“I have nothing in common with perfect people,” says Grey DeLisle. “I’m not interested in them.”
Likewise, DeLisle — who made her recorded debut last year with the Hummin’bird Records release The Small Time — has no interest in perfect music. “Contemporary country music doesn’t have any pain in it,” she says. “It’s boring. It’s got no darkness. It’s too perfect.”
DeLisle’s debut isn’t perfect. Recorded and mixed in three days with minimal instrumentation and assistance from former Lone Justice bassist Marvin Etzioni, The Small Time has neither the gloss of Shania Twain nor the well-crafted grit of Lucinda Williams. Instead, its small, true-to-life songs tell stories of imperfect people living imperfect lives.
But those songs have struck a chord with people in L.A.’s alt-country scene, getting the attention of everyone from T Bone Burnett to Willie Nelson, who tapped DeLisle for a duet on his new album. And while her first album is still gaining momentum, DeLisle, 27, is already working on a second with Etzioni, as well as an album of original bluegrass ballads with Old 97′s bassist Murry Hammond.
But it is her simple debut, with its cast of imperfect people, that started it all. The album opens with “The Brick”, in which a woman asks her abusive man what he would do if she treated him the way he was treating her. And on the closing “Lullaby”, the narrator reflects on her out-of-control life, singing, “It’s time to kiss Los Angeles goodnight.”
Of course, many of the imperfect lives laid out in The Small Time are DeLisle’s own. “Most of the songs are real situations from my life,” DeLisle confirms. “‘Free’ is about my divorce, from when I was a child bride at 19, not knowing what I was doing. And even when the songs aren’t literally about my life, they’re real emotions. I’ve never lost my father, but I know how I’d feel if I lost him.”
DeLisle’s ability to inhabit the characters in her songs is partly the result of her professional training: She makes her living as an actress. She’s done cameo roles on TV sitcoms “That ’70s Show” and “Caroline In The City”, and several small films.
But her steady work is voicing cartoon characters. “I do Betty Rubble on ‘The New Flintstones’,” she says, adding a giggle that’s part Betty, part pure Grey. “And Daphne on the straight-to-video ‘Scooby Doo’, and Emily Elizabeth on ‘Clifford The Big Red Dog’.”
DeLisle enjoys the work, and the money she makes doing the voices has enabled her to pursue her kind of country music, unaffected by the commercial demands of the music industry.
“I’m in a position where I don’t have to worry about if there’s a single or not,” she says. “Because of the cartoons, I’m able to hold onto my musical integrity. I think Daphne just saved country music.” She giggles, then grows serious again as she discusses how her acting relates to her music.
“They’re stories of things that happened, and singing is about acting out that story,” she says. “Especially all those old bluegrass and country songs, they’re stories people wanted to preserve, they were acting them out. So theater and song blend together. It’s about getting the story across.”
DeLisle’s songwriting is almost entirely unschooled, something she seems to have absorbed from her environment rather than consciously developed. She doesn’t play a instrument, instead simply writing in her head — with little deliberation. “I have never spent more than an hour on a song,” she claims.
Sometimes the songs come when she’s not even awake. “I was staying at Murry Hammond’s house in Nacogdoches [Texas], working on this new album, and I started singing this song in my sleep, this old Carter Family-sounding song,” she recalls. “Murry put a tape recorder up to my mouth and started recording me. But it wasn’t a Carter Family song; I was writing it in my sleep.”
DeLisle’s second album will be released sometime this summer. Where the first album was stripped-down, the new one is a bit more extravagant. “We’ve got lots of great musicians on it, and we’re doing a lot of different stuff,” she says. “There’s some Tammy Wynette ’60s sound, with pedal steel and strings, and there’s even a song that sounds like the Sex Pistols.”
Both the new album and the upcoming bluegrass album will continue to mine those stories of people behaving badly, she says. And despite her developing musical skills and top-notch players, the songs will continue to have their share of pain.
“On the bluegrass record, everyone dies at the end of every song,” she says with her usual good cheer. “It’s about sharecroppers and homewreckers and murder and drugs. I’m a good Christian soul, but I wouldn’t know the light without the dark.”