Interview: Lizzie No on “Halfsies”

Credit: Cole Nielson

Looking into your own history to understand pain without a reference.

Lizzie No brings a new take to country and folk music that reflects her view of where American society should be. Not only is she one of the new breed of black artists who are reclaiming the black heritage of country music, she also has very clear views on how society should work. Her new album ‘Halfsies’ has been attracting a lot of attention, particularly around its use of a video game concept to tell Lizzie No’s story. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Lizzie No in London over Zoom to discuss the concept that is at the heart of ‘Halfsies’ and how black artists are taking back country music. She also explains how she sees freedom in a society where everyone believes in different versions of that right. It is the storytelling that is such a key part of country and folk music that is the main attraction for this New Yorker, and she also explains that she believes country music is part of the shared experience of every American, it is in everybody’s musical DNA, no matter where they were born or whatever their background. Finally, she admits it is her nosiness that makes her Basic Folk podcast so much fun for her as she explores other artist’s music and views.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m staying with a friend here in London while I’m here for the Americana UK Music Week & Awards. I got in last night and only got up at 2pm.

You don’t seem to take the easy way out. How easy was it to come up with the concept behind ‘Halfsies’ and deliver it coherently?

It is such a winding answer, obviously, because it is a very personal record to me, it is a political record for me, and it took me to new places in my imagination. I think that’s why I settled on the video game concept because there are albums that I listen to where you go this is a play, or this is like a novel, and you picture it as a live show, and with ‘Halfsies’ I wanted it to be an immersive experience of empathy. Writing the songs I felt it was time to get deeper into my own personal life, not in terms of writing down everybody who ever wronged me but let’s think about why my brain does the things that it does, reflecting a little bit on the ten years I’ve been on the road as a touring musician, how does where I’m coming from influence where I’m showing up in the world now, these broad questions. Also, as I was writing these songs I was dealing with undiagnosed PTSD so I would be trying to write about a moment from my own memories and I would hit a wall and go I don’t actually remember any of that. That’s reflected in songs like ‘Lagunita’  and ‘Halfsies’  and that’s where the concept comes from and I used the phrase “pain without a reference”, it’s about feeling you’re living with the consequences of the actions from the past. That’s also how it feels to be living in America right now, our society is crumbling in a lot of ways and we are dealing with the violence and reverberations of events that happened hundreds of years ago. A lot of people don’t want to talk about it because slavery was a long time ago and these wars were a long time ago, but we are still very much living in the reality of that aftermath. I feel that personally and on a community scale, so I wanted to make an album that was about how it felt for one person to try and get free of the past, and hopefully, it would be a hint of what it might feel like for all of us.

Freedom is important to you, it’s important to the album, but it is also important to every American no matter what their political leanings. What’s your take on freedom from the complete American perspective?

I’m a communist, so I find the American dream of freedom very delusional. For me, it’s more like the Rastafarian sense of freeing yourself from mental slavery so you can have the ability to join with others in creating a safe, healthy and sustainable community. Freedom is very collective for me, and I think in the US we have this very individualised sense, even liberals have an individualised sense of freedom. You will hear a lot of liberal feminists saying “Just go to therapy and work on yourself, and self-care.”, and those are great things but they don’t get us free if they are not coupled with societal-level change, and being arm in arm with your neighbours. So for me, freedom is feeling safe in my neighbourhood, not being subject to violence or poverty, having the basic resources to live a healthy life and make my own choices, and for my neighbours to have the same. So it’s like that inside outside, outside inside, these sort of things.

Once you have the songs and the concept, how easy was it to record ‘Halfsies’?

Not easy at all. I started writing in earnest in 2019, and by the spring of 2020 I had a collection of songs that I felt ready to record but by then nobody could do anything, and I wasn’t sure there would be a music industry left. My manager at the time lived in Harlem,  and he, his wife and I became like a quarantine bubble, they were the only people I saw in early 2020. I would go over to their place and they set up a makeshift recording studio in their bedroom closet, and that’s where I recorded most of the original demos. There is one song where I kept the audio from those original sessions, which is ‘Morning Dove Waltz’ and you can hear the car horns and street noise, and I kind of left that in there as a memento of that time. In 2021 when things began to open up I went down to Nashville to the Bomb Shelter to record some drums, guitars and bass, and then we finished up the record at the Reservoir in Manhattan. It is such a gorgeous studio, and that’s where we were able to flesh out the strings and vocal arrangements, and stuff like that.

What did the Attacca Quartet bring to the recording of the new record?

I’ve wanted to work with them for years, they are so incredible. Once you get them in the room it’s very easy to work with them because they are very creative, and for me, they are what is happening in new classical music. This means they have a deep knowledge of the classics, and they’re not afraid to do weird things and make weird noises that tell a story. That’s definitely what we leaned into on the title track. The producer, Graham Richman was like, there’s a few bars where I’m not going to write anything, so make as much noise as possible, and they were like, we’re done. We got that cacophony that really makes that tune what it is.

You do mix things up on the record, how much was that you and how much was it other people in the room?

That is me 100%, and I would say left to my own devices the record would have been even more different. I love the record we made, and I was always pushing to have each song extremely different from the last. For me it’s a challenge, the challenge is to keep the storytelling consistent, without compromising the individuality of each arrangement. There were moments when people on my team were like, maybe you should leave this one out or we’re not sure if this one fits, and I was like, no, I want them all on the record. I tried to make it in the sequencing, but yeah, there were times when I lay awake thinking am I going to put ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘Morning Dove Waltz’ on the same album because they don’t quite fit, but ultimately I think they do because they are all about the same story, just different moments in the journey.

Allison Russell is on the new album, how much of an inspiration is Allison Russell to you as a musician?

Oh man, Allison is an example in the way she lives her life and communicates her story to the world, but also just listening to her music. She is a great innovator on how to use strings in a live setting in this americana space, and that is something I definitely look to her for. Also, just how embodied she is on stage, I got the chance to open for her a couple of years ago and she was just so kind to everyone, and she brings a lot of herself to her live show which is really humbling to witness. She is touring a lot and she is really public facing, and sometimes I tend to be a little more shy, so to see her being so fearless helps me push myself.

Who do you think the audience is for ‘Halfsies’?

I concentrated on the album itself. There were moments about halfway through, and it plays to your point about all the songs being different, where I was thinking it’s going to maybe be a country album and then it was maybe going to be an indie album, is it a rock album. I just kept going back and forth, maybe I should lean into the country bluegrass audience, maybe I should market it as an indie album but non of it felt right. So, I just gave up and decided that was somebody else’s problem, and luckily I have a great management team who were able to identify record labels who could appreciate the diversity of my influences. I think people who have been listening to my previous albums already know what to expect, which is I’m going to try a little bit of everything, and we went further with that on this album. So, we just had to hope that people would get the storytelling, and just accept all the various genres that come with that.

What draws you to country music?

I think that is a really interesting question and I get it a lot. I think that people in other genres don’t get this question, country music is this weird pocket in the music industry where we expect people to have geographic and personal origins that transcend choice and learning. I wouldn’t expect a jazz musician to have to be from New Orleans, for example, but in country music, there is this focus on where are you from specifically. I feel that as an American, folk and country music are part of my musical DNA, no matter what I choose to do as an artist. So, I’ve always been drawn to the storytelling in country music and the harmonies but I’m also drawn to rock and indie. Country is in such an interesting space right now just because it is so politically fraught, and I’m interested in the types of conversations people are having within country and americana like what does it mean to be an artist, what does it mean to be an independent artist, what’s the role of your politics in your music, what’s the role of your community? I just feel I’m drawn to country and Americana in those areas.

Country music has had quite a complex history, particularly with the involvement of the Klu Klux Klan and an official history that doesn’t reflect the actual origins of the music. Why do you think that in the 21st century, there is an emerging radical element in country music?

I think it is a cultural correction that’s only happened in part, and I think it can go a lot further. In any genre of music, it is adapt or die, the music industry is changing so fast and if you don’t adapt to what listeners want and how artists are working, your genre will die out, at least in the public consciousness. The good thing is that a lot of people in country music are adapting to societal change. At the dawn of country radio in the 20th century it was explicitly created as an exclusive genre that would be a counterpoint to R&B, and specifically marketed to white audiences and to only allow white artists. It had nothing to do with how artists were working, or what audiences wanted at the time.

It wasn’t a paradise because it was still 1930s and 1960s America, but audiences were integrated, a lot of the bands were integrated, and a lot of the artists were drawing on traditions from various cultures, but there was a decision by record stations and record labels, by people with money, to divide country from R&B and the blues. That was an artificial separation that was never going to last if artists had their way because artists don’t care what the suits say is appropriate, we will always find a way into the crevices. I think it has just taken country music a little bit longer than it should have to get back to the realisation the genre is a construct, the music is interwoven with all of our history. We all have access to these traditions as students and practitioners of this popular Western musical canon.

Who are your personal heroes?

Toni Morrison, Paul Robeson, Audre Lord, folks who have really put a lot on the line for their work, their politics, and their people. I really like what Boots Riley is doing right now, both with his music and with TV and the interdisciplinary side of that. I think it is a great time for women singer-songwriters, I listen to a ton of Kathleen Edwards, Aimee Mann, Margo Cilker, Sonny War, Adia Victoria, Allison of course, Rhiannon Giddens, yeah, so those are some of my musical heroes.

What’s behind your Basic Folk podcast?

I was very lucky that I was brought on as a guest host two years ago by Cindy Howes, who is a seasoned podcaster and DJ, and she really taught me the ropes as far as doing interviews and the tech behind podcasting. She and I just had a great conversation when she interviewed me for my previous album, and I just thought this person is asking super thoughtful questions, I love talking with her, she is making me curious about parts of my music I’d never thought about before, and about a year later she was looking for a guest host and she reached out to me. It had never occurred to me that I would want to do a podcast, but I really took to it and I really loved the part of my brain that I got to turn on when I did those interviews and research.

I love a research project, I love asking those nitty-gritty questions like how did you record this instrument, what was it like in the studio when you did this, what’s it like playing this on the road, who are your influences, all those fun nerdy questions, you know.  What I get out of that is I get to feel part of the conversation in terms of folk and traditional music that I feel I wouldn’t necessarily have if I were only a performing artist. Journalism often shapes who we think are important artists, and what we consider trends to be within the industry, and I get to sit down with a lot of people and I have an excuse to ask really nosey questions about music.

What is going to happen in America in 2024 do you think?

We are battening down the hatches for this election. As a black American, I take the long view of electoral politics, there has never been an American President who has been for my interests because I’m of the working class, and to make it to a level where you are running for Congress or running for President you have to concede so much to the ruling class because of the way we’ve let money get into elections.  It’s a foregone conclusion that anyone who is going to be President will have the interests of big business first and foremost, whether they want to or not, that’s what they have to do to gain and retain power. That’s a betrayal of what democracy is supposed to be, but it is also good to know where you stand.

What I’m focused on is who is doing the most work, usually at the local level, which I find inspiring and gets us where we need to go. I’m on the board of an organisation called Abortion Care Tennessee, and we are part of the national network of Abortion Funds. I think the reproductive justice community is talking about how to get people healthcare, it is concrete, it is tangible, it is day-to-day, it doesn’t feel political it feels like what do we need to do to get from A to B, and to get people what they really need. There are so many Americans who are doing that same thing on a different level, whether it is environmental advocacy, whether it is helping people to register to vote. There are so many people energised in these small areas that can make an impact and they are in it for the long haul and they aren’t going to be swayed by who is at the highest office. So, it’s scary, and the discourse has got to the point where racist, homophobic, and xenophobic violence is normalised and encouraged in our country, which is scary and I take it very seriously, especially as I’m a woman and I travel on my own a lot. I take my safety very seriously, and I take the violence seriously, but I also take the long-term work more seriously.

Will you bring ‘Halfsies’ to the UK?

I’m over there for the whole month of April opening for John Smith and I’m really excited about it. I also love Americana UK Music Week & Awards even though it is in January, it is a really fun week here in London even though it is a short trip.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

I could go on all night about this one. My three favourite albums from last year were Margo Cilker’s ‘Valley Of Heart’s Delight’, Sonny War’s ‘Anarchist Gospel’, and Brian Dunne’s ‘Loser On The Ropes’, I think those are great singer-songwriter albums. There’s a really great songwriter out of New York, that your readers might like called Matt Sucich, he’s got sort of Paul Simon sensibilities, great lyrics, great voice. I love Brittney Spencer’s new album, Margo Price, of course, those are like my country faves.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Every time I’ve come here I’ve just had the kindest audiences, so I just hope people will buy my record and hopefully just come and see a show in April.

Lizzie No’s ‘Halfsies’ is out now on Miss Freedomland/Thirty Tigers.

Lizzie No April 2024 UK Tour

April 3 – Bristol, Beacon

April 4 – London, Union Chapel

April 5 – Milton Keynes, Stables

April 6 – Colchester, Arts Centre

April 10 – Hebden Bridge, Trades Club

April 11 – Leeds, The Wardrobe

April 12 – Glasgow, CCA

April 13 – Edinburgh, The Caves

April 17 – Southampton, The Brook

April 18 – Exeter, Phoenix

April 19 – Cambridge, Storeys Field

April 20 – Chester, Storyhouse

April 24 – Sheffield, Upper Chapel

April 25 – Gateshead, Glasshouse 2

April 26 – Kendal, Brewery Arts

About Martin Johnson 408 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Jonathan Aird

‘Halfsies’ is such a great album, and Lizzie No is just perfection live.