In Gold, covering songs in a 1961 to 1964 style. Then I started writing songs myself, and Jonny and I wrote songs together, in this same vein. I began compiling the songs, and it was difficult to choose because there were so many. I decided to focus on six originals and four covers.
For a long time, I had been trying to figure out a way to release “The Mask,” the duet that Lemmy Kilmister and I had written and recorded together in 2009. I tried for several years and I almost gave up on it. At one point, I had even believed the tracks had been lost due to a computer and hard drive crash. Fortunately, that was not the case. It’s a stunning track, and it was sad to me that people who appreciate him would not get to hear this song. I decided to give it one last try and explained to the management that I was recording an album and would like to include it because I really wanted people to hear how beautiful Lemmy sounds singing something so revealing like this. They got back to me, and they loved it.
Once I had permission, I realized that it didn’t fit on The Lady In Gold. A light bulb went off, because I wanted to do an album called The Woman In Black, filled with the country songs I had been writing, and I knew I could put the duet on that album.
I had to figure out a way to bring these two worlds of mine together, and that became the double album. I wanted people to know both sides of me at the same time and decide for themselves which side they like better. Also, a big part of what I do as an artist is license my songs for television and films. What better way to be able to share my repertoire of different styles than to present a double album as a “glamour girl” and a “country girl”?
Do you have plans to tour this project?
When I am ready to go on the road, I will have to have a full band with me. I cannot imagine doing it any other way. I don’t know if I will have the luxury of touring with the players on the album, as they’re all successful in their own right and work with other artists. But I would love to tour, and I would love to play classic historic theaters. Currently, I am booking residencies in Hollywood and Palm Springs, and those shows will be announced very soon.
In closing, two questions. First, do you have some words of wisdom, advice, or encouragement for young people who aspire to work in the music industry?
Number one: If a deal that is being described to you doesn’t make sense, no matter how many questions you ask, walk away. You’re not meant to understand, because they’re trying to take advantage of you.
Number two: This is a tough business with no guarantees of success, and there are a lot of charlatans. Be wary of promises of success, especially those in exchange for “personal favors.” Chances are, they only want the personal favor part of the relationship, and they will never help you professionally because they won’t have respect for you. And, most importantly, don’t ever be afraid to leave a situation if your gut is telling you something’s not right.
Number three: Be true to yourself and your music. Just because you don’t understand all aspects of music and recording doesn’t make you any less of a talented person.
Also, be nice to your soundmen and soundwomen. They work hard to help make you sound good.
One overall piece of advice is to play music because you love it. If you’re doing it for the fame, you’ll never be satisfied, because no amount of fame is going to make up for the hole in your heart that you’ll feel if you’re not doing music for the love of it.
And finally, you have performed at Outfest, at the Gay and Lesbian Film Fest, and you’re involved with The Trevor Project. Why are these causes and events important to you?
First of all, I relate to feeling different. I’ve always felt like an outsider. Even though I’m married to my husband and live a traditional heterosexual life, my best friends are gay, all of them, and I relate to a lot of their life experiences.
I wasn’t encouraged to be an artist, and when I decided I was going to go into the arts, my parents were very upset with me. It has continued to put a strain on our relationship to this day.
It makes me very sad to think of parents who would miss out on having a relationship with their beautiful child that they brought into this world, over what are essentially disagreements involving things that can’t be changed. Whether you believe in any form of religion or not, there are certain tenets that should be a part of everyone’s thought process in society: we should love one another and respect one another for who each one of us is, because you can’t change who you are or who another person is, and neither can parents.
When I read these stories, these headlines involving bullies and young suicides, and I’ve been reading them for years … it just breaks my heart. Growing up in Texas, it’s not a very encouraging place for being different. That was one of the reasons I had to spread my wings and fly out to the West Coast because I hoped I would find a world of people who shared a belief to encourage others to be who they are.
There is nothing more important in your life on this earth than finding the person that you are within yourself, and then having the bravery to present that to the world. It’s hard enough without having to experience external forces that are trying to keep you down for no other reason than their own personal fears and hang-ups. Perhaps jealousies, too, for not being able to be their own person themselves.
I really feel like one of the crises of this era is the way that people are trying to take us backward and destroying what ground has been made in creating a world where we share acceptance of one another. Why else are we on this earth, other than to be the people we are? To be the person that one is?
The best advice that I can offer to anyone who is struggling with personal identity, personal feelings, and feelings of inadequacy and not feeling a part of this world, is that this world belongs to all of us, each and every one of us. There is nothing more beautiful than a person who has accepted their true self and who is willing to put that out there to the world because that requires so much strength.
I am very proud of every single person that I meet who is able to be themselves. I hope that any readers know that even if they don’t have someone who believes in them, I believe in them, and they can do whatever they want with their lives. The only person they are responsible to is themselves, and their only responsibility to the world is to be a good person. That’s all that matters.
Electric: Gretsch Guitars G6134 White Penguin Electric Guitar White
Acoustic: Gretsch Guitars G5021WPE Rancher Penguin Parlor Acoustic/Electric White
Gretsch Executive Tube Amp or Fender Blues Jr. (depending on the size of stage and venue)
Shure Beta 58 (The Classic)
I’ve really been wanting a curved stand, so I’m getting one custom-made!
Guitar and Mic Cases
Dunlop Thin Tortex (red)
Levy’s Leather Straps (gold with my name in black letters)