TJ Foster: A conversation with Liz Bills
Liz Bills is a singer/songwriter from Boston, Mass., best known for her role as the front woman of the indie rock group Analog Heart. In 2011, she competed in American Idol and placed in the Top 30. Her vocal talent is an undeniable force. Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of chatting with her about her experiences in the music industry, and her transition from Analog Heart to her new solo journey. Her debut, self-titled EP will be released on November 18, preceded by the first single (“Werewolf”) premiering on October 21. It is an intimate collection of songs from a songwriter as candid in her lyrics as she was in our interview.
The following is an unedited conversation that took place through the wonders of Gmail. If you are interested in being interviewed like this for a future installment, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be in touch.
Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I remember sharing a stage with Analog Heart a year or two ago and you and the guys were some of the kindest musicians I’d ever met. Not to mention… what a show you put on. So I definitely appreciate you taking the time! Looking through your history and your track record, there are so many things I could start off asking you for this interview. (Being part of American Idol, opening for Bon Jovi, etc. etc.) But I hope you don’t mind that I’m going to try and lead us down a different path here…
Listening to the EP you have coming out later this year, particularly the song “My Man,” you strike me as quite the feminist. Nowadays, there seem to be a lot of people who hear that as a dirty word, which is so odd to me. Feminism at its core is literally advocating for women’s rights and empowerment. That shouldn’t even need to be a thing. But, here we are in the 21st century still having debates about these kinds of things. Why do you think feminism can be such a taboo subject in today’s social climate? And what can we do to fix that? Speaking personally, it’s admittedly tough for me to write about things like this. I’m a white, middle-class male, which is about as ‘privileged’ as it gets nowadays. So although I identify as a feminist myself (see also: human being), I’m constantly trying to navigate through the murkiness of saying the right thing vs. saying the wrong thing with the best intentions. Is it more sexist to hold the door for a woman, or not to hold the door? Or is that a totally mute point? (Rhetorical questions, by the way.)
I bring this up not to be uncomfortably political in an interview with an incredibly talented musician, but to segue into sexism in the music industry. It’s running rampant, and I know this despite not being on the receiving end of it. I’m in a band with two women (my wife and one of our best friends) and we’ve played countless shows where venues/promoters will assume they are “band girlfriends” or “roadies” and they’re second guessed about “actually being in the band” and although I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, it’s frustrating to me, and five times as frustrating to them. Then you take artists like Kesha or Taylor Swift, two tier 1 performers who have to fight uphill battles in court to prove that they were sexually harassed by a scumbag. And then there’s everything in between. So what have you experienced and/or witnessed in this industry? And what, in your mind, is the best way to handle inherent displays of sexism toward female musicians/performers?
I think feminism can be a taboo subject in today’s social climate because of social media; people feel safe to give their opinions. I’ve noticed that when I post something sensitive on my Facebook wall I receive TONS of different opinions. People feel safe behind their computer screens in their own homes and are more willing to give their honest opinions. People also love a good argument! So maybe that is part of it? I don’t personally struggle too much with sexism in the music industry. If anything because I am a woman in the music industry I am often favored and considered unique in a vast sea of male musicians. I think the more we feed into this idea of feminism or sexism the stronger it gets. I wouldn’t call myself a feminist, I would call myself an egalitarian. When I sing “My Man,” I always tell the men in the audience that this also applies to them…that women can be jerks too, haha. I feel men struggle just as much as women. I know most men feel very uncomfortable crying and are used to stuffing away their sensitive emotions. I think both men and women should be able to express their feminine and masculine sides freely. Of course sexism exists and I support feminism. There will always be that wacky feminist expressing hatred for men and that is where I draw the line. There isn’t anything wrong with fighting for equality and female rights, but I think the bigger picture here is fighting for equality for everyone! My message in my music and in my life is to spread love and acceptance. I have been the victim of sexism yes, but I am sure most of us have.
I have also had venues/promoters think I was a “band girlfriend” or a “roadie” before but not too often. I am the band leader, manager and booking agent for my band so usually they deal with me first and know that I am in the band. When someone thinks I am not part of the band because I am a female I don’t generally get frustrated because you don’t see too many women in bands. Maybe this is different outside of New England but when I gig I am gigging with 80-90 percent males. I think this stems from a deeper problem within society. Little girls are not told they can be guitar players or drummers or rock stars. When I watch a commercial targeted to females, I see their interests being things like flowers or shopping or yoga classes…all very feminine things which are lovely of course, I love flowers and shopping and yoga BUT I also love to be a band leader, a business owner, a lead singer–all very male-dominated professions. The idea that men are the breadwinners and women are the supporters of this needs to change.
I teach young girls piano, guitar and voice lessons for a living. I believe I can make a difference by showing them that they can be leaders and rock and roll stars. They can be bosses and business owners and doctors and work on Wall Street. They can dream big and make their dreams come true. They can get married and have babies and STILL be leaders. If I ever do have a baby, I will bring that baby on the road with me! For a long time, I felt like if I got pregnant the music industry wouldn’t want me anymore, I would be used goods or baggage. I think this mentality needs to change too. Why are women shamed for pregnancy? I’ve heard stories of labels dropping female artists once they get pregnant. Or companies firing women for being pregnant. Little girls need to know that they can be like men and that it isn’t “bitchy” when a woman is a LEADER. They can have it all, just like a man. For a long time, I felt insecure and unattractive for having so many male like qualities. In my early 20s I was with a man who would make me feel badly for being “manly.” I no longer feel this way of course and I have left this person behind.
The other two things I largely struggle with as a woman in this industry are gaining weight and growing older. I have had industry professionals ask me to lose weight and I have been made to feel badly for aging. I have seen other female musicians struggle with this as well. I have struggled with anorexia and bulimia and I’ll admit that my self-worth has been tied up in my youthful and “sexy” appearance. These are things I am continuously fighting against to change. I admit my promotional pictures are “sexy” but that is part of my personality. I am a sexual person by nature but more importantly I try to emit STRENGTH in my pictures. There isn’t anything wrong with a woman being sexy in my opinion. But there is something wrong with that “sexiness” being the only thing defining her. These days when I have my photos taken I am completely myself. I am not trying to appear younger or thinner. I am me. I am fighting against this mentality for myself and for other women. I have recovered from my eating disorder and live a happy healthy life, which hasn’t always been the case. I refuse to lose weight to fit this “image” that the Taylor Swifts and Katy Perrys and Rihannas all fit into… all size 2 or smaller and Forever 21. I am not a size 2, more like a size 7 or 9. I know some women are naturally thin and that is beautiful too of course! I am talking about that specific mold a lot of these female singers are being forced into. This isn’t just happening to female singers it is happening to all women including the girls I teach! I see it happening in my 11-year-old students and it breaks my heart.
The best way that I handle sexism in my life and in this industry is to lead by example. I will be myself 100 percent. Yes, I am “one of the guys” and that is just how it is right now in this business, but this is how it’s always been for me. I have been the tomboy most of my life. I choose to love this about myself and I hope to inspire men and women to be themselves, to be in touch with their feminine and masculine sides. To cry freely, to lead with strength and pride, to show vulnerability and to embrace their imperfections. Maybe one day we won’t be defined and raised by our sex but by our character and potential.
I guess the more I got into answering these questions the more I realize I do struggle with sexism! Haha … Thank you for asking these questions, I have learned more about myself while finding the answers.
Lastly, I think everyone should hold the door for everyone else! 🙂 I know this was a rhetorical question but I had to answer. I think people are just looking to be angry at something sometimes. Acts of kindness like holding the door for someone shouldn’t be taken offensively. The person holding the door is doing it to be kind and polite. I hold doors for both men and women. 🙂
Thanks for being so candid in your response; that was amazing to read. It made me think a lot about my 9-year-old daughter–as an avid musician, I want so badly for her to pick up an instrument, start a band and have some fun. But as a father, I don’t want to push her into something she may not want for herself. She takes a hip hop dance class and has incredible rhythm. I see that also when I have my drum kit set up and she sits down to fool around. Above all else, she loves to sing. She sings along to pop songs and as much as I love the fact that she’s gravitating to something musical, at the same time I get weary of the Taylor Swifts/Katy Perrys/etc. of the world being the people she’s gravitating toward. That’s not to say they may not be great role models, but to your point, they’ve been molded into some picture-perfect version of themselves by someone or someones in the industry. Yes, they’re beautiful. But more importantly, yes they can sing. And perform. And inspire. And that’s what should be at the forefront for little girls to recognize. I do think it’s getting better, for whatever that’s worth. Unfortunately, it’s taken some pretty nasty things to get us there (see Kesha, Taylor, etc.) and start to have a long overdue, serious conversation about this industry. I’m grateful for musicians like you, who can speak so openly and try and destigmatize this subject.
Before I dive deeper into the rabbit hole, let’s talk about your record. If I’m not mistaken, this is your first solo effort. It’s an intimate collection of songs – I listen to it and I feel like I’m sitting in a coffee shop, discovering the next great talent. You said above you’ve always been a band leader, a point of contact for your musical endeavors. I can’t imagine that will change going out on your own, but how has the transition been from writing songs with a group of musicians, and writing songs completely on your own? And how does it feel using your own name on a project as opposed to a moniker?
So I have been writing and gigging with Analog Heart for over seven years now but I have always written alone as well for my “solo project.” I just never took it too seriously before. Perhaps I didn’t believe in myself or I wasn’t ready but now I feel I finally am ready!
The transition is definitely still a challenge, one that I know is good for me and that will inspire growth and change.
I’d say the hardest part about going off on my own is trusting and believing in myself. It can be hard to write songs and not have someone else there to critique them or give them the thumbs up or down. I must trust my songwriting and creativity. I must also believe that my songs are in fact good enough! This solo project has given me the chance to develop a stronger relationship with myself in this regard. I have been leaning on Jesse, the lead guitarist of Analog Heart, for a long time now. I always ask him if he likes the song I have written, I ask him to add and subtract parts etc. I don’t think this kind of relationship is bad, it is quite beautiful and we have something very special together. A very strong and healthy songwriting relationship. But in turn I have lost that relationship with myself and now I am asking myself, what do I want? What kind of songs do I want to write? I must also trust that my opinions are valid and are just as good as Jesse’s opinions.
I am auditioning players for this solo band. It has been very difficult because I know I don’t want to start another rock band like Analog Heart. I am already in one so there is no need for another. I want to start an Americana folk band… the problem currently is, I have no idea what that is! Haha. So we have started auditioning many potential players. The questions and thoughts running through my head are: Do I want a full drum kit? Do I even want drums? Maybe I want just a djembe or a mixture of djembe and drums. Maybe some songs should have drums and others shouldn’t. What kind of instrumentation do I want? I know I don’t want the typical rock band instrumentation… maybe I want banjo or mandolin, heck maybe I want some harp! I don’t know… I DO know I want some backup singers! I would love to have 2 or 3 who can also play instruments.
I guess the easiest way to compare it all is to a relationship. With Analog Heart, we’ve been happily married for a long time now. We know all of each other’s likes and dislikes. We can finish each other’s sentences, or in this case, songs. We are comfortable in our own skin together and we know what we want and what to expect from each other. We have fallen into familiar and comfortable routines and have really worked and tended to this marriage, so it is very solid and stable.
My solo project is brand new. I am going on all these awkward “dates” (band auditions.) Everything feels new and uncomfortable. I am not sure who I am in my songwriting or performing… I am just all around uncomfortable and feeling exposed and unsure and lost at times. I am not as confident and perhaps I don’t perform my solo songs as seamlessly as with Analog Heart. I am an insecure awkward teenager again. This is okay too, don’t get me wrong. It is good to put ourselves into knew and scary situations to force new growth and inspiration. I am getting to know me, Liz Bills, the singer/songwriter for the first time and it’s never boring. The challenges are good for me and I am learning a lot about myself as a person and as a musician.
I really enjoy using my own name for this project. Analog Heart actually started as Liz Bills. It just felt like more of a full band effort and the shift was natural. Perhaps I also couldn’t believe in myself enough to stand behind my own name at the time. These days it sounds nice to go by “Liz Bills.” Perhaps because I am an artist and a front woman I am a bit narcissistic by default so that could be part of it. Or perhaps I am just finally becoming comfortable in my own skin and I am ready to shout that name loud and proud! Whatever the reason, it feels right and all I try to do in my life is to follow my heart.
Being in a band is so much like being in a steady, long-term relationship – you hit the nail on the head there. The biggest potential downfall to that is getting to the point where you’re too comfortable with each other. Where writing songs goes from being natural to being an exercise of going through the motions. If you’re not pushing yourself into new, uncharted territories (even small ones), you’re doing your artistic nature a disservice. All that said, when you go from performing with a group of people to being the lone wolf on stage, it can feel a bit awkward and… well, lonely. But all of that is for the greater good, I think. Like you said, it’s important to put ourselves in new and uncomfortable situations in order to find some alternate sense of comfort we may not know we needed in the first place.
I’ve been in bands for as long as I can remember. A lot of those bands started out as solo ventures and then just naturally developed into something a little more ambitious. So I spent a lot of time performing by myself, and as a self-proclaimed introvert it was equal parts cathartic and nerve wracking. But being in a band has that same sort of dichotomy. I, like you, have always been the main songwriter in my projects. And often times, I find it hard to balance the direction I hear my songs going with the feelings of the other members. Do you ever have that dilemma? That internal struggle of having to compromise your vision for a song to accommodate the feelings of your bandmates vs. putting your foot down at risk of someone taking it personally? Maybe it’s that intrinsic narcissism you mentioned, maybe it’s stubbornness, who knows. But it really does all go back to that “band as a long-term relationship” thing. How do you keep an open mind while also staying true to who you are at your core? It’s a question that can be applied to any group-based situation, I suppose.
Liz, this has been a blast. I just wanted to thank you for being so open about your career and your experiences. I can’t wait to see the band you put together out on the road (harp? Hell yes!) and to see where this EP takes you. I always like to end these conversations with something a little silly, so on that note, one final very important question: If you were a Spice Girl, who would you be?
I do have that dilemma where compromise is sometimes the best way to solve an artistic disagreement. Jesse and I do most of the songwriting and over the years I have gotten better at being assertive and expressing my true feelings. Of course this isn’t always easy. Jesse has also worked on how to word things to me when he is feeling the same way. I have noticed I can be sensitive and defensive when he doesn’t like a song of mine. Jesse has picked up on this and tries to be kinder and more flexible in his opinions about my tunes and I greatly appreciate it. It can be tricky to dish out constructive criticism in a way that doesn’t personally hurt the songwriter sometimes. So again, it definitely is like a marriage! Working with many members in a band dynamic lends itself to compromise sometimes and I am okay with that. Analog Heart has figured a way around this issue: we have decided that whoever has written the song has the final say. So if Jesse writes a new song for the band and I don’t like a part and suggest something else, it is up to Jesse to take that advice or not and vice versa. 🙂
I have had fun too TJ! Thank you for giving me this interview, one of the most personal and fun ones I have done!
If I had to be a spice girl… hmmm (haha) I have to look them all up again and make sure I remember them all…. I’d probably be Scary Spice because her energy is really high and fun, it reminds me a little bit of myself on stage I suppose. 🙂