Lizzo: All I knew was mainstream and 'hood
Photo by Anna Gulbrandsen
Back in October, Gimme Noise spoke to the explosive Lizzo ahead of her Picked to Click win, and the release of one of 2013's most-heralded local albums, Lizzobangers. Her collaboration with Doomtree's Lazerbeak and Marijuana Deathsquads' Ryan Olson is the Chalice rapper's growth and raw potential captured in deft, bold strokes.
Ahead of Saturday's release show at the Triple Rock Social Club, here's more from our in-depth, laughter-filled conversation about her birthday bond with Caroline Smith, her journey to Minneapolis, and how she became just Lizzo.
Gimme Noise: How are you doing these days?
Lizzo: I cannot complain. I've learned a lot about my body and my mind and my spirit. I used to have this thing where I was lonely, but no, you need alone time. I started valuing that over any other time spent, aside from time onstage. Just learning how to run your business and finally being able to execute all of the lessons I picked up along the way from people like Caroline Smith and Har Mar Superstar. Watching my peers and friends kill it and being able to take that and apply it to my own life.
It seems like you have a special creative bond with Caroline Smith. How did you end up performing with her?
We have the exact same birthday. Same day, same year. She asked me, "Do you want to sing with me?" This was at a time when I didn't know what I was doing. Before Lizzobangers. I told her by this time next year, I'm not sure if I'm going to have time to be a backup singer. Right now, I'm totally down. I was like, "When's your birthday?" And she was like, "April 27, 1988" Yeah. All right, let's just do it.
How did your friendship enhance your artistic growth?
For some reason, we get each other. If you understand my situation, I'll understand yours. We're just learning from each other. We sit and practice vocal runs. I learned how to be a better singer working with her because when you're not in the front having to belt and do all this stuff on your own, you learn nuances and you learn control. I learned that so hard. I'm really happy about where I've come and I have a long way to go. I'm happy to see progress. It's good to be like, it's not over. I can still get better and better and better.
When Caroline asked me to sing with her, I just saw it as another opportunity to express myself musically. I'm never probably going to come out with a folk album, but if I can be a part of it, and work my voice into it, it's a challenge and a victory to me. She started coming to the R&B side. I was like, "Girl, I want you to re-record your album in a sweaty room with just the musicians and one microphone." Her voice over the duration of that three-week tour got so much more gritty and raw.
So Lizzobangers came together in a sweaty room?
Lizzobangers was a sweaty, smoky room. I don't smoke, but Ryan Olson is a cigarette. We were sitting in there. Me, him and Lazerbeak. We were just grinding it out. It feels like it. It wasn't a punched record. I didn't punch anything in. Everything is like full take, and then he would chop it up and do what he did. After that we went into the details.
How did you start getting into wearing different wigs for performing?
A lot of performance is visual. Vocal is a huge part as well, but when the people are seeing me, I gotta get that extra oomph. Hair is a lot. I learned that from watching Beyonce and Tina Turner. Tina Turner wore wigs because when she did this, it was more impressive than just a little up 'do going back and forth. I bought a lot of wigs for the sake of showmanship. Some of 'em got names. My purple one... is named GRRRL PRTY. There's the "Lady You Shot Me" wig, which I wear for Har Mar. They're not actual names like Clarissa.
The first wig I got that I was like "I'm gonna wear this wiiiig" was when I bought [Sophia Eris] a wig. Last year, we got a big Chalice check. One of our first ones. I bought her a wig. From me to you, girl, here you go. She was rocking it so well, I thought, "I want one too." Before, it was just like Halloween. When we first started rockin' rockin' them was about a year and a half ago.
How did you hook up with your hype man Cliff Rhymes?
He's from St. Paul. He's a mystery. He's on Marijuana Deathsquads' Tamper.Disable.Destroy. He has a great voice. Ryan Olson loves him for that. It was cool to have this calm voice amidst all the chaos, and we balanced off each other really well. It goes back to Ryan. When he meets you, he can immediately assign you to some score he's writing in his mind.
He met me in October when I did the Marijuana Deathsquads thing, and he'd already known. He saw it. When he saw the tweets between me and 'beak, he was like I already know what it's gonna be. [He said,] "Cliff's gonna sound great." I was like, "Cliff's gonna sound great? Let me know how that goes." I'd known Cliff in passing a little bit, but when I heard it, it was awesome. He enhances the track, but doesn't overshadow. He complements me really well. He's like a voice in my head that I'm talking to.
How have things changed in your career since the summer of 2012?
Last summer, to make a metaphor, was going off into the woods. Walking into the forest. This year, I've got a knapsack and a compass. I'm prepared. It's more organization and everything's very planned. there's a huge team of people around this. For the Chalice, all we had was us three. That was probably the best thing, but in the end, was the biggest issue. We couldn't be artists. We got so much attention, thanks to you guys, thanks to the Current. But we didn't have anyone to take it all and compress it, and give it to us in a way that was easy to digest.
We had to be our own manager. When you're your own tour manager, you take on all these hats, it's overwhelming. It can deteriorate any sanity or any will that you have. You don't know when to be the tour manager and when to be an artist. I'll be tired, but the tour manager in me is like, "Now we gotta get up and be in the car."
Loud. He starts singing and I'll sing and he sings. It's a lot of laughter. He's a jolly person. He's very meticulous. It's a controlled chaos. Like the way he takes off his cape. The way he takes off his jacket. The way he spins, the headstand. Everything is very calculated. Even though it looks like a surprise every time. I think Beyonce does that. I love Beyonce. Her name comes up so many times.
The people I look up to the most have that element of surprise in their shows. It's so well-rehearsed that you don't even know. I was watching a Prof show. He's a very helpful person. Whenever I see him, he's great at giving me some solid advice. Everything that they do up there is rehearsed. It looks like such a party every night. It's like, "Yeah, we're having a party up there, but we're also professionals." You gotta have banter. When you stage-dive, you know where you're diving, so you don't fall on the concrete. You gotta know what you're saying, or you're gonna slip up.
What is your ultimate goal as a musician?
I always wanted to be like a true artist. I feel like I'm a true performer, and I'm a songwriter, and I'm a rapper. But there's a point you get to where you cross over. Like Kanye West. He's like the artist. That's when you stop caring. I still care so much. It's not like caring what people think. It's just being careful. There's a lot of things I censor myself on just so I can create the perfect picture. When you cross over, and you become a true artist like that, all care is out the window. That's why they're normally crazy. Because you just let go. That's why a lot of artists and musicians hover around the line. That's a deep line to go.
When did you become Lizzo?
In middle school in Houston, everyone was dropping the second half of their name and putting an "o" on the end. In the Cornrow Clique, this group we did for a summer, there was Nino, Lexo, and Zeo. They wanted me to go by Me-o. I didn't like that. I'm just gonna go by Lisso. My friend MoMo would say it with this flair. And then it caught on. That was like senior year of high school -- 2006. I've had Lisso since middle school, and Lizzo since college.
[In those days,] I didn't know about indie music. I didn't know about anything artistic, really. All I knew was mainstream and 'hood. I met these people when I joined my rock band. What I knew of a show was you drive to the Woodlands to see 50 Cent or you pay a bunch of money to go to the House of Blues. There were shows happening in little venues. I was discovering this at 19 years old. I wanted to keep things kinda separate for a long time. I was embarrassed by the rock side. I didn't invite my friends. When they found out about it, they were like "Girl, you singin' rock?" "Yeah, I'm singin rock." I was not ashamed, but I was hesitant to marry those. There was a huge thing about choosing a side. You either 'hood or you rock. I was always weird because I liked both. Lizzo was that persona for a while. My real name was for my mama. Now it's just all the same. [booming laugh]
What type of music was coming out of your home growing up?
I came up from a multi-genre household. My sister was listening to indie rock, my mom was listening to gospel, my dad liked Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Elton John. My brother was into all kinds of weird stuff from Gogol Bordello to 8 Mile. Then there was me. In Houston, Texas, I was listening to like Swishahouse, like screwed down music, and trap. You blend all of those together, what do you get? I'm a classical flutist. I love beautiful sounds. Even weird beautiful sounds, like Marijuana Deathsquads.
A lot of the family I talk about is from Detroit. I go into my great grandmom. My mama Kirkwood, and my granddaddy BJ. Detroit raised me, Houston made me. Now Minneapolis. I know what Houston music sounds like, but I don't know if I sound like that. I don't know if I have an accent. Houston's such a part of me that I hope that comes through. I live in Minneapolis and I love this town. This was the best decision I feel like I've ever made professionally, socially. Met my best friends here. Truly happy. I don't want to forget all of the things that make me me. I feel like a lot of people do. They just gotta hear the record for that one.
What did your family think when you decided to move to Minneapolis?
My mom was not down for the move. She was like "Are you sure you want to move to Minnesota?" "Yeah, mom. Me and Johnny [Larva Ink] are just gonna do this." I'll give it three years. In Houston I was homeless. At the end of my time there, I was struggling. I didn't have no money. I was living in my little Subaru. My little dented Subaru. I was a mess. My mom was like, "Come back." She lives in Denver now. I was like, "No, this band's gonna work." When it didn't, and I decided to go to Minneapolis, she was like, "Uhh?"
My mom saw me perform in a dive bar with my band with like two people there. I was screaming, because I was in a rock band. Then I flew her out to see the Chalice at Soundset. That was the first time she ever saw me rap. She gets it now. She's happy now. I finally feel like I'm getting to the point where I can make my family proud. Right now, it's never enough for me. There's a level in my mind that I'm trying to get to.
What specifically did you like about Lazerbeak's beats?
When I listened to Lava Bangers, I was taken out of my writer's block. The first thing I wrote was to "Thimble Man," which is "Be Still." Something about his beats moved me. His chord progressions moved me a lot. Music is very sensory. You can easily make someone cry if you jump from a first to a fifth in a song. They're like "Oh my god" [dramatic voice] like Jurassic Park. Music can literally, scientifically bring on emotions. The Beatles have this thing where they go [humming] It's a half-step down and a jump down to a minor third or something. It's so pretty to me.
I have been making ugly music for a long time. My rock band, you can look it up. I'm not ashamed of it. It's not the prettiest music. It was chaotic, it was rough, and I was rough. My whole thing has been about refining myself, and I'm going to make beautiful music one day. I feel like 'Beak does that.
So what do you feel now that your first official solo album is a reality?
it's a solo album because it's Lizzo. But Lizzobangers is with Lazerbeak and Ryan Olson. Lizzobangers is this special moment captured between four people. I tried to make a solo album twice before in my life, and both times it didn't work out. I kept telling myself, "When it's gonna happen it'll work out." I just threw a tweet out there, and I didn't think that was gonna work. I didn't know what I was looking for. I'm glad it worked out. It could not have gone any better.
Lizzo's Lizzobangers release show. With Plain Ole Bill and Lazerbeak.18+, SOLD OUT, 8 p.m., Saturday, December 28.
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