In the last twelve months, the rise of Lizzo has been pretty much unstoppable. Exploding into the alt-rap scene last year with her debut Lizzobangers the “big girl in a small world” has gone from Minneapolis sensation to acclaimed artist on both sides of the Atlantic, signing to a major label deal, playing sell-out shows and major music festivals (including Reading tomorrow), as well as collaborating with chart-toppers like Clean Bandit and Bastille.
When I catch up with the twenty-six year old rapper she's in a good mood, taking a day off before the start of her Autumn tour. The kind of enthusiastic and thoughtful person who needs little invitation to chat, she starts by telling me about catching up with two of her heroes in concert - Beyonce and Jay-Z - an event almost ruined when she got a flat tyre en route and nearly missed the concert. “We had to call a tow truck guy and get him to bring his hammer and beat the wheel into shape...it wasn't like a regular tyre change". And it’s with this talk of traveling that leads back to the roots of Lizzo, when she was still just Melissa Jefferson...
So where are you from originally?
I was born in Detroit and we still have a huge family there, but my immediate family moved to Houston, when I was a kid.
So did you always want to get into music?
Well I guess I wanted to be writer at first, so it all ties together. Then I wanted to study Astronomy - my first word was 'star' - but right around the age of nine I started getting into music. My Mom and my Sister both have great singing voices, but I was a late bloomer in that department. Although, I was the only one who played flute. I mean I was into studying music and no-one else in my family took it that far, like joining a band and stuff. My first musical experiences was trying to start the next Destiny's Child as a kid. I was writing all these little RnB pop songs and raps for other girls, just curating the group. Man, my first group was Peace, Love and Joy. It was me and my two best friends trying to be like the Spice Girls when we were in third grade, like what? I was nine.
I’m sorry, did you say you play the flute?
Yeah, I’ve got a flute right now and she still gets used every now and again, but not as heavily as before. I mean I haven't used it on stage for ‘Lizzobangers’ but when I was in my rock band I played progressive flute solos.
There’s always time for more flute in rap though, right? So when you were growing up, what sort of music were you listening too?
Moving to Houston we suddenly went from only listening to gospel music to more secular stuff, y’know like rock and hip hop and that’s where I was able to find myself musically. So I listened to pop on the radio like N-Sync and Destiny's Child, but also Radiohead, At the Drive In and Bjork because that’s what my my Brother and Sister were into. Then I was listening to the freestyles every Sunday night and of course, a lot of classical music, cause I was playing flute. So I would sit back and listen to Russian Romantic composers too. So I don't know man, I guess I’m saying there was a lot of stuff going on.
So how did you end up in Minneapolis?
I think I went in a Jeep... HA! Okay, seriously so my rock band broke up and I was working with this producer in Denver and I was writing to his beats and eventually I was like, “I don't think I want to be in Houston anymore”. It was a very crazy hectic time and a lot of depression was going down. I just wasn't happy with what I was doing or who was around and I didn’t feel myself growing. So, my producer said he was moving back to Minneapolis and on a whim I went with him.
And that obviously that’s turned out pretty well...
Yeah, that was three years ago. Everyone here has been so sweet to me, everyone just wants to create and it's been a great experience. It’s an extremely collaborative musical community that’s rich with styles and everyone’s appreciative of one another. People are just here to make good music. They're not worried about too much else, so everybody works together and is in a million different bands. I mean I was in like over eleven groups at one point.
Wow! That seems like a lot of songs to remember. So with all these bands going on how did you support yourself outside of music?
I've had so many different weird jobs on my resume, I’ve even had to omit some stuff it was just too ridiculous. I was a makeup artist; I was a photographer for Cirque du Soleil; I was lady liberty...I mean I wore a statue of liberty costume for Liberty Taxes. And like loads of musicians I was a server. That was my last day job. I went to a music festival, I’d asked for the time off and when I came back and they were like, "I know we said you could take the time but we weren't supposed to...so you’re fired". I was like, this is a sign and I'm never going to work a day job again. Since then I've been sustaining myself off music which has had its highs and its lows, but it worked out.
You have a great singing voice. Was rap always going to be the focus of your career? I know you’ve toured as a backing vocalist for Har Mar Superstar.
I was rapping back in third grade and started freestyling when I was about thirteen or fourteen. But I only found my singing voice later because I was scared; I thought I'd always just be a rapper. But eventually I found it and now I'm progressing because I don't want to just limit myself to one thing. I use my voice as an instrument and just see what comes out. Sometimes I sing and sometimes I scream, you never know what's gonna happen.
I think they call that a double threat.
Okay…and I play flute too
I guess that makes you a triple threat! So who would you say influenced you as a rapper?
Every time Ludacris would come out with a song, or guest feature, I would learn every word, so I'm gonna put Ludacris on there for sure. I'm gonna also have to go with Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott because they were just great. I mean, one made a classic album and the other was decades ahead of her time, and I still listen to both of them.
But when you rap you seem to straddle a broad range of flows shifting from double time lyrics to a fairly relaxed pace and back again. Where’s that come from?
There are those rappers who are lyrical fast and technical and then there’s the swagged out southern style and I like to pay homage to them both. Because part of me is super into the double time and I want to push the envelope on that style. But then there's another side of me that's like very much still in Houston where everything is slow. The rappers are slow, the beats are slow, we screw everything down. Like when Lil' Flip would freestyle it was just like “Maaaan what's the deal?” It’s just so slow and I'm not gonna forget where I'm from when I'm rhyming. It's interesting... I guess I don't stick to one style and that's cool, I never really noticed it. I like the way you describe my style, but I’ve never really thought too much about it, I just kind of rap with my soul. It’s not premeditated.
Having been in so many groups how do you find the solo life?
I wasn't ready to be a solo artist, at least I didn't think I needed to be, but I guess the universe said I was ready to go solo. I'm not a type of selfish person, especially with my art. I am very collaborative by nature and LizzoBangers being my first solo record felt terrifying at first. Now that I have done it I love it, because I have control over everything and I have faith in it, and you can only have faith in yourself.
I suppose as a solo artist you have to walk that line between being healthily selfish, so you don't end up going crazy or being egomaniacal.
There's this little bit of selfishness, that you have to acquire as a solo artist, but being successful only for me is not my goal, I've always tried to be successful for my family and take care of my Mom. Learning how to be on my own has been the best and the scariest challenge, I’m growing to love it. Only I know when I need water, when I need food and when I need air. That's what separates the ego from Id and the superego, I suppose.
So how did you meet up with you producers Laserbeak and Ryan Olsen?
Ryan is in Marijuana Deathsquads and I guess he'd heard about me, so one night he DM's me on Twitter and is like “Come and sing on this song, it will be fun”. And I was like, “No dog, I'm drunk” but he wouldn’t take no for an answer and got me a car over to his studio. There was a bunch of other people there but I barely remember cause I was really drunk and he got me to freestyle all these things. Then a couple of weeks later people were approaching me saying they’d heard me on the Deathsquads mixtapes, but I was so appalled ‘cause I sound wasted. So we met through being absolutely obliterated, then later on I tweeted Laserbeak about his beats and Ryan hopped in on the conversation. It was all through Twitter - it’s the new meet-cute.
So did you start to write Lizzobangers straight away?
Yeah, I’d fallen into this writers block. I was just tired of it all. I didn't know where I was going. I'd lost a lot of connections and friendships and I was just frustrated. So I put on Laserbeak’s mixtape and finally started writing - it was awesome. That was in October 2012. After that it was a quick process. I mean a lot of the stuff on Lizzobangers were first takes and I was writing as I went along. If a song didn’t have a chorus I’d freestyle it and that’s what you are hearing on the album.
You are obviously very comfortable with freestyling, was it something that came naturally to you?
I'm not like a crazy technical freestyler, but I definitely love the art of it. I love seeing what things come out of my mouth. Sometimes I'll say some crazy stuff and I'll write it down. The part of of your brain you use when you write is stimulated by something completely different than when you’re freestyling. It's like you’re picking up on crazy subconscious stuff that makes for great music.
I watched a documentary about freestyle recently and I don’t know if I have access to the correct lobes to make my brain think that fast.
I don't think one thinks when they're freestyling. If you notice anyone freestyling, they'll probably think of the first word or the first line and then their eyes glaze over and they're somewhere else, ‘cause there just tapping into another part of their psyche...but that's a whole other TED talk!
I look forward to watching that. You pepper your lyrics with a lot with references to the music industry, gender and race. I don't think anyone who listens to you would class you as a ‘conscious rapper’ but how important is it to get a message out in your music?
I'm not thinking about the message when I write and that is why people wouldn't label me a conscious rapper, because I'm never thinking ”this is my song about gender equality and this is my song about African American rights”. I can't do that. I mean we're having a conversation when you are listening to my lyrics and those are the things that are on my mind at that moment. I have so much on my chest, like I said I have never been a solo artist before, so every time I wrote a song before Lizzobangers, I had to think about somebody else. But now I have the opportunity to be like Lizzo and this is what Lizzo wants to talk about. So my family was on my mind, my anger, my concerns, my worries. I was super angry back then. I think it's important that you feel me, but what it’s gonna make you feel I have no clue.
I think there is surprising undercurrent of anger through the album that doesn't register on first listen.
Yeah, but at the same time I flip it really quickly away from anger and it will get tongue in cheek, y'know some sweetness with the sour.
So the album - which came out last year in the US and only just in the UK - seems to have got an overwhelmingly positive reception from critics and fans. Were you surprised by the response?
Honestly, I'm glad people like it. When I first started this project, it was just going be nice little record, something I can perform on my own...you know what I mean. Then immediately after ‘Batches and Cookies’ came out people were gravitating towards it and I was like ”this is not going to be a small record”. So I just feel grateful that people like it, but none of it was expected and I'm kind of just catching up to it. All of this is surprising.
Does all this acclaim put new pressures on you for a follow-up?
No, because Lizzobangers was two years ago now and I think people will expect me to sound the same as I did two years ago, but I don't. I'm going to sound completely different. The things I am talking about, the conversations we’re going to have will be completely different. As long as I convey that this is a different time in my music then people won't be like "why aren’t you?"....[brief pause]...Actually I don't care...If you like the new music you’ll like it and if you don't you can buy Lizzobangers again and listen to that. You know what I'm saying. The record just came out, so I am going to let it live a bit but I'm currently writing right now but as soon as something I feel should be heard, you will hear it.
Yeah, that seems pretty fair. So living with the songs from Lizzobangers for two years, do you find it easy to keep fresh when you are performing it live?
Yeah. I perform the songs differently every time and I'm glad I am able to do that. I love playing live and I really love festivals. Glastonbury was incredible and next up is Reading. That's just what’s been going down this summer; playing the festivals and meeting all the people you play with and eating all the festival food. It's been really, really, really dope.
Amazing. And finally I need to ask this because I’m a big fan of his and I did go to the effort of writing it down... You’re from Minneapolis - so have you met Prince?
You wrote that down?
Yeah, I just imagine that everyone who lives in Minneapolis gets to meet him once?
HA! Well I’m not saying...but I think you'll find out the answer to your question soon enough...
Lizzo plays Reading and Leeds Festival this weekend.