The old saying is there are two sides to every story. In the case of singer-songwriter Laura Bell Bundy’s daring Mercury Records debut release, Achin’ and Shakin’ that is most assuredly true. Laura Bell daringly bypassed the tried-and-true Music Row formula instead creating a bold concept album that is essentially two separate albums within one project. Achin’ is a collection of slow and sultry country songs and Shakin’ is a group of sassy songs that are equal parts humor, confidence and attitude. One side presents a modern-day mixture of Loretta Lynn, Minnie Pearl and Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw; the other unveils country’s answer to Norah Jones.
It’s no surprise that Laura Bell shattered the usual industry formulas because nothing about her entertainment career has been normal. She originated the lead role of Elle Woods in the Broadway musical Legally Blonde, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. She also originated the role of Amber Von Tussle in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hairspray and played Glinda in the smash hit Wicked. Prior to that, she originated the role of Tina Denmark in the successful off-Broadway production Ruthless, The Musical!, for which she received the Outer-Critics Circle Award and Drama Desk nominations. Her theatrical career has been a wonderful life experience that was a natural extension of her original dream of having a music career. Indeed, her time on Broadway propelled her pursuit of music, exposed her to a community of talented creative people and helped her become a better writer and performer. Indeed, Achin’ and Shakin’ is a culmination of her experiences on and offstage combined with her musical experiences, songwriting and Southern heritage.
Dish caught up with Laura Bell Bundy at her Nashville home while she was in hair and make-up preparing for a nightclub appearance later that evening.
DISH: I understand you have more to celebrate now than just a new album coming out. Is there a new member of your family now?
Laura Bell Bundy: YES! I have an eight and a half week old Chihuahua and she is adorable! Her name is Norma Jean Biscuit Bundy.
DISH: So, I guess you aren’t trying too hard to distance yourself from Legally Blonde now that you have her, huh?
LBB: I know! I keep trying and trying and I never will I guess! I have become very used to Chihuahuas from having to train the dogs in Legally Blonde. I had to personally train the dog in the show so that the dog would recognize me as its trainer and caretaker so it would trust me and do what I said to do on stage. So, now I have an affinity for the breed.
DISH: Outside of your choice of dogs, do you find that people have trouble seeing you as anything but Elle since that is you’re best known Broadway role?
LBB: I think everybody tries to type people. It’s just easier for them. But, before I did Elle I played this major bitch in Hairspray and there was a time that I was getting all of these nasty, snarky roles so it was kind of nice to be able to play somebody who was genuinely nice with Elle. And now everyone calls me in to play white trash. So I don’t know what my type is anymore! I think it is very easy to pigeon hole somebody and I think it is important for the person who wants to have a really diverse and interesting career to not allow that to happen. When you are an actor especially and a creative person there should be no limits and there should be no one thing that you cannot do. I really think that you are always fighting that and you really have to accept that there will always be people wanting to put you back in that hole.
DISH: In past conversations with you we have talked about the misperception that you are just the latest person trying to make a crossover into country music. Has that changed at all since last we spoke?
LBB: I have been singing and writing country music my whole life. Being from Kentucky almost guaranteed that I would be a big fan of Country Music from a really young age. I started writing music that all came out as country music when I was a teenager. When I was 18 I formed a country band with a girl in NY and we would play all over the city. We played all of these clubs that we weren’t old enough to get into like The Bitter End and CBGB’s. So, for me I look at it and it doesn’t seem so much like something I am doing now, it is really more something I have always done.
DISH: Do you think that all of the exposure you got out of Legally Blonde helped get you where you are now as a rising country star?
LBB: If you look at artists right now who are having a lot of success Like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Pickler, they got noticed because they were on television first. You almost have to be multi-genre to sell records now. There almost has to be something else. For my label seeing me in Legally Blonde and seeing that I was capable of doing that and that I already had a fan base from that made their job all that much easier.
DISH: Achin’ & Shakin’ has a really strong conceptualized side to it. Was it important for you to present it as an old style record with two distinct sides?
LBB: It really kinda just ended up happening that way. I kept writing all of these really slow and sultry country ballads that had a throwback feel and had a little bit of old soul to them. I was also writing these crazy up tempos. My original idea was to take samples of old country songs, specifically “Countrypolitan” songs from the 1960’s and 70’s. I wanted to take samples and loop them then write original songs over them. I then found out that was going to be kind of expensive and then as a songwriter I wouldn’t be making any money so I decided to revise the idea a little. So instead I decided to do something that was reminiscent of that style. So, we ended up coming up with this Amy Winehouse for Country sort of feel where we had this great country throwback sound and feel with these great old soul elements included.
DISH: It almost sounds as if Achin’ & Shakin’ could be developed into its own Broadway musical.
LBB: You are the second person to say that to me in 24 hours. I would love to do it. In fact I was at the Blake Shelton concert last night and in my head I was trying to figure out the musical because someone had just asked me the same question. I hope eventually there will be a musical of my album but we will have to see.
DISH: As someone who performs in what seems like two entirely separate worlds – country music and Broadway - do you feel like they are really all that different or are there more similarities than one would expect?
LBB: Either way it is all about being honest and fearless. Both country music and Broadway musicals tell stories. So they are really the same thing. The biggest differences are in that I have been so much lower key and introspective in Nashville. Legally Blonde got really crazy after a while and I was exhausted. I had to rest my voice a lot and there really wasn’t a lot of time for other creative outlets. I have a lot more time for other creative outlets here.
DISH: You do a great job of channeling old-style country divas from the 60’s and 70’s. Why is that particular sound so important to you?
LBB: The reason I love Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton and all of those women who were writers and singers during the Countrypolitan era is because they committed to an idea and as songwriters they really stuck to whatever it was they were working on. Not only that, but they commit vocally as well. I think that is one of the most important things that a performer and artist can do is commit completely to whatever emotion or feeling they are trying to express. If you are not connected to what you are doing and saying on stage then you can lose the audience real quick. You really have to understand and believe everything you are saying or singing. You are the one telling the story and bringing them the idea and the emotion. If you get lost in what you had for dinner then the audience isn’t getting the full experience that they need to have.
DISH: You have a humongous following in the gay community. Why do you thing gay men identify so heavily with you and your work?
LBB: As a young kid I watched all of those things that a young gay boy would watch. I was gay boy trapped in the body of Jon Benet Ramsey. Let’s be honest. I impersonated Judy Garland and my mom loved Liza Minelli so that was always on. All of the country music singers that I idolize are also gay icons like Dolly and Loretta. So I think I just had a lot of the same influences in my early life as a lot of gay men did.