Picture this: you’re driving by yourself from Italy to Amsterdam. You have no music, and the radio isn’t working (gasp!). What should you do?
A) Drive in silence. 12 hours isn’t so bad.
B) Listen to music IN YOUR MIND. That’ll work, right?
C) Start brainstorming ideas for your next album by singing into your phone.
For singer and guitarist, Lizzy Ellison, the answer was C. The result will soon be heard on Cardioid’s second album release, which Ellison wrote mostly on a recent, music-less road trip in Europe. Formerly of Portland-based group, Radiation City, Ellison first started working on her own project, Cardioid, in summer of 2014, teaming up with drummer and producer (and former member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra), Riley Geare. Together, the two created their first release, the dreamy rock of this year's Parts Dept., a genre-spanning album inspired by different eras that covers the universal theme of love, relationships, and learning to be yourself.
We chatted with Ellison about the record’s genre-spanning sound, when her best ideas usually come to her and how she knows when a song is complete.
Marmoset: Can you tell us a little bit about Cardioid and how it started?
Lizzy Ellison: In the summer of 2014, I had started to write stuff on guitar. Stuff happening within the band allowed me to have some time to have to myself, and I approached Riley about helping me out with recording them. They were super bare ideas and I truly did not know how to play guitar at the time so it was very arduous, but we got the nine songs demoed out. Shortly thereafter I stopped working with him and we got back into Radiation City-land and forgot about it.
And then, last summer I got back from our European tour and approached Riley again and said, "Hey, I really want to get back into this and I've been playing more guitar. I feel a little bit more equipped" and we listened to the stuff that we had done two years prior and he was like, "I think we can use all of this." So we basically just built off of all of those demos and then throughout the next four or five months fine tuned things, got it mastered and then Radiation City broke up and I decided to put the record out a couple months later, just to have a piece of art that I had made on my own.
It sounds like you and Riley of you collaborate together pretty well. What does a successful collaboration look like to you?
Well, I think that with the previous project it was like, how can we write together in a democratic way where everybody feels like their voices are being heard and ideas are being executed? It's really hard to do that when everybody's really good at songwriting, because inevitably somebody's idea gets lost in the shuffle. With this project, I wanted to work with Riley more in a engineer/producer role. He played drums on all the stuff and any guitar stuff that I wasn't great at, he would do. But, I think that any collaborative process for musicians or artists really can vary depending on what you want and in this case, I wanted someone to just be able to hear my ideas without it being overly critical. More in a matter of fact way like, "Well, why don't you try playing it like this." Especially because I didn't really know what I was doing with the guitar.
I do all of the song writing and he lends an ear for a more...I don't want to say doubtful, but just how to expand on an idea without totally changing it. I think that's why it works with us.
Your album, Parts Dept., spans a lot of different genres, but overall it's really cohesive and fun to listen to. Can you talk about the decision to touch on different genres or where that came from?
When I started writing it, I had no concept that it would even be a record. But, eventually I was like, every song is sort of about the same thing: being in a relationship, trying to figure out how that works, who you are within that, and I thought, I like the idea that every song came from a genre but it all said the same thing, and being able to highlight that no matter what type of music you're playing and the message can still resonate equally.
What is one lyric that people might have missed on the album or not like hear on the first time that you wish everyone would hear?
On “Rainbow Road” the hook is, "You got me where you want me, too much can make you happy / We made the days grow longer, push up the front, be merry" and I think because the song is pretty solemn, you might not get the sort of...not sarcasm, but it's like, "Oh this is too good, push it away." "Oh, this is making me feel too happy, it's too good to be true." I think that we don't give ourselves enough credit when it comes to being happy and how important it is to embrace that when we do find it.
When do your best ideas usually hit you?
When I'm driving. A lot of this new record that we're working on came while I was...after Radiation City had toured in Europe last year, I decided to stay. I rented a car in Amsterdam and drove down to Italy. A friend was with me so that was more like travel fun times. And then when I dropped him off at the airport in Italy, I drove back to Amsterdam, which is a 12 hour drive. I don't have music on my phone, and the radio was hard to understand because it was in different languages, so I just set up my phone Bluetooth to the car and if I had ideas, I would just sing into the car and it would record it. So for 12 hours basically, that's what I did. I got lost in Switzerland, probably because I wasn't paying attention while I was singing.
How do you know when a song is complete?
I have to be able to listen to the whole thing and feel moved the entire way. It's almost like a gauge that goes off. If it's riding high the whole time, then it's good. If it's riding high and then all of a sudden it gets to the bridge and it's not pulling me in anymore, then I'll work on the bridge until it gets on the same level as everything else. Or if there's a word that feels out of place, I'll fix that.
For me, it has to feel like whatever the message is, is conveyed through whatever chords I'm playing, through the atmosphere and just through the overall vibe of the song. And, so it could be super stripped down and minimal but still feel finished.