Catching up with Wham City pop songwriter Lizz King
Lizz King has places to be and things to do. You can tell by the way this string-bean hurricane shoves into a room like a gust of wind through a cracked door. She carries two bags and rifles through both in search of items to show and tell. The bags get dropped and a winter coat gets peeled off and tossed on top as she plops herself into a chair. A cell phone gets retrieved from a pocket, quickly glanced at, and summarily tossed atop the coat. Throughout, the 29 year-old King--her bangs cutely framing her face while the mullet (her word) in the back is pulled into a stumpy ponytail that excitedly wiggles like a Rottweiler's docked hindquarters--fires off an ongoing commentary about the state of her imminent first-ever tour and the hand screen-printed covers of her debut album and the repurposed-clothing tour merch and, well, tighty-whitey underpants.
Those album covers are quite fetching. For her debut outing All Songs Go to Heaven (Ehse Records), King is taking old LP covers, spray-painting them a variety of colors (she offers some red and blue test-runs as examples), and then screen-printing each with designs, such as an image of wolves by her high-school friend and local artist Matt Gemmell. She plans on pressing 500, and, ideally, will have done 200 by her album-release show this week.
But--wait a minute. Underpants?
"Pretty much," King says in her breathless current. "My friend Lindsay [Guild], who is doing the merch with me, we're selling Lizz King tighty-whitey underpants, with my name on the butt of them. And I'm going to throw a pair of them out to the audience every show."
Lizz King the quick-witted force of nature has grand plans for Lizz King the musician, primarily because the musician is a fairly recent development in the person. Recorded last March at Tarantula Hill with Twig Harper and mastered by Harper and Videohippos' Kevin O'Meara (King's boyfriend), Songs is 13 tracks of something very close to pop--certainly more pop than anything in the off-the-map Ehse catalog, and certainly more songwriterly than the Wham City/Wildfire Wildfire acts with whom King has always played and been associated. A number of those players show up on Songs, whether it be the chorus vocals provided by April Camlin, Tim Kaberra, Erin Gleeson, Kevin Sherry, and Charlotte Benedetto, or the keyboards and ranting from Adam Endres, O'Meara's drums, Andy Abelow's saxophone, or Drew Swinburne playing Dan Deacon's tuba. King sings and plays guitar, melodica, ukulele, banjo, and glockenspiel and programmed the beats.
The result is a lovely if knotty alloy of woodsy folk and punky pop, as weird as it is engaging. King has a great knack for writing simply catchy melodies on ukulele, banjo, or guitar, and she doesn't have to add much to make the song stick to the ears. Her most alluring feature is that husky burr of a voice--consider this one vote for the Baltimore Honky-Tonk Society to feature King and pedal-steel maestra Susan Alcorn and others playing country and western and hillbilly swing in a right solid dive bar--low for a woman, but as limber and expressive as a contortionist. It's an instrument that lends her music a curious out-of-time feeling, as if a plaintive tune such as "Either Or" could be as old as the wind even though the electronic beats powering "Booty Queen" are undeniably ghetto-gloop 21st century.
"I'm really happy with it," she says of Songs. "I've always had a vision, which I never thought would get fleshed out, just because I'm not a gunner for myself. I'm not, I'm going to make this happen."
Music has been part of King's life for years; she just never considered it something she should take seriously. "I'm 29, and I've been playing open mics and music in general since I was 16," she says. "And it's taken me a lot of pushing from other people to get me to be legitimate. To get me to be, like, Oh, duh, I should have a music MySpace page. OK, you're right, I should have an amplifier. I'm always just borrowing other people's stuff.
"I'm really a slow grower," she laughs. "I mean, look at me--I look like I'm 12, still."
What got her to Songs was the creative support of a group of friends, something she's wanted for some time. "I was always really inspired by Neutral Milk Hotel and how they had so many instruments and such a full, fleshed-out sound," she says. "I've always identified with the folk singers, even though that's clearly not just what it is that I do. So I always wanted that folk, but on another level, and Neutral Milk Hotel is like that for me. Or, I was really into Bright Eyes for awhile, and they do a lot of that. Just the Phil Spector effect, bring all your friends in.
"That's why I go with those examples--it was their friends who helped them. And before I found my own band of friends that I felt like these are the best friends ever, I was, just like, That's what I want to do. I want to feel musical kinship with people I really respect and love."
That respect and love came from those people who appear on her album and more--basically, Baltimore people. King currently lives in Sheperdstown, W. Va., because she's helping out her family, but she considers Baltimore her musical home. She was born here, spent her early years here, and, most importantly, found her musical self writing and playing here and being encouraged by her Baltimore peers. And King has finally located her inner confidence to focus on her album, the tour, her tour merch--you know, the usual paraphernalia that comes with taking your art seriously.
"All these people had faith and devotion to the project, so I feel like, I just feel this Holy shit, I can't just let this sit and go to dust," she says. "Kevin and Stewart and Twig, not to mention all the other people who have helped me through the years and specifically on this album, I owe them too much not to take myself seriously and push it."
And she is. She runs down a list of things she has to do on this Monday in her spiral notebook--such as mail fliers, get AAA, get a 4-pin-to-4-pin FireWire cable, lists of phone calls to make, wake up early (this last one written in insistent ALL CAPS)--and turns the page to show a growing list for the following day. And she excitedly sprints through everything about her tour. Like how she's hooking up with the San Francisco-based, Detroit-born femcee Breezee One for one cross-country leg. And about possibly playing with Leslie and the Lys in Ames, Iowa. And playing Kyle Mabson's birthday party at Los Angeles' Pehrspace. And, and, and, and, and. . . .
"That's basically what an interview is, right?" she asks, barely pausing for air. "I just come in and I'm blah blah blah blah blah, right?'
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