Photo credit: Alyssa Torrech
If you only had thirty minutes to present your truest self, how would you do it? Well, for Liz Longley, she does it with her voice and her songs. The talented Berklee-trained singer-songwriter sidles up next to her listeners, pouring out anthems of hope, laments of lost love, and a considerable amount of beautiful humanity. Imagine my reaction when I had a chance to interview her about her career up to this point and talk about her latest album, a fresh release of Liz Longley out on Sugar Hill Records on March 17th.
From the beginning of the interview Longley’s personality shone through as likable. She doesn’t have the creative aloofness that distances herself from her fans and listeners. Rather, it’s the raw and visceral reaction between songwriter and songhearer that makes Longley’s tunes so powerful. We can all related to the sentiments she expresses.
And honestly one of the most exciting things about talking to her, was that she didn’t try to sell me the album. She wasn’t drumming up buzz for an album that I already love. Rather, we were able to have a thoughtful discussion about the process. It turns out that this album has been quite an adventure – beginning some of the writing as long as five years ago. The album was done, complete, pressed and available at shows two years ago after a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. After touring with the album for a bit, Longley landed a “corporate gig” playing for some folks she didn’t know. Thinking it was just a quick gig, Longley gave her usual exceptional performance. Little did she know Sugar Hill Records executive Cliff O’Sullivan was a part of the small crowd. They talked after the performance and, sure enough, made a deal. So now we (the lucky fans) get to reap the benefits of that connection with a remastered and repackaged version of a very good album.
Given that backstory, it’s easy to understand why, when asked about the album, Longley described a sense of relief. In her words it’s been a “long time coming.” Perhaps a bit zealous I asked her if she found it difficult to still capture the emotion of those moments that initially inspired the songs or if the messages had changed for her. She gave an eloquent and poignant answer that most of the songs she can still relate to because the emotions were so powerful when she wrote them. She can still “tap into” the emotional moment. And for some of the songs the meaning has shifted to a different person, city, or context, as her own life has seen movement and development in the past several years.
To get a good sense of Longley’s career (for those of you who may not be familiar with her), it’s important that we look at her experience as a songwriting major at Berklee College of Music. While there, Liz had the opportunity to build on her dream she had since age 14 that she wanted to be a songwriter. Having written songs in high school, college gave her the opportunities to write more music, put out her first two albums, and begin touring. She said she chose to go to college for music because she wanted to “dive right in” and that she did! In fact, the majority of her collection was written during those formative early years.
Part of the reason Longley’s music resonates so much for me is that her lyrics describe in beautiful terms the kinds of emotions that we all experience. When I asked her about the songwriting process, I asked a handful of questions attempting to get at the process of songwriting. It was fascinating to hear her talk about how the process is different for each song. Some of her songs were written while on the road in dingy motel rooms, others at her home. One song Liz explained was a process of dealing with anger and she worried about her neighbors hearing her write it. That song, “Skin and Bones” is one of my favorites so I took the liberty of asking her about it. It was written about a friend she knew who had cheated. The song expresses the pain and brokenness that the affair caused, beyond the broken relationship itself. She said she can’t explain how she matches emotion to the notes and words, but it’s just part of the magic of songwriting.
Another of the specific tracks from the new album we discussed was “Memphis.” I mentioned that it sounds like Martina McBride song, which Liz took as a compliment. We laughed at the story behind the track because she didn’t even want to finish it. Originally it had the lyric “waking up in Tennessee” and she put the project on hold. After a bit of tinkering with it (and playing it before a show for a fellow songwriter), Longley changed the lyric to “waking up in Memphis” and the rest of the song began to soar. It’s an excellent tune, not exactly traditional country, but certainly representing a different era of heartfelt, emotional music.
For this interview I outsourced one of my questions to my friend Heidi Jacobs, also a singer songwriter, who wanted to ask Liz about upstaging national acts. Longley took the complimentary question in stride, explaining that she’s been lucky to open for some of her heroes. Although she didn’t acknowledge that she “upstaged” those great musicians, she did say it was an incredible feeling to be accepted by a new audience. She compared an opening set as being a lot like a first date, offering “30 minutes of yourself,” so when audiences enjoy what they hear and want to meet her after the show, it is a great honor. She also explained that people who know her, namely family, are often surprised at her ability to be so herself on stage. But that comfortable stage manner is the product of much experience playing in a wide variety of venues, performing these incredible songs for numerous audiences.
Unsurprisingly Liz Longley is taking her show on the road and is, in fact, already on tour. She’s been touring with several of these songs for five years already, but now she’s got a full band with her. So if you’ve heard her in the past playing solo, still go to see these new shows. In her typical humble manner, Liz showed considerable gratitude toward her new bandmates who are a bit of a Nashville all-star team. She is grateful for them taking time out of their schedules to tour with her.
Longley’s songwriting demeanor certainly came out in our conversation. She’s a person that sensitively and honestly engages with the world. Some readers undoubtedly became fans of hers due to “Unraveling,” a beautiful song about her grandmother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s that appeared on another album. Fans of that song and that sensibility will find much to like on the “new” album, especially on “Simple Love.” All of the songs contain those powerful emotional elements so intrinsic to Longley’s style. Careful not to rest too much on her achievements, Longley is already looking forward to working on her next album. I asked her if she thought this record would be a “turning point” for her career and she explained that it already has been. With new management, a new label, and a fresh national tour, Liz Longley is well on her way to getting these exceptional songs out to a broader audience.
Longley is part of a truly elite group of songwriters making music today. Her variety of styles from stripped down, country-influenced stories to toe-tapping anthems, it’s clear that she can convey a message. It might be easy to compare her sound to other female singer songwriters, but I’d rather describe her to people as being a bit more like Taylor Goldsmith, the iconic songwriter of Dawes fame. It’s the ability to write timeless, captivating songs that describes Liz Longley, far more than any particular genre, style, or specific track. She’s a delight and a songwriter who deserves all of the credit this album release will bring her.