With Hard Won, Brooklyn’s Lizzie No has picked up the musical baton of greats like Linda Thompson and Sandy Denny, spread it thick with a shadowy relevance born of her New York background, and unleashed what amounts to a new sub-genre of folk with a country tinge. It is perhaps surprising that, at least musically, Lizzie has more in common with her British counterparts than her more docile Bowery relatives such as Joan Baez, but a shimmering voice reminiscent of those heady folk revival days of Fairport Convention is a lasting impression throughout.
Lizzie comes from a church choir background and plays concert harp, but says she found an outlet for her more dangerous emotions through folk music, finally realising, “that it was ok to get mad and actually have anger be a tool for healing rather than something that’s scary”. Her lyrical talents have found a focal point with Hard Won, those warm and unrestrained vocals straight away at odds with the opaque but profoundly symbolic vision of opening track Crying Wolf, which explores the dark side of creating a name for yourself amongst the midnight speculators while taking tickets at the door, “I feel madness creeping like a night sweat/Now my legs are tired, walking with the spirits”. At this point a mention goes out to the band, an extensive collection of musicians including Bryan Percivall on guitar and Lavondo Thomas on bass, all of them adept at their trade and also at Lizzie’s – that is to say that, with the help of producer Jared Paul, this is a team skilled at playing to Lizzie’s strengths.
The Mountaineer changes the dynamic, the harp providing the background in an echo-laden ballad about new horizons with cello and piano arrangements emphasising the appropriate points. The country twang is provided by Graham Richman on lap steel, David Rabinovitz on harmonica and Frederique Gnaman on fiddle, but the voice of Lizzie is the real instrument being showcased here. The first single Outlaws is attracting lots of attention as the winner of the American Songwriter Lyrics Contest, poking fun at the modern outlaw urban myth to a smooth country backbeat, while The Killing Season is borne of last year’s black protest demonstrations and subsequent police brutality, full of beautiful and tragic lyrics: “You were one of the pure of heart but it didn’t help you none/There’s no telling our shapes apart when the killing season comes” Title track and album closer Hard Won is the peak of Lizzie’s triumph, a moment of unreserved justification for all the hard and lonely times, captured with a finesse hard to lay down with mere words, the pinnacle of a fine body of work and a marker laid down that the future of Americana folk is healthy and diverse.
As a black artist from New York, Lizzie discovered folk music through Bob Dylan, not making the connection to the African-American folk movement. Perhaps the blend of cultures is among the reasons she is so original. Perhaps this lack of knowledge at the beginning of her career will be the biggest blessing it will ever receive. Or perhaps Lizzie No is just an exceptionally talented artist with a gift for making an age-old music sound fresh and relevant again.