When Memphis expatriate Megan Reilly plays the Hi-Tone Café on Wednesday, June 7th, she'll use her real name and, more importantly, her real, wonderfully unique voice. That wasn't the case in the late 1990s, when the waifish, morbidly hopeful singer-songwriter morphed into an alt-country tough girl and twisted her whispery vocals into a vibrato-laden yowl that was intriguing but unnatural and grating at the corners. Back then she used the stage name Lucynell Crater, which she borrowed from the innocent, retarded child at the center of Flannery O'Connor's unsettling short story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own."
Most often, Lucynell performed alone, awkwardly hiding behind a guitar that seemed to be nearly as big as she was and belting out quirky, black-hearted lullabies that earned the teenage country girl tremendous respect, even in Memphis' famously jaded underground rock scene. Rowdy crowds at the now-defunct Map Room would fall into respectful silence and listen to what Lucynell Crater had to say.
"I was young and self-taught," Reilly says of her Memphis sound. "I wanted to make every phrase that came out sound a certain way. But I've worked really hard to bring a dynamic element [to the music]."
Shortly before packing her bags for New York, Reilly teamed with Simpletones frontman Jared McStay to create a strange hybrid of indie rock and honky-tonk that allowed her to drop the pose and let her real voice shine through, hinting at the eclectic sound she would perfect in the Big Apple. When Arc of Tessa, Reilly's first full-length album was released in 2003, critics raved, calling it everything from "a jaw-dropping debut" to "an alt-country gem."
Reilly's latest release, Let Your Ghost Go, a gorgeous, occasionally angry meditation on love and death, is even better. Floating on a bed of piano, lap steel, and guitar, Let Your Ghost Go is bursting with emotionally informed poetry that calls to mind early Cat Power. It's an album filled with whispered remorse and shouted curses. It's the promise of Lucynell Crater fulfilled.
"I feel very lucky," Reilly says. "I feel like someone is really looking out for me." She then proceeds to credit the people who are looking out for her, an all-star band consisting of guitarist Tim Foljan (Two Dollar Guitar), drummer Steve Goulding (Mekons), and bassist Tony Marimone (Pere Ubu). She also credits Let Your Ghost Go's producer, Sue Garner (the Shams), another transplanted Southerner who traded in her country accent for the sophisticated sounds of NYC.
"I reached out to Sue," Reilly says. "Her input has been instrumental."
Reilly says she works slowly, and that doubt is her constant songwriting partner. But Garner helped her to stop over-thinking things and censoring herself. "You can't take yourself too seriously," she says. "You've got to get outside of yourself." You've got to let go of your ghosts.
"Death is always on my mind," Reilly says, with a nervous flutter of laughter. She knows that saying such things can sound a little pretentious. "I'm serious," she adds. And she is. Her new album's title track abstractly reflects the loss of her grandmother, while her unlikely and unconventional cover of Thin Lizzy's most gentle song, "Girl in Bloom," is a beautifully realized homage to the late Phil Lynott.
"[Death's] a hard thing to understand," she says. "It's hard to understand how you can love somebody and know that you're not going to see them anymore.
"I miss it," Reilly says of her hometown and her life as a Southerner. She recalls the first time she encountered the writings of Flannery O'Connor and was inspired by the way the author wove rich humor into dark, gothic tales. She thinks people from other regions find Southerners, and particularly Memphians, exotic.
"People are in love with the idea of Memphis," she says, happy to cloak herself in the river city's musical mystique.
Reilly will pay special tribute to her Bluff City roots when she hits the Hi-Tone stage. In addition to playing with her New York band, she plans on performing several songs with her old school playmates McStay, Melissa Dunn, and Andy Saunders.
Megan Reilly performs at the Hi-Tone Café Wednesday, June 7th, with Melissa Dunn opening. Doors open at 9 p.m.; admission is $5.