Lins Honeyman interviewed LIZ VICE whose first album ended up in America's R&B Albums chart
The success of gospel soul singer from Portland, Oregon Liz Vice's musical career is as much of a surprise to her as it is to anyone else. Set on pursuing a career in film and television behind the camera with no intention of ever stepping on stage, it became clear Liz possessed a stunning voice, one that deserved to reach a wider audience beyond the confines of just friends and family.
Whilst she had no grand plan to become a performer let alone release two critically praised albums, Liz's relationship with music can be traced back to early childhood with recollections of her mother singing a spiritual each morning to wake her and her four siblings up before Liz would steal herself away to the basement of the family house to dance to songs on the radio or memorise soundtracks from her favourite films. Liz became a Christian at the age of 15 but, by the end of her teens, her faith in God would be put to the test due to her health taking a severe turn for the worse. For the next three years, she would be placed on hemodialysis whilst receiving surgery for an abnormal connection between the organs as well as a kidney transplant in December 2005.
The following year with her health much improved, Liz joined her local church and felt called to sing backing vocals as part of the worship team despite suffering from stage fright. Shortly after, Liz was cajoled into stepping out of the shadows at an evening service to perform a song called "Enfold Me" - written by fellow Portland singer/songwriter Josh White. She would go on to appear on the White-fronted band the Followers' 2012 'Wounded Healer' release before recording in the same year her own debut album 'There's A Light' with the help of White and a cast of local musicians in what she thought would be a flash in the pan project whilst she continued to work behind the scenes in film and television. Released on White's Deeper Well Collective label, 'There's A Light' was re-released in September 2015 by Ramseur Records, was much praised by Billboard magazine and went on to make number six in the Top Gospel Albums chart and number 13 on the R&B Albums chart.
With the title track achieving over one million streams on Spotify, the success of the album led to Liz's music and her voice gaining ever-increasing attention and the subsequent years have seen her share the stage with the likes of Joss Stone, the Blind Boys Of Alabama, Boz Scaggs, Cody Chesnutt, Josh Garrels and Mason Jar Music whilst performing at a variety of different festivals, events and venues across the US.
This year saw the release of the now Brooklyn-based Liz's much anticipated second album - the organically soulful 'Save Me' - and I catch up with her over a Skype call to ask if she was pleased with the end result. "Yes, I am," she confirms. "There was so much work that went into it - not just physically but also mentally. It was such a journey and it feels like these songs reflect my lifetime - they reflect my upbringing, the time I first said yes to Jesus and all the doubts and struggles that everyone experiences in life. I'm really proud of the record, the sound and the songs. It's the journey that's invisible - these songs reflect my life from even before I became a singer."
One of the standout tracks on 'Save Me' is the stunning "To Dance With Death" which uses striking poetic imagery to tell of Liz's previous health issues. "I started walking in my faith at the age of 15 and then my health went down the tubes six months later out of nowhere after being pretty healthy all my life," she explains to give some background to the song. "I'd just recently put my faith in a Jesus who represents healing and wholeness and joy and laughter and all the good things and then, all of sudden, I was smacked in the face by the reality that life isn't easy and things can be rough and complex. Going through this season straight after becoming a Christian challenged me to think about what I believed and why I believed. To be honest, I was embarrassed to be sick - I felt ashamed to have lost so much weight and to have to go into the hospital and be hooked up to tubes and wires.
"The song 'To Dance With Death' was written with my friend Micah Bournes who is an amazing poet and such a good listener," she continues. "Micah heard my story and he sent me a poem he had written and I took it, gave it more of a cinematic feel and we turned it into a song. It's a very vulnerable song for me because, when I sing it, I'm basically letting people into the part of my life that, once I received my kidney transplant, I thought would be dead and done. That song is a constant reminder of what I went through and, when I sing it live, people often tell me they're going through similar trials and that the song really helped them."
With her songs connecting directly with her listeners, I wonder if Liz consciously writes with a target audience in mind. "I guess it would be really lovely for me to say I write that way but I don't," she confesses. "When I was writing the songs on 'Save Me', the songs were following me around - almost as if they were haunting me. I thought, if I recorded them, they would stop haunting me and I wasn't sure if I would actually ever release them. Once people heard them, they said I definitely needed to put them out on a record and that's how the album 'Save Me' came about. It was scary because I didn't write my first record 'There's A Light'. It really was a one off project where Josh White had written some songs he felt I should sing."
Despite the success of 'There's A Light', Liz found herself struggling to accept that she had any right to release a second album - let alone one made up of self-penned songs. "Who was I to think that I could go from being behind the camera and writing scripts to writing songs for my own record? I never wanted to be a musician so I struggled with imposter syndrome at that time," Liz admits. "There were certain people who, although they didn't do it maliciously, would question whether I should be writing my second record. They implied that my fans deserved a good album and that I should get the person who wrote my first one to write my second one. However, by the time I started planning 'Save Me', I was at a completely different point in my life and I had moved across the country to Brooklyn to become part of a creative community of songwriters, musicians and poets. The new album is made up of songs of honesty that tell of my experiences as a human being who follows Jesus because she wants a different way of life."
This so-called imposter syndrome seemed to initially permeate into her life as a live performer with self-confessed stage fright playing a part in her earlier career. I ask Liz how she conquered her nerves in this area. "Have I overcome stage fright? No I have not," she corrects me. "Before every show, I get really quiet and I go into the green room and sit and think 'why am I doing this to myself?' However, playing a live show is only a very small part in the life of a musician. Before you even put a foot on the stage, there's the prep, the admin work, the building of a band, the writing of the songs, the rehearsals, getting all the information for the venue together and making sure that you have the proper set up and sound - that all has to take place before you even sing a note. Whilst it's sometimes a battle, it's such a huge honour to stand in front of complete strangers who I would never have otherwise interacted with outside of the venue. I'm always thinking about how I can make these people feel better when they leave than when they arrived."
Amidst all of this, it's clear from her skills as a singer, songwriter and performer that Liz has a deep passion for music. "If I go back to my childhood, I just loved music," she advises. "I grew up in a single parent home where my mom would sing 'rise and shine and give God the glory, glory' every single morning before school to wake us up. I grew up hearing my mother's voice - she had the same raspy singing style as I do - and, when I listen to my songs, I can sometimes hear my mom in them. Even though I didn't grow up with my dad, he was involved in music and had an incredible voice. I didn't really reunite with him until I was older but I know that I received some of his genes."
Fast forward to her teenage years and Liz's journey to becoming a fully-fledged singer would take a step closer. "I started going to this church in Portland and the worship team were doing music like I'd never heard before," she enthuses. "I decided to sign up to sing background vocals and that led to me singing a song called 'Enfold Me' in front of about 300 people. That opened the floodgates to people telling me that they thought I should be a musician. Whilst I hated that thought, it was like music wouldn't let me be and I ended up turning down a full rights scholarship to get my Masters degree in producing for film and television. I started working on a TV show in town and that gave me the time to sing background vocals on the Followers' 'Wounded Healer' album with Josh White and Eric Earley and we recorded the song 'Enfold Me' for that project. Two years later, I found myself in the studio recording my own first record.
"That first record was such an out of body experience," she recalls. "I was working with people who spoke the language of music. The music scene in Portland is amazing - it's so communal - and you have people from all different kinds of genres working together even within the church community. On 'There's A Light', it was a bunch of people coming together who were really talented and we kept the sound real minimal which was how we wanted it to be. On the new album, which was made in Brooklyn with another amazing bunch of musicians and artists, I wanted to have more of a throwback sound mixed with modern elements and I'm so pleased at how it's turned out."
Despite the relatively short period of time between stepping forward in a Portland church to sing "Enfold Me" to releasing the already acclaimed 'Save Me', Liz's standing as one of roots music's most intriguing and exciting artists goes back to her earliest solo performances. "My first solo show was in January 2014 at a venue in Portland and tickets sold out within 10 days. The organiser said that he'd never seen that happen before and people were writing articles saying if you can make it singing about Jesus in Portland you can make it anywhere. After that gig, I got a call from a promoter asking if I would be interested in opening for Cody Chesnutt and, after I opened for Cody, someone who was at that show emailed me and asked if I would open for St Paul and the Broken Bones at the Soul'd Out Fest in Portland that year. And then someone who saw me at Soul'd Out, got in touch to ask me to play at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival - the biggest blues event this side of the Mississippi.
"Just before that festival, I was sitting in my living room in tears," she recalls. "I remember hearing this voice saying 'Liz, I'm not asking you to save people - I just wanted you to sing over them.' It's moments like those that, when I walk into these spaces and think that I have to carry the whole thing, I remember that I just need to get a sense of the spirit of these people and remind them that they are seen and heard. There are moments when I say 'women - I don't know your story but I want you to know that today you are seen, you are heard and your voice matters.' In fact, last year at a venue in Southern California, there was a woman in the audience dancing with her son and she came up to me after the show and told me she had had a brain tumour and had lost the ability to walk after it was removed. She couldn't walk for a year and, during that time, all she wanted to do was dance and that night, at the show, she got up to dance."
In closing, Liz sums up her thoughts on her unexpected emergence from the shadows to the spotlight with typical modesty. "The singing part is easy - it's the pauses in between. What do I say to these people - what stories do I tell about things I've experienced in my own life to encourage them to keep going and to help them celebrate the small victories? I don't know what I'm doing but I know that I've been called to this place and I hope that people who hear my records or see me perform live get encouraged and inspired. I hope that people leave with a song in their hearts that reminds them about their own story."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.