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Courtney Love is back with a vengeance

Courtney Love is back and in fighting shape. But can she overcome a long absence, a celebrity that threatens to overshadow her music and a radically changed music scene?
/ Source: Reuters

You don't get an interview with Courtney Love; you get an audience with her.

In six hours at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, the day after two well-received, return-to-form performances at the South by Southwest music conference (SXSW), she will do the following: show off all her clothes; explain her new style, which she calls "kook"; display financial documents on her battered laptop which, she says, prove she's a victim of embezzlement; Google her new crush's ex-girlfriend; learn two Big Star songs; and yell at various people about various things. She will talk. She will smoke. On two occasions, she will smoke, talk and pee with the bathroom door open, all at once.

Leaving her room, you feel like you've just run a marathon — you are tired, out of breath, and you smell bad.

But there's also the feeling that you've witnessed the rock star in her natural habitat — perched atop a filthy bed in a trashed hotel room, she commands attention. In a musical landscape populated with faceless hard rock bands, bad emo hair and aw-shucks indie rockers who look just like the kids who serve you coffee in the morning, she's like nothing else. Seeing her out of her element would be as jarring as catching Lady Gaga in khakis and a button-down.

There was a freak-show element to the three gigs Hole played at SXSW. People were curious about the new songs, sure, but they were mostly curious about her. Would she stay upright for the entire set? Could she still sing?

The answers are yes (unless she was crowd surfing) and yes (insofar as she could ever "sing"). She played grunge favorites and a number of songs from her new album, "Nobody's Daughter," which Mercury will release April 27. Critical reaction was strong, and massive crowds attended all three of the shows she eventually played.

Courtney Love is back and in fighting shape. But can she overcome a long absence, a celebrity that threatens to overshadow her music and a radically changed music scene?

Under new managementOn a spring afternoon in 2009, Crush Management partner Jonathan Daniel received a very long and unexpected voicemail.

"Courtney literally cold-called me," he says, noting that he later discovered he had been recommended by producer Michael Beinhorn. "I didn't know what to do with the message. I played it for Pete Wentz, and then I decided I should at least call her back."

Daniel met with her, heard the music she was working on and decided to take her on as a client. This despite the fact that Hole seems like a bit of an odd fit for Crush, an agency best known for working with such acts as Fall Out Boy and Panic at the Disco. But Daniel did have one connection to Love: They both kicked around Los Angeles during the late '80s, when he played in glam rock bands Electric Angels, Candy and the Loveless.

"I loved the music; it felt really timely," he says of Love's new material. "Music always shifts, and it feels like rock has been underground for a while and is ready to come back."

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Daniel says he wasn't worried about working with Love, despite her scabrous reputation and penchant for burning through managers. (Past representation includes Q Prime, Janet Billig, Peter Asher, Dave Lory, Asif Ahmed and ex-boyfriend James Barber.) "At this point, she wants someone to manage her," he says. "She's such a big personality, it wouldn't make sense for me to try to manage her if she didn't want it."

The first order of business was finishing the new album, which Love had been working on since 2006. She had written a series of tracks with Linda Perry and some others with Billy Corgan, but most of the actual recording wasn't done until fall 2009.

"It didn't take that long because she had already done most of the work," Daniel says. "She had the songs; it was just a matter of getting them done."

Once the album, which Love self-financed, was finished, Daniel set up a meeting with Mercury Records president David Massey. "I knew Massey from working with Fall Out Boy, and I knew she would like him -- he's good with women and knows a lot about music." Mercury was the only record company they met with. Both parties were sold, and the deal (which Massey calls a "proper, global, multi-album deal") was signed.

Daniel says, "The deal is a joint venture, almost like an indie deal -- it's a 50/50 split, which is fair, because she was betting on herself so much."

While Courtney Love the personality has remained in the spotlight during the past 16 years, Courtney Love the artist has been out of it since 1998, when Hole released "Celebrity Skin." Love released a solo album in 2004 on Virgin, but it received mixed reviews and sold only 100,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. (Love herself refers to it as "la disaster.") "Celebrity Skin," by contrast, has sold 1.4 million copies, and 1994's "Live Through This" has sold 1.6 million.

But attention for those albums, both of which were critically acclaimed ("Live Through This" topped the Village Voice Pazz and Jop critics' poll; "Celebrity Skin" came in at No. 14), is a drop in the bucket of press surrounding Love. The tabloids have followed her as she has endured several breakups, gained weight, lost weight, started fights, lost her money and lost legal control of her daughter -- though, when interviewed, she speaks about Frances Bean in glowing terms.

The gossip is one of the reasons Love decided to use the Hole name for the new project, despite the fact that no other original members of the band played on the record. "She didn't want to cash in or slight any of the people she's played with in the past," Daniel says. "But calling it Hole is the way she can separate herself from the tabloids.

"People like to pick on her for a lot of reasons," Daniel continues. "We run into it all the time with promoters. They are very skeptical, despite the fact that she sold out Terminal 5 (in New York) and the Henry Fonda Theater (in Los Angeles) and had great shows at SXSW. She's super pro, and she really wants this."

Plenty of skepticism surrounded "Nobody's Daughter," but early response to the first single, the harsh punk tune "Skinny Little Bitch," has been encouraging, with the song rising one rung to No. 21 on Billboard's Alternative chart and from No. 37 to No. 32 on Rock Songs.

The rest of "Nobody's Daughter" is classic Hole: a big rock record helmed by a big personality. In many ways, it seems like no time has passed since "Celebrity Skin"; the song "Pacific Coast Highway" would have been right at home on that album, while "Samantha" is a natural sister of "Live Through This" track "Jennifer's Body." The lyrics are dark throughout, and concerned with sexual politics and the damage they cause -- Listeners expecting a train wreck will be disappointed -- "Nobody's Daughter" is sharp and well executed.

"We're leading this campaign with the music," Massey says. "This is our opportunity to reintroduce her as a musician and drive home the point that few bands have achieved what she has achieved."

Tech savvy, to a pointIn some respects, Love embraces technology. Just as a 1995 interview found her sitting in a trashed hotel room and posting in AOL chat rooms, she now sits in trashed hotels and posts on Twitter. But she's not all the way up to speed: She twice calls down to the front desk for new stereos when she wants to play music and can't get any sound to emerge. (As it turns out, neither stereo is defective; Love just can't work the volume on her iPod.) But as funny as this anecdote sounds (and Love does offer profuse apologies to the hotel staff once she realizes the mistake) it drives home the point that part of Love is still very much in the '90s.

When "Celebrity Skin" was released, for instance, licensing songs to advertisers, TV shows and movies was something dinosaur bands did — and that Kurt Cobain, Love's late husband, was adamantly opposed to.

Daniel says he hasn't spoken to Love about licensing possibilities yet, nor does he know how she'll respond. "She's precious about certain things and laid-back about others," he says. "She is really into mobile music and on the cutting edge of pop culture, so we'll see." He adds that it would make perfect sense for Love to contribute a song to a "Twilight" series soundtrack, for example, in order to reach a younger fan base.

Love's still living in the '90s when it comes to video budgets, too. Back at the Driskill, she says she has $100,000 to shoot her next clip and is researching models to play the "skinny little bitch." She debates whether to call Kate Moss and ask about a particular young Russian beauty named Sasha Pivovarova, then decides to call a friend who has connections in the fashion industry and leaves him a long message.

Then she turns to her guitarist, Micko Larkin, a sweet young Brit with a lisp, and inquires about the sound at the venue. "How are the vocals?" she asks. "I want my vocals to be louder than God."