This rising star from the north of England defies easy pigeonholing. Let’s just say she’s a genre all by herself
usic journalism, like everything else, has its pros and cons. And while getting to hear a constant stream of new music is by far the biggest pro, one of the biggest cons is that 95 per cent of it all sounds the freaking same. So in this era of endless wannabe pop/R&B ‘starlets’ showing off their technically impressive but oh so predictable sub-Whitney melisma… of bland indie/rock groups that, with their wholesome good looks, catchy tunes and Colgate smiles look one hell of a lot like boybands to us… it’s genuinely refreshing when, amidst the dross, you stumble on a gem like Liz Green’s debut album O Devotion!
We’d try and describe Liz’s music to you but… we can’t. Not very easily, anyway: after months of trying the best we’ve come up with was “Billie Holliday does folk… with a brass band”. Like the mighty Bjork, Ms Green is pretty much a genre all on her own. We caught up with her at the start of her recent UK tour to discuss the making of the album, her songwriting technique and what the hell here songs are actually about…
So Liz, your album came out last year but is now being re-promoted, hence the tour – is that right?
“Something like that, yeah. To be honest I don’t really know, no-one’s really told me if it’s having another push or whatever. But yes, we’re touring the UK now, and I’ve just come back from a two-week tour of Germany that went down very well. What was good about that was that touring in Europe is actually viable – you get a van and you get to eat and stuff! It’s a lot harder in Britain: music isn’t supported in the same way as it is in Europe and you have to really love it to be doing it.”
Presumably you must love it, then, as you’re doing it. Where did your involvement with music first begin?
“Well, there was always a lot of music in our house when I was growing up [Liz hails from The Wirral, though she’s now based in Manchester]. I begged for piano lessons when I was a kid, and I did that for about four years but then gave up because they made me learn all this classical music and I’d just wanted to play The Entertainer! Then when I was 16 or 17 I got a guitar for my birthday. I hadn’t even asked for it, it was just that my Dad had seen it in a sale! And I took the guitar away to Uni with me, thinking it might be good to have it there if people came round for a party or something, but I didn’t actually start playing it till about three years later.
“Once I did, then I started writing songs in my bedroom… but just for me, really, I didn’t have any aspirations to be a popstar or anything. I’d packed in university – I was doing English, but as much as I loved reading books, I wasn’t really into writing essays about them. So I was working in Waterstones instead, and writing songs was just something to do, I suppose. A hobby. Then a friend of mine started up an open-mic night and I had a go at that, just to challenge myself. And people seemed to like the songs and it all just went from there, really.”
So there’s no Liz Green master strategy? We’re not at step two of your five-point plan for world domination or anything?
“God no, nothing like that. I just started doing it and people seemed to like it, and I got various offers to do gigs and so on and… I just said yes to the things I liked the sound of, basically. In fact, I’m sure I could make my manager cry if I told him all the people I said no too!”
“MY SONGS ALL BOIL DOWN TO LOVE, DEATH AND WAR”
e should point out at this point that one of the things Liz said yes to was the Glastonbury Emerging Artists competition in 2007, which she won. At that stage her debut single Bad Medicine appeared, getting rave reviews from Mojo to The Sun. And then… nothing.
The album was long time coming, wasn’t it? What happened there?
“Basically, being in the studio recording an album is, I found out, very different from playing songs live to an audience. It took a while for it to gel, but once [White Stripes producer] Liam Watson got involved, and once I came up with this idea of having a brass band on there, which to my surprise they agreed to, it all kind of came together.”
And came together to quite glorious effect! So let’s talk about the songs themselves. Lyrically, they can be quite dense… in fact we’re still not really sure what some of them are about. Was that something you aimed for – to create something that required quite a lot of thinking about?
“Well no, not really. I mean, I know I wrote them and everything, but I honestly don’t think my songs are that hard to understand! They all boil down to love, death and war. And I think maybe if people do like them, that’s why: I like to think there’s a soul and a humanity there that comes across, wherever you are.
“But it’s an interesting question, because it raises another question of, do I want to be understood? And of course I do, like everybody does… but then again I wouldn’t like it if I thought someone really understood me, to the point of seeing through everything I say or do. It’s an interesting dichotomy, similar in a way to the fact that I hate being looked at, yet I’ve put myself in a position where I stand on a stage every night.
“Overall though I don’t think they’re as obtuse as some people seem to think. They’re just stories… although sometimes there’s more than one story going on at the same time. I like the idea of songs that tell stories… for instance, the Odyssey and the Iliad were originally meant to be sung, which a lot of people don’t realise. Modern songwriting has gotten so… it’s all, “I said this, she said that, someone slammed a door, my heart broke”. And I’m not really sure I want to write songs where I tell people all about my private life. Maybe when I’m older and everyone else involved is dead!”
So tell us a bit more about how the songs get written. Talk us through the songwriting process…
“Urgh! I hate that word, process. It sounds so mechanical and joyless. I don’t know, I just write them. I do carry a notebook around with me but I also love technology because it means you don’t have to write stuff down, you can just record a voice memo on your phone! My phone’s full of recordings of me singing bits of gibberish.
“And then if you do enough of that, and you get enough of these bits and pieces and you spend enough time on your own, just playing around with them, then something good will eventually come out. That’s how most of my songs are written, anyway. It’s not always the case – Ostrich Song, for instance, came out fully formed, I just sat down and wrote it. That’s the dream but mostly, they come out gradually, in bits and pieces over time.
“MAYBE ONE DAY I’LL SIT DOWN AND WRITE A SONG FOR EUROVISION”
“I guess that’s probably another reason why people might think my lyrics are ‘difficult’… some of them probably don’t actually make a huge amount of sense! But it’s honestly not something I really thought about until people started asking me about them… and then it’s quite interesting so see what people make of the songs. Like, a lot of people seem to think they’re quite dark, but I don’t think they are. I mean, my songs are about life, so of course you want some tension in there, some heartache, but I don’t think they’re as dark as people make out.
“Then again, when you’ve got a song called Gallows I guess you’re asking for it! But that came about originally because I was playing around with nursery rhymes. And then when you look at what nursery rhymes are actually about, a lot of them are quite dark.”
So, finally, have you got any advice for aspiring songwriters out there?
“Well, I’m still pretty aspiring myself! But… just write the songs that you’d want to listen to, I guess. Write songs that make you happy. And carry a notebook and write ideas down, because otherwise you’ll lose a lot of them. Write ALL your ideas down, because something you’re not sure about at the time, you might find you want to use later down the line. And basically just enjoy yourself. Hum and sing around the house and see what comes out!
“That said… when you look at the pop charts and the songwriting teams that write the hits… that’s quite a fascinating thing, it’s like they’ve got it down to a science almost. I do find that quite intriguing. So who knows… maybe one day I’ll sit down and write a song for Eurovision or something!”
Liz Green’s album O Devotion! is out now on Play It Again Sam.
Interview by Russell Deeks