Folk-pop singer-songwriter Liz Longley gets into the emotional nitty gritty at McCabe’s
By Bliss Bowen
Liz Longley learned a lot studying songwriting at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, from which she graduated in 2010. But what she’s learned from audiences who have been turning out to see her in concert since she was still a student may be even more essential.
“The things I’ve learned from playing songs onstage as opposed to in class is that the songs that seem to be the hardest to write, the most vulnerable ones, seem to mean the most to the crowd,” she says during a laugh-punctuated interview from a salon where she’s getting her “guitar nails” fixed. “That’s encouraged me to be open, even in times like — ‘Unraveling,’ that wasn’t one I was going to play. Songs that were challenging to write emotionally, the crowds have taught me that it’s OK to be that vulnerable, and it’s actually something they appreciate.
“At first I was hesitant to play [those songs] for people; I thought, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t have to hear about this, about what I’ve gone through.’ They’ve taught me that’s what it’s all for. That’s how we connect, through the hard stuff.”
“Unraveling” was a milestone in Longley’s fledgling career. An honest ballad about her grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s that rings true for anyone who’s watched loved ones succumb to the disease, it was honored with first place in BMI’s annual John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship competition in 2010. (It was also a highlight of Longley’s 2010 album “Hot Loose Wire.”) That was one of several top awards Longley won at competitions and festivals across the country, which burnished her name with some respectable cachet as she gradually secured a toehold in the crowded folk-pop field. It didn’t hurt having marquee artists like John Mayer publicly applaud her voice and music.
A native of Chester County, Penn., Longley was writing and performing locally by her teens, with the support of her musically inclined parents. She recorded and self-released three full-length albums and an EP, starting while still a busy student at Berklee (“We wrote a song every week”). She placed songs on TV programs like “Army Wives” and “Beauty & the Beast,” and expanded her following via monthly ConcertWindow.com shows. (“It’s an amazing way to connect with fans,” she says. “It seems we get to know each other on a deeper level.”)
On the road, Longley developed her reputation for onstage candor.
“I’m more open onstage,” she acknowledges. “Sometimes I find myself saying things that I might only say to my closest friends and my family and I’m like, ‘Wow, I just said that.’ It somehow opens me up in a strange way.”
After living in Boston and New York, Longley now collects mail in Nashville — although mostly she navigates interstates.
“I’ve been touring straight since I graduated from college and I decided to take a month off [this summer] to focus on writing, since I have my next album coming up soon,” she says. “This record, I wrote these songs four years ago.”
“This record” is “Liz Longley,” funded via Kickstarter before Longley signed with the Nashville-based Sugar Hill label; released in March, it’s reaped enthusiastic reviews and national press. Working with “teammates who have a lot of experience” has made a quantifiable difference as she’s introduced the album to the world.
“On the business end, it’s completely different” from her previous DIY approach, she says. “I honestly didn’t know what I was doing. The only way I was getting my CD out was putting it up online and then touring. That’s how I made my living.”
The album’s polished production showcases Longley’s soprano, whose tonal quality bears traces of Shawn Colvin and avowed hero Joni Mitchell. Longley’s writing gives it substance. Her sophisticated melodic sense is matched with catchy metaphors and earworm choruses on hooky tracks like “Memphis” and “Bad Habit” (“I couldn’t stand the smell of smoke ’til he lit that cigarette/ Never felt the temptation ’til I smelled it on his breath”). Casual listeners have become loyal fans of her relatable, intimate lyrics (“I found your letters and the John Martyn record that we spun until it was dead/ I found your mixtape for the road and two tickets to the show and your sock from under my bed”).
“I played a show other day in Minnesota and a woman drove five hours to be there,” Longley marvels. “I asked, ‘How did you find me?’ She said she’d heard one of my songs on ‘Army Wives.’”
Longley sounds grateful when recounting such exchanges. “An amazing connection with her fans” is one reason she admires Sara Bareilles’ career, and people who make time to listen to her own music inform her personal definition of success.
“If you’re writing music and you’re doing something that matters to you and it matters to somebody else, I think that’s what we’re all going for,” she says. “I consider myself successful for that reason. No, I’m not making a ton of money, and no, I’m not famous, but I feel lucky to be doing what I’m doing.”
Liz Longley and special guest Anthony D’Amato perform at 8 p.m. Friday at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $15. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit lizlongley.com.