- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Mary Lou Lord has worn many hats in the music industry — disc jockey, street musician, engineer, major label songstress — but she’s about to pick up a new one: manager.

“I’ve done this for a long time and I want to start something completely different,” says Miss Lord by phone from her home in Boston.

Miss Lord has become a manager of two emerging groups, Emergency Music and Darkbuster, and hopes to move into the publicity side of the industry soon, too, leaving little room left for music. That means fans of her soft, heartbreaking voice — and those who have yet to discover her — would do well to see her when she performs tonight at Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington.

This current short tour is her only scheduled one for the year. She prefers to spend the time raising her young daughter and settling into her new job as manager, she says.

The new job marks a transition for a woman who has had an anything-but-conventional kind of career. Her encounters with music began when she was 10 and a friend of hers started taking guitar lessons.

“She was able to play some John Denver songs and I started to get jealous,” Miss Lord says.

She promptly received a guitar as a gift and it went under the bed, not to emerge again until she reached college. In the meantime, she became a DJ for a local Boston radio station and later pursued music engineering at the Berklee College of Music there.

Miss Lord left Berklee after a short time and went to study audio engineering in London. Her street-musician career arose not so much out of an innate desire to perform for crowds, but out of a desire not to freeze.

“There was no heat in my apartment, so I used to go down to the subway to stay warm,” she says.

She soon befriended some of the buskers, or street musicians, who perform in London’s subway system, and offered to guard their instruments while they took bathroom breaks. One day, while a friend was on such a break, she picked up his guitar and started to play.

“Immediately I was hooked,” she says of gaining her first coins from bystanders. “It was completely sympathy money, but it got me going.”

Her voice wavered at first and she had a limited song list, but she slowly gained confidence as a performer. Her career in audio engineering moved to the background as a new love of singing and playing took over.

“I had to sort of make a decision,” she says, “and ended up on the performer side.”

She eventually came back to the United States and began performing in coffeehouses and small venues in Boston until gaining a major label deal with Sony. Her first album, “Got No Shadow,” came out in 1998. Within two weeks of its release, she found out she was pregnant, effectively ending her major-label career before it began.

“I know a lot of people who sold like a million records, but they’re in debt to those labels,” she says. “I don’t really know how far I would have gone.”

As her daughter grew older Miss Lord began recording again. In 2001 she self-recorded the album “Live City Sounds,” an intimate record recorded live in the Boston subway system.

It has her whisper-thin vocals and gentle strumming, and includes a variety of covers from classic rock like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to newer artists like the Magnetic Fields.

She followed it up with a more rock-oriented record, “Baby Blue,” in 2004, which saw her tour with a full backing band. But she’ll turn 40 next month and she’s not entirely sure she wants to make another record or live the life of a touring musician.

“I started up a management company and I want to start a publicity company,” she says. “I just really want to focus on that and try to get the bands out to as many audiences as we can.”

• • •

As in the case of Mary Lou Lord, busking played a small but important role in the life of the Dublin band The Frames. The group’s lead singer and songwriter, Glen Hansard, began his musical career by singing on the streets of Dublin before being signed to Island Records and forming the Frames to give life to his songs.

Now, 15 years and several record labels later, the alternative rock band is a favorite in its homeland, with its new album, “Burn the Maps,” nominated for Best Album and the group itself nominated for Best Band at the Meteor Awards, an Irish version of the Grammys. An Irish music magazine recently put one of the band’s albums in the top 30 of the top 100 Irish records of all time — and named another three in the top 75.

None of this has made The Frames a household name in the United States, but that could all change with “Burn the Maps,” which is poised to be the group’s American breakthrough. Local music fans are especially lucky, as the group’s second stop on the U.S. leg of its world tour is in the District.

Hear them — and discover what Irish music fans already know — when they play Sunday at the Black Cat.

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