Armies of Her Heart: The Elizaveta Interview
One of the most exciting musical discoveries to come my way is the New York-born, Soviet-raised, classically-and-operatically trained Elizaveta, whose debut album Beatrix Runs is filled with drama and grace. Known as much for her elaborate headdresses as her piano stylings, Elizaveta guarantees an amazing concert, whether she considers herself in top form or is fighting off a cold in Capitol Studios to record an iTunes session release, which is out today via iTunes.
So, according to your biography, you were five when you started writing songs. Is that right?
Yes, pretty close. My first songs were all in Russian; my first language is Russian. I’m pretty bilingual by now. When I was small, I would write poems and songs in Russian. I would make stuff up, and for a while that was what I was known for. I did a few little concerts when I was seven, eight because I had this skill or gift where I could play the piano, and of course I couldn’t play it very well, but then I would improvise an entire song on top of that, with rhymes and everything, which were apparently interesting, and they didn’t sound like kid songs at all. So I think that was the first thing.
Do you still write in Russian?
Yes, I haven’t done as much of it in recent years since I focused on my career here and becoming the best songwriter I could be in English since it is an international language. But I’m actuallly working on my Russian album right now, and I also speak Italian.
Do you plan to tour Russia after that?
I was just there. My mom is still there, so I go as often as I can. I was just there discussing some possibilities to launch the project there. I’ve gotten off to a decent start here, but now everything is so connected, it’s so international.
How do you go about writing a song when you have so many influences as you do?
I don’t think of my influences. People use the word ‘influences’ quite a lot. It’s probably more accurate for many artists and definitely for me to think of the word ‘inspirations.’ When I’ve studied something or I’ve learned something or I’ve gotten in touch with a specific style, once [I've] internalized it, it will work like an extra piece of software. I don’t set out to write a soul song on a classical-sounding song. Those influences are already working in the background by themselves.
Switching subjects, I’m interested in the character Beatrix [from the title Beatrix Runs]. How would you define her?
As you probably know, there’s a map in the packaging that is on one side a picture of me. On the other side, there’s an actual picture story-map that was hand-illustrated by my graphic designer and artist Missy Washington. It’s the map of the story as I envisioned it and I’d been writing it, and I’m almost done with it. What we did is we digitized that map, and when the new website launches next week, it’ll take a moment to dial in, but basically it’s going to be an interactive map. We’re going to start posting pictures and content. The two videos I’ve done so far, ‘Dreamer’ and ‘Meant’ are part of the story. The Beatrix character is part of the story. She undergoes a series of adventures and some time-traveling. On the map, you can actually see where she fits in with that.
How much input did you have for the video in ‘Meant?’
Pretty much all of his. The director, he and his team actually shot the entire iTunes sessions video, so we got all the songs on video. Then we got to be friends and he wanted to work with me on the ‘Meant’ video. He already had an idea in mind, which was very close to the idea I had in mind for the video. I felt that it would make sense since it’s a Beatrix story and there’s a storyline, it would make sense to have a video that follows the Beatrix storyline or adds something to it or has an element of it. We were pretty much working on all of this together. It was very much a labor of love because we wrote it and my designer helped with the costuming and set design, so basically everybody pitched in to make it happen. I was happy because it really felt like a very communal experience.
I did read about the iTunes sessions, which are being released today. What was it like recording them in Capitol Studios?
It was fantastic. First of all, it was thanks to iTunes who invited me to do this, and I was just off tour, and I was fighting off a cold, and I was absolutely, utterly terrified. I had always wanted to work in that room, which is Capitol Studios Room A. I’d be walking down the corridors and seeing all these pictures, and these are the microphones that Frank Sinatra and everybody else used. I sat in for part of the recording session with my producer Greg Wells, who produced Beatrix Runs with me.
I was very intimidated, also because I was recording live with a string quartet, and there was also a percussionist and a guitar player, and I was playing and singing live with them. And the whole point of the iTunes live session is there is no overdubbing or editing at any point. There’s no tuning or any of that. Plus we couldn’t even do it because we were in the same room. The string section was right next to me. I had never recorded with a string section before. The thing is, as I watch the videos, you’ll see I’m completely oblivious to the camera. When I watched the video, I said, ‘I’m so serious!’ You’re so used to seeing music videos where the singer is kind of playing to the camera. But we were short on time. We had to do eight songs–six are being released, and the other two are being saved for later–we only had about two takes per song. When I watched it, I said, ‘I wish I had looked at the camera or smiled,’ but that wasn’t an option because I had to be so completely in the zone.
And you covered that George Michael song ‘Hand to Mouth’ as well?
If you listen to the original, it’s very very different, but I always wanted to do my own version. The original is a lot more jazzy and kind of mid-tempo. I wouldn’t say there’s a playful mood to it, but the arrangment of it kind of lightens the gravity of the work. Which is often a good thing. I do have quite a lot in my own writing where the lyrics are dark and the music is upbeat. But in this particular case, I just really wanted to take it to that place of gravity. And the music director and bass player of the session wrote some amazing string work, so that was also lucky.