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Interview: Singer/Songwriter Lizzy Grant on Cheap Thrills, Elvis, The Flamingos, Trailer Parks, and Coney Island

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New York City songstress Lizzy Grant makes her debut into the music world with a video for her single, "Kill Kill." Armed with her three-track EP, devastatingly retro-sexy look, and haunting, soulful voice, Grant is one to watch in 2009. Lizzy Grant is the kind of singer/songwriter that walks into your home and has no intentions of leaving. And just when you were about to draw an easy comparison to Cat Power, Billie Holiday, or Aimee Mann, Grant's voice pulls the proverbial rug right from under you.

Grant's music is impossibly original, her sound decidedly anti-genre: the songs on her splendid debut, Kill Kill offer an eclectic mix of jazz, pop, electronica, rock, blues and hopeful melancholy. Her videos are quirky, odd, magical and infatuated with Americana. And while scores of other artists attempt to craft pithy esoteric poetry, Grant's lyrics are wholly dark, elegant, and beautiful.

Where is the strangest place you've ever performed? Ever written a song?

LG: Strangest performance: Alone in a basement for a handsome record executive.
Strangest ever written: Back at his office while I was making out with him.

I love that Coney Island figures so much on this album, indirectly or otherwise. You feel the evocation of a place in Brooklyn, New York that's at once a symbol of the beautiful and macabre. A place that has this magical boardwalk but also a ghoulish House of Horrors. A place that's real but isn't -- a place that symbolizes escape. Can you talk about why the amusement park was a touchstone of the new record?

LG: I like that, "...real but isn't." All the good stuff is real but isn't, myself included.
Coney Island is a place people go to escape, but whatever you choose to be your reality is your reality. So, in a way it's just as real as anything else. I mainly let my imagination be my reality. Fantasy is my reality.

I never saw Coney Island when it had all its big attractions, but there was something desperate about the boardwalk, and I related. There was no end in sight to it, and there were people in bars you didn't know were there. Maybe the amusement park was the touchstone because I have such a history with cheap thrills. I like things that go fast, things with bright colors, things that taste good. At Coney Island, you can get a Coca Cola, ride the roller coaster, and watch everybody.

As an author I often tell people that I'm sometimes more influenced by a David Eggleston photo or a Nick Cave song as opposed to immersing in the work of other writers. In the end, I find my influences or inspirations where I can. If a song or image gets me where I want to go, I'm happy. So where do you find your influences and inspirations? Who or what affects the songs you write? The videos you produce?

LG: It seems to be that way for me too. Mark Ryden's pictures drive me crazy, and Vegas makes me shine. Daytona and the Jersey Shore just kill me. Yes. Even pictures of other performers do it for me. I knew Elvis' songs would be the soundtrack to my life as soon as I laid eyes on his photograph. I know when I love something as soon as I see it. Then, I write about it. Speaking of Elvis, it's unfair not to mention the Beach Boys and The Flamingos as my other constant companions.

My mood affects the songs and videos I make the most. Only when I'm in a good enough mood will I write about, and film, myself. I definitely won't get on camera when I'm not feeling hopeful.

What I love most about Kill Kill is my inability to easily classify it, to place it in any one genre. It's blues, but it's jazz, and it's also pop. "Yayo," for instance, is more haunting and melodic, while "Gramma" has more of pop feel. When writing these songs, were you conscious of your sound's direction? Of what form each song will take?

LG: Writing to me doesn't feel that much different from talking, and my new shrink says that I talk differently from most people he sees. Maybe that has something to do with why the songs sound unique.

I knew how the songs felt to me, but I was surprised when they translated the right way to other people. It's the only thing I've ever done the right way.

My producer, David Kahne, and me got along very well because he knew that I lived in my songs, and so he just tried to make them better. He asked me in a letter what I wanted the record to sound like, and I said, "I want it to sound famous, like a sad party." He thought that was a wonderful idea, and we began working the next day. I like to think we're birds of a feather.

Many artists today are deliberate in the way their image is packaged and how their music is positioned. Their sound is neatly manufactured; one sometimes wonders if lyrics were written by committee. And then there are other artists -- renegades and risk-takers. Their sound is a hybrid of genres; their videos are odd, magical, unexpected -- a visual representation of the songs and stories in the artist's head. I dare say that I'd include you in the latter. Your music is organic and daring in the way that artists who try to find their story, work out their obsessions, and find themselves, often is. Have you considered yourself an artist who refuses to color in the lines? How important is it for one to be as unpackaged as possible?

LG: I guess I haven't colored in the lines of a corporate picture, but making up the rules for myself comes with just as many problems as following someone else's. It's not important to me to be unpackaged. If it looks like I don't know what I'm doing, it's because I don't. But, if someone came along with a better idea of how to do things, I would take it.

I think obsession is a good word to talk about. I live in my obsessions and then the music comes from there. Living that way and writing from that place doesn't make for a "color in the lines" mold. And yet, the songs and the videos and the image go together well because they all come from the same place. So, maybe I'm not deliberate about the packaging, but I am deliberate at trying to do things that I adore.

Would it be safe to say that the songs on Kill Kill tell the story of precocious, but strong-willed woman on display -- whose uncertain of herself and how unique she truly is - trapped in a dismal trailer park, and her dreams of escape, of being whisked away by the good, decent man she deserves?

LG: Well, I would say I do well on display. . . as long as I don't have to talk. So that part is true. But, no one has put me there. I know what I'm good at and what I'm not good at. I write about what I know, and I know about putting on a show.

I didn't feel trapped in a trailer park. I felt trapped before I got to the trailer park because I had nowhere to live. When I got my trailer, everyone there had the same taste as I did. We all liked giant, lush, fake flower gardens and liked to decorate the walls with streamers even if it wasn't our birthday. I couldn't have been happier there. Before that, I did dream of escaping. I always just figured it was gonna be a man who would take me away. I don't know if I deserve a good man, but I think about it sometimes.

Did you know that as with other Long Island barrier islands, Coney Island was virtually overrun with rabbits (which makes me think of children) in the 1600s- Coney Island's name was actually derived from the Dutch Conyne Eylandt, and rabbit hunting was common until the resorts were developed? And then in the 1800s it became a resort, a refuge from daytrippers wanting to escape Manhattan summers?

LG: I didn't know that! Saying that it reminds you of children reminds me of the story "Runaway Bunny." I love bunnies.

From American flags and classic cars in the "Kill Kill" to Calico Hills, Las Vegas, sparklers, Planet Hollywood and images of you as a flower child and Marilyn in "Yayo" -- your videos have such a wonderfully nostalgic, classic American feel. Even the way the videos are shot is retro -- at times you feel as if you're transported back to 1950s-1960s America. Can you talk a bit about how your videos are conceived and how it's a visual representation of the album?

LG: Vegas is a place that seems magical to me. I'm very swayed by how things look on the outside. Though I have been burned by what's on the inside of them so many times -- don't get me wrong, but I still have love for something that hits my eye right. A flag waving or a Pontiac Grandamn -- I didn't even have to know what those things stood for to know they were beautiful.

I once had a boyfriend who talked about all the reasons why he loved flags,
Rock-and-Roll, and America. I didn't know much about all of that, but I did love him and I wanted to be just like him. So everything in the videos -- the Vegas pyramid, the brides' smile, the groom motioning "cheers" -- they're all different expressions of the happiness I had when I loved a man who loved me and America.

Vegas and sparklers and the 50s are all things that are beautiful, and they're all a big part of my film world.