Interview | The Mystical, Marvellous Liz Green

For Folk's Sake | Liz Green | Haul Away

Liz Green creates awesome, disturbing, strange worlds in her own particular, timeless way. She twists and flips her way through eccentrically created vistas, breathing life into strange individuals and creating music that is both fascinating and astonishingly good. Her second album is due out on 14 April 2014.

We loved O, Devotion (Liz’s debut release), and we’ve been really looking forward to the release of Haul Away, which is so, so beautiful.

Thank you! I enjoyed Making O, Devotion!, and obviously I really like those songs, but recording this one felt different, and I think it’s quite special.

Would you say then that you’re fonder of Haul Away than you are of O, Devotion!?

They both have their own special place – it’s like choosing your favourite child – but I think O, Devotion was a more difficult birth, so I resent it slightly. Haul Away’s like my earth mother birth – a water birth at home album.

It’s interesting that you say ‘water birth’ because it’s a really watery album – is your experience of growing up surrounded by water on the Wirral the reason, or is there something else behind it?

There’s several reasons I think. I didn’t realise until the end of it – I remember when we’d come out of listening to it and thinking ‘oh my God, what the fuck have I done? What have I made? What does this mean?’’ And then just sitting down and thinking, ‘Oh, actually, this makes a lot of sense’.

So yes, the water is a lot about home, because I think I didn’t realise it, but I missed home a lot, and I missed my friends who were at home, and I missed my family, who were still over there. I’d spent quite a lot of time touring and not realised that time passes without you.  When you come back you realise that maybe you actually haven’t seen some of your best friends for a year, and their lives have still been going on. Essentially being on tour is like pressing a pause button in many ways. It’s brilliant, but you do kind of press pause on normal life, and then you come back and people have had babies and they’re married.

It was kind of thinking about home, because I now live in Manchester and Manchester is where I love, and I’ve lived here for a very long time, but it doesn’t have any water. I always think that Manchester would pretty much be the most perfect city in the world if it was by the sea.

Would a canal do?

There is a canal, but it’s not quite the same. I think you get a different perspective being at the edge of a piece of land. I like being at the edge of a country because you just know there’s something else out there, and that’s nice.

And also it’s about water, just water everywhere. I kind of like to see the album as a little journey between these islands, between these edges of worlds, and the water in between. I like to view all the songs on the album as islands, and then the journey you take in between them, maybe you’re on a little ship sailing between all of them.

So you say you noticed the water theme after you finished recording; how did you then decide on the cover art? Did you think ‘oh well I’ll just go with it now that I’ve noticed it?’

Yeah, it was very much that kind of attitude. With O, Devotion!, I had all the cover art ready before I’d even finished all the songs, and with this one, I made all the songs then thought ‘oh man, it needs a cover’, and last time, when I finished the album, my label (PIAS) did suggest I just take a picture of my face and put it on the cover, but I thought ‘Eurgh, no, why would I ever want to do that? That’s a horrendous idea, I will never put my face on the cover of an album.’ And so this time, I came up with this idea – I drew it, initially – and then realised that it wouldn’t really work without a real human face.

There’s a small animation I was trying to work on, in plasticine, where the woman literally cries her eyes out: so the eyes well up with water and then they drop off her face. I’m still working on that. So midway through that animation I thought maybe it would be cool to well the face up with water, and then that image stuck as an idea for the cover.

The cover looks as if you’ve cried a sea into yourself, in a way.

Essentially, yes. It’s kind of cheesy when you explain it, that idea of being filled up with sadness, or filled up with tears. Even though this album sounds happier than its predecessor, I think it’s quite a sad album. Sad but happy. It’s quite a lot about loss, and missing, and messages that don’t quite get there.

But then on the other side it is about love, about longing?

Absolutely, and O, Devotion! wasn’t necessarily about that at all. It is quite cheesy I suppose, but I think we’re all allowed an album about ‘lurve’ at some point in our lives, and it’s not overtly vomit-inducing. It’s more about the magical aspect of love – retaining that sense of wonder.

[a brief pause while Liz answers the door to the postman and I get quite confused about who she’s talking to. The postman has a good laugh at her, then we recommence].

Sorry. So yes, the cover. I quite liked the idea of facepaints, because it’s a bit like a sad clown – my clown face. In the old crown ritual in Italy, once you’d gone through clown training, the last part of it was to choose your face, and then that was your trademark, and you couldn’t change that after you’d chosen it. I’ve always described myself as a kind of tragicomic artist, so I chose my sea face of tears.

The actual painting just came together really nicely. There’s a photographer who does all my photos, Emily, and Ruth who does all my make-up for my album photos – I just like working with the same people – and when I spoke to Emily about it she said ‘Oh, that’s amazing. You do know that Ruth’s a trained body painter?’ And I said ‘No, but that’s brilliant!’so I just sent the idea to Ruth and she practiced on her arm, doing different versions of seas, and we did a reverse version of this where the top half of my face was like a stormy cloud, but this was the one that got used for the cover.

You’re going to be touring this album soon, including a performance at the Ace Hotel in Shoreditch. Why are you playing there?

I didn’t really know what it was. I’m a big fan of the TV show Portlandia; they do a send-up of a hotel where they’re just like [adopts impressive Portland accent] ‘Hey, welcome to this hotel. Here’s your free typewriter, we’ve provided you with records in your room…’ and then when I went on the Ace Hotel website I was like ‘oh, this hotel is real?’ It’s a place where actual musicians can’t afford to stay, but apparently the gig venue’s really nice. Howard Monk, who runs The Local chose, it as a venue, and they’re putting on loads of shows there at the moment, so I’m sure it’ll be great.

You’ve talked a little about missing out on things when you’re touring, but what do you enjoy about it?

I love touring, because of the bubble you exist in. I like being on tour with my band, who are also my friends, because you form this little survival group together. It’ s really nice, and I really enjoy that part of it. And I enjoy playing live. Even more than making the album, more than doing the artwork, more than all the other bits of the music ‘biz’, the thing I most enjoy is playing live.

Are there any shows you’ve done, or venues you’ve played, that have been particularly special?

Yes. Sometimes they’re really odd ones though. I’ve done lots of really lovely gigs and lots of absolutely terrible ones. Well not lots of absolutely terrible ones actually, I think generally the ratio is pretty good, but I have run off stage crying a few times. At the Brudenell in Leeds there were loads of hard northern people there who were just looking at me and thinking ‘why are you crying?’ That one was memorable for a bad reason.

There’s a place in Switzerland called Parterre, which is just quite a magical venue. Andrea, who’s the promoter and the venue runner is just so good at her job. I think you can put magic into anything if you really like your job, and she makes it into such a beautiful place to go. She seems to understand what you might want, for example when we arrived there having been on tour for three weeks she welcomed us in, and she’d bought different postcards of Basel, where the venue is, and stamps, and she said ‘if you want, write some postcards and I’ll post them for you tomorrow morning.’ I’ve never seen that anywhere else, and it just sticks in your mind. I know a lot of people who’ve been to stay there since, and they all have the same reaction.

There are loads of memorable places though. I did a gig a long time ago with Sam Amidon and George Thomas in a pub in Portsmouth. It was Sam’s first UK tour, and I think it was mine and George’s first proper tour too, in a car. The guy greeted us at the door while he was drinking straight from a bottle of wine, and all these people started coming in – it was an afternoon gig – and we thought wow, there’s loads of people! Then they all disappeared and we realised it was because, in a room round the back, he did a free Sunday lunch.

So all these people had turned up to have their free Sunday lunch, and there was one person in the room we were playing in. Midway through George’s set a dog wandered in and started weeing on one of the monitors, and it was a beautiful gig. We got Sunday lunch too once we were finished. That was great – I like the unusual ones.

What about festivals?

I’m not cool enough really. I don’t go down that well at festivals (apart from End of the Road). I prefer playing in dark rooms, at night. Sometimes, when the sunshine’s creeping in and it’s mid afternoon (which is normally the best slot to put me on) it just loses something.

A lot of the style and substance of your songs is other-worldly, and vintage in tone. Is it a conscious choice for you to turn away from the modern?

I like all times, which I think lend themselves better to the surreal. Yes, my music does hark back to the past, but it doesn’t sound like music from the past; it adds to the sense of not fitting in anywhere: not in the past, not in the future. I often feel that I was born out of time, but not out of time as in ‘in the wrong decade, or century’, just out of time as in slightly out of step with the rest of the world. And I think a lot of people feel like that. I know very well that I’m far from the only person who feels that way. I often feel slightly out of step – I’ll be rocking along to a different beat, and everyone will look at me and wonder what I’m listening to. I like that.

I find self-promotion and instant accessibility quite awkward although I’ve kind of embraced Twitter. It’s not that I don’t like talking to people – if I’m at a gig and people come up and talk to me I like that, and I like being interviewed like this, or for radio, but I find that constant accessibility uncomfortable. It goes for any job really – people will email you and you can answer on the bus or the train or whatever, and it’s almost like you never stop being available.

The self-promotion never stops now. It’s the first thing you need to learn about to be an artist in the modern world – and people will say you don’t need to do it but you do – I’m part of this world and I’m part of the industry, and because of that I had to get literate in Facebook and Twitter to be helpful to people, because that’s how people find out about stuff these days. Even me – I’ll go on Twitter to find out what people are doing. At first I didn’t want to use it for my own music, but then I realised that I’m using these tools to find out what I want to go to, and what my favourite artists are doing, so it’s only fair to give people who like me – which I still don’t really understand – the same option to know what I’m doing.

Who’s your favourite person on Twitter?

My friend’s boyfriend Paul is quite funny. People I follow music-wise just tend to tell you what they’re doing, which is fair enough. Beth Jeans Houghton is really good on Twitter, but she’s just really good in general. She’s a really interesting person.

I first discovered your music when you won the Glastonbury Emerging Talent Competition in 2007. Would you recommend entering to musicians just starting out?

I didn’t enter it. My then friend (now manager) entered me without me knowing. He’s basically the reason why I’m doing music now. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I’m quite a reluctant self-publicist, and it’s really important to want to do that if you’re going to do it on your own. I’m really lucky that I’ve got a ‘friend-manager’ who’s the driving force behind that.

So the first I knew about being in the competition was them phoning to say I was on the shortlist, which was a surprise, and it happened so early on in my career. I like to say that I’ve done my career backwards, because I’d only played about seven gigs by the time I went to Glastonbury and opened the Pyramid Stage, which was obviously *no big deal*, and from then on I’ve just quietly been getting on with other things.

I’d say enter it, but enter it as fun. Enter it because you love music, and you want to play more music, or enter your friend who you think is good and don’t tell them about it. I don’t think competitions are the way forward, but I think if it’s done as fun, and not for the prize, it’s good. It was pretty surreal – even at the time I didn’t really know what was happening and I just found the whole thing really fun – and funny – and it really was a once in a lifetime experience. It was lovely because it made me think ‘oh, I could really do this!’.

And she absolutely can.

Haul Away is out on 14th April, and Liz Green is on UK tour from the 15th. You’d be a prat not to see her.

15 April – Rise (Instore) – Bristol
16 April – Truck (Instore) – Oxford
23 April – Ace Hotel, Shoreditch – London
25 April – Westgarth Social Club – Middlesbrough w/Woodpigeon
24 April – The Grain Barge – Bristol
26 April – First Chop Brewing Arm – Salford
27 April – Sam & Sofia’s Garden – Sheffield (12pm)
27 April – The Basement – York
30 April – The Cookie – Leicester