“I think only one person dies on the album. The rest is open for debate. I’ve certainly shown them the way out. If they can’t find it, it’s their own fault!”
That’s the story behind Haul Away!, the second album from Manchester-based singer/songwriter Liz Green. After the runaway success of O Devotion!, Green has continued to confound and surprise with her leftfield combination of dark pop tunes, folk ditties and intense torch songs.
Returning to Toe Rag Studios, with producer Liam Watson once again at the helm, the results are pure magic as Green steers her piano compositions into a heady sea of bass, saxophone, drums, tuba, trombone, cello and flute parts. It sounds like her ‘most cheerful’ songs to date, she admits.
“Like O, Devotion!,” she adds, “some of the songs on it have had a pretty long gestation period. Things creep around my brain for a long time before I can catch them. I don’t write quickly. I am not, and will never be, a prolific artist. I am a very slow artist.” But it’s a quality that can be forgiven when the results are so special.
“But I feel O, Devotion! was a dry bitter earth of an album,” admits Green. “And Haul Away! is a breath of the edge of the world. The Ground v The Sea I suppose. Hopefully it sounds a little more like me.”
Ahead of her August appearances at the Cloudspotting Festival in Slaidburn, Lancashire and a gig at Hallé St Peters in Manchester, Green sat down with us to offer a few thoughts on what she has planned for the long haul…
You won the emerging talent at Glastonbury in 2007 from a field of 2,000 competitors. But you only released your debut album in 2011. Describe those four years between playing Glastonbury and releasing O Devotion! And at the time of your win, a BBC journalist in Somerset described you as sounding like a ‘shy Nina Simone’ – what did you make of that?
It was confusing and overwhelming and exciting and terrifying all at once. It was all so sudden. I often say that I have done my career in reverse. It began on the Pyramid Stage in Glastonbury and I worked backwards from there. I think it took four years to make an album because I had only written about six or seven songs at that point…I needed a few more. And I had never really contemplated making an album, and didn’t know how to even go about it… it took me four years to fall in with this group of wonderful friends and musicians in Manchester I get to call my band. We went on tour for years, we played together and drank together and smoked together and crashed vans together in foreign countries. We made our own myths and stories…then made an album.
As far as being described as a “shy Nina Simone”… that someone would see any shades of Nina Simone in what I do is a massive compliment. Still is.
You manage on O Devotion! to quite skilfully marry your voice to the distinctive arrangements. Stark acoustic guitars mix in perfectly with brass, giving tracks like the brilliant Displacement Song an almost Brecht/Weill tone to them. How do you manage to achieve that balance?
I think the sonic balance, if that’s what you mean, is entirely down to Liam Watson! ‘Old Bat Ears’ we called him. He just knows precisely where to place things in the mix to create this full, warm and live sound. My ears are rubbish I’m never really sure what instrument I’m hearing. I work on the principle that people can do what they want, after all, they know best about what their instruments can do, and Liam knows best about what his do. And If I don’t like it I’ll tell them!
It’s a half-concious conincidence that it sounds like Brecht/Weill… to be honest I hadn’t even listen properly to that stuff until people started referencing it in reviews. I like old musicals though, and that boozy, woozy late night brass was something I thought would work well with the music. Also those were the instruments my friends played…. a ready made tiny brass section.
Three years later, and Haul Away! has arrived. And the piano has taken a larger role in your songwriting. You use the instrument to really get your hooks into the listener – such as on the first verse of the title track with its clever head-fake – and share a bit of a sombre, lilting despair. It’s a real end-of-the-night song. What are you hauling? And where does the melancholy come from in your tunes?
I simply started playing piano for convenience sake. I live in one room in a shared house and moved a piano in with me. I can play piano from the bed. I have to walk across the room to reach the guitar.
Haul Away is just a nautical term for ‘go’. You haul up the anchor and set sail for somewhere different. It’s an escapist fantasy tune really. Everyone feels sometimes that they don’t quite fit in, in this place, or this time or whatever. I often feel born out of time, just slightly out of step with the rest of the world. This tune just imagines that there’s a boat leaving that can take all of us misfits on a journey. A boat with a hole in (we have a small budget), but a boat with a hole in is still a boat and will still get us there. It’s party inspired by a short story called ‘Pipes’ by Etgar Keret. In his story a man builds a giant pipe and crawls through it to another land.
Recorded live on vintage tape machines, everything about Haul Away! feels lovingly crafted but also very natural, with the songs flowing effortlessly and at their own stately, patient pace. Did the sessions seem to come naturally? Or is that illusion much harder to create than it seems?
I don’t really know. None of it’s easy. Effortlessness is not something I was born with. It’s the sound of a band of friends working really hard and enjoying what they do. What I intended to do was try and make it sound as live as possible. Because I think when I play live is when I give my best versions of all these songs. So I wanted everyone, as far as possible, to be playing live in Liam’s one room studio together. I think it worked out pretty well. I’m pretty proud we got through a lot of those songs in one take without making any (really) wrong notes. Recording to tape keeps that liveliness I think. It’s mixed live as well (it’s something to behold – you can’t save anything and carry on – each mix will be different) , so it retains that idea of manual process and life (and mistakes) in it at every step of the way. It’s imperfectness is part of it’s charm.
Bessie Smith and Edith Piaf are two artists that frequently crop up when your music is discussed. Are those names big influences for you? If so, how do they factor into your songwriting?
When I first started writing music I was listening to all this old blues and jazz music that I had just discovered. And it was one of those experiences when music blows your mind apart. I’d never heard anything like it. So close. These people sounded like they were singing right inside my head. I like that. And it’s almost entirely responsible for me picking up the guitar and even thinking that I could make music at all. Because a lot of this stuff I liked best, was so raw and stripped back it sounded like garage and punk music. It was pre-war field recordings and street recordings. Just voices singing and tapping out rhythms with feet or tambourines. It sounds silly now, but most of the music I liked before that was bands and I didn’t know anyone else who played music at that time. But I thought if Son House can make songs with just a hand clap and a voice… maybe I could give it a go. Now Bessie and Edith are of different eras, a bit later and they became massive stars with whole bands behind them. But they began with nothing. Just talent and emotion and somekind of superhuman understanding of how to move people to joy and sadness with just a voice. I like that. I like voices that sound like no-one else. No-one sound like Bessie, no-one like Edith… same with more modern singers I admire like Anthony Hegarty and Baby Dee. I use it too like that, as the best method I have to communicate with people and have some fun.
Liam Watson has produced and recorded both of your albums at his Toe Rag Studios. Why him? And what does Liam bring to the table that you enjoy?
Liam’s ears are amazing. And I had tried so many times to record the first album in different scenarios and it never sounded like how it sounded in my head and I couldn’t understand why not. The first time I went to Liam’s place, he had microphones already set up and I sang into them. When he played it back it was the first time I sounded like I thought I sounded like in my head. He just had a natural understanding of what to do with me and my band. It’s easy working with him. And we’re really lucky to have that chance. It just works.
You live in Manchester. Not a place that’s very close to the sea. Yet you’ve painted the sea onto your face on the album cover, built of tears judging by the great video for Haul Away! Are you tipping your hat to the tradition of sea shanties and similar old school story-telling? Titles such as Island Song or the ‘strong winds’ on Into My Arms enhance that sense of a nautical theme. Or is it just a case of wishful coastline thinking?
I live in Manchester, have done for 12 years, but I grew up in West Kirby and Liverpool. So, utterly by the sea. I didn’t have to dream any of it. I lived for 20 years on the North West coast of Britain. A misspent childhood getting drunk in sand dunes. I must have a hundred photos of the skies above the Dee and every single one is different. It’s a beautiful place to go. Dull if you’re 14. But you’re close enough to Liverpool that there’s always something going on. I think it’s true that growing up by the sea gets into your bones. I like being by the sea. It’s the knowledge that you’re at the end of the land, and there’s other countries and people out there over a sea. I just think somehow those things started feeing into songs for this album. Missing it, I suppose. I love Manchester, but it’s not by the sea. It would be the most perfect city in the world if it was.
How do you like to translate the songs from your albums to the stage? Do you prefer to keep things faithful to the studio tracks or try something different?
Every time I play the songs they’re slightly different. Keeps it interesting. Some of these songs I’ve been playing for 8 years now. To keep them relevant to yourself they naturally change. I find different bits in them mean different things over time. And sometimes I forget bits, make other bits up, play things in the wrong key (which is fun for the band to try and keep up). But it’s not massively different. It’s not like I stick a drum machine and a synthesizer on them. But it’s dependant on which, if any, members of my band are playing with me. On this tour it has been everything from just me solo to a full eight-piece band. Keeps it different every night.
How much time do you spend writing and rehearsing? And do you tend to have fully-realised versions of songs before you get a band together? Or just lyrics? How do you like to work?
It’s never entirely the same. To ask how long I spend doing stuff reminds me a bit of my dad. To quantify how many songs I’ve written or how long they are…hehehehe! I think for it to remain interesting and spontaneous there’s no way of forcing a pattern upon creativity. I would say I rarely turn off. Whatever I’m doing I’m always carrying a book to jot ideas down in. I think most people in any kind of creative pursuit would say the same thing. Whether it’s conversations you overhear, potential song titles, fragments of lyrics that appear in my head which will (and do) disappear unless you write them down immediately.
John Cleese once gave a really interesting speech about creativity which is well worth a watch. You can spend infinite time coming up with ideas and trying stuff out. But at some point you’ve got to try and stop coming up with ideas and try to implement the ones you have. That’s kinda how it worked this time. I write the melodies and lyrics and gradually work with arrangements with my friends. Usually by doing live shows and them just having to play along. So a pretty natural development. Each time a bit different. I don’t really like turning it into a song factory. I find it can take the joy and sponteneity out of it.
And finally, name another Green you would like to be and why. Soul singer Al Green? Jazz trombonist Bennie Green? French actress Eva Green? Or rapper Professor Green?
Elizabeth Green, The Stork Woman. She was a sideshow performer in the 1930s, the original Koo Koo The Bird Girl. Maybe I would not actually want to be her as such, she was certainly exploited to a turn as a lot of sideshow performers were. But she became very famous in her time and had an amazing interesting life. She was one of the stars of Tod Browning’s 1932 film, Freaks.
Liz Green’s album Haul Away! is out now through PIAS. Tour dates and further information can be found at lizgreenmusic.co.uk