Interview: Liz Green
We catch up with Songwriting’s first ever interviewee as her second album of jazz-, blues- and folk-influenced balladry hits stores
early two years ago, when Songwriting was brand new, our very first artist interview was with a young Liverpudlian (but Manchester-based) singer-songwriter who we described as “a genre all on her own”. Big things would soon, we were convinced, beckon for Liz Green, one of the most truly unique-sounding musical talents to emerge out of the UK in recent years.
Well, we were right and we were wrong. Commercial success may have eluded Ms Green so far but critical acclaim certainly hasn’t: these days she’s getting namechecked by everyone from Gilles Peterson to Jo Whiley. Her new single even gets a glowing review on the Leftfield pages of DJ magazine this month.
With second album Haul Away! in shops this week, if you haven’t yet picked up on this incredibly talented songwriter then now’s the time to do so. And in our humble bid to do whatever we can to help matters along, we figured we should get Liz on the phone again…
Thinking about the differences between the new album and O, Devotion! one thing that struck us was that the lyrics are, if anything, even more obtuse. Would you agree that’s the case?
“Not really! But then I don’t like that word, because my Mum used to call me obtuse when I was being annoying. I don’t think the lyrics are dense and impenetrable, no… but then that’s me, I don’t like things that are too obvious.”
Well, take Little Girl Song: we couldn’t decide if that was a really nice love song, or a song about a creepy, stalker guy…
“Neither of the above, really: it’s an anti-love song, about when someone wants you but you want them to go away. But it’s probably about other stuff too… I tend not to ask too many questions if it goes with the music.”
Interesting you say that… a lot of people have told us they feel their lyrics come from somewhere else, somewhere outside of themselves. Is that the case with you?
“No, that doesn’t really happen either. I wish it was that easy… some of these songs have been around since 2007, although not always in the same song. I’ve never written a whole song in one go, I don’t think. I tend to work on songs over a long period of time.
“I do know what the songs are about, but not fully. I discover things when I start playing them… and also sometimes I have a story in mind, but it will blend with other stories I’ve read or seen or heard, so it’s not always easy to box things off. Other things bleed in, and the song sort of becomes more as it goes on.”
“Trying to organise musicians is like herding cats”
Apart from recording the new album, what have you been up to since we last spoke?
“Well, I got a bit bored last year. You see, the way the mechanisms work, people want you to have a new album before you can play. And I like playing music more than the process of making it, really, so I organised my own tour. Early in 2013 there was another trip to Europe, which went terrifically. I went to France and Italy.
“And then yes, there was making the album. It takes ages to make an album, and organise the making of an album… there’s a hell of a lot of admin! That’s the end of being a singer-songwriter that’s not much fun, trying to organise other musicians – it’s like herding cats.”
You worked with pretty much the same people as on O, Devotion!, didn’t you?
“Yes, it’s the same team… it just seemed easier that way. With the last album, it took me a long time to really figure out what I wanted to do, so it didn’t really seem worth spending another four years trying out different things again! It’s another go at the same thing, basically.
“It was all recorded in 12 days, which is about the same as the last one. Liam, my producer, likes to work to a definite clock: we do eight-hour days. Which is good, because you’ve just got to get it done. Pretty much everything on this album is live, with the whole band playing in the studio together… which is much more fun! There’s a lot to be said for other ways of working as well, of course, but that works for me.”
So will you stick to the ‘live in the studio’ methodology going forward?
“Not necessarily. I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest. I mean, I didn’t even know for sure that I’d ever get the chance to make a second album; I certainly don’t have any fixed ideas about how I’m going to do album number seven.”
What if you hadn’t had the chance to do a second album: would you still be songwriting anyway? Lots of people tell us it’s something they have to do…
“Well, I do write constantly. I’ve just been sat at the piano before you called, playing some chords I haven’t played before. But I wouldn’t say it’s a case of having to, it just happens. Then again, I I don’t feel very happy if I don’t write, I must admit. I get a bit itchy.
“I’ve got absolutely loads of half-finished things, things that are waiting to be revisited. I tend to leave things in a drawer for about five years, and if it still sounds good five years later then it’s worth revisiting!”
You write all your own material at the moment… have you ever considered writing with other people, or been approached to write with other people?
“No, I’ve pretty much never written with anyone else. Obviously I play with my friends in the band and they chip in ideas, but I pretty much come with a tune, a melody and a lyric and with the band it’s just a case of working out the arrangement.
“No-one’s asked me to write with them either. I think I’d actually find it quite intimidating writing with someone else, it’s a very personal thing and I’m quite shy. I don’t really feel confident enough in my own abilities to really want to lend them to anyone else!”
Are you still doing the puppetry in your live shows?
“Actually, it comes up more in interviews more than it ever does at gigs! I do it when I feel like it, basically. The birds are retiring though, I think… I’ve been doing them for five years now. And now that more people in the band are swapping between piano and guitar, the stage is quite crowded enough as it is.
“Oh, that’s another thing I did since we last spoke, though… I judged a puppetry competition! A friend of a friend had seen my videos, so I got invited to the Czech Republic to be a judge. And for the next video, for Rybka, there’s a puppetry video too, so the puppets haven’t vanished completely.”
“I don’t make clever music, I make emotional music”
Ah yes, Rybka… were were struck by the fact there are songs called Rybka and Bikya, which are nearly anagrams of each other. Does that signify something?
“No, nothing like that! Nothing clever: I don’t make clever music, I make emotional music. With Rybka, it means ‘little fish’ in Polish, and I just thought it made a better title than Little Fish. Plus it goes with the Eastern European drunken brass element in the music.
“As for Bikya, that’s the name of a dead language. I did half a year of an English degree and I used to read a lot about communication. And I was reading about lost languages, and Bikya was one of them. Apparently they found this 87-year-old woman talking to herself, and she was the last person who could speak it… it’s a southern Bantoid language that used to be spoken in Cameroon. And it just got tacked on as a title for that song at the end because I didn’t have one.
“That was quite a recent song, actually – one of ones I wrote in the van on the way to a recording session while everyone else was listening to Black Sabbath.”
Do you have a standard way of approaching writing a song? Do you generally come at it lyrics first, or melody first?
“All of the above! It can start with a melody, a phrase, a title, an idea… but I guess mostly I play a melody and words come out, and I write them down before they disappear again. It’s like, “I’ll have that please”. But to be honest, because I write on my own, I’m not always really aware of where it all comes from. It just happens, really.
“I’m just looking at the tracklist for the album now, to try and remember where songs came from, and it’s just dawned on me that Empty Handed Blues was also the title of a song on one of my very first demos. I’ve only just realised! So I’ve basically written it twice…”
Speaking of which… the language in that song is quite old-fashioned, with all its “I would this” and “I would that”. Is that deliberate?
“Is it old-fashioned? I think it’s more just that sometimes I might adopt a strange turn of phrase because I like the sound of it. It is more of an olde worlde type of song, though, so I guess that makes sense. But as I say, it’s more about the sound of the words sometimes. That’s why I’m drawn to poetry: I like the way that poetry doesn’t have to be ‘real’ language.”
Let’s talk about the future. We’ve said several times that we’re baffled you’re not a much bigger star by now. Do you find that frustrating?
“Well, it’s very kind of you to think that! I actually feel very lucky because what I’ve realised is that what I do, the songs I write and the music I make, it is a bit weird, but I’ve had the support of an amazing record company and publisher. Other friends I know who are musicians haven’t had the same good fortune. This can be quite a terrifying business, but PIAS have literally given me the freedom to do whatever I want. Which is probably a terrible mistake on their part!”
“PIAS have given me the freedom to do whatever I want”
So do you ever wish you were better known? Would you fancy a go at pop stardom?
“Pop stardom? Erm… no. Erm… no! It’s quite a strange world out there, in that kind of stratosphere. Fame is quite odd, I think – I mean, I wouldn’t like not to be able to go to the shops. I did actually get recognised once – just the once, mind – in Manchester. Which was quite nice, in a way, but quite weird as well. This guy was like, “You’re Liz Green!” and I was like, “Yes, I am”. What else are you supposed to say?
“I dunno, I like where I am, and I’d like to be able to continue doing what I’m doing. After the first album, I just wanted to do a second one. Now I just want to do a third one. And scoring a film would be good… and one day I’d like to write a musical as well!”
Last time we spoke, you told us you fancied writing a Eurovision hit…
“Oh, yes, that as well! I love pop music. I wouldn’t want the lifestyle of a pop artist, but I’ve love to write pop hits. I think my songwriting’s a bit too weird for that at the moment, though. I’d need some training.”
What about the other way around: have you ever been offered anyone else’s songs to sing?
“No, never… they probably just don’t bother trying. A friend did write a song for me once, though, which I sang once or twice. I think they eventually recorded it with their own band. Oh, that reminds me! I did write with someone else once: I wrote a song with a French dance producer called Villeneuve. In fact we did two songs together… I really enjoyed that.”
Is that an avenue you’ve ever considered exploring more: your voice with programmed beats?
“I just wouldn’t know where to start, that’s the problem! I basically work with my friends, who are all live musicians, and I do love playing live, but if an offer came in I’d certainly consider it – I kind of fancy having an electronic side project. So yeah, I’d have a go. It’s just that I’m very, very slow at doing stuff… and there’s definitely at least one more album in the current vein before I start thinking about anything else.
“The next one might be a bit more depressing, though. This time I was definitely out to do something more upbeat and cheerful… that’s why it’s got pianos on it.”
Interview: Russell Deeks
Haul Away is out on PIAS on 14 April. To find out more about Liz Green, visit her website. Below, you can watch the video to Rybka.