LIZ Is Ready to Pop
The Mad Decent singer-songwriter opens up about her pop music love.
LIZ wants to go, like, all the way pop. The handful of songs she's released this year proves it. They sound like something you'd hear at a middle school dance or on a Now That's What I Call Music! compilation, revisiting the halcyon era of Y2K R&B atop a more contemporary 808 thump. Part JoJo, part RiRi, this 26-year-old Valley girl is clearly attuned to of-the-moment trends and perennial pop tropes alike. It's a wonder she's not already in regular rotation on KISS-FMs across the country, tbh.
Maybe that's because pop just ain't what it used to be. These days, it seems like Billboard changes its rules every other week, and nobody can agree on what exactly constitutes a Number One Hit Smash Single. Plus, LIZ is signed to Mad Decent's Jeffree's imprint, which isn't quite the mainstream powerhouse despite Baauer's chart-topping "Harlem Shake" last winter. But now that mass appeal happens on a smaller scale, you don't need to actually sell a million records to sound like you do on the daily. LIZ is the teen pop idol that never was—but in the words of JC Chasez, "We're just fine / doin' what we like / Can we say the same for you?"
What on earth is pop music?
I guess what I'm doing right now—or attempting to do—is create the new pop star, which is that blurred line between what's underground and what's mainstream, and just mixing two different aesthetics together to create the perfect combo.
Do you think that pop always has to be a guilty pleasure? Or do you enjoy making music that people think is shameful to like?
Pop music has changed. I'm tongue-in-cheek about how my stuff is a guilty pleasure to some people, but I'm just making music that I like, and I hope other people like and puts a smile on their face, and it's very genuine to me. Times have changed—people are more open-minded, and we're just creating genuine stuff.
Your song with Riff Raff, "Underdogs," raises a lot of interesting questions. For instance, "Who she think she is? Who she tryna be?" And more important, "Where she get her sound?" I was wondering if you could shed some light.
Well, being a girl in this industry is hard, and you get a lot of people judging you, questioning you. Sometimes you meet certain A&Rs, and especially haters and whatnot—bass heads who want songs with massive wobbles and drops. They get kind of pissed off, and they go on Mad Decent's YouTube, and they're like, "What is this blond girl?"
Mad Decent's press release called "Hush," quote, "an essential anthem of every bedroom dance party if it dropped in June 2000." Isn't it too soon to be nostalgic for the 2000s?
No, I don't think so. Not for my generation! It is a bit funny, I know. I met Diane Warren, an amazing songwriter, and we were talking about my stuff, and I was like, "Yeah, you know, it's a little bit throwback nostalgia, like early 2000s, late '90s," and she was like, "Oh my god, I feel [freaking] old! Is that throwback to you?"
When we're preteens and teens, there's that sense of innocence when it comes to the music that we enjoy, and how we feel and react to it. I'm feeling that with my own music, and I'm just trying to let other people feel that again, to feel like you're in junior high again. It was a golden era, to me. Pop music was so exciting, and it was so flashy and colorful and glittery. I remember watching the VMAs when I was little, and watching Britney's performances, and Mya, and Aaliyah, and ★NSYNC, and stuff like that, and I was just like, "Wow, I wanna be a pop star!"
Where were you in June 2000, by the way?
June 2000, let's see... I had just entered junior high, so I was 13. That's when I first started writing—well, not so much writing, but working with producers and stuff. I started writing more in my later teens, 'cause, I mean, what do you have to write about when you're 13? I used to go to dance classes, like hip-hop and stuff, and there was a flyer to audition for this girl group. So I auditioned for it, and that's how I started meeting different producers and writers and getting in the studio and making songs. That was me back then. I don't know about June, but I think I went to an Usher concert that summer.
*NSYNC was definitely on tour that summer, as well. That was my first concert.
My first concert was Backstreet Boys. I was Team Backstreet Boys, and then I saw *NSYNC. *NSYNC was in Europe, they were doing their own thing, and then they started to get bigger over here, and I was like, "Whoa!" So I kind of became a little bit more of an *NSYNC fan after that.
Where are you from?
What's that like?
I'm sitting in my kitchen right now. It's beautiful, I love it here. It's so serene, and a very safe neighborhood, and lots of trees. I take long walks all the time with my dogs, and go to the park, and go rollerblading. If you saw my bedroom, you would think a 14-year-old lived there. I still live in the house that I grew up in.
It's in L.A., right? Is it kinda industry?
I guess it is a lot easier to find opportunities when you're young in L.A. I was always doing stuff ever since I was little. I was a ballerina for a bunch of years, and I danced with a professional ballet company for a few years, and I was acting as well, doing commercials and TV and stuff like that, ever since I was seven.
Were you dead set on becoming a musician from then on?
Yeah, ever since I was little, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I didn't go to college. My parents are luckily very supportive of me, and I actually home schooled for the last two years of high school because I had different management and stuff like that, and they would set me up with these writing sessions with amazing people, and I was like, "I'm not going to school today. I'm going to the session!"
How did you end up linking up with Diplo?
I was in a bunch of different studios. I started toplining for different people, which was weird in itself 'cause I'd always written songs from scratch. I had written some toplines for some DJs, so I got to know people in that community. That's how I got on the radar of Diplo and everyone over there—Paul Devro, Mad Decent. I've just been a fan of their label for so long that it wasn't even a question when they were like, "We're interested in putting out your stuff." I was like, "Done." No questions asked.
You did a bunch of features last year with EDM guys like Zedd, Rusko, and Nicky Romero. What's it like to work in such a male-dominated field?
It's pretty weird. I never wanted to be that house diva girl, but those collaborations would happen pretty organically. At the same time, I was still working on my own stuff, and I knew in my own stuff I wanted to be more R&B. Now, if I have any more features or collaborations in the future, I'm making sure that they're definitely more me. The features were a while ago, and I didn't really have all my [stuff] together yet. But it opened a lot of doors; it was cool.
All of your solo releases this year sound decidedly different.
Yeah, and there was a reason that I didn't put out anything beforehand. I feel actually very fortunate that I never released anything while I was still trying to figure it out. Patience is definitely worth it.
How would you describe your aesthetic? To me, it's a bit kawaii.
Yeah, totally. I went to Japan two years ago, and I fell in love with the culture, and it just made me feel like I was at home. It's just that innocence in the music. Definitely.
What were you doing in Japan?
This is so random. This Japanese producer hit me up on MySpace three years ago and was like, "I'm interested in having an American singer record some Japanese enka songs." It's like Japanese soul music, basically—the songs that all the businessmen cry to with kids at bars at 3 a.m. So I was like, "Yeah, I'm down!" He happened to live like five minutes away from me, and so we recorded all these Japanese songs and then I got to go to Tokyo for a few weeks. It was a super crazy, random adventure. I'm really excited for when I go back, 'cause I think I'll probably bust out one of those songs and surprise everyone.
When you're not recording Japanese songs, what is your process like in the studio?
It's pretty simple. I go through tracks with Paul Devro and my manager, and we pick out ones that we think are right for me and that inspire me. I write with the same people all the time, who I've been writing with for a long time—this guy Santell, who's a little blond kid from the Valley, and he's like my little brother. We're like R&B children of the corn—blond R&B kids. He is a major R&B head. We just write pretty much in his apartment and record there, and sometimes we'll record over at Mad Decent's studio. I also work with this guy Scott Bruzenak, who I've actually known since I was 17. We'll record at his studio in the Valley. It's really low-key. There's no crazy writing sessions; it's just us, and me with my salad, and dogs running around, and me probably crying sometimes, talking about what's going on in my life. Definitely therapy sessions. Tears over a salad.
The funny thing is, your songs sound like they cost a million bucks and were written by the Clutch. Remember them?
That's a compliment, thank you! They're great—some of my favorite Britney songs.
Blackout is amazing.
That's still my favorite Britney album, I don't care what anyone says. It was her dark era, and she created the best music then. Britney, secretly, she knows what's up.
Nick Harwood is on Twitter — @Stankarrhea