More about: Liz Lawrence
Honouring the poetry that goes into songwriting, Close Reading is a series of intimate conversations about all the books, films and thoughts behind some of your favourite songs. Diving into the lyrics and picking apart the lines that make you want to sing along a little louder, Lucy Harbron is sitting down with some of the most exciting songwriters around to hold a magnifying glass up to the lyrical form.
Cutting her teeth touring with an eclectic range of artists from Bombay Bicycle Club to Lucy Dacus, Liz Lawrence is working with an incredible melting pot of influences. With an ever-evolving back catalogue, Liz’s releases span subjects of growing up and love and loss, with her last album Pity Party being an introspective snapshot of her life.
But as the world shut down and she retreated back to her hometown, her upcoming album The Avalanche and recent single 'Where The Bodies Are Buried' look outward for inspiration. Unpicking the fine details, Liz and Lucy discussed female rage and the art of people watching.
So we’ll dive in with 'Where The Bodies Are Buried'. What was the process of writing it? What were you engaging with at the time?
Obviously it was lockdown, and it feels like everyone is avoiding saying it, but you know, everyone wrote their record during lockdown! In Lockdown 1 the energy was quite exotic, I suppose. We were collectively feeling our way through a new moment. There was this heat and tension when the ethos that we were all in it together started to become complete bullshit. Some people are on their private islands, and some people are in a one-bedroom flat with their whole family, and the inequalities became so galling and apparent.
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I think that was the internal conflict, and then the ignition was watching people go out for Black Lives Matter and the way people were pouring out of their houses to express their upset and anger. And I don’t think there’s anything as inspiring or exciting as watching people come together like that for things they want and need.
It definitely has a Lockdown 1 vibe: the way it bounces between upbeat verses into a really dark chorus. It has the energy of when everyone was excited about banana bread while something terrifying was happening.
Yeah! That was the juxtaposition where we were being forced into our domestic spaces entirely, so that character in the verses is one of the 1960s housewife who’s raging with her partner and finding micro-aggressive ways to punish them.
None of us has ever spent as much time at home as we just have. I’m really interested in domestic spaces anyway: I think they’re really overlooked as they’re seen as boring or stock, but a lot of our lives happen in those spaces.
A lot of the scariest horror films are ones that happen in your house, where the film ends and you’re left terrified looking around your living room.
Absolutely! Its riffing off the fact that it’s a place we think we have the most control over, so the idea of being invaded in your space and that horror element is something I’m very interested in.
You labelled it as ‘Carrie meets Corrie’, I love that meeting of domestic drama and actual horror. You can really feel the Carrie imagery with the way cheesy '80s horror movies had no boundary between teens falling in love and going to prom, and total chaos.
And I feel like what’s captured so terrifyingly in the movie is just the power and rage of teenage girls. I rewatched Carrie recently and I think that again teenage girls are another group of people who are entirely underestimated in terms of their internal angst, which links into what 'Down For Fun' is about.
I definitely thought that. The whole song has a hometown, angsty energy, but when I heard the intro specifically I was like oh yeah this sounds like a teenage girl.
I’m very glad to hear you say that 'cause that’s exactly what I was trying to evoke, thinking about the kind of music I’d listen to on the school bus.
What kind of thing would you listen to?
Oh man, I had awful taste in music! I listened to a lot of punk music like the dead kennedys or leftover crack, but also really bad ska music. I remember my mate Joe coming into school and he’d burnt me CDs of St Vincent and LCD Soundsystem and it totally changed my world.
I was a real pleasure seeker when it came to music: I wasn’t really interested in coming across as cool or in the know. When you’re from a small town like I am, you’re very protected from judgement in that you were content to work your way through identities and people would leave you to it. I think there’s something really special in just being like oh I like this music. I want to feel like I’m free to enjoy and do whatever I want next. But no one wants to start a grunge band with me!
You need to go out and put posters up, start a band of angry housewives! If you could put together your dream band, who would be in it?
Drums - Patty Schemel
Bass - Tina Weymouth
Percussion and BVS - Samuel Beckett, Tacita Dean and Thelma and Louise
Guitar - Julia Davis
A lot of this album was recorded in your home studio, so I’m guessing that contributed to the domestic imagery. It all kind of sounds like people watching.
100%, one of the early titles for the album was Fishtank. I was working in the spare bedroom and looking out on this little park and watching the various people that were using it. Sometimes making your window of inspiration quite small is the best thing you can do, so I was just taking their stories and imagining lives. I wanted it to be quite an outward looking record, but weirdly listening back its still inward, it’s my interpretation of things.
I think that’s just the nature of people watching, the stories you come up with always seem to end up as reflections of how you feel at the time.
It’s the extraordinariness of ordinary lives. Thinking about books and stuff, Elizabeth Strout and Alice Munro come to mind. They write about ordinary people in towns but it’s just so magnificent. Sometimes it’s not what you’re saying but how you’re saying it; putting people under the microscope like that and finding huge imagery in one person’s movements always ends up being reflective of all of us, its universal.
I love how you’ve then paired these domestic activities with melodramatic horror imagery in the 'Where The Bodies Are Buried' artwork with the hand reaching out of the dirt.
There’s something really British about it with the Sunday dinner, and the historical way that the meal has maintained as a centre of a lot of families. The images with my head in the mud, that was also inspired by Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. It’s a monologue by a woman and throughout it she gets more and more buried until she’s fully trapped with a gun pointing at her. It’s a bloody good play: I’d recommend it. It’s oppressive isn’t it? The imagery.
Is that where The Avalanche album title came from?
The Avalanche itself was inspired a drawing called The Montafon Letter by Tacita Dean which was inspired by an avalanche that buried a bunch of people, and when a priest went up to officiate he got buried and then unburied by another avalanche. I was really struck by that image and that story of redemption, and the thought of whether the world will let us get away with our behaviour. That’s the overarching question of the record.
There’s also some humour in it, like how ridiculous that story is.
Absolutely, whats not funny about how in control we think we are?
With 'Down For Fun', It reminded me of a score for a horror film, but specifically female-centric horrors like Carrie and Midsommar, where they’re scary but comforting in their female rage. Was there anyone when you were growing up that inspired you to take a more aggressive approach to your music?
When I was growing up, all the bands I would listen to were all men. The only woman I’d listen to was Patti Smith after finding her in my dad’s record collection. I don’t know if I lacked curiousity, but it wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I was introduced to like Hole and Garbage, and suddenly discovered this whole glut of female lead music where there are no expectations of you. Even now, all the music I’m listening to is female lead.
I had the same thing, I went to see Patti Smith and I was so struck by her passion which I think is the thing that’s made me fall for female-made music and art. Cause we might associate men with rock and anger, but female rage is a whole other thing where its impassioned. You can hear it in both 'Where The Bodies Are Buried' and 'Down For Fun', where there’s rage and a clenched fist without it being just loud and aggressive.
I think female rage is really misunderstood and undervalued, but, for me, so understandable! Film and TV are really smashing it at the minute with I May Destroy You and Promising Young Woman, and post-Me Too there seems to be a new wave of female writers and directors coming through and telling stories, usually with a horror element but even a comedy element. It’s always like we’re sort of joking…but are we? It feels like it’s been a long time coming for these stories to be told by the people that understand it best.
I think with [second album] Pity Party, when I listened back with some time, I felt like it lacked the aggression I contain when I perform live and what I want to posture. Sometimes I’m singing about being really pissed off, and that’s cool. Bring it on, more angry women!
It’s like you grow up as a teenage girl, angry cause no one understands you. And suddenly you’re a woman and you’re still angry cause no one seems to understand your experiences.
Yeah, I don’t think there’s a single person that would ever want to go back and be a teenager again. But when you’re a teenager, it’s like a protective bubble of ego is put around you where all you can think about is yourself and your little town to keep you alive in those incredible difficult years where you’re figuring everything out. I really don’t envy teens, but I think there’s a real beauty of it. Every adult is looking at people age 13-17 and sees them, you feel so alone at the time but everyone sees you and understands. I think 'Down For Fun' is me as an adult holding that person.
Liz Lawrence Recommends
To Read - Spring by Ali Smith
Spring is the novel that introduced me to The Montafon Letter by Tacita Dean which is one of central images of the record.
To Watch - Rear Window
Because nothing could be more relatable in lockdown!
New album The Avalanche arrives 17 September via Second Breakfast. Pre-order it here.
More about: Liz Lawrence