Country Universe spoke with Lizzie No in advance of the “Niagara” video premiere.
Country Universe: The video for “Niagara” really captures how New York City can be lonely and quite isolated in many ways.
Lizzie No: It’s always portrayed as this bustling Midtown thing. But the farther out you go from that, the more it’s like this sort of Royal Tenenbaums, quirky, quiet, slightly spooky city.
CU: You can walk down these streets with all of these buildings and cars parked everywhere, but you never see a soul.
Lizzie No: I think about that all the time. I don’t understand how it works, having a car here. I just, there, every space is always taken, but you never really see anyone except on the street cleaning days. There’s something really beautiful about the street cleaning days where you see everyone like sitting in their car, reading a book, waiting for the cleaners to go by.
CU: Let’s talk about Holidays, your recent EP. There’s a real intimacy and quietness to the three tracks on Holiday. There’s a loneliness to this EP that resonated with me, like “this is how the holidays really feel.” How did the EP come together during a pandemic?
Lizzie No: It was definitely a different process than an album process. Because when I’m writing an album, it’s different every time, but in some way you feel like you’re trying to write about, “Who am I in this moment? And with this EP, I took the pressure off and kind of told myself, this doesn’t have to be about you. This can be about a topic. I just chose a little concept.
I don’t know why, over the years, I’ve just gotten to be such a Grinch about the holidays, birthdays and Christmas, because it it feels so lonely to be someone who has depression and can be anxious around other people at these moments where you’re sort of required to be cheerful. So I decided to write about it and take a few different angles on that alienated feeling, which is I think why the video felt really appropriate. Because it is all about loneliness. So the writing process was really different for me. I felt like I could really hone in on these little moments and almost treat them like scenes from a play.
CU: The lyrical imagery is, is really vivid. You’re one of those writers that makes me do a double and triple take when I hear certain lines. On “Birthday Party,” you use that image of picking everything up the morning after the party, and the sun is coming through the window and hitting the glitter on your clothes. I don’t want to make everything about New York, but you capture what a birthday party is like here, with everybody in these tiny apartments and you have to walk through them just to get to the bathroom. You capture that feeling of wanting to avoid those interactions, but also wanting to make a connection with someone at the same time. It’s like listening in on the inner monologue of an introvert.
Lizzie No: Absolutely, because you go back and forth. The funny thing about parties and holidays, even as a self-proclaimed Grinch, is you complain, and you worry about what you’re going to wear and what you’re going to say to people, how to interact and how to be a person among other people. But at the same time, you don’t want to sit home alone. Like you’re there, you’re trying. And there are moments where you get to bond with people over the length of the bathroom line, or you both liking the same song. So it’s like this feeling of anxiety that sometimes gets punctuated with connection. It’s never exactly just one thing at a time when it comes to having a full emotional experience, especially when strangers are involved.
CU: “Niagara,” if I’m understanding it correctly, seems to be about sort of the early morning hours of New Year’s Day, where nobody else seems to be around and it doesn’t really feel like a new beginning.
Lizzie No: You’re still probably hung over and a little sweaty. And you’re reflecting on the very grand resolutions you made the night before. And kind of looking around and thinking, “Okay, is the world still there?” I started writing that song in the bathtub around New Year’s, and just feeling the echoes of the bathroom really made me think about how we’re in space, and how New Year’s Day is one of those times when we acknowledge how we’re rotating around the sun, and the cycles and schedules of things, and how that can feel really big and really small. Like we as a planet, we are circling on a particular schedule, but human beings also have cycles within us, and New Year’s represents both of those at the same time.
CU: On “Scared,” you have this moment where you see a cockroach and you’re just like, hopefully he’ll let himself out.
Lizzie No: I don’t have to confront this! As you can imagine, that lyric really came from real life.
CU: I could absolutely imagine. What is with the coyote at the top of the stairs?
Lizzie No: You know, what’s funny is that I when I started writing that song, for some reason I just felt like it wasn’t enough to talk about my specific phobias. I turned to Instagram and I posted, “I’m writing a song, DM me if you’re willing to tell me, what’s your greatest fear?” And people sent me so many different ideas – spiders, public speaking, like everything you can think of. And someone told me that they have a recurring dream that there’s a coyote in their house, at the top of the stairs, waiting to get them. So that I can take no credit for, other than the fact that I loved the image and had to steal it.
CU: Yeah. I think I’d take my chances with the cockroach.
Lizzie No: Yeah, exactly. Like it’s so dark, and this predator just is just standing in the doorway or standing on the stairs, waiting to just pounce. I mean, that’s why we have door. That’s why we have locks. So the outside things can’t come in. I feel that way about cockroaches also. You’re supposed to be out there, but you’re in here and it shows how little control I have.
CU: You talked before about when you’re making an album, you’re releasing a snapshot of “who I am” at that given moment. With making an EP on this theme, how did you know that it was complete?
Lizzie No: I think because it was a theme, it gave me the freedom to be like, “don’t overdo it.” This is a mini-topic, and each song musically has its own thing to say. And I just felt like I didn’t need any more than that. There’s this sort of tenderness of “Scared,” which is really a love song. And “Birthday Party” is kind of a party song. And “Niagara” is a personal reflection.
That’s what I felt like I had to give to the topic. It’s a good to sometimes feel like you don’t have to do everything. You don’t have to cover every single angle. Just give enough that people might be able to see a little bit of themselves in it, and that you see a little bit of yourself in it. And then let it go.
CU: You know, you just said out loud what I was afraid to say – ironically, because the song is called “Scared” – but it is a love song. The beauty of it is that the fears are here if I don’t have you with me. I immediately thought of those moments of separation from the person who makes you feel like, “Alright. I can handle this if you’re here.”
Lizzie No: When you’re going through things alone, it makes it so much worse. Like I always think about how, if you just trip and fall – like in a movie scene, a banana peel trip – fall on your face, we’ve all done it. It feels extra humiliating if no one who’s on your side sees it. If you’re just by yourself and you fall, you have to kind of dust yourself off. But if you have a friend there, even if they laugh at you, it feels better to be like, “Oh, you saw that, too. Yeah. You saw me get hurt and you see that I’m okay.” Now there’s a little more dignity in that to me.
CU: How has this whole past year impacted your interaction with your audience, with not being able to really perform live music and get that feedback? Are you someone who usually tests your material out with an audience before recording it?
Lizzie No: Absolutely. And that’s one of the weirdest things about this EP and new songs that I’m working on now. For both of my full length albums, almost every song had been performed live. And not only that, but performed live in multiple different arrangements. Like I play solo shows. I play shows as a duet with just myself and my guitar player, Graham Richman. I sometimes play full band shows with a four piece. So almost all of my songs get road tested in all of those combinations. And so you get a sense of, “what are the emotional highs and lows of the song? What are some things that need to get honed in the studio? What do people react to the most?” So it’s a little bit scary to release music without having that perspective yet and having the confidence that comes with it.
It’s like if you put on an outfit and you don’t look in a full length mirror, and then you step out the door, you kind of just have to trust that things fit the way you thought they did in your mind. And that was definitely the experience with this EP. In an emotional sense, I also just miss being with people and the conversations that you have after the show and the feedback that you get, it’s all so helpful. Even though it can be overwhelming at times because I am an introvert, so it can be hard for me to be out sharing of myself and then interacting with a bunch of people. But I’m realizing now how much I miss it and how much I gained from that.
But I would say that the one unexpected positive is that people have really been willing to be open and vulnerable online in a way that I have not experienced before. Over the past year, my manager and I launched this Ampled page and it’s subscriber only. So I post YouTube videos on there and demos of things. People will get to hear my releases early on, on that website. The comments that people share about how they heard a song and how it impacted their day to day, and what they’re going through in the pandemic – that has been a real lifeline. I don’t think of myself as someone that’s like particularly tech savvy or online with a capital “O.” But having online subscribers who regularly interact with me and remind me that people are still listening, and people still care, that has been pretty wild and really reassuring.
CU: That’s really powerful. This last year was quiet in many ways, and allowed for people to interact with music in a way that they normally wouldn’t.
Lizzie No: A lot of the pretense is stripped away. ‘Cause it’s not just a night out, like any old night out. If you’re watching a live stream or you’re subscribing to someone on Patreon or Ampled, you are deliberately seeking out that music, and it’s this one-on-one thing that I’ve never experienced before.
CU: I always liked like to ask about influences and inspirations. They’re two things I noticed artists usually love to talk about. “his is the stuff that made me want to write songs. This is the stuff that gave me the courage to pick up that guitar.” And also, I’d love to hear about what’s inspiring you right now. So what you are your favorite songs, albums, or artists that made you decide you were going to do this?
Lizzie No: I feel like in those really tender high school days, where you’re really getting your influences, I was listening to like Tracy Chapman, Brandi Carlile, The Indigo girls, Elliot Smith. Those were like my big early influences.
I remember when I had an internship in college. I don’t remember what I was doing on the particular day, but I was working on voter behavior research, and I had a YouTube window on my computer. I opened up like the the music video that Brandi Carlile did for “Dying Day,” which is such a great song. And there’s so much reaching and angst in it, and passion in it. And the video was just tour clips of her and her band. And I was like, “Okay, I got to do that. This is for me.”
CU: One of my favorite things of the Grammys this week was Brandi Carlile and the Highwomen winning.
Lizzie No: Speaking of what excites me in music today, that whole album is phenomenal. So good. I think “Loose Change” is my favorite song from that album.
CU: That’s a really good one! What else should the Country Universe readers check out that they’re not going to hear on the radio or from crusty old dudes writing in magazines?
Lizzie No: I’m opening up my Spotify to see what I’ve been listening to. I listened to a lot of Dori Freeman, Beth Bombara, Lilly Hiatt, Kaia Kater. Of course, the Courtney Marie Andrews album is super acclaimed this year. I especially like female songwriters. That’s my comfort food.
CU: I grew up in that era which felt at the moment, like it was an arrival. Female artists worked their way up, and now they’re here. Even in country music. There was a narrative of, “We got there. We’re here to stay.” And then…
Lizzie No: We’ve taken 10 steps back from that.
I love that country song [by] Lauren Alaina. “Ladies in the Nineties.” It’s very sweet and it’s super fun, but it also really makes me think. Because it’s so strange to listen to a song that’s about nostalgia, but we rarely think about equality as something to look back on.
But when it comes to gender equity on the radio, we really have gone in the wrong direction. And we want to get at least back to that.
CU: I wonder what you think about how things are today, with the gatekeepers keeping more people out than ever, but also there being more ways to get music directly to an audience. What’s the sense of community among these artists who are supporting each other in doing it this way, and sort of bypassing or disregarding those gatekeepers?
Lizzie No: I think it’s complicated because this is just my experience. The way it seems is that if you want to sing mainstream country music, capital C, it’s still kind of scary and inaccessible, and you still have to get permission in a way. Of course you don’t need permission to be an artist or write songs or jump up at an open mic. But if you want to get a country album made and go on tour, you still have to get permission from the powers that be You have to get a label behind you and at least some radio support.
In Americana, on the other hand, there’s still some like networking to do – it’s the music industry, like anything else – but there’s a little bit more wiggle room to be different and make records independently with a smaller budget. You can throw together some more rough and ready tours. There are just these little cracks in the door in the alternative space that I feel like are harder to find in a mainstream genre.
So I feel really grateful that because no one got me started, so no one can tell me what to make. You know, if you start making your own records and writing your own songs, and no one is funding you from the beginning, you have a lot more latitude to do what you want and cultivate the kind of audience that you want, based on what you want to make.
CU: Recently, Mickey Guyton reflected that she’s been really pushing to try and support other artists. And she had a moment where she wondered if she was “leading them into the lion’s den,” like she was worrying if she wanted to put them through what she’s been going through.
Lizzie No: I think it’s an open question. I think she’s really brave to actually ask that particular question, because it has to do with what power and capital due to art. I just think that the more top-down an industry is, the more abuse is going to happen. That’s just how it’s going to be. If you put power and access in the hands of a few people and leave it up to them to dole it out there, those people are going to have biases and their own agendas that are going to harm up and coming artists. And Mickey is an amazing example of someone who has persevered through all of that, but we shouldn’t have to. Like, you shouldn’t have to be so freaking tough to be a singer-songwriter. You just really shouldn’t.
You should have to be talented and hardworking and willing to do what it takes. But you shouldn’t have to go through abuse and doors slammed in your face for no reason. Currying the favor of people who don’t respect you – that shouldn’t be part of it. We shouldn’t have to go through so much. And I think there’s this narrative of the starving artist and how, especially female artists have to put up with all kinds of horrible behavior. It’s like we get lionized for doing that. “Isn’t it so great that Mickey was able to be the first this or that,” but we shouldn’t still be on the first. We shouldn’t still be putting up with this with this behavior by now.
It’s hard enough to write good music. It’s hard enough to create work that people will resonate with. You shouldn’t have to have a side job of dealing with racism. That’s just such a waste of time, and it takes away time that you could be in the studio.
CU: Going back to the video, it was so New York. I really want to hank you for planting that flag, that you can do Americana, folk, country on the upper West side of Manhattan with as much authenticity as anywhere else in the country.
Lizzie No: I’ve got respect for every region of this country. And it’s so fun to go on tour, but there’s nothing more American about living on a farm than there is about living in a city. They’re all part of it.
CU: I think the biggest problem going on in country music right now is that it’s not even about musicality with fiddle and steel , it’s just about identity. “We’re from a small town.”
Lizzie No: And a lot of times that’s not even authentic to the artists that are singing about it. Truth be told like it, I sort of laugh at a lot of the posturing that happens where people are like, sort of in like doing cowboy cosplay when like you live in Nashville. “I have to pretend to be a farmer to make good music.”
You can check out the CU premiere of her video, “Niagara,” here.