Musician Lia Ices’s sophomore album, Grown Unknown, will be released by Jagjaguwar January 25. Her debut, Necima, was released in 2008 by Brooklyn label and recording studio Rare Book Room. A testament to intimacy, it featured predominantly Ices on solo voice and piano. In her follow-up the intimacy remains, although the sound is rounded out with much more instrumentation, including horns, strings, guitar, vocal choirs and all sorts of rhythm.
The Rumpus interviewed Ices via phone from her apartment in the West Village November to discuss her Jagjaguwar debut, where her songs come from, how she developed her voice and city vs. nature.
The Rumpus: The sophomore album is on Jagjaguwar, a new label for you. Although you still had Nicolas Vernhes of the Rare Book Room mix it, you recorded it in Rhinebeck instead of Vernhes’ Brooklyn studio. Tell me how that came to happen.
Lia Ices: I ended up with Jagjaguwar through a long courtship. They heard the first album, so it was just figuring out if it was a good fit and also proving to them where I imagined the music going. You know after the first album it can just sort of go anywhere. So it was a long process of figuring out what that meant to me and then later explaining to them what that was. I wrote most the album in Vermont. I lived there for half a year and did a writing retreat. I just really changed my lifestyle and thought patterns and read different things and let myself get really creative and only creative. All the music was born from that place of really letting myself experiment and not judge. There was a lot of space. I was in nature, so when it came time to decide where I wanted to record it I wanted to connect again with that feeling of not being in the city and having space and time and being able to go outside for a long walk before I work a lot or sing a lot. I just think it creates really good space in your brain. Things can develop organically as opposed to in the city where you’re pushing all these external elements and fighting with them. Nicolas and I work really well together, so he actually came up with us. He’s really good at understanding what I want and being able to translate that technically because I’m not really a gear person. I’m really grateful for that.
Rumpus: How did you articulate the new album to Jagjaguwar?
Ices: I told them it was going to be a more realized version of the songs that they’d already known from my first album and I was really interested in experimenting with the voice and vocal choirs. There’s a lot of background vocals. I was really interested in using background vocals as another instrument. I started articulating that the arrangements were going to be as full as they possibly could be. I really like the idea of familiar sounds sounding unfamiliar. I think Cat Stevens does a good job of that. Where it’s like it’s an acoustic guitar but it sounds like the oldest acoustic guitar or like from the future, you can’t really tell. There’s a timelessness I’m really interested in. I use all acoustic instruments but it was really important for me to have them sound specific and new and have an energy behind them that wasn’t just … like the way that the guitar sounds on “Grown Unknown,” or the claps in “Daphne,” the sound was really specific to that song. I got really interested in exploring with sonics. Just getting those instruments to sound original was really important to me.
Rumpus: Tell me more about the lifestyle change, about escaping to a cabin in the woods.
Ices: We rented a cabin in the mountains there was no electricity for heat everything was wood fire, you wake up and immediately everything was very elemental. We had the fire going. We didn’t pay for snow plowing so it was a really big deal to leave the house to get groceries in the winter. I made my own bread. We lived on 40 acres and I would snowshoe around between demos. It completely changed my relationship with my daily rituals and patterns were completely different than they’d ever been before. I learned how to tune a piano. I just let myself do exactly what I wanted to do. I basically created a retreat for myself.
Rumpus: A main word to describe your music is intimacy. It’s very much a part of both albums. The first was so sparse, basically only your voice and piano. This one has so much more going on with instruments, but it’s still so intimate. How did you maintain the intimacy while adding all sorts of elements?
Ices: I do think it’s really intimate. With the second maybe I just found confidence in time in letting an idea just marinade and experiment. I became my own coach and forced myself to be playful with it. I can’t separate the words from the music, but the songs are really intimate, they’re like poems. I spend as much or more time on the words as I do on what it sounds like. I think of the first one as a document, they’re the first songs I made. I don’t think I took the time to flesh out the arrangement ideas that much then. It was more about how I felt in a formal way. I write songs with piano. So this time I was like, what if piano wasn’t the center of it, and what if I used my body, or what if rhythm was more prevalent. I just forced myself out of my comfort zone. That’s why it’s still so intimate because it is me and my words, but I forced myself to a zone where I could abandon the piano or I could think about instruments I don’t even play. There is tons of guitar in the new album and I don’t play guitar, so it was just letting these instruments that are all inside me, even though I don’t play them, find their way onto the album. I think restricting myself to the piano limits me. I don’t even feel like a piano player to be honest. I feel like that’s my medium. That’s where I find melody and that’s where I communicate but it felt really good to think about the emotions of instruments and dispersing them to other people to find the core of the song.
Rumpus: Tell me more about that, why you think you’re not a piano player.
Ices: I feel more like my instrument is my voice and my tools are my voice and my words and the piano is a guide or a pathway but I don’t feel attached to the instrument and I don’t feel like sitting down at the piano and jamming out. I feel more like an artists than a piano player.
Rumpus: How did you develop the instrumentation and find others to play those instruments?
Ices: My brother Eliot [Kessel] plays guitar and he’s probably my closest collaborator so for “Daphne” he knew exactly what I wanted. I didn’t have to map that out for him. Everything else was experimenting with my own demos. I knew I wanted horns so I found really good people who could get into my vision, who could take my lead and bring themselves into the song. I also worked with a string arranger. I knew exactly the roles I wanted strings to play but I can’t write scores so it was important for me to be thorough and deliberate to know what role I wanted those instruments to have and believe in the musicians and arrangers I was working with. Experimenting by myself was the most important part and the second part was way easier.
Rumpus: How were you able to do that? Push yourself outside the comfort zone?
Ices: I think I just let myself detach from the piano. For “Grown Unknown” I had this pulsing energy. It sounded okay on the piano but not as good as I thought it could sound with something else. There’s a timeline for a song, like each song has DNA and it was up to me to figure out. I played it on piano for a month or so but it didn’t feel right. Instead of staying attached to ideas I used to have about the way my music should sound I was like, why not do claps on my body? I just kept letting the songs grow without stunting them at all.
Rumpus: Tell me more about the prominence of rhythm on this album.
Ices: In those primal ritual songs of just rhythm and voice I feel like that interplay is really emotional. I was influenced by that. I think there’s something very elemental and primitive about rhythm in general. I think with voice on top of it I connected to the depth and energy that rhythm added to the songs. I was excited about the kind of diversity my songs are able to handle. There’s a power in rhythm that I really love. I think it helps what’s going on in the song and connects people in ways different than just my voice. I also have really awesome drummers. That really helps.
Rumpus: How did the collaboration with Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), how come about?
Ices: It happened close to the album being done and I felt there was an element missing from that song and that was a male presence. I immediately thought of him. I had some ideas and he’s so unbelievably creative. We just really worked well together regarding the concept of his role and it was really easy. I thought it was important for that song to have a juxtaposition of male and female. I think that song is about opposites and flight and attachment, man /woman, earth/sky. For him to be the counterpoint it was really awesome.
Rumpus: How did you collaborate? Did he come to the studio in Rhinebeck?
Ices: My label played the song for him. He really loved it. We had a back and forth and then he sent me his vocals from Wisconsin. We were actually never in the studio together.
Rumpus: Where do your songs come from? What do they grow from?
Ices: There’s a combination of so many things at play. I think on this one there’s a lot to do with using nature as a way to uncover experiences in life and love. I feel like the patterns in the natural world as being key to how we relate to everyone and using that in a personal and universal way. That’s what I realized when I was done, there was a thread you could find in every song, something that just kept showing up. Writing songs is how I deal with being a human. I think I’m inclined, that everyone’s inclined, to try and understand what it’s all about and this is just the way I do it. A lot of it is searching and trying to understand and trying to find something that everyone can understand or relate to as well, because I don’t feel like I write songs just for me. It’s so elusive. Sometimes I’ll write a song and not remember writing it. I think it’s the closest thing to being spiritual for me.
Rumpus: Writing so integral for you. So why did you choose songs over other writing formats? What drew you to the form?
Ices: I’ve always been musical and I’ve always found more of myself when I perform and I know I’m naturally kind of soft, so I think using my voice as a tool for emotion is just the way I express myself best. The voice itself, the way I experiment with it, is equally as important as the words I choose. I think I need the voice as much as I need the words.
Rumpus: Is there one song you’re particularly drawn to right now? What’s its story?
Ices: It keeps changing but right now it is “New Myth,” which is the last song on the album and it’s just about creating a new story for ourselves. It really reminds me the way I was thinking about stories and mythology when I was in Vermont. It has this power to it. I mean I can’t even remember writing it. When I listen to it I feel like I’m learning something about myself. I really love listening to it.
Rumpus: You talk about how important the voice is. Everyone has to slowly develop their own, so I am curious how you came to yours.
Ices: I did classical singing and singing for theater and then I started working with a voice teacher who was much more experimental and it became less about technique and more about finding what you sound like and using voice as an expression of yourself and not something technical. It was the first time I understood that I could have my own voice that might not have anything to do at all to do with technique and that that was maybe what I should focus on. So some of the assignments were like, sing your dream. How do you even begin to do that? It’s really just looking inside. Or just making noises. This may sound crazy but by making noises, by being playful with it, treating it like it’s its own instrument inspired me. It’s one thing to write a song, but it’s another thing to figure out what you want that song to sound like. With time, the more you practice the closer you get to where you want it to be. I think this record was me getting closer to what I sound like and what my songs sound like.
Rumpus: What are your arliest experiences with music? Your earliest musical memory? What drew you to music?
Ices: My dad is really into music, really into it. Elvis Costello was my first concert. It was just always around. I remember dancing to Buddy Holly when I was two. I started playing piano when I was five and then it sort of changed when I really got into theater and acting. There was music in that, but I sort of abandoned a rigid piano relationship with music for a performance theater relationship with music. So it’s always been around me but it’s had its own journey, it’s taken different paths. What I’ve listened to has always changed. Playing piano when I was five was when I first understood that’s what I really really wanted. And then it just kept morphing, first to theater and then to dance. I was super into tap dancing, which is so rhythmic. It was a long journey to come to my own songs. The influence comes from so many places.
Rumpus: I’m interested in the city vs. nature dual roles in your music. Can you tell me how the both play parts in creating your sound?
Ices: I don’t know. I guess I’m just waiting for the next time I can be in the country. I feel like that’s where I actually want to be. I love the energy in the city too, though, and I really love feeding off both of them. The uneasiness of being in one for too long is something that fuels me creatively also, I’m sure. The extreme of being alone with your boyfriend for six months in a cabin with no friends is the opposite of having everyone you love six minutes away from you. The city is so love hate for me. Here I feel like I’m fighting against energy but I’m taking in energy. I love it. I hate it. I feel alone, I feel crowded. It’s a constantly changing relationship. I look forward to being in the country to let those things restand open up and turn into songs.