OK to Walk Alone
Country, Bluegrass, Left-Field Techno--Lizz King's Songs Of Experience Shine Through Genre
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On a humid September night in a garden near the Mount Royal Tavern, Lizz King opens her laptop to record her first interview. Sitting on a marble bench, she is short and small, with a head of sleek brown hair and strong eyes. Wearing a sleeveless blouse, leather belt, and jeans, she appears evenly punk and country. Born in Baltimore but raised on Emmitsburg farmlands and in West Virginia, King writes experimental songs about love, sexuality, and self-preservation. Her unique sound fuses the rustic purity of bluegrass instrumentation and a honey-slow, haunting voice with club beats and electronic music.
"I started playing the guitar first," King recalls. "My dad taught me how to play, and I wrote a lot of songs in a real folk styling--a preadolescent girl whining about boys a lot. Then I started whining better about boys, being a little more complicated."
Though the singer/songwriter seed was planted early, the 27-year-old didn't take her music seriously until she moved to Baltimore three years ago. "I started performing and hanging out with Wham City so much," she says. "They are my best buds in the world. They gave me a lot of friendly support leading me to take my music more seriously and perform more."
The inspiration and communal sense that she drew from the Wham City collective--including visual and theater pals Adam Endres, Dan Deacon, Dina and Josh Kelberman, and Peter O'Connell--pushed her to experiment with new instruments and musical styles. "I picked up the keyboards and ukulele a little bit, and the tenor banjo," she says. "I don't want to stay in a place where I only write love songs for boys. I want to branch out. I've been writing a lot more for live shows, I've incorporated layered vocals and I just learned how to use [beat and synthesizer software] Reason."
King's yet-to-be-released debut CD, titled All Songs Go to Heaven, presents 17 songs of stunning quality and diversity. Her tunes range from the post-Marilyn Manson, sex-politics party track "Booty Queen" to the sparse guitar chords and courageous ex-lover's voice of "Hot to Trot," in which she begins, "Never thought I'd write this song/ I do believe I'm happier with you gone."
"I've [written] two tentative albums, but I always drop the ball because I freak out," King confesses. First, a vinyl release of the album comes out on Baltimore's Ehse Records, but she says no date has been set. WildfireWildfire plans to release the CD version.
"I mostly just record here or there with certain friends," Kings says when describing her organic, gradual recording history. "We'll have a microphone or rent something from Maryland Institute College of Art, or I'll record on my computer. I haven't gone to a real place and done the real recording thing yet."
King also confesses that she has trouble relaxing and performing with people. "When I mess up, it's just me messing up, and I usually mess up every single time," she says.
And yet her nerves and insecurities around other musicians have undoubtedly contributed to her success as a solo artist. Her songs are often as personal as her interview replies, but King strives for the universal in her lyricism. "I honestly hope that a girl can hear my songs and not do what I've done," she says.
The plucked banjo tune "Kissin' Part" speaks of sleeping with a stranger and the guilt of giving yourself away. "There's been music that's given me a lesson [so] that I didn't have to experience first," King says. "So if through my experience I can sing a song, maybe it will stop a sweet girl from getting wasted and having sex with all of her friends. That's why I am writing--I don't hear songs about girls regarding their behavior. All I hear are songs about what great sluts girls are."
"Hot to Trot" is her "favorite old standby whenever [she's] feeling a little rusty," she says. "It's about me being OK with just being me. I just sing, `Walk alone.'"
King recently completed a video for her song "Booty Queen," a satirical attack on beauty pageant exploitation. It combines trippy footage of discolored beauty pageants rife with sexualized JonBenét Ramsey stand-ins, animated loops of Tinker Bell and other pixies, web-cam segments of King singing under heavy makeup, and a recurrent howling wolf. "I started writing the song without a clear direction," she says. "I was going down a road of it sounding sexy to me, then finding out that I had the same birthday as JonBenét Ramsey really set me off."
King recalls that when she was 5 she begged her parents to get her an agent because she wanted to be a singer and dancer. "I guess the other thing is I was thinking about childhood and sexuality because it has something to do with a lot of my other songs--me feeling guilty about my sexuality," she says. "The sexualizing of little children sets them up for giving it up or not cherishing their worth outside of how they look. How much they can be sexually provocative is the goal. It makes me feel a little upset or sarcastic."
Sans agent, King booked herself on a two-and-a-half week tour with Videohippos this past summer. "It was awesome," she says. "My first real tour and so much fun and so terrifying that I have to do it again as soon as I can."
One night she ended up playing country songs in front of a crowd--one of her largest ever--at Missoula, Mont.'s three-day punk- and metal-bent Total Fest. The crowd went for it. She was blown away by the acceptance, of being anything but alone.