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The Sea, The Sea: An Interview With Liz Green
John Freeman , April 15th, 2014 05:04

Manchester-based folk singer Liz Green tells John Freeman how her new album Haul Away was inspired by the ocean and recorded while trying to avoid eye contact with a Grammy

Liz Green may have just found the best pub in the world. After ordering a point of local ale and a glass of white wine, I'm given a slug of change back from a fiver, having paid just £3.80 for two actual drinks. Price wise, it's as if we've been transported back to 1985. Life rarely gets any better. Cheap booze aside, I've met Green in Levenshulme, Manchester to talk about her second album, Haul Away!. With her haunting croon – which at times sounds akin to one of her musical heroes, Billie Holliday – stage centre, Haul Away! is an often evocative, always fascinating record that takes Green's trademark folk leanings and adds splashes of baroque pop, vaudeville music hall ditties and even the hint of a sea shanty.

Indeed, the sea provided a significant source of inspiration for Haul Away!. Green talks about growing up in the Wirral and a childhood spent walking across sandbanks to small islands that became accessible at low tide. A number of songs on Haul Away!, be it the title track, 'Island Song' or 'Where The Rivers Don't Flow', hint at a deep-rooted relationship with the ocean, while the striking cover artwork for the album depicts Green crying salty tears that form a deep blue sea on her face and upper torso.

Green's musical odyssey took a little while to begin. She didn't write her first song until in her early twenties, and after winning Glastonbury's Emerging Talent garland in 2007, released a debut album O, Devotion! in 2011. Both her debut and its newly released follow-up were recorded by Liam Watson at his Toe Rag studios in London, with the help of close friends on accompanying instruments.

Green's music is often described as 'quirky', and I had intended to ask her about how she felt about such a description. In the end I decide against it; Green doesn't seem at all quirky, she's just very funny, self-deprecating and inquisitive. Even at her most tangential - at one point she drifts into synaesthetic territory by describing O, Devotion! as "brown and dusty" due to the album "feeling rooted in the earth," while Haul Away! being "less rooted but having sea legs" - Green, like her music, makes complete sense.

Where did the 'sea on the face' idea for Haul Away! come from?

Liz Green: The original 'sea on the face' I painted on myself. I took a selfie and sent it to my friend who does my photos. It wasn't as good as the cover shot, as the only colour eyeliner I had was brown, so it was a brown sea and a pretty grim sea. If it had a beach it definitely would not have got a green flag.

Did you have an initial idea for how you wanted the new album to sound?

LG: Not really. The first album was the first ten songs I'd written and, in a way, album two is the second ten songs I've written. There isn't a wealth of material sitting there. I worked out that I probably write four songs a year. I'm by no means prolific. So, album two was more a continuation of writing.

If you average four a year, how long ago did you start writing songs?

LG: Well, when I started making music I had never been in a band and not really played an instrument. That was when I was 21. That's quite late in music terms, to suddenly decide to write a song on a guitar I'd never played before. So, it was a massive surprise to write a song and then I wrote another one. I then went to an open mic night, which was the bravest thing I've ever done – which makes me sound pathetic. It was only a minor act of heroism, but playing two songs at an open mic night changed my entire life.

I can imagine. What are your memories of that night?

LG: I played two songs to my feet. No one knew beforehand that I could play guitar. It went quiet, and I didn't know if that was a good thing. When I looked up after I had finished, people were just looking at me wide-eyed and then started clapping. I am quite a shy person so it still surprises me that I did it.

If I think about Haul Away!, there seems to be some cohesive themes running through the album. How would you describe the record's narrative flow?

LG: Each song is like a little episode of an odyssey. There is a lot about islands and the sea - I grew up by the sea, on the coast on the Wirral - and I related the album in some subconscious way to the fact that I probably spent three or four years travelling over, under or on an ocean on the way to various places, and not being very near my home.

I'm a bit on a landlubber. I'd imagine if I grew up next to the sea I would have a very different relationship with it. Is there an aspect of Haul Away! that is about you missing being close to the sea?

LG: I think so. And you don't really realise it until you are gone. I always think that Manchester would be the most perfect city in the world if it were next to the sea. We have a canal, but it's not quite the same. For me, it's more about being in the proximity of the edge of something. I always remember being quite aware as a kid that the beach was the edge of the world and we could see Wales from where we lived.

Just as you did for your debut album, Haul Away! was recorded by Liam Watson at his Toe Rag studios. I always associate Toe Rag with Elephant by The White Stripes.

LG: I don't ask Liam about that album. I was intimidated by studios and microphones in general and the fact he'd recorded an album with The White Stripes was just another layer of intimidation in the recording process. However, the thing that topped it off was, the studio is all very homely-looking, but right in the corner on the top of a cabinet was a Grammy.

A Grammy? That is intimidating.

LG: It was best to not look at the Grammy.

  What is it about Liam that made you decide to stick with working with him? Many artists might decide to try a new approach for their second album.

LG: I did choose to do exactly the same thing. I'm a creature of habit and like working with people I know. I don't work with session musicians; I work with musicians that are my friends. And, what you have to remember is that I had many failed attempts at making a first album which took about four years. After that process, when the record label asked whether I wanted to make a second album, I just immediately thought "I want Liam, Toe Rag and my friends again." I wanted a second opportunity to have a crack at it, as I don't think we used the studio [on the debut album] as Liam intends it to be used.

And how is it intended to be used?

LG: Liam and I are both big country & western fans, and the idea of the studio is to record in the way those old country records were made, with a band in one room. The studio's dimensions are built for that. There is an energy you can get from playing live with other people. Because I was quite green and incompetent on the first record – I genuinely struggled to get through a song without making mistakes – I did all my parts separate to the band. With this record, I wanted the opportunity to do it live and try and capture that energy, which is what I think most people respond to from my music.

Was country & western the music you heard as a child?

LG: Sort of - I was a bit of a magpie really. My dad was into 60s dad music, so we had The Who, The Stones, The Byrds and Dylan and a ton of Beatles, plus a bit of Motown. My mum liked Pennies From Heaven and old time jazz stuff from the 30s and 40s. I also love musicals. I wander around wishing everybody would just break into song and dance, and thinking how much better the world would be.

So, where do the folk influences come from?

LG: As a teenager I got into alt. country – things like Ryan Adams and Willard Grant Conspiracy - and from there started to delve further back, which is where I met Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash, and then Billie Holliday and Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Blind Willie McTell. They became the most important musicians for me.

Your voice is very distinctive. Have you ever had singing lessons?

LG: [No], it's just how I sing. I haven't had any lessons. I was in a choir at school. I think I was a first soprano. Then I started smoking, and I was no longer able to be the first soprano or a second soprano or any soprano at all. I don't smoke anymore. Being an asthmatic smoking singer is a bad combination.

I remember seeing you play live in Manchester Art Gallery last year and instant you started singing I sensed a response from the audience.

LG: I played a gig locally a couple of weeks ago and afterwards a woman said to me – and I don't think she was trying to be offensive and I kind of understood watch she meant – that I sound like a deaf person who has never heard music properly before. So, my voice does elicit a response from quite a lot of people but I am happy to sound different. I enjoy people who do sound different, like Björk or Antony Hegarty.

Finally, back in 2007 you won the Emerging Talent award at Glastonbury. How was that experience?

LG: It was wonderful and completely surreal, but it was a dream that I hadn't had the chance to have. Up until that point I had done seven gigs and two of them were two-song gigs. So, I drank a bottle of rum and opened the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury on the Saturday morning. My dressing room was next to Seasick Steve and Lily Allen and a bunch of 'men in jeans' bands, like The Killers and Arctic Monkeys, who I wouldn't have recognised. I kept having to ask whether certain 'men in jeans' were famous. Also, it means I always think I began my career backwards. I began on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury and have ended up at the Klondyke in Levenshulme.

Liz Green's Haul Away! is out this week via Play It Again Sam

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