Interview: Liz Green

Tristram Fane-Saunders 21 May 2012

There’s something unusual about blues/folk/jazz songwriter Liz Green, whose idiosyncratic vocal style has led to comparisons with Billie Holiday and Judy Garland. She sings about food, death and bird-headed men. Big in Manchester, and massive in Marseilles, Green’s debut album, ‘O Devotion,’ has been widely praised by critics on both sides of the channel. Liz spoke to TCS mid-tour, shortly before leaving the country for France.

Hello Liz. Why are you so late?

The tour bus broke down in the middle of the motorway, with no warning. We’ve had to empty everything out into taxis. .

Are you ok? Was there a crash?

No crash, no. I’m fine. It was pretty frightening, though.

You drove your tour bus ’til it died. That’s pretty rock-n-roll.

It was sad to watch. It beached itself on the side of the road like a giant silver whale.

Besides the dead van, how’s the tour been so far?

It’s been great – a real mix of venues and this MAD mix of people.

Anyone in particular stand out?

There was this guy who came to a gig in Bristol and was really unhappy because it wasn’t folk music. He was like “This isn’t folk! When’re you gunna play some FOLK?” I’ve never really claimed to be folk; it’s just kind of been foisted upon me. Like what Big Bill Broonzy said about folk music, you know ; “All music made by people is folk music.” But I’d never claim to be folk or blues in the traditional sense.

But if you had to claim to be something – if I were to put a gun to your head, and force you to pick a genre – what would you say?

Well, I keep saying “tragicomic pop” at people. It has that sense of a narrative, a sense of history, and it’s all a little overplayed. I really like the mixture of emotions, like tears of joy, or when you’re so sad that you start to laugh. And pop is the one genre that isn’t defined. I know you might say, “Yes it is, its part of the genre of ‘things-manufactured-by-and-belonging-to-Simon-Cowell'”, but it’s not. Anything can become pop by nature of its popularity. That’s why… it’s…well… POP! (laughs)

There’s a real sense of character in your songs. I listened to The Ballad of Joe and Oko today…

Aw, amazing! They’re my imaginary friends. Well, sort of. They’re more like these useful conduits for stories. They pop up in a few other things, like in the song Hey Joe. Joe’s useful to me. He exists in all periods of life. He’s kind of evolved…

…Into a bird?

Well, yes, he has a bird’s head. He’s been knocking around for a while. I liked the sound of his name, “Starling Joe.” He was Starling Joe even when he had the head of a man. And his wife, “Oko Parish”. Again, it kind of just rolls off the tongue. It’s a useful way of projecting into various parts of life, and experiencing things that you didn’t do yourself – you can kind of go, “yeah, but Joe did it.”

And that makes it true, in a way?

Yeah! I love these rounded narratives. It’s like being taken on a journey. A lot of song writing is pretty ‘confessional’. “I did this, and then she did that – we broke down in tears, and threw out the cat…” But I can’t really do that, because, you know, I’m a private person. I have to make music like this, because I find it a lot more interesting – and easier – to express yourself by making a world, and telling stories within that world. It’s got a lot to do with the people I admire. Like Shane McGowan. I’d say he’s got to be… one of the greatest… lyricists… in… the world. Him, and Jarvis Cocker, and Leonard Cohen.

Have you always been into your American roots, and folk music?

No, actually. I had this passion for punk and Brit-Pop when I was a teenager, but the next time I really felt I’d discovered music again was listening to old American folk music. I’d never heard anything like it. Hearing Son House, it was like, WOAH. It changed how I thought about it all. Your view of a band, after Britpop and punk, was that you need a guitar, and rhythm guitar, and drums, and then a cool guy on bass. That’s the format. I know it sounds naive, but I didn’t really think about other possibilities. But you listen to Son House, and there are these songs where it’s just his voice and clapping, and somehow it has the same power as all of those people making a racket over there. Quite quiet, quite reserved, but it’s still got this power, just by singing and clapping. And it got me thinking; I can’t play anything, but hey! I can clap and sing!(chuckles)

Going back to embarrassing teen band-crushes. What was your first gig?

Manic Street Preachers.

Nice. It definitely could’ve been worse.

There were worse ones. I’ve been to see Atomic Kitten.

Let’s say you did have a van-crash, and all the instruments are destroyed, burnt in the crash. You take it as a bad omen and decide you’re going to give up. Where are your transferable skills? What’s the ultimate back-up plan, Liz?

I’ve got so many! I’d really like to write a musical – you can still do that even if the instruments have all burnt. I can book-bind. I’d like to have my own book-binding shop, and be a master book-binder.

That’s pretty impressive.

And printing. I could be a pamphleteer! I’d like to bring back pamphleteering, like Thomas Paine . And I’d like to learn snooker and win the Masters – I mean, that’s the ultimate dream, really.

Tristram Fane-Saunders