Bristol native Billy Lord was enjoying a typical American middle-class existence until fate had other ideas. Losing his job in middle management, savings, house-in-progress, and marriage during the recent banking crisis, this father of two found himself working the overnight shift on a loading dock and wondering where he was going to find the money for an apartment of his own, as he couch-surfed with friends in his adopted hometown of New York City.
One day, he picked up a guitar he hadn’t touched in more than a decade. In the months that followed, he rediscovered his love of the instrument and wrote a handful of songs that would ultimately become his debut album, “American Music.”
A Kickstarter fundraising campaign provided the capital Lord needed to get the album produced. Its critical reception was beyond anything he imagined, including nomination for a national award (to be determined in August), and the honor of “Best Rock Song of 2012″ in a Twitter poll for his song “Fighting Back”.
He is currently touring the country on his motorcycle, working on his second album, “National Anthem,” with a scheduled detour to play at Independence Park in Bristol on July 3.
East Bay Life caught up with Billy Lord on the road to learn more about his path from growing up Bristol to being a rising star on the national music scene.
So, what’s your backstory?
Billy Lord: I graduated in 1989, the final year of Bristol High School, then I went to URI. In 1995 I started working at East Bay Newspapers driving a truck, delivering bundles of newspapers to stores. I had just gotten married and bought my first home on Bradford Street, in Bristol. I walked to work.
Where’s home now?
Billy Lord: New York City. My parents live in Narragansett now, and I’m never in Rhode Island without a trip to Aidan’s for some chowder and to see my best friends. Bristol will always be home to me. And of course, I never miss a 4th of July celebration at the bottom of High Street!
Why the cross-country motorcycle trip?
Billy Lord: The road trip was really something that was building inside me when I started writing songs. I wrote the first album in the streets of New York, but my music is American music. And my ambition is to write a classic American rock album. I just felt the songs needed to be culled from real life experiences and not from my imagination. So I decided to ride across America on a motorcycle with a guitar on my back in search of songs. I’m in Austin, Texas right now.
Best experience on the road so far?
Billy Lord: One of the best was playing on the stage at Antone’s in Austin, where Stevie Ray Vaughn and just about every blues luminary has played. It was the only time during the trip I was nervous onstage—and I’ve played well over 20 shows along the way through Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.
And the strangest?
Billy Lord: One funny experience happened in Alabama. I use couchsurfing.com to find people willing to let me crash on their couch as I make may way across the country. I got into the city late that night and met my host at a bar. She was young, but dressed in all black and had a style that could best be described as heavy metal vampire. As we walked to her apartment, in the worst part of town, she explained to me the she worked in enbalming and that she really enjoyed her work. Her apartment building looked abandoned, and we walked up the stairs to her door in complete darkness. She had flat screen TVs in every room with a different horror film playing on each. Her apartment was decorated with headless baby dolls. I slept on the floor in her spare room with her “roommate,” a six-foot python named Valkyrie. needless to say it wasn’t a restful night’s sleep.
What’s the difference between being a rock star and, say, working for East Bay Newspapers?
Billy Lord: Well, no one asked for my autograph back then. Playing music is a blessing. I feel very lucky. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve been well received. There’s really no greater thrill than playing for an audience. Though I think the greatest thrill will be playing on July 3rd to my hometown crowd.
And you are headed to Los Angeles afterwards?
Billy Lord: After the Bristol show, I fly back out to San Antonio, get back on the bike and head west through New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and on to Los Angeles where I’ll be performing on the EOTM Awards Show which will air live, nationally, on August 4 from the Pacific Design Center in Hollywood. I’ll be performing an acoustic version of the song during the show—my first national television performance.
My song On a Summer Night was nominated as Best Country Song and Best Country Video. After that performance, I have meetings about turning my journey into a reality television series. Then I’m back on the bike, to head all the way back east. By the end of the journey, I hope to have written enough new material based on my travels to record my second album, titled “National Anthem.”
You have two children?
Billy Lord: Yes, two boys aged 17 and 14…Will and Spencer. They are both artists themselves: Will is a vocal major at La Guardia High School for Performing Arts (The “Fame” school) and is a composer and vocalist. Spencer, is an actor and has starred in two off-Broadway plays and has recently started playing guitar ad singing, as well. So they are pulling for my success. We share an extremely close bond, and it has made being on this cross country trip painful for me. But it also has given me the motivation to make it all worthwhile.
Musically, what artists have inspired you?
Billy Lord: My musical inspirations vary from Joni Mitchell to Miles Davis to Tupac, but if I had to name one artist, it would be Chris Whitley. he was an artist’s artist. A non-traditional Delta blues player who experimented in every genre. I cried the day he passed.
What was the most challenging part of the dramatic turn your life has taken in recent years?
Billy Lord: Professionally, I’d have to say being so vulnerable and public to criticism. When you make music, everyone is a critic. And the growing pains with becoming a musician are extreme and long-lasting. It was hard hearing family and friends tell me I couldn’t make it. I loved music enough to keep going and I developed a very thick skin.
Where do you hope to be in five years?
Billy Lord: Continuing down this road as a nationally recognized songwriter and artist. There is no plan B. I just want to make a life out of music.
If you could reach out to your past self, at any stage, what would you tell that guy?
Billy Lord: I would tell the workaholic, uptight businessman to spend more time with his children, his family, his friends, and to live a life that brings him the greatest joy…. get your head out of the spreadsheets long enough to listen to your inner voice, to put aside expectations of others, and to live the life you dream.
I can remember cutting school one day back when I was a junior at Bristol High School. I spent the day in the parking lot looking out to the bay and thinking about my future. My car stereo in those days was worth more than my car, a white Mazda 626. I was playing Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” on cassette, and it started to snow. It was beautiful. I felt bold that day and imagined living a life beyond Bristol, beyond ordinary. I think back on that day often and I know that even though it took me a while, I finally got there.