Jan 15, 2019

"Good Music," McCartney, & Memphis: A Conversation With Liz Brasher

©Rich Good
by Kasey Anderson

We’re just at the beginning of 2019 but Liz Brasher’s debut album, Painted Image (January 18, Fat Possum), is likely to end up on plenty of year-end lists. I’ve known Brasher a while now and so, rather than firing off a bunch of prepared questions, I thought I’d just continue a few of the conversations Liz and I have been having over the course of the last year or so. I’m no stranger to being interviewed myself and as grateful as I know we all are for any attention that comes our way, there are only so many times you can do the Debut Record, This Is Me! Interview before it starts to feel robotic. I wanted to give Liz a break from that and delve into the things that really inform her work, and helped shape Painted Image.

What strikes me immediately about this record is how well it works as a piece, rather than a collection of songs. For some folks, their debut LP is just, “Well, these are the 12 songs I have, let’s make a record!” but - and please correct me if I’m wrong - you seem to be in a constant state of writing so I have to imagine a fair amount of material got left off this record because it didn’t necessarily fit with the way you wanted to introduce yourself as an artist. At what point in the process do you feel like you hit on, “Okay, THIS is what the record is and THESE are the songs that work”?

You're absolutely right. I am in a constant state of writing! I write a song and then move off it so quickly it almost became overwhelming trying to narrow that down to one album, much less my debut! So something close to 100 songs were left off of the record. It was basically a process of listening back and thinking through, "What right now is the best representation of who I am and what in turn make up the strongest songs that I can have on my debut?" I had criteria to meet -- what I wanted my introduction to the world to sound like. I wanted it to have a timeless sound, to be mysterious, powerful, evocative, soulful. So there wasn't a definitive moment but between myself and Scott Bomar (producer), we narrowed them down to what we felt was the best representation of me and my music. 

A hundred songs! Damn. I just started work on my seventh record and I’ve written maybe a hundred usable songs in my entire life. 

Yeah and that number has only doubled since the album was recorded last year! It's both a blessing & a curse, this constant stream.

There is a timelessness to the record, and there’s a purposefulness to the arrangements that really struck me. By that I mean: everything has its place and everything is working in concert to provide a comfortable place for your voice to sit. I think a lot of times, artists can end up treating certain instruments or arrangements like a novelty -- “We’re a rock band but here’s our song WITH A HORN SECTION!” -- and the finished production ends up not being of much service to the song itself. That’s not the case with your record. Because you’re in Memphis, and there are elements of what people associate with Soul Music on this record, I think those comparisons are going to be easy for people to reach for but what I heard almost immediately was a Dap Kings dynamic, where everything has its place and it’s all textural — there aren’t always these dramatic horn lines. Were there reference points you brought into the studio, like, “Okay *this* is what this song needs” or was it more generalized than that? Once you knew what the pieces were, how did you go about fitting them together within the context of an album?

I definitely had reference points I used. The Dap Kings dynamic being a huge one since I'm such a big fan of Amy Winehouse, of course so many tracks from Stax, specifically Otis Redding songs, Etta James's entire Muscle Shoals record Tell Mama.. etc., etc. but I think this is where Memphis comes into play more than anything. Memphis has a history of good horns parts in songs, especially in complementing vocalists, and this is still true today. Scott knew to go to Marc Franklin (trumpet, arranger) for the arrangement of both the strings and the horns. He has a phenomenal ear and added the exact parts that had been missing all along. They really did fall perfectly into place.

Yeah, it’s a really beautifully arranged record and there’s enough space for your voice to really come through. I read an interview with Donald Glover recently where he talked about wanting to make what he called “Everyday Music,” and he cited artists like Stevie Wonder, Badu, Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation record as sort of touchstones for the kind of music that doesn’t require a certain set of circumstances for listening. Like, I love the Pusha T record but it’s not what I’m reaching for on Sunday at 11:30am when I’m doing a crossword. You seem to have a goal similar to Glover’s — songs that fit seamlessly into the listener’s life. Is that fair to say and, if so, do you feel like you got there with this record? What would the next step be from here?

That is fair to say. Man, I love his references for everyday music. I could listen to all 3 of those artists at any given time. I always think of music in terms of either good or bad, but then I sub-categorize that to music for musicians vs. music for everyone. I'm much more interested in making music for everyone and the everyday because I know what that's meant for me. That's why I mentioned the idea of timeless music. It's music that transcends a situation or an era or a theme. It's music for humanity, to be played anytime or anywhere and to always get something new out of it. I hope this record gets there, but I think only time can judge that. 

The next step from here is to keep writing. To collaborate with artists who inspire me, to constantly challenge myself, and to keep making good records that I want to hear, and hopefully the rest of the world will too. 

It seems like people get caught up in the idea that there can’t be harmony between making records that are creatively satisfying and challenging and making records that are accessible when, to me, if you’re doing the former well and you have any regard at all for your audience, you’re going to end up accomplishing the latter. 

At the end of the day we're all human and most likely what's satisfying to me (the artist) is gonna be satisfying to the other humans (the listener).

You spent most of 2018 on tour and played with a pretty eclectic cross-section of artists, from the Zombies to the Psychedelic Furs to Emmylou Harris and your songs never seemed out of place to me, which reinforces my belief that genres in general are an absurd construct. Is that something you give much thought to? 

I give a lot of thought to genres, not because I want to but mainly because the world makes me. By nature it's easier to understand something when you can classify it. This type of plant, that type of animal, this type of wall paint. But what we try to classify by genre is the most intangible 3+ minutes that exist. It's futile to box in something that by definition can't remain in a box. And even if you do place a song or band in a genre, in a few years that genres name will change and evolve. We create songs that obviously have their roots in music we have listened to or the world we've observed, but the act of actually forming the songs comes out of nowhere... like pulling it out of the air. To me it's so belittling to then put them into man made subcategories, which we most of the time don't even agree with! My approach to all of that is to just listen to as much good music as I can. I'm a record collector & when I can't spin records I'm listening to the radio or my phone or i'm at a live show. Good is literally the only boundary I put on what I listen to, which becomes my personal opinion. I'm super studious & sponge-like, so usually once I delve into an artist or album I start to spit out songs that are influenced by them. It's really bizarre & also impossible for me to ever say i'm this or that genre. In short (ha!), YOU'RE RIGHT. GENRES ARE ABSURD

This brings me to something else I’ve noticed about you: there does not seem to be much time during any given day when you’re not listening to, playing, or discussing music. This is not just a “branding” thing or the front-facing stuff we all do to some extent for whatever our “social media audience” might be; that is genuinely who you are. Has it always been that way? Was there a record or were there a few records that moved you from casual or even avid listener to someone who more or less lives and breathes music?

Yeah you just described my day. I was raised around music, so in my home as a child my mom was constantly singing, I was always rehearsing for church solos, and my dad was giving me the good secular jolt of playing the oldies station in the car. He had Elton John and Michael Jackson on the turntable at home. I played and replayed The Beatles night and day. When I discovered them, I couldn't stop. I became the weirdest kid in the neighborhood because my crush was Paul McCartney; pictures of him and the Beatles plastered all over my walls, like a serious first crush! I understood fandom but I didn't want to be a fan I wanted to be up on stage singing WITH him. I had a radio hidden in my closet where I could secretly listen to the top pop songs of the week (secretly because I wasn't allowed to listen to secular music). Once the internet got to my house and I got older I was illegally downloading every song I thought I needed to hear. Boyfriends would make me burned CDs because they knew how much more I'd appreciate that than anything they could buy me. I snuck out of the house to go see live shows many many times. There's never been a barrier to me and music. I think I'm just wired that way, to be constantly searching out and in love with this crazy thing. 

Whenever I talk to you I’m like, “Man, I thought I liked music, maybe I don’t like it at all?” Because it so clearly just consumes you, whereas for me it’s *one thing* I love. We’ve talked a little bit, outside of this interview, about hip-hop and how that has influenced each of us — as you feel and hear yourself growing as a writer or an artist, do you come across things that are outside of whatever genre you know will be ascribed to you and think, “I can use that”? I know this is probably a difficult thing to answer as you’re just releasing your debut record but how would you like to see your work evolve or progress from here?

I've moved through that thought a lot. I've been using drum break samples to write entire songs to, specifically with the thought of wanting to collaborate with the hip-hop world. I write good hooks and I think they could sit well there too. I take everything in to use it eventually. I think i'd like to just see my songs evolve with me, which they're already doing.

I want to go back for a second to the idea of “good music” and what that means to you, both as a listener and as an artist. What’s the litmus test for you? How do you identify a song or a record as “good” or “not good” the first time you hear it and, conversely, when you’re writing, what’s your measure for when a song is “done” and you know it’s as good as, or better than, the songs it’s going to live alongside?

The litmus test is so fluid! I'm obviously not consciously thinking about whether it's a good or bad song when I'm listening to it for the first time so initially it's about a primal feeling of resonating with me. At the core, a good song will inspire. This could be lyrically, rhythmically, in form, instrumentation, ambient sounds, life... it's endless. A bad song usually just pisses me off when I hear it. 

When I'm writing I try to be as decisive & limited as possible. Because options are endless, it's easy to get so hung up over little things. The more natural & without self-editing that my song can flow out of me, the better it will be. I leave overthinking to others because I don't like to do it! But I will spend hours limiting myself to 3 chords on a guitar, or seeing how many times I can phrase lyrics differently within one vocal melody, or playing a bass line over a repetitive groove all day until something clicks and everything starts to line up in my head. I can only do so much fixing - I'm mainly concerned with finishing. You can layer as many parts as you want, bring in as many top notch players, but if it's not a good song at the core it's always just gonna be a mediocre song with good shit on it. The songs will always evolve by the time I'm in the studio, or when other musicians enter the song. Andy Warhol said "Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art." That quote is so great because it's true. Sometimes I just need to get bad songs I'm writing out of the way for the good ones to come. It happens in a pattern of 3 for me.. I write 2 bad ones and then a good one suddenly appears. Although I think it's important to value quality of song over quantity written, it seems logical that the more I write the higher my chance for getting a good song will be.

It also seems like the more you write, that ratio of not-usable-to-usable will shrink. But I absolutely think there’s something to be said for just writing in the moment and going back to edit later instead of trying to dissect every song while you’re in the middle of writing it. I do a lot of editing but I try to make sure the editing process is separate from the initial writing process because they’re two very different things.

You mentioned Memphis and its history and I want to get into that a little bit if we can. Memphis is one of my favorite places to play and one of my favorite places to spend time and while it’s incredibly rich in history and people have an understanding of and respect for that, I think to some degree, especially in the last decade or so, Memphis has lived in the shadow of Nashville. Is that an accurate characterization and are there ways in which that’s beneficial to the music community in Memphis? The talent pool there is still incredible and it seems like the community there is incredibly close-knit (which is not to say that Nashville folks aren’t supportive of each other). Is it a positive thing that Memphis is discussed often as kind of peripheral to Nashville or do you feel like people are missing out because they’re not paying enough attention?

That’s accurate. Memphis has been in the shadow of Nashville. It’s beneficial in that we can keep creating what we want to and not worry about whether it’s mainstream. It makes for a more authentic and less sterile sounding creative breeding ground. It’s also the last real affordable music city in the nation, which is always a plus for artists. Historically people in Memphis have always done whatever they want to & that’s still the case. I think people are missing out on the coolest music scene in the nation, a city of super talented outcasts. 

The Nashville-Memphis dynamic reminds me a bit of Seattle and Portland in the early-to-mid ‘90s. A great thing about those little communities is there’s a lot of support and I think a healthy level of creative competitiveness. 

Who are some folks, in Memphis or otherwise, who are doing work that you’re inspired by? Musicians, writers, anyone whose work you’ve been moved by.

Don Bryant & the Bo Keys, Impala, Jack Oblivian, Jimbo Mathus, Mark Edgar Stuart, Steve Selvidge, Amy Lavere & Will Sexton, The Dirty Streets, Matt Ross-Spang (producer), Jeff Powell (vinyl mastering engineer/cutter), Bruce Watson at Delta Sonic Sound, the Young Avenue Sound guys, in the film world Waheed AlQawasmi & Christian Walker are representing Memphis nationally. So many many more! 

Love Jimbo Mathus! The Jimbo/Eric Ambel team has produced a couple of really excellent records between them. 

So when the record’s out will you do anything to mark the occasion, step back and appreciate what’s happened and what’s coming? I know as well as you that “What comes next?” Is such a strange question to get asked in these situations because the answer is, “Work.” It’s like anything else, you just go back to work but that first full-length is really a big moment and I hope you’re able to appreciate it, even if just for a second.
We're going to do a live taping of the album over at the Ditty TV studios next month. It'll be a lot of fun to play with a big band for that. You got it right, work is next! 


Painted Image is available for pre-order, and out this Friday.

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