LYDIA LOVELESS’ latest release, Real, is out now on Bloodshot Records, and there’s a lot to love for fans of her signature Tammy Wynette-meets-Replacements style. But there are also subtle shifts on the record toward a cleaner, poppier sound for the Ohioan songwriter—Loveless says this move helped her grow and challenge herself—but don’t go into Real expecting Taylor Swift.

“I accidentally used the word ‘slick’ in an interview, which I regret,” Loveless tells me over the phone, adding, “I love pop music. It’s my happy place. [Pop] can be a lot of things. It can be Motown, oldies, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, or Katy Perry. I really just like great songs with good arrangements and amazing melodies.”

Loveless points toward several instances on Real where, along with her longtime producer Joe Viers, she pushed herself out of her comfort zone. The risk pays off: There’s the ’70s AM, Fleetwood Mac-style groove that underpins “Heaven” (with Loveless doing a passable Midwestern Stevie Nicks) and the “crazy harmonies” that give the song “Longer” a Beach Boys sheen.

“I’ve never really attempted anything like that before,” says Loveless of “Heaven.” “We were layering 15 guitar parts on top of each other. There’s lots of keyboard on this record. That’s a little bit different.” Loveless feels her working relationship with Viers helped her take those risks: “It’s super comfortable,” she says, but “it remains challenging. I think the level of understanding helps, because there’s a lot more room to grow and play around. It’s a great creative relationship and that makes it really fun.”

But whether pop-oriented or straight-ahead cow-punk, Real, like any Lydia Loveless album, is largely about her brokenhearted lyrics, which adds a literary element to what would otherwise feel like a barroom confessional. In “Longer,” about the drug overdose of friend, Loveless sings, “Sitting in the dark/talking about my plans/to anyone who can hear/over this shitty Indianapolis band.”

In fact, Loveless calls herself more of “a lyricist than a songwriter. I’m always jotting something down,” she says. “I probably labor over them more than I probably should for my own sanity.” In her songwriting process, lyrics and melody go hand in hand. “It’s usually just me and guitar or piano,” she says, describing the genesis of her songs, and only when she gets a solid foundation does she turn to her band to “hammer things out. This is the first record I was actually writing riffs,” she says. “It’s usually just me plugging along on chords. It was kind of different for me to try and fit in there with everyone else.”

Loveless says “Bilbao,” a relatively traditional country-rock weeper, is an example of a song that underwent significant changes once brought to her band in the recording process. She admits it’s often difficult for her to know when a song is finished. “I can pretty much just keep messing with things forever,” she says, laughing. “Once you’re in the studio, you have to reach a point where you’re like, ‘Okay, I think we’re done here.’ It’s hard to let things go, but that’s what live performances are for, where you can play around with things for eternity.”