It is the rare performer who doesn’t cultivate at least a couple personalities. The act of going on stage, putting oneself on display, for many requires a conscious donning of a mental costume, every bit the equivalent of the clothes they choose to wear as part of their artistic presentation.
(Except for drummers. They just wear shorts and a T-shirt because it’s freakin’ hot up there.)
Portland singer/songwriter Liza Victoria seems to acknowledge this with her very stage name — Lisa/Liza — even if it’s also just an indication to those who haven’t met her yet: You pronounce her first name “leesa,” not like Liza Minnelli. And, on the phone, she definitely projects more nervous energy than comes through in her meditative, often languid and dream-like compositions.
It is like she is able, with guitar in hand and focusing on her vocals, to slow time down, to step outside it and more dispassionately examine it. Find a room with some sunshine streaming in. Put her brand-new “Breaking and Mending” on (ideally through a decent set of speakers, but good headphones might do). Allow yourself to sit with her, doing nothing else. Find out what happens.
“With this album,” she says, “I feel like there’s some themes in it of my relationship to time and as someone who has mental illness, that I was working through that a lot while I was writing this album. It’s a little bit of a — not a journal entry, but it has its own kind of timeline, where I’ve tried to be kind of accepting of what I was going through and use the music as a release. Which isn’t super new.”
No, it’s not. That’s what music is often for. Lisa/Liza just happens to do it in a way that is so delicate and vulnerable that only the least empathetic won’t be able to find an emotional touchpoint.
With her languid delivery, though, and the way she can draw out vowel sounds and almost coo and purr through lyrics, there’s an opportunity for everyone to take away something different. Her published lyrics are worth investigating, with poetic turns of phrase that can delight, but they are more additive than necessary.
Partly this emotional impact is thanks to the way she has been captured. Working again with longtime collaborator Peter Herman, Lisa/Liza is presented in a way that allows the listener to picture every finger hitting every string of her Eastman acoustic, as she rolls through fingerstyle picking that might call to mind Nick Drake. We can picture the shape of her mouth, imagine for ourselves the cant of her head.
Whereas on many of her dozen or so previous releases, though, there was a feel for the echo of the room, or a bit of tape hiss or environmental noise, this record casts away distractions and presents the songs as they deserve, warm and fully rounded and resonant. There are flourishes, too, that keep the record from being too monotonous. Herman’s pedal steel on “Fight for You” stands in beautifully for the “running off of water and sunlight” Victoria describes. And when the easy strum of her hollow body electric enters for the closing “Tree Line” it introduces just the psychedelic note to prepare us for for something like, “Pink cloud up in the sky/ I don’t know why, I feel/ Why does the river rise/ And the grapefruit peel?”
For most of the eight songs here, though, it’s just Victoria’s voice and her guitar, and that simplicity lets her transmit hope and mirth and curiosity with subtle inflections. For an album ostensibly infused with her mental and physical struggles, it is never dour or maudlin.
On “Felt Twice” — which contains the rich couplet “Well each time that I fell/ I felt twice” — she perseverates in the finish on “where I want to go” and it’s hard not to wonder by the last iteration if she knows where that is, or whether she’s rather asking for someone to lead her somewhere she doesn’t yet know she wants to be. In “Kiss the Flowers,” she puts just enough emphasis on “like some hippy” to let us know she both understands the derisive way those words can be spoken and that she’s amused by anyone who would speak them that way.
“Keeping some simplicity in place allows me to be more creative in some other areas,” Victoria says, “lyrically, and just with the feel of the record. … I think I’ve always been captured by folk musicians, like that Bob Dylan movie [Don’t Look Back], where he plays in the hotel and Donovan is around him and that feeling of, ‘oh, I can hear what it would feel like to be there.’”
And Lisa/Liza can sometimes feel out of time, that’s for sure, with plenty of Joni Mitchell hints and calls back to times that were a bit slower paced. So it shouldn’t be surprising to see “John Prine” on the tracklist, as it’s hard to think of an artist who wavered less in his career and approach, who seemed more timeless, even as his body betrayed him and forced him to reinvent his sound and delivery.
“He wrote his songs with a smile,” Victoria sings, with a quaver in her voice, “feels like being afraid for a while/ While the thunder rolls in.” Rather than recoil from the danger, though, she seems to embrace it, to examine it, to pick it up and put it down and accept it. If this is an album about the shit she’s dealt with it doesn’t serve as a complaint or a lament, but instead as more a statement of fact.
“Prayer works quick,” she sings. “It does the trick/ Me, I need a song/ Do you need one, too?”
Sometimes. Yeah, sometimes I do. How about you?
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 Weeks, 5 Songs
Ronney Clement – “Crazy Over You” | Sounding like he’s backed by the animatronic band at Chuck E. Cheese, Clement offers here a manic ode, with touches of Zappa and the Great Space Coaster.
Bondeko – “Clandestino” | If you haven’t checked into Portland’s most eclectic trio yet, their new EP, “One Minute Please” offers the perfect opportunity, and this song is the highlight, at turns dark and hopeful, brooding and frantic: “I cannot go forward, I cannot return … No family to return to/ Nobody waiting for me.” Must-listen stuff.
Trawl – “Big Prize” | The first track to be released from their upcoming June EP, this is a tight and forceful bit of heavy rock, with a clipped-delivery verse giving way to an elongated chorus. Look for “Cosmic Aquatic” next month.
Matt LaJoie- “Garudan Wing (Single Edit)” | If you know his work, you know this is going to be out there, improvisational guitar that continues a series of releases from recording sessions that took place during COVID-19 isolation: “I don’t remember the act of recording this piece, but do vividly recall listening back to it immediately afterwards.”
Ashley Ninelives – “Kittycat Heartthrob” | Not bad for a cat! Seriously, though, there’s a pretty great pop song hiding under all of the digital mutes and obfuscations.