Liz Longley

by Carl Wiser

Liz Longley has a degree in songwriting. That's not a metaphor - at the Berklee College of Music, you can major in songwriting, where you learn how to do things like "synthesize and apply knowledge of contemporary and traditional song lyrics to the composition of original lyrics."

After graduating from Berklee in 2010 with an assortment of awards, she went to work as a singer/songwriter in Nashville. Years of songwriting retreats and solo, acoustic performances paid off when Sugar Hill Records signed her in 2014. Her first album on the label, Liz Longley, contains many of the songs she has honed over the years recorded with a group of top-tier Nashville cats, JT Corenflos, Michael Rhodes, Allen Salmon and Gus Berry among them.

Liz writes meticulously crafted tunes that deal with matters of the heart. We spoke with her about the inspirations for some of these songs, and exactly what she learned at Berklee.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): Many of your songs feature prominently, a guy. Is this the same guy who keeps showing up over and over?

Liz Longley: No one's ever asked me that. It is not. Throughout the album it's not the same guy, but it's like 90 percent the same guy. And he knows, so we're good.

Songfacts: It seems like having a bad relationship, one that really makes an imprint on you, is very important for a songwriter.

Liz: Unless you have an amazing story of how you grew up and have a lot that you can draw from, I guess it is. In my case, it is.

Songfacts: Before your Sugar Hill deal, did you record the songs that are on the album?

Liz: Two years ago I made a Kickstarter album. I recorded it but didn't want to release it. In March it will come out, but I've been playing those songs for a couple years now: "Out of my Head," "Memphis," "Skin and Bones," "Camaro."

Songfacts: What's it like when you write a song, you put your heart into it, then you go out and play it for an audience?

Liz: It has a weird way of helping me work through it. It means the most to me when someone else can relate to it and help them through what they're going through. By the time I've gotten to the stage with it, I feel like I've worked through a lot of it. Writing a song is very therapeutic.

Songfacts: You have a song called "Peace of Mind." It seems to deal with self-doubt. When your are up there doing your thing, you're constantly being evaluated. Very few people deal with that - most of us go into our boss' office for a performance review once a year, and it's pretty stressful. I'm thinking about what that's like for you when every time you perform, or you read a review, or someone says something on the internet or social media, you're being judged.

Liz: That's exactly what that song's about, and being on stage, a lot of people ask, "What are you thinking about when you're singing," and unfortunately there are a lot of times when I can't quiet my mind and I'm constantly worried about what someone's face means or why they pulled out their phone. Am I boring them? It's a lot of negative self talk. So that song serves as a checkpoint for me in my set: just quiet my mind, do what I love to do and not let my self-doubt take over and take away from the joy of getting to do what I love to do. Over the years I've gotten better at it and learned to be in the moment and not listen to that negative talk.

I think we're all guilty of it whether we're on stage or not. My self-doubt comes into play when I'm not around people and when I'm not doing what I love. I feel most at peace when I'm making music. The only self-doubt I have when I'm on stage is, Am I boring them? But I doubt my worst when I'm not doing music.

Songfacts: How does that play into the songs about your relationships? Do you ever get concerned that you're overthinking things and the guy isn't thinking about things nearly as hard as you are?

Liz: Well that's pretty much always the case with men and women. Girls are usually thinking about it more than their partners.

Songfacts: Tell me about one of your true-life songs that describes some intriguing events that happened to you.

Liz: "Bad Habit" and "Camaro" are the two that really come from the truest of places. "Bad Habit" was a guy that I was not dating for a very long time at all, but it was an intense, short-lived relationship. He had a lot of bad habits: he loved to smoke, and I'd never dated a smoker; he liked to drink and he got a little wild, and he just had this crazy side - artistic crazy, not like the bro at the bar screaming at the television. He was very artistic, unpredictable, and very intriguing to me. But he quickly became my bad habit - it was just such an unhealthy relationship.

Songfacts: Was there really a Camaro, or was that just a metaphor?

Liz: It's just a metaphor. I drive a mini-van, and he drives a Subaru.

Songfacts: Camaro people are an interesting breed. Did you have any insight on that?

Liz: I did not. I actually called my brother and said, "I need a car that represents my relationship. It needs to be red, hot and vintage. What is it?" He said, "It's a Camaro."

Songfacts: The guys who own Camaros spend a lot of time working on them, and sometimes the women in their lives feel neglected and feel that the car is getting better treatment than they are.

Liz: Well, in the song I was his red hot vintage Camaro, and he spent a lot of time on me. That's why I felt like he just got his shiny new thing.

Songfacts: Tell me about your song "Rush," where you come up with a really good line: "A rush of blood to your heart." That's a line that sounds like it's out there but I don't think I've heard it.

Liz: I wrote that while watching television, which never happens. I had The Office on, and Pam and Jim had their first kiss. I had the sound off and the guitar in my hands, so I wrote the song while watching that scene. I was in a great relationship at the time, so I was in love and I did have that feeling, so I pulled from that. But Pam and Jim inspired it.

Songfacts: How do you write a song?

Liz: Every time is different. I'm usually with my instrument when it happens - I don't write a ton when I'm driving or in the shower or anything like that, but you have to be prepared for the moment.

Sometimes I'll have this feeling that I just need to express and I don't have the words for it yet but I'll have the melody or vice-versa. So you never know.

Songfacts: Do you write all of your songs by yourself?

Liz: I write most of my songs by myself, but when I moved to Nashville three years ago I got involved in the songwriting community. Songwriting is a huge thing here, so I jumped in. Over the first four months I lived in Nashville I co-wrote 40 songs, and they were all with people I'd never met before, so it was a really great way to get to know people in town, and I have some songs I really like from that period in my life.

Songfacts: How does that work? You move to Nashville and you have a music publisher that hooks you up with other songwriters?

Liz: I think that happens for most people, but I at the time was not signed to a publishing company - I just signed a publishing deal for the first time a couple of months ago. It's just a matter of getting out there and saying, "Hey, I love your music and I'd like to write with you sometime." It's a very small town and everybody loves to connect people: "Hey, you guys should write together."

Songfacts: Your song "This Is Not The End" you wrote with some other folks, didn't you?

Liz: Yeah. That one I wrote with three songwriters I'd never met. They're all with Razor & Tie publishing. Razor & Tie had a songwriting camp, so we wrote this song called "This Is Not The End" and recorded it that day. A few weeks later we found out it was going to be on the finale of this Lifetime television show called Army Wives. It was a really cool thing to happen. I was not expecting that.

Songfacts: You used a full band on this album.

Liz: It's an amazing group of musicians. They've played with everyone from Stevie Nicks to Etta James to Keith Urban to Taylor Swift. They've played on so many records that I love listening to and have been very influential to me. So to work with players like that was such a treat.

Songfacts: You're used to being an acoustic performer. What was it like bring these songs into a studio setting with a bunch of people who know what they're doing?

Liz: It was invigorating. It was just an honor to see these people putting in so much time and passion into songs that I had never really shared with other musicians. It meant a lot.

Songfacts: What is the Berklee experience like?

Liz: I walked away thinking it was the best thing I ever did. I did my best when I was there to make the most of every opportunity. I got as involved as I possibly could.

I was a songwriting major because I wanted to learn how to tear my songs to absolute shreds and then put them back together. Some people that I met along the way didn't want to take a songwriting class because they didn't want it to ruin what they had. So there are different views on it, but I can't say enough great things about Berklee. My professors changed my life and I stay in touch with many of them.

It was the only school I applied to. If I didn't get in I was going to try to be a full-time singer/songwriter, but thank God I got in, because there was so much to learn, and I still feel like there's a lot to learn. I wish I could go back. If I could afford it, I would.

Songfacts: When you're talking about what you're learning, is it technical stuff like "let's put a bridge here or move this note around," or is it more artistic stuff?

Liz: The songwriting classes are more technical, and that's what I liked about it. It's not hippy-dippy stuff like, [in yoga instructor voice] "Go get centered and write a song." It was like, Let's talk about the phrasing, where the notes hit in the bar and what that means. Let's talk about back-heavy phrasing and how this syllable sounds here.

It's not super-artsy, it's more technical and learning the mechanics. Things that the average ear wouldn't know to listen for, but when you use it is more powerful than you would think.

Songfacts: What's an example of something the average ear wouldn't notice that you could use to enhance the song?

Liz: Let's say you have a lyric that is very uneasy. If it's falling on the one or the three on a stable beat, then it doesn't match the feeling. So if you make it more of a back-heavy phrase and it has more of an uneasy feeling, it will match the lyrics. But no one will listen to a song and go, "They should have really made this phrase more back-heavy." Most people don't think about prosody when they're listening to a lyric.

Songfacts: Did you say "prosody"?

Liz: Yeah. It's the phrasing matching the meaning of a lyric.

Songfacts: That's a word I've never heard before.

Liz: That's so funny, I said that word to someone yesterday and they said the same thing.

Songfacts: It must be a Berklee thing.

Liz: Maybe. Pat Pattison [Berklee professor] talks all about prosody.

Songfacts: What's the song that you've written that you have the greatest connection with.

Liz: It just depends on the day. A large majority of my songs are very personal and that makes it really easy to get in that headspace every time I sing them because I know what inspired the song. Sometimes I'll sing "Peace of Mind" and I'll just go, "I really needed to hear that today. I needed to remind myself that I don't have to have that negative inner dialogue." And sometimes I'll sing a song about my grandmother having Alzheimer's, and I'll really be missing her. It depends on what I'm going through.

Songfacts: "Unravelling" is the song about your grandmother, right?

Liz: Yes.

Songfacts: Is she still around?

Liz: No, she passed away several years ago. It was extremely tough. It was hardest for my dad, which I realize now. My grandmother lived with my family for seven or eight years while she had very severe Alzheimer's. She didn't remember any of us. What was funny was that my mother, who is not related to her in any way, she always remembered my mother, but she thought my dad was my brother or her dad or her husband, but never her son. It was really an emotional time and hard to watch. So writing that song was very therapeutic for me.

Songfacts: Is it hard to perform that song?

Liz: It's different songs on different nights. Sometimes I'll play a song and think, I can handle this. And other nights I think, If I see someone crying in the crowd I'm going to lose it. It just depends.

Songfacts: What is your favorite part of the job?

Liz: Meeting the people along the way, hearing their stories, and hoping my stories resonate with them. After I play a show I'll hang around and talk with people. That's my favorite part. I'll stand around until everyone's gone.

March 9, 2015. Get more at lizlongley.com.

Here are the credits on the album:
Michael Rhodes - Acoustic Bass, Bass
Nir Z - Drums
Tom Bukovac - Electric Guitar
Marco Giovino - Shovels, Bells, Shells, Percussion
JT Corenflos - Electric Guitar, Slide Guitar
Danny Rader - Gut-String Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Hi-Strung Guitar, Accordion, Bazouki, Mandola
John Hobbs - Piano, B3
Allen Salmon - Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Bass, Keys, Percussion, Background Vocals
Madison Berry - Background Vocals
Gus Berry - Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Lead Guitar, Piano, Programming, Background Vocals, Slide Guitar, Tambourine, Bass, Whisper, Wah Wah Guitar, Hi-Strung Guitar
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