We chatted with Liz Stringer, one of Australia’s most underrated songwriters, ahead of the release of her album First Time Really Feeling.
It’s perplexing as to why Liz Stringer isn’t a bigger name. Back in 2019 she was honoured at Woodford Folk Festival as an ’emerging legend of Australian song’ by her fellow songwriters, including Jeff Lang, Tim Levinson, Jessie Lloyd and Catherine MacLellan (CAN), who covered highlights from her back catalogue in a unique live tribute.
Renowned compatriots Mia Dyson and Jen Cloher recruited her around the same time to release a self-titled album as Dyson, Stringer & Cloher, before embarking on a huge national tour. Midnight Oil also enlisted her to perform backing vocals on their most recent tour.
The long-time sweet but restrictive tags of the ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ or ‘musician’s musician’ didn’t feel enough to match her skill. A small but devoted following had supported her since 2006 but the title of household name somehow eluded her.
Now on her sixth album, First Time Really Feeling could be a career-defining release. After recently getting sober, it’s the sound of a shifted perspective and intense emotion. Sobriety didn’t lead to cold detachment, Stringer instead discovering a well of incisive honesty and self-reckoning.
The album collates the stories of recovering addicts – both Stringer’s and others that she’s met along the way – and it’s a testament to the instinctual resilience of human beings when faced with problems. The result is her most best and most personal record to date and one which should ensure she’s found by an appreciative wider audience.
Now signed with Milk!, the Melbourne label started by Courtney Barnett and Cloher in 2012, her first album released under a label should push her success commercially. Stringer is touring the album in June too (see the dates below), where her reflective and honest songwriting should really come to the fore.
I interviewed Stringer ahead of her album’s release, and she was as open and forthcoming as expected on subjects like her newfound sobriety, the changing Melbourne, and the value of her career.
First Time Really Feeling is out Friday, April 30th (via Milk!/Remote Control Records) and can be found here.
Liz Stringer – First Time Really Feeling album tour
Friday, June 4th – Sound Doctor, Anglesea
Saturday, June 12th – Grace Emily, Adelaide
Thursday, June 17th – The Vanguard, Sydney
Saturday, June 19th – The Croxton, Melbourne
Saturday, June 26th – The Railway, Darwin
Check out ‘First Time Really Feeling’ by Liz Stringer:
Tone Deaf: So the name for the album, First Time Really Feeling, where did that come from? Is it to do with getting sober?
Liz Stringer: Yeah, it was. Obviously it’s the name of the title track as well. That came from getting sober and experiencing things differently because of it. We decided to call the whole record that since that was one of the overarching themes.
TD: When you got sober, how did your songwriting change afterwards?
LZ: It was really different. It’s allowed me to write from a really personal perspective. I actually said this onstage recently, at the first gig I’ve done in ages: I said onstage in Castlemaine ‘I don’t write very personal stuff’ and someone in the audience was audibly laughing at that! It’s confusing because I write a lot in the first person but I very often draw on other people’s stories, stuff that I’ve heard or people that I know.
So what happened when I got sober was I suddenly had more access to myself. To me, drinking a lot and being creative, I think I tried to make them work together for many years and I just don’t think they did. That romanticism of the drunken poet, you know?
It just rendered me a bit useless. I didn’t write a lot during my heaviest drinking. One of the things I’d thought was that maybe you do have to be really fucked up and addicted to something to write good music, but then I found that the opposite was true for me.
TD: It’s like the myth of the tortured artist.
LZ: Yeah, exactly. It’s really ubiquitous. Alcoholism particularly is rife in the creative arts and there’s lots of reasons for that. For me personally, it removed a huge obstacle to creativity, getting rid of it.
TD: So I take it this is your most personal album yet?
LZ: Oh, absolutely.
TD: You said that for the song ‘Dangerous’ you had conversations with other former addicts on the road. How much have you incorporated their stories into the album?
LZ: Particularly in that song, that one was based on conversations. There’s another one, ‘Big City’, when I talk about somebody else, or there are parallels between my life and theirs. ‘Dangerous’ was just an amazing story that these people told me. I didn’t write it straight away, I didn’t go home and say ‘oh, this is a great song’. It just stayed with me and crept into becoming the song.
TD: The other song I wanted to ask about is ‘Victoria’ – is that a sort of love letter to that state?
LZ: It is. It’s also about coming to terms with how much Melbourne has changed. It’s the same everywhere – things are getting gentrified, cities are changing, the way we live is changing. Part of this song is mourning the old Melbourne I knew, particularly the Melbourne of my formative years, say between the ages of 20 and 35.
And also it’s about coming to terms with the fact I needed to engage with my city totally differently when I stopped drinking. It wasn’t good for me to keep going to the same places. For me there was a lot of grief in getting sober, against all the amazing stuff. There was a period of having to mourn my life that I had been living for around 20 years. That was a big reason why I left and moved to Canada in 2018 because I couldn’t be around here, it was too triggering. Everywhere I went I remembered getting shitfaced there or hanging out there or going to the party there. It was constant!
Now I’m back and I’m much more secure in my sobriety, I’m reinventing that relationship. But the first 18 months were full of sadness. And you just have to deal with gentrification though. I resented it but now I’m just like ‘change happens, you just have to deal with it’.
TD: That’s the thing, cities like Glasgow and Melbourne, so much of the lifestyle surrounds drinking. You go to gigs, you drink during and afterwards, so being in these cities and trying to go sober is difficult.
LZ: It’s hard. And to be in a community or job where it’s everywhere and people know you as a drinker, that was a big thing as well. This perpetual point of having to explain why I wasn’t having a drink, that would make me uncomfortable but it would also make a lot of them uncomfortable too. That was a drain and so that was another reason I wanted to leave for a while and just be in a place where I could arrive how I was and not have to explain the transition into sobriety.
Check out ‘Dangerous’ by Liz Stringer:
TD: Where did you move to in Canada?
TD: That’s still a big city.
LZ: Yeah and Toronto’s still very similar to Melbourne in the way it’s laid out. It’s got trams, it just feels like Melbourne. That’s where I made the record too, in the east end of Toronto. I was back here (Melbourne) on tour and then the pandemic happened so I was like ‘oh well!’
TD: In terms of the album’s sound, a lot of it reminded me of Sharon Van Etten or even Bruce Springsteen. What kind of artists were you listening to while writing it?
LZ: I don’t really know. I think Springsteen’s probably an influence. I tend to be erratic with listening – I go through periods of listening really intensely to a lot of people and then I go through times of not listening at all!
TD: It’s been five years now since your last solo album All The Bridges. How do you think your sound has evolved between releases?
LZ: I think this one is the first full realisation of my sonic palette. I worked with a producer called Chris Stringer – no relation, he just happens to have the same surname which is weird – and he’d seen me play live a couple of times and he was really adamant that I make the record with him. He pursued me to make it.
The way that I play guitar and the way that I sing, it’s quite dense. Melodically there’s a lot going on. All The Bridges was very stripped back, it was a three-piece band but with this album, we just layered stuff, I spent a week just overdubbing guitars. There were heaps of backing vocals as well.
Chris and I just happened to have the same idea and same approach. So when I first heard the mixes, I was really kind of moved because that’s how I wanted it to sound, that’s how I heard it in my head. It’s an incredible feeling because that doesn’t always happen with records, you know?
TD: I wanted to ask about the video for ‘Dangerous’. How did the concept for that come about?
LZ: I’d worked with Dyllan (Corbett, the director) on the video for ‘First Time Really Feeling’. He loved ‘Dangerous’ and he pitched me an idea and I firstly jumped at the chance to not be in one of my videos (laughs). It’s a tricky song because it’s about the story, not me. I didn’t want to do a clip where I was playing in front of the camera or just walking down a highway or some shit like that.
I really wanted it to be focused on the story and so this was the perfect way to do it. So we had three actors and all of them are just so good and did such a beautiful job. The story in the clip isn’t necessarily a perfect representation of the song’s actual story but it plays on the same dynamics – family, relationships, pain and withholding. I watched that and I was really moved.
‘Dangerous’ is kind of a straight rock ‘n’ roll song, what I describe as having an 80’s hair metal solo that was basically a joke but we kept it in, so it was important to balance the weight of what I’m singing about with the simple driving rhythm of the song. I think the clip really helped to do that. It allowed people to really be absorbed in the content. And Dyllan’s amazing, he nailed it.
TD: I’ve got to ask about Milk!. How’s that been?
LZ: Awesome. I was with them previously with Dyson, String & Cloher. I feel really lucky to have this album come out with them. They’re good friends of mine, everyone that works there. I love that they’re so grassroots and really plugged into the community. And this is the first label I’ve ever brought a record out on in Australia. In that sense, it’s a new experience for me, but I just feel so happy to have the team I have. That’s a new experience for me too, having such a cohesive and enthusiastic team.
TD: So does that sense of family help with the transition moving from being independent later in your career?
LZ: Totally. To me, relationships are really the basis of everything. The more I get into my career it’s so important to work with people that are ‘your people’. It’s such an emotional job and it’s impossible for me to extricate the art and the business, it has to be part of the same thing.
When I made the record, it took so long to bring out, because I didn’t have anyone. I was totally on my own, I had no money, I was in Toronto working as a session musician. And I just knew instinctively that either I put this album out well or I just don’t. I thought maybe that’s it, maybe I’m done. Then ironically during the pandemic it came together. When I made the album until now, I’m in a completely different place, I’m really lucky.
TD: Between your last two solo albums you also had the Dyson, Stringer & Cloher period. Are there any tentative plans to work together again?
LZ: Not at this point. We’re all concentrating on solo stuff. I’ve got other collaborative projects I’m pursuing as well. I think we’ve stuck a fork in it for now. But you never know! That was really fun and who knows what the future holds.
TD: As you get older in your career, does releasing an album get any easier? Do you feel less pressure for it to be a commercial success?
LZ: Well, you know I’ve never had any commercial success anyway (laughs). I think I’m just really conscious now of enjoying the process. I have a very modest career considering how long I’ve been doing it but I’m also really grateful for what I do have, which is a big and loyal support base around Australia and the rest of the world. That’s come from a lot of touring and a lot of connecting with people.
I think that I’ve learned to engage with the industry a bit differently. What’s important to me is I’m creating and releasing work that I think is quality and that means something and that people connect with. That’s honestly how I gauge the success of it. And so far, people have been reacting really strongly to the songs. I’ve been playing some of them live because I made the record so long ago and I can feel a shift.
As I said before, because I’m writing more personally, the shift in how people are connecting to it is really obvious to me. That’s a really good sign that the arrow is pointing in the right direction. That’s what I’m basing it on at the moment.
Check out ‘Falling Clouds’ by Dyson, Stringer & Cloher:
TD: Speaking of your fanbase, where outside of Australia have people taken to you most? Your music seems really suited to a North American audience.
LZ: Well, I released All The Bridges on a Toronto label and I toured for a few years every summer over there. If things were different right now the plan would be to really go into the market and in the States too. I was in that position right when the pandemic started that I’d just received my Permanent Residency in Canada and I also had the start of a 3-year Working Visa for the States, so I was ready! Then the borders shut!
Without being able to tour there, I don’t know how much I can reach people, but when I’ve been able to play over there, there’s been a good reaction. I also lived in Germany for a few years and toured there a couple of times so let’s just see what happens.
TD: You said the show in Castlemaine was your first in a few years?
LZ: It was the first ‘Liz Stringer’ solo gig since the pandemic. Before that, Dyson, Stringer & Cloher had been on the road for six months so I hadn’t played my own show for a long time. At the start of this year in March I also toured with Midnight Oil singing in the band which was incredible. So that was like my re-entry to live music and we’re playing to thousands of people! It was an incredible experience. But that Castlemaine gig was my first solo gig in a while with my new band.
TD: How did it feel being back onstage?
LZ: It was awesome. The band felt right, the connection was really good. I realised how much I missed it. I feel like last year I was like ‘maybe, I don’t care if I play’. I was ok having a few months off to be honest because I tour a lot. But during that gig I was really reminded of how much I love it.
That’s the important thing for me, that’s where you really gauge the reaction. I’ve put out two singles but it’s really at live gigs when you’re in the same room with people and you feel them responding, that’s when you know things are going. It’s been interesting with the pandemic, playing way less than I usually would, I’m just so looking forward to playing in June on tour. I can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome.
TD: Where is it, all around Australia?
LZ: No, this one’s very conservative, considering where everything is at (with COVID-19). The plan is to tour more extensively in November. I traditionally do regional and remote shows but this one’s going to be Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Darwin, and one other Victorian show. It’s just one a weekend, we’re just being really careful and feeling how it goes with logistics and borders and all that shit. Hopefully later in the year it’ll be a much more extensive one.