Lizzie No: Harp strings and guitars

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Photo by Gabriel Davis Barreto

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 10 – Winter 2019 – Acoustic Artists

Since releasing her debut album in 2017, Lizzie No has been making a name for herself as a rising star in the contemporary folk music scene. On August 2, 2019, No released her follow-up album Vanity. Her music is best described as a breath of life. It is a breath that draws on every possible musical element that exists today. The result is pure melodic joy.

Recently, we caught up with No to talk about her time at AMERICANAFEST 2019, the classical arrangements of her songs, and how playing the harp differs from a guitar.

You played at AmericanaFest at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge on September 4. How did that go?
It was such a dream. It started just from an idea, because I was, of course, planning to go to AmericanaFest. I began to see all the posters for cool after-parties and little showcases go up. I was feeling in some way about the fact that there wasn’t a black artist-focused party or even any parties with a significant number of black artists. So I was like, “Why don’t I just do something myself?” I called a few friends and called a couple of artists that I didn’t know personally, but I’d heard their music. So we ended up having a little shindig with Sunny War, Nicole & Rose, Tré Burt, and myself, and it was so much fun. It just felt like a little party of you and your friends picking up the guitar in the living room. It was so much fun.

How was the audience turn out?
It was great. Dee’s is a really cool spot. I hadn’t been there before, but I’d heard really good things about it. Everyone was super warm and welcoming. It was very low key.

You also did other shows at AMERICANAFEST.
Yeah, I did. We had our official showcase at the True Music Room the night before, which was so much fun. It’s always crazy to play AMERICANAFEST, because you hear about it, you hear about it for years, and so many artists that I admire have gone through that festival. So it was just very cool to be playing the official festival as well.

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So getting to your music style, it’s been described as neo-folk, but I’m kind of curious as to how you would describe it.

Oh, that’s a good question. Normally I get really mealy-mouthed when people ask me what type of music I play. I go with Americana because I like having the broadest possible terms. For what I’m making, I think of it as country music or sometimes as folk music. But I want to have the freedom to write a pop song if I want to and write a rock song if I want to and to still have it all under the same umbrella. So I feel like Americana is a really good catch-all for all of those American genres that bleed into each other in my music.

There have also been classical arrangements done of your songs. How did that translation work?
That was one of the coolest moments. I’ve done two of those shows: one with the Louisville Orchestra in Louisville, Kentucky, and one with the Downtown Chamber Series in Phoenix. So that was just with a four-piece chamber group.

I have to give credit to the amazing arranger, Sebastian Chang, who I think just really got my music, especially my first album, which had some built out string arrangements that my friend Pat Kennedy wrote. On the original record, there were some string parts, but then when I started talking to the Louisville Orchestra about coming down to do that performance, Sebastian Chang just took the recordings and ran with it. He wrote these amazing cinematic arrangements for the full orchestra. And then he was able to fluently translate them into the four-piece chamber group. I feel like those arrangements just really brought out this sort of storytelling quality in the songs that I hadn’t even heard myself until I listened to his arrangements of it. So those were some really special shows, but I got to play.

Thinking of the story element to your music, Vanity came out in August, and it seems like it’s very much a story about the downside of fame. I’m just curious about what made you want to focus on that kind of theme.
I started thinking and meditating a lot on ego, and I learned about a Zen understanding of the ego. There’s the self, but then there’s also the self-concept that’s separate. You have a soul, but you also have your idea of yourself and the stories that you tell about yourself and that they’re not necessarily the exact same thing. That ego can both be a positive thing and a negative thing. You can be really confident and really full of yourself, and that’s what we normally think of as ego. But self-pity and self-doubt are also part of the ego because they have everything to do with the stories that we tell about ourselves. So I kind of got fascinated with all of the different characters that we end up playing when we tell ourselves certain stories about our lives. Some days I’m the confident person on stage; some days, I’m a struggling songwriter that feels resentful that I haven’t had the same success someone else had. And there’s everything in between. It is being different characters of different voices. So the nine songs have a slightly different voice because they’re a different character, but that is ultimately me.

So you draw on a lot on a kind of narrative or a character-driven element.
A little bit. Yeah, I mean, some of it was going through my journals and seeing different sides of myself that can come out day by day. Then some songs like “Narcissus” I drew on a classical Greek myth and tried to see how it could be contemporary.

How is the reception been around the album?
It’s been above and beyond. People really surprise you, and it can be easy to get tunnel vision when you’re recording an album and thinking about your interpretation of it. But then once it’s out and it stops being about you and it starts being about what other people think, I find that to be a really graceful moment where it’s not about me anymore. I have to have the humility to listen to other people’s opinions, and often people pick up on things that I might not have noticed. Or people will let me know that a particular song really spoke to them or that this lyric stood out to them. That’s just something that really blows me away.

A lot of people have told me that the song “Pity Party” is something that’s encouraged them. I had a friend tell me that the song “Born and Bred” reminds her a lot of her mom, and that just made me laugh because that song is kind of kooky.

Do you find having a receptive response from your audience helps you when you’re writing afterward?
Yeah, I mean, it’s just encouraging. I try not to take any particular requests or critiques too seriously. I do my own thing, no matter what. But I have moments with these songs where I’m like, “Is anyone going to like it? Is anyone going to care that I’m putting this out?” Then I have people come back and say like, “Oh yeah, ‘Narcissus’ is my breakup song. That’s my anthem right now.” It’s just a reminder of keep doing it. And even if I’m not sure how something is going to be received, if I’m vibing with it and it feels good to me, I have to have faith that it’s going to touch somebody else as well.

Your music is a mix of classical with contemporary. As a multi-instrumentalist playing guitar and harp, what role does the harp play in informing your songwriting?
Everything that I do is instinctive. There is a certain feeling that you have playing the harp that you don’t have playing the guitar or piano. There’s a way that you hold the harp and that the harp holds to you that I feel informs my songwriting. Sometimes I’ll just be playing around on the harp, trying out different riffs, and it leads to a certain kind of contemplative songwriting that I think informs my music. I can’t say whether it’s classically influenced or more instinctively influenced, but I think it’s just the practice and the playing of the harp, and the way that the sound of the harp just surrounds you when you’re playing. You can really hear that on a song like “Labor Day” because it just comes from this moment of life, of clutching the harp, and hearing the way that it sounds against my body. It makes me sing in a sort of restrained way because the harp is so quiet. So a certain kind of song gets written on the harp that I don’t think can be written on the guitar.

Speaking of guitars, what type of guitars do you have, and which ones do you prefer playing the most?
My main guitar is my beautiful Gibson. It’s just one of the small jumbos in walnut, and it’s like the greatest asset I could have. I won it from American Songwriter Magazine before I even knew how to play guitar. It was my kick-in-the-ass to start learning to play. That’s the guitar that I travel with everywhere that I go; it’s the guitar that I perform on. It has this huge, warm voice that has really shaped the way that I sing and in the way that I perform my songs. Then the guitars that I play most often at home are these custom guitars that my Uncle Tom makes. They’re called Graham guitars, his name is Tom Graham, and they’re the exact opposite of the Gibson. They’re super light, really wide-necked nylon string guitars that I’ve practiced on, and done some of songwriting. I love the guitars because playing them feels a little bit like playing the harp. The sound is really light and kind of floats out of the guitar, and the feel of the nylon is just like harp strings.

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Samantha Stevens has been singing along with the radio for as long as she can remember. Guided by a love for music, she spent the better part of her childhood performing in classical and contemporary choirs. But straight out of high school, she decided that she wanted to see the world, and so she did what any young adventurer would do…she joined the navy. An entire world of sounds, music, and stories opened up to her, and she found herself inspired by it all. In 2015, she retired from the Royal Canadian Navy after over a decade of service. Since then she has achieved a BA in literature, will soon have an MA in journalism, and is even a trained journalist and reporter. Currently living near Montreal, Quebec, Canada, Samantha has written for a wide variety of publications including Spill Magazine, Stereo Embers Magazine, and the North Bay Nugget. She still sings for the sheer joy of it.

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