It doesn’t take long to figure out that Lydia Liza is not a typical 24 year old.
With her unforgettable-thick-as-molasses alto and gift for crafting songs, she’s an almost 10 year veteran of the Twin Cities music scene. During which, she’s had a viral hit, gotten sober and performed alongside a slew of notable artists. After making waves with her band, Bomba De Luz as a high schooler, Lydia was awarded a full ride scholarship to attend the now defunct McNally Smith College of Music. Undeterred, she continued to make music, collaborating with other local artists, and now, releasing her first solo album Of Unsound Mind on September 13th. We connected with her via email to find out more about her new album, her life and what it’s like to make music in the current socio-political landscape.
Tell me how you got your start in music. You taught yourself how to play guitar at 14? What sparked that interest? When did you “find your voice”? You have one of the best voices to come out of the Twin Cities – someone I would say could sing anything. When did you say to yourself, this is what I want to do? Was there an “ah ha!” moment?
OK first of all, thank you so much for the kind words. Seriously.
When I was a kid, my family and I always sat around our dining room table just doing whatever creative pursuit we were after at the time. We’d all usually draw together or something, mom might write, my little sisters might read, my dad and I would draw, and we would just absolutely blast music. I think that freedom to be always helped me feel myself and feel safe, and like my ideas were valid, and it was all tied together under this unity of music and care for each other’s ideas. It was such a romantic time. There was such a catharsis and an understanding that it was a beautiful thing to have a drive to create every day. My dad always said, “make something every day,” and I still live by that. Whether I’ve written a poem or doodled something or had a verse to a song.
I had a friend named Rose show me how to read guitar “tabs” when I was 14, and graciously gave me one of her guitars, and I just took off running. I never stopped learning. I taught myself all of my favorite songs. I never really learned how to read notation or music, I just kept listening and trying and deciding if things sounded good or not. I still to this day don’t feel like it’s something I do or don’t want to do, it’s a sort of “have-to” output. But I’m not sure I want to be involved in the overarching music ecosystem. I have a really hard time with the narcissism I’ve seen it put in people’s heads, which is super easy to fall into when people are staring at you doe-eyed and cheering after every song. I just want it to be something I forever love to do and have to do, feel safe to do, feel driven to do, listeners or not.
How did Bomba de Luz come together? Were you all friends first? Did you come together with the intention of starting a band?
By the time I was 15, I had a handful of pretty bad songs, and I called upon all the guys I knew from local schools who could play. I don’t think I was even very good friends with them, I just wanted to give it a shot, and we ended up all really loving working together.
Can you tell me about the inspiration for the song, Howl at the Moon?
That song is so special to me, it was one of those five-minute-songs that just rushed through me — which sounds so fucking annoying and pretentious — (but I do think theres an ethereal element to writing). I wrote it about my best friend in the whole world, Zeynep — she was an exchange student from Turkey when I was a sophomore in highschool. We were absolutely inseparable. I don’t know STILL if I’ve recovered from her leaving. The song was just about how much I wanted her to come home to me so we could keep having bike rides on the Mississippi. She kept me living really authentically and wildly, because I knew she was going to leave, so we were constantly doing something. And I had just started getting really depressed (later to be diagnosed with clinical depression), and she kept me feeling like there was something out there to continue to seek. Just a little love letter to my best friend. 🙂
Tell me about the songs on the new album. When did you write the songs? How long have you been working on them? I interviewed Justin Courtney Pierre about his new (solo) album and it sounded like you two met via the interwebs and you appeared in his music vid now he’s on your new single. Can you give me the details about how you met him and what it’s been like working together? Who else did you collaborate with and what’s the most important quality in a bandmate or someone you collaborate with? I know Jillian Rae was involved in one of your videos too. To me the music community here seems, for the most part really supportive in a way that other cities are not. How do you feel about the community and do you feel the familial vibe that seems to be apparent to outsiders?
Yes! Some songs were written [in the] Bomba de Luz days, but most were written in-and-after drinking. They always say for someone’s “debut” record it takes them (insert however -old-they-are-in-years) to write. So this record took me 24 years. And it’s about my life until now.
Justin hand-to-god was a hero of mine when I was a kid. I remember the day I got the “commit this to memory” by motion city CD. I listened to it religiously. I cried so much to “make out kids” and “feels like rain”. I had been with a friend and he said his friend Justin was looking for a guitarist and backup singer, and my jaw dropped, and I auditioned and somehow I got the gig. I don’t think I got the gig because I’m any good at guitar. Justin says it’s because I’m a weirdo, but a weirdo just like him. We just got along really well and challenge each other the way friends should. I am so lucky to have him and his little family in my life, my life has become so much richer for it.
I collaborated with a lot of people I really wanted to collaborate with. The band I have now are people I hand-picked because I loved what they did. Jillian Rae is one of the most incredibly loving and generous friends I’ve ever had.
I think you’re right about the community, there is a genuine care. It’s very close and very small and very colorful.
For the new album, did most of these songs come to you post sobriety? Or some before, some after? What did your creative process look like, before and after becoming sober, if it changed at all?
My favorite thing about getting sober is how much quieter my inner critic became. It is so much less harsh when it is there. I read this really wonderful book called “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert where she talks about showing up for your art — whatever that avenue may be — and giving it the respect it deserves. So I try to show up for it every day, even if that means sitting at a notebook. I have to write every day, a song or not, or I can tell my brain is a lot more sheepish about working for me.
Before I got sober I couldn’t even sit with myself or my thoughts or my ideas. I think when I got sober the vision became clear again, and goals became so much more attainable, and ideas were set in motion, and it was all easier. I don’t know if that makes sense.
What was it like having a song go viral? (re: Baby It’s Cold Outside Rewrite) It had to be wild to be on CNN. How much did that bolster your career if at all? What expectations did you have coming out of all that national coverage? Were those expectations met?
Going viral was a lot more stressful than I can explain. It felt like everything hinged on it. And at the time I was actually drinking a lot, unsure of my path, unsure of everything, and it gave me this false hope everything’d change. It didn’t. It didn’t massively bolster my career – mostly people were mad. But we got to donate a lot of money. That’s all that mattered, that’s all that matters. I’m happy to front the people who are angry every fricken holiday season, though.
You talked about this a little in the City Pages story, but if you feel comfortable talking about it more, can you elaborate on the struggles you had as a young musician playing notable venues and being around “adults” all the time. If you could go back to that time and give yourself some advice, what would you say or what would you do differently?
Yeah, man. I had a hard time reckoning with the lack of safety I was afforded. I was constantly surrounded by adults, and drinking, and my age was misjudged and I was made to feel a lot older than I was. Being expected to act a certain age when you’re seriously just not there yet was a lot for me. I lost most of my highschool friends. I would have told myself to come back home to myself more. To have kept my friends. To keep it cool. To have drank less. To start fucking meditating or something. I was a massively anxious kid and it’s taken me until now, and still, to get even close to a handle on it. And to be surrounded by nearly 30 year olds when you’re sixteen is a massive age-shock. They’re dealing with parenthood and adult relationships and I thought I had to grow up so much faster than I really did. In actuality, nothing was being asked of me. No one was asking anything of me. But I felt this massive pressure of some big “ask”, and I didn’t afford myself innocence. That wasn’t very good for my self-worth, the way I saw myself, my confidence, anything. I constantly thought I was behind, when I really was comparing myself to literal adults when I was a literal kid. But I didn’t even get that large-scale-national-scope shit. I cannot imagine how child stars feel, but I feel an ache when I think about it.
You decided to do a kickstarter for your album, how did you come to that decision and do you think that’s a good (business) model for artists to use to get things made?
A kickstarter wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do, because I don’t like to ask for help, they’re a huge risk, yadda yadda. It can also sometimes get a bad rap. But I thought I’d for this one-time, ask for help and promise a better result than people were expecting by spending as long as I was comfortable on it, spending the money well, putting it back into the community, paying my friends, and making it this huge effort that was shared among many. I don’t think it’s a very good business model. But the people that love you want to see you do what you love to do, and if they can, they’re going to trust you and take that risk with you. And the rest of it is a massive act of gratitude; the packaging, the shipping, the communicating-directly-with-your-supporters, it’s a symbiotic relationship that has to be handled really lovingly and carefully. And if you’ve got gratitude and respect, you’ll have no problem doing that — if you realize deeply and truly what people are doing for you, you’ll give that much effort right back. I would be nothing without the nurturing and patience and love and care I have been afforded, and for that I am massively grateful.
How does it feel to be making music in 2019, Trump era, #metoo era? Do you feel empowered? Do you feel a responsibility to comment on the societal things that are happening? Do you feel discouraged? What do you think the role of an artist is in times like these?
Re: #metoo, I think call-out culture is important. I think cancel culture is dangerous. I’d like to focus in on some sort of restorative justice, but we’re just not there yet and as a culture we’ve got no fucking idea what accountability looks like. I think putting any sort of pressure on yourself to be the next free-wheeling Bob Dylan is toxic to your own self, too. I just write what I like and hope people connect, and as an individual, I try to constantly seek accountability and care and compassion in my relationships. I haven’t been good at it. I’m a selfish addict trying to retrain this wild brain that picked up all kinds of shitty coping mechanisms. I’m still not good at it, but we should all constantly seek to be better, and seek accountability, and face the scary, heavy, head-and-heart-pounding stuff. Every person you meet has a trigger, a trauma, had an alcoholic parent or an abusive relationship, and all we can do is try to be tender to that, and in turn be tender to ourselves through navigating that.
It goes without saying that women put up with a lot of crap in the music industry and even as things appear to be turning around (slowly), there are obviously still obstacles to overcome. How do you handle mansplainers, misogyny, or men you encounter who try to make you feel less than? What can men do to be better allies for women?
Fuck, I literally just started this quest this year. Even just identifying misogyny was really hard for me in the beginning. I think a lot of men genuinely don’t know., which makes it so hard to change those behaviors. I think I’m still guilty of a whole lot of smiling-and-nodding. And the search to find how to hold my abusers accountable has been difficult too, because women make so much space for men… Because our safety is threatened when we’re trying to hold others accountable. Recently my mantra’s been “It is not your job to make him feel comfortable.” But it’s rampant. And men gotta do a lot of educating for themselves. I genuinely think there should be a lot more hand-holding by men for men, a lot more men-calling-men-out out, women are tired. We’ve put in a fuck ton of foot work.
Where is your favorite venue to play and why?
I think anyone you ask this question to is going to say First fucking Avenue mainroom! The history. The staff. The ~ambiance~.
Will you be playing any venues in Southern MN in support of the new album?
I sure hope so. I’ll keep you posted.
You played Big Turn Music Fest this year in Red Wing. Can you tell me how that went for you and if there are any notable differences between your Twin Cities fans and the fans in the outskirts of MN?
I love Big Turn, I love Red Wing. I don’t think there’s a huge difference.
What do you want people to know about the new album? Is there a clear theme or message you want to get across?
I just want people to connect with it. There’s no story, no beautiful mythology to it. I didn’t leave my life and run to a cabin. I got sober because I had to, and a lot of people have to. It’s called Of Unsound Mind… because who isn’t of unsound mind!?
Are there any particularly great stories about recording the new album? Something funny that happened during the process or something really cool that happened by accident or without trying? Maybe a song was supposed to sound one way but went another.
The song “Starting to Choke” used to be a jazz ballad. Then I joined Justin Courtney Pierre’s band and got pop punk flowing through me. (Who am I kidding, it was always there). So I pulled on some influences like Brand New and Fall Out Boy and all of those influences and came into rehearsal today and I said, “guys, I’m sorry, but Starting to Choke is a pop punk song,” and we played it, and it was, and so it became, and so now it shall be, and also with you.
What are your plans for the future? Do you see yourself in the market for a big record deal?
I’m at the 20-something age where I’m absolutely positive I need to leave the country, backpack, lose myself, find myself, be myself, move to a different state, go back to college, drop out again, get more tattoos, cover up some tattoos, make new friends, reorient, settle down while going crazy. It’s a new story every day. I can’t keep track. I’m restless and I haven’t started and I’m already over it because I’ve been at it. I don’t know about record deals. I don’t know anything. I just want to have a farm with a couple cows, and fifteen dogs, and a big window over my sink where my horses can peak in and give me forehead kisses while I do the dishes.
Who would your dream collaboration be with? Any musician, songwriter or singer (someone alive that you could actually work with if the opportunity rose).
Neko Case, Lissie, Miley Cyrus. I want to be surrounded by empowered women who empower women. Babes supporting babes.
Of Unsound Mind is out now, wherever you digest music.
By Sarah Osterbauer