The Fabled Trouveur: Exploring The Visceral Musical Mind Of Elizabeth Owens
Through sweeping soundscapes and earnest lyrics, musician Elizabeth Owens makes sense of life. Unavoidable tragedies are addressed. Imprudent mistakes are atoned. Intrinsic shortcomings are overcome. Owens tackles it all in their music, leaving no stone unturned as they strive to get better, do better, and ultimately be better. Tied to their own experience, it makes their songs fundamentally unique, but by confronting these personal obstacles with profound clarity and sincerity, these songs also correspond effortlessly to any fractured experience.
On their debut album, Coming Of Age released this past September in conjunction with Grimalkin Records, Owens deconstructs these difficulties through soaring songs and a unifying narrative. Dreamlike arrangements are polished with a spectral veneer, enhancing the abstract familiarity that’s strongly anchored by the raw intimacy of Owen’s lyrics. Delivering those words is a tender timbre that helps guide the listener through the intricate textural designs of their fictional world, one that’s populated as much by expansive sounds as it is by creative fantasy.
Despite the album’s tagline as a “modern fairytale,” Owens describes Coming Of Age as being “loosely held together” by a fictional narrative, and it’s true that listening to their music without any context whatsoever will yield an abstract experience that is, by itself, still extraordinarily moving. But it’s also true that Coming Of Age will rarely exist out of context for listeners. Even for those who stumble across the music without prior knowledge, the music held within demands further investigation, whether by compelling you to find coherence in the swirling soundscapes or by pleading with your mind to understand the yearning and struggle at the heart of this music. Once you’re resigned to discover more about this record, you’ll quickly arrive at the conclusion that describing this art as loose seems more farfetched than any fairy tale ever written.
There’s the detailed liner notes, fleshing out the story with Märchen eloquence. “Past a somber series of swamps, she comes to a wall of pines, brightly lit by the fullest of moons” begins the section on “Growing Pain / Interlude,” offering a glimpse of the descriptive exposition Owens is utilizing to fully outline their music. Outside of prose, the liner notes also contain a detailed and notated Tolkienesque map, one that labels areas (Candid Creek, Sneak Out Swamp) and provides a track-by-track guide of where you are in the sonic world of Coming Of Age at any given moment. To top it all off, there’s even a coloring book, self-illustrated by Owens that further delineates the story, this time with a Brothers Grimm approach. All of this doesn’t add up to a loosely connected story – no, this is a resolute and extraordinary fable inspired by candid individuality and sensationalized by virtuosic talent.
In a detailed interview below, Owens elaborated on the ins and outs of Coming Of Age from their own bandmates informing the evolution of the sound to the deeply personal nature of some of the record’s more perplexing songs, with each decipher only helping to further cement the enduring power of this cathartic music.
What does Coming Of Age mean to you?
Coming Of Age signifies gaining some sense of maturity and growing into myself, while at the same time recognizing that I am still so young and have so much more growing to do. In some ways, this album served as a rite of passage for me. Growing up, I was never really encouraged to pursue music or art in a serious capacity and I lacked a lot of self-confidence in my creativity, so committing to this record sort of felt like a turning point. Like I’m finally leaving home to do what I know needs to be done.
Is self-confidence something you’ve been able to find in your songwriting process, or have you moved past it being essential to your work?
I definitely still struggle with self-confidence, but I think openness and vulnerability are more important than confidence (although perhaps lead to it). Writing and playing out more have taught me that it’s really okay to be scared and unsure; what really matters is what you do with those feelings. Maybe I’ve gained confidence in my lack of self-confidence.
It’s interesting how your album carries the description of a “loosely held together by a narrative fairy tale,” yet that fairy tale has a pretty fleshed out blueprint. Is there an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end here, or is this just something that plays in your mind as you were writing and performing?
The narrative wasn’t really a conscious decision, but sort of revealed itself as I was writing. I wrote these songs over the course of two years and at some point, probably around the time I was working on the song “Growing Pain,” I just realized that the there was a story hidden in them that needed to be told. There was a princess trapped inside of me that needed to be let out.
There’s certainly a beginning and middle (the princess being locked away and escaping), but I don’t think there’s an end. I guess these sorts of creative structures (song, album, fairy tale) help me make sense of my experiences and make them feel a bit bigger than myself; they give them more breathing room. I think the fairy tale aspect has more to do with symbols than story, though. For example, I was diagnosed with narcolepsy two years ago, so the trope of the sleeping/dreaming princess started fascinate me. The woods, specifically pine trees, symbolize independence and spiritual yearning since I would often spend hours in the woods behind my house growing up. And, of course, my strong English/German heritage naturally pulls me in the direction of these symbols, and I’m intrigued by the role they play across time and space, both physical and emotional.
Is an end possible for this story, or is it too loosely wrapped up in your own experience to have concrete closure?
There might be an end in the future. I think it might necessitate some spiritual or emotional death, but I can’t really say. Right now it definitely feels like it’s too wrapped up in my experience to have an end, but I can’t predict what will happen.
To your own experience, what does the “Tower Of Forgetting” stand for? PTSD, depression, anxiety, or some combination of all three?
Hah, yeah I think you got it. Maybe also some addiction and substance abuse. The tower, for some reason, has been a really potent symbol since the beginning of the writing process (and even before). Not quite sure how to explain it, but I’ve always felt these landscapes underneath the surface of “real life,” like I’ve always had one foot in some other plane. Some landscapes are stronger than others, and there’s always been one with a tower. The tower is a really stern, constrictive space. It feels like an angry father, trying to shield and protect his feelings while remaining in power above everyone else. The cold, hard overseer or the strict observer.
I feel a lot of the tower in me, mostly in the ways I’ve treated myself. Thanks to a toxic household (and society), I internalized so much misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and stigma against mental health issues that over the years, I shut down in a lot of ways. I drank to black out, I numbed my feelings and denied my identity, I sought comfort in people and grasped for anything I could use to distract myself from myself. I may not have personally built that tower, but I still ended up inside of it and I knew I was the only one who could get myself out. I wanted to honor and recognize that, and set a conscious, outward intention to break down those walls, or at the very least find a way out. And to be clear, I still find myself inside of it. I think as long as humans are humans, we’re going to build towers. But we can also recognize them for what they are and make an effort to do something about it.
Have you noticed a subconscious change after letting the concept of the tower out into the world, or is it still a place you are locked into from time to time? Not to minimize the reality, but I wonder if it has any similarities to the feeling of naming your abuser.
I definitely have; I’ve been better able to stand up for myself and realize my thoughts and feelings are valid and I’m not always the bad guy, the wrong one. I’ve also noticed sort of a return to my childhood self, a softening and revived belief in art and magic. I’d say that the connection to naming your abuser is valid, too, although the abuser in this sense is perhaps more abstract — school, social conservatism, the bell curve… all the shit that breeds (and stems from?) stiffness and fear of the unknown.
Your EP last year was said to be a “demo” for this album, but I wonder if the songs on that EP were written with this theme in mind, or was the theme crafted around the songs you had?
It’s hard for me to distinguish which came first since I feel the story was waiting for the songs and the songs were waiting for their story. But to be less annoyingly enigmatic and lofty, I think the conscious decision to commit to working with the narrative framing came after the EP. [Laughs] For me, writing is less a series of decisions and more a fluid, intuitive process that sort of unfolds behind the scenes. Who knows how much of the content came while I was sleeping or zoning out?
In that sense, are there parts of your songs, either musically or lyrically, that you have no real memory of creating?
Yeah, there are bits and pieces I don’t recall creating. When you’re in the flow of making, it’s hard to pin down stuff like that. Like when you’re jamming and someone plays something awesome and you just keep going with it — it sort of evolves fluidly. And of course, a lot of “my” lyrics just sort of spring up in my head randomly, with seemingly no connection to anything within my scope of awareness, so it’s really hard to parse out when or how things come together a lot of the time.
Was it hard for you to change and tweak those Growing Pain songs after releasing them as an actual EP last year?
I think at first I was a little resistant to changing anything about them, but after playing the songs with the Bats (Micah Barry, Johnny Hargrove, Zach Hanson, James Gibian, and Zac Riviere — my beautiful and caring bandmates) it was easy to loosen up. They’re all amazingly talented and thoughtful musicians, and I get really bored of playing songs the same way for too long, so for the most part the songs just naturally evolved the more we rehearsed. It was a very organic process, and super fun.
Since recording the record itself, have you noticed the songs continuing to change?
For sure, Micah has already added a few new guitar lines to “You’ll See” and The “Lights On” and always builds these amazing looping soundscapes for “Coming” and “Growing Pain” on stage; Johnny usually just improvs with “Growing Pain” and “Ode to Joni”… things are always a little different each time we play and I love it that way. It would be boring as heck otherwise! I think Micah and I both have a pretty unconventional approach to songwriting and guitar playing in general, so it was really interesting working with Johnny who has more of a clean, classical background in music. Playing the really vulnerable, sparser songs (like “I Long” and “Be Better”) with friends also gave them much more energy and lifted them in a way I couldn’t have done myself. I’m really, indescribably grateful to be able to share and play with them — I don’t think these songs could have been nearly as impactful without their energy.
What songs do you feel make up the “core” of the record, or conversely what songs are most important to you on this record?
Ooh, that’s a tough one. All of the songs feel extremely important to me now, but I think the real core that started it all includes “5am,” “I Long,” “You’ll See,” “Growing Pain / Interlude,” “Try,” “Be Better,” and “The Light’s On.” Hah, maybe a better question would have been “which songs don’t feel like they make up the core?” “Sneaking Out” sort of weaseled its way in; it was based on a little looping guitar riff I recorded one night and got low-key obsessed with, and “Ode to Joni” started out as something I wasn’t sure needed to be on the record but evolved to find a place. I tend to be super curatorial in my songwriting and just focus on the ones that I know need to be heard together, so there wasn’t a ton of cutting or anything… I just sort of planned out the record first and then focused on polishing what was there.
Due to the personal nature of the record, which songs were most difficult to record or write?
“10 Years” was the hardest, for obvious reasons. “Coming” is a close second, followed by “Growing Pain.” Where “10 Years” and “Coming” were more difficult because of the vulnerability of those songs, “Growing Pain” was challenging because I had this great big sound in my head that just took forever to figure out how to manifest with guitars and drums. It still doesn’t feel like it’s all the way there, but I don’t think it ever will.
How does a song referencing Joni Mitchell — in name, lyrics, vocal pitch, and even tempo swing — fit in with the overall aesthetic of the record?
If you read the coloring book and liner notes I made to go along with the record, they explain “Ode To Joni” in the context of heroes and unrealistic expectations. The song started off as little more than a fun track to liven up my sets — I had no real intention of including it on the album. Around the time of the election, I started re-analyzing some of Joni’s creative decisions and began to see the lines of appropriation in her work, and to top it all off, read that she had often casually donned blackface at parties saying that she identified as a black man. So when I went back to write the bridge and final chorus, what started off as a fun, light-hearted tune professing my love for a personal hero ended up becoming a more introspective exploration of my relationship to all the role models of my life, and reminder to pay attention to where they fail as well as where they succeed. So to me, it makes sense conceptually with all the themes of growth and realization. Aesthetically, I thought it fit the sort of folky world of the record and broke up the somber tone of “Growing Pain” and “Try.”
Have you examined other musical “role models” in this same way?
I have, and I definitely hold a really critical lens to every new artist I discover. It’s something I’m still figuring out, because I know that everyone feels and functions differently and there’s a context for everything. I mean, it’s a confusing thing to know that I’ve learned so many valuable, loving lessons from so many toxic people. I’m trying to be less quick to label people as toxic and more open to the idea that behaviors and mechanisms (interactions; chemical, relational, etc.) are toxic, not the people themselves or necessarily their work.
How did the soundscapes on the record come about, and where did you cull the clips from?
My mum introduced me to Kate Bush and Genesis at an early age (and I was immediately in love) so soundscapes always felt like a standard to me. I also went to VCU for film and did a lot of sound design stuff in the program — I’ve just always been drawn to it. There’s a super dream-like quality to sound design that I feel very connected to.
The opening sounds of the record (the glitchy waves of static-y VHS weirdness) were actually an incredible accident. My friend (an amazing educator and filmmaker) Oscar Keyes and I were doing a VHS capture of some old home movies I found and when we popped the last tape in, the screen just went blue and the audio did this weird thing. We were immediately floored with excitement at the strange magic pouring into our ears and recorded the whole thing. What’s more, I think this specific tape was a compilation of home movies from before I was born to about 10 years old (so, me coming of age…). We instantly knew that this was meant to be the base track underlying the album.
The rest of the clips came from regular old, un-glitched home videos. I spent hours curating which moments to include where (there was a lot of footage), and it felt really important to choose the right ones since they were the elements of time-travel meant to seal the spell of the album. For example, my grandfather (who fought in both the Korean and Vietnam wars and played a large role in building the tower) died two years ago and apparently a recording of “Taps” was found inside his tape player the night he passed. He left a voice message two days before telling my dad that family was all that matters. He never called. I think he may have committed suicide, and I knew I needed to pay homage to him at the start of the record, so I wove in a clip of him with the family when I was young and a recording of Taps.
Other than that, there were a lot of weird, gendered moments of my mom being way too excited about getting me to wear a dress that felt important to include, and a clip of 15-year-old me admitting to cheating for the first time right after I started dating my current partner that plays before “10 Years” (a piece about the ups and downs of relationship anxiety). One of my favorite clips is my mum’s father singing this strange song on my first birthday during the first pause in “Coming,” which felt significant considering that his dated, sexist view of the world forced my mother and aunt into secretarial work despite their passion for the arts and sciences. The closing clip (at the end of “The Light’s On”) is the sound of my father taping my mum holding me one day after I was born and the first time I was ever recorded. Lord knows I could go on, but are a few of my favorite moments.
Did you do a lot of experimentation in the studio with these songs, or was it all mostly charted before sitting down?
The basic structure of the songs was all charted out, but I did end up adding a lot of ornamentation and adding quite a few guitar parts in the studio (a.k.a. my hot-ass apartment). Dave Watkins also lent me his bowed psaltery, which I instantly fell in love with, and what started out as a few minimal sparkles here and there ended up becoming a major part of the record’s sound. Johnny and Micah (both phenomenal guitarists) wrote a lot of guitar lines on the spot as we were tracking and we had a lot of fun just messing around and coming up with new riffs. The challenge, of course, was figuring out how to mix it all in a way that let each little piece shine. I’ve never mixed anything this involved before so there was a bit of a learning curve!
Given how personal this record is, was it hard to let some of the control go on some parts to Micah, Johnny, and others?
A little bit, but there were also just so many joyous moments where someone would suggest a part and I would jump up and down with excitement at how ingenious it was. So maybe in the end, it wasn’t that hard? I feel so unbelievably lucky to have such talented and beautiful friends as musical partners.
Lyrics in your songs seem to come from both a place of despair and clarity. One line seems to be written in the middle of a depressive state, and the other maybe a few days later in a more balanced way. Do you write songs over time in both spaces, or write from one space while empathizing with the other?
I like this question because I’ve really never thought about it before. For the most part, the lyrics are written across different time periods (there are exceptions; I think “Coming,” “I Long,” and “You’ll See” were written more or less from one space). Usually a melody surfaces in my head and words bubble up to meet it. I don’t believe in forcing art (or anything), so when things settle down I let it rest until it needs to come back up again. Sometimes it’s days later, sometimes weeks or months, but always during a period of intense emotion or some significant understanding. It’s like the song comes back up and says “Here, this is important, you need to listen to this!” So in that way, my songwriting is more about listening than writing, and honoring the space and time that feelings and intellect need to meet each other. Sometimes it happens in one space, sometimes it takes a while. It depends on the song, really.
A lot of phrases in this album sound like bold answers, but absolutely come off open-ended, like the line “I never learned to love myself.” Do you think you find answers through writing songs, or tools to help find the answers?
Yeah, songwriting is definitely my way of making sense of things. Maybe “answers” isn’t the best word because they always lead to more questions, but “realizations” are definitely a huge part of the process. Songs feel a lot like spells to me. Something about building a structured form across time and space feels very fulfilling and solidifying, and the emotional/tactile experience of listening sort of seals the deal. I love poetry, but music is infinitely more potent to me because of the sensuality of sound; songs combine rational thinking with emotional feeling, and the time element allows them to breathe and evolve and travel. That’s pure magic to me. So each song is like a little spell, a time-capsule that reveals some truth I have honored, and releases it into the world. Every time it’s played or performed, the truth is re-iterated and re-contextualized and helps me grow a little bit more. I sincerely hope the little truths can help others grow, too, in whatever ways are needed.
You’ve talked about wanting this record to help others here and in some other quotes about the record. In addition to everyone’s unique take on it, is there something you hope people take away from this album after listening?
It’s okay to be afraid, and to accept that you still have a lot of growing to do. It doesn’t mean that you’re bad, or stupid, or immature, or worthless. It’s actually your greatest strength, and a profound source of fulfillment, as long as you make the choice to give in and listen.
Coming Of Age is available today digitally as well in a variety of physical formats, including cassettes available through Grimalkin Records with the proceeds benefiting the Virginia Anti-Violence Project, and a limited number of Coming Of Age care packages available through Elizabeth Owens’ Bandcamp that include a copy of the album, coloring book, handmade cleansing salt concoction, a spell candle, and more.
Owens has plans to write new material in 2019, as well as release a music video and new single in the early part of the year. Until then, Owens plays in Richmond next on Wednesday, January 9th at The Camel along with The Firnats, Recluse Raccoon, and North By North. For more information on that show, click here.