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Interview - Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth & The Catapult

Elizabeth & The Catapult is that band you don't realize you know. You've heard their songs in commercials for Google and Amazon, especially "Taller Children," the title track from their eponymous debut LP. Elizabeth Ziman's perfectionism and musicality made the debut album a breath of fresh air. Looking back at that time, she might have done things differently, but she has not regrets. Now with the release of Like It Never Happened, Ziman is looser, wiser, but still has her sense of humor. Ahead of their show at Jammin' Java on Saturday, the multi-instrumentalist talked about busking, her solo record, Broadway, her chance encounter with Ryan Gosling, what she really thought of American Hustle, and more.

Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult posing for new album Like It Never Happened.

FO: There was a bit of confusion, you were Elizabeth and the Catapult, but now you are solo but under the same name?

EZ: No, the guys I was working with, Danny and Pete, are in the band Lucius now, but I have been playing with other friends of mine that I have been playing with for awhile. And actually this album It Never Happened, is not a solo record. I recorded it with Danny and Pete from Lucius, and Danny produced it. I actually just recorded an album about three weeks ago on a very inspired night in the studio over the course of four hours that's a solo record, that will be out later this year.

FO: Four hours, how many tracks are on it?

EZ: I recorded 8 tracks, they were all kind of throw away songs from this last album. But as I was playing them, I realized that I do actually quite enjoy them. There's some good little nuggets in there. I'm going to have my friend Rob Lews, who did strings on the last couple albums, arrange it. And go back in and finish it up in the next month. There's a lot of music coming out.

FO: So is it going to sound a lot like Like It Never Happened, or is it going to sound like an official solo record?

EZ: It's me at a piano and they're all live takes. It was recorded very fast and furiously, so it will definitely have a different sound. Cause it's not produced, it's really just recorded. It's me and it's my music,[laughs] so there will me some similarities.

FO: Sometimes when I hear you, I think of Sara Bareilles, and I know you went on tour with her. What is similar about your voices is that you can hear different genres, a little bit of R&B, pop, jazz, folk. Have you ever thought of doing something different than you're known for? Even perhaps Broadway?

EZ: That's so funny that you ask this [laughs] cause my father was an actor for a couple of years, a couple of short years in his twenties. He was on Mork and Mindy, All In The Family, all this cool stuff. And he has been trying to get me to do it. I know a lot of Gershwin from listening to a lot of jazz standards, but I never listened to musicals growing up. And I just watched the Marvin Hamlisch story [laughs] with my dad on PBS like yesterday. It was so funny, he kept relating ever thing back to Marvin; “Marvin, such a great guy.” He kept trying to get me inspired by Marvin, and I think he's wonderful, but I don't know a lot of his work. But I do think that there's a lot of fun behind not taking yourself too seriously. And humor obviously, like some of it in lyrics is fun to play around with. I think people with humor in their lyrics are often compared to people who right musicals. Like some of my old stuff, like “Perfectly Perfect.” Or there is a song off of my latest record, “Poison,” which has that tongue in cheek, playful, vaudevillian quality to it. I take it as a compliment.

FO: You should. Which brings me to your Ryan Gosling video.

EZ: Oh my gosh, I love your questions [laughs]. This is what's important people. I was basically in the studio, and there was a camera crew there a couple months ago because I was just supposed to play a couple songs with my band and film for my website. And while we were testing the mics, I had literally just been across the street at this cute little vintage shop in that had all these Ryan Gosling coloring books.

FO: What?

EZ: Ryan Gosling books with all the feminist quotes. And whoever owned this shop is obsessed with him, and I thought it was so funny, and I had this ridiculous experience with Ryan Gosling a couple years ago, that I just started literally improvising just to test the mics, and the cameras were on and I improvised the whole song. I listened back to it [laughs] and said is this not the best song I've ever written. Is this not pure gold right here. So we made this ridiculous video and I think it's only got like forty hits, I'm so confused cause I truly have great hopes for this song.

FO: I can't believe it's not bigger than it is.

EZ: We need to get it on one of those comedy sites, or get Reggie on it. Reggie Watts was on my album but he did not sing on that song clearly.

FO: So that actually happened, he actually told you to call him?

EZ: I swear to you. First of all, I think he was method acting, cause he was talking to me in this very strange dialect that is not the same as his Jersey accent from all of his stuff. I think he was just trying to, I'm not trying to put him down, but I think that he wasn't, that maybe when he's talking to random fans on the street maybe he has a little bit of a front. [laughs] I'm not even sure that was his real number.

FO: So you haven't tried calling it at all?

EZ: Oh my gosh, no.

FO: I know a lot of people who would have called immediately.

EZ: I know. I was such a coward

FO: Speaking of New York, you were busking a lot. How does that compare to just playing in tiny bars? And would you recommend it to artists?

EZ: I love busking and I was actually thinking of moving away from New York at some point which would have been very silly. My rent was hiked up and I was thinking about leaving, and then I realized that I couldn't busk anymore if I left the city. It's such an integral part of what I do and my day to day. I think it's something about the acoustics, and now I guess it's just formed into a habit. I think I really started cause it's like a church down there the reverb is incredible. And I don't busk in a very busy area, it's not like I'm busking in Union Square. I'm busking really out of the way in Brooklyn. It kind of feels like my own little reverb chamber studio, and it forced me to pick up the guitar and really shred. [laughs]Not really shred I would say, my shredding, shredding on an acoustic guitar would sound horrible. It forced me to really practice and actually learn the instrument. So I'm grateful for my time down there

FO: Did it sound like you were taking lessons down there or were you just playing?

EZ: I wish, I still haven't taken lesson. I took one lesson with this guy Michael Daves, who's an incredible blue grass player, who had an album with Chris Thile, and I loved it so much. But I think I was really intimidated by him, cause when I actually took the lesson I didn't practice as much as when I was just teaching myself. I think it's just, I was just down there learning as much Gillian Welch, Lou Reed, Tom Waits, as many covers as possible, Bonnie Rait. I think as a songwriter, the only advice that I ever give people, other than try to connect to your fans as much as possible and try to create things that you standby obviously, share as much as you can. Other than that, I just say you should learn as many covers as you possible can, because the better you are at your instrument and the more influences you have, the better learner you are going to become. I stand by that.

FO: If your students wanted to go down and try something like that, do you actually recommend it to them or would you prefer that they stick to traditional methods?

EZ: Yeah, I think it's great. I think if you have the balls to do it, do it. [laughs] You are performing for people even if they don't care to listen to you. There are going to be people who are really excited. Once in a while one of my fans will discover me down there [laughs] and be really really confused. And just siked to be there. I think that my mother thought it was kind of strange when she first heard that I was doing it, because she thinks that it looks bad or something about appearances. But I'm not really interested in any of that and it serves a very specific purpose for me. I would always recommend playing out all the time and learning as much music as you can.

FO: Interesting that you said that about your mother cause I was going to ask you about if you got any negative backlash from it. Because you are maybe more established then some other people down there.

EZ: Right. Well I'm not really asking for money. Cause I'm playing in an area where there aren't a lot of people and I'm not getting a lot of money. I think that if Yo Yo Ma played in the subway, other than the traffic that it would cause when he appeared, I think it would be really really cool. I don't think it should be based on class or success level. I don't think it has anything to do with any of that. I think it has to do with are you present, are you excited to play, and do you have the time, and does it serve some purpose for you. I know people who are incredible street musicians who have never come above ground because of some feeling they have about it. I was talking to this guy the other day, he must be in his 50s maybe 60s, he's a gospel singer and he plays with his keyboard at West 4th street, and I was having a conversation with him because he obviously could play in some of the best rooms in New York and do a great job. He's so so talented. He said “there's some calling for me down here. I don't want to play for anyone else. I'm playing for myself and the public, and I don't want to be branded in anyway. And if I'm comfortable and enjoy it down here than that's what I'm supposed to be doing.” I would maybe beg to differ that I think he could have success up there and he could maybe make a little more money. And I don't think it's selling out playing in a club, but some people are really hard core down there. It's like self-fulfilled prophecy kind of thing, it's really interesting.

FO: That makes me think of the DIY way the music industry is going to. Artists doing everything for themselves. Is that something that you think is going to be more popular or will people go back to the industry?

EZ: I think that there is no way if music is basically free now, most people are getting their music off of Spotify. I had a conversation with someone the other day, have you heard All Things Must Pass, that really famous Beatles record, have you checked it out? They were like no. and I was like well it’s on iTunes. And they were like, well I listen to everything on Spotify. Which I didn't think about. It's happening very rapidly and I don't think it’s that extreme for everyone, but a lot of people are just using Spotify. And if that’s happening, other than playing shows, there is no possible way you can keep people excited, keep people in the loop, and other than just creating content on line and having some kind of presence, I don't think you can really fight the wave, at least for another ten, twenty years. I hope that record companies will somehow make more money at some point and there will always be the big artist that are reaping money in for everyone. But I think I highly doubt that this trend is going to go away. People are going to need to rethink how they are pushing their music and how they are connecting to their fans and their sharing.

FO: That makes me think of Beyoncé and her whole surprise album success.

EZ: Totally. That was so cool. And to have someone at that level, that's that big who can just give that much content and on the whim just release an album. I mean some of my friends were pissed, “she just comes out with an album whenever she wants." I was thinking this is so cool, how many people had to keep that a secret, all the video crew, she had like hundreds of people that knew about this and didn't say a word. and then this album came out and I've been watching those videos everyday laughs. I feel like it's just the holidays of Beyoncé. Every day I can watch a new video. She gave us twelve videos right.

FO: I think it was seventeen.

EZ: So cool, so cool

FO: If someone who wasn't Beyoncé tried that maybe it wouldn't have been so successful. So it's not like a model that people can follow. The fact that she was able to do it, is kind of exciting for the industry in general.

EZ: I think it's fantastic. I just wrapped a music video. one of my friends shot it. Someone in my band, who sings with me in my band, and plays like every instrument. She edited my video, she’s like a jack of every trade. So we just finished this video and I already have another one that my friend is illustrating and I'm trying to come up with another idea for a video. There's all these lyric videos, I just read about it, I don't really know much about that. I guess they are popular now. So I'm talking to someone now about putting a cool background for that kind of stuff so we can put that out pretty soon. People are too over stimulated, they are bored too quickly to just have, especially on an indie album to just, oh I'm going to come out with an album every couple of years. That would be cool if that was enough, but at the same time when I post a video ever couple of days of me singing at my piano, or whatever cover I'm working on or whatever new song I'm working on, I think that makes me a better musician. That makes me a better performer, that makes me more motivated. I think it's better for everyone.

FO: It's exactly like you said. If something doesn't go viral it almost doesn't matter to people.

EZ : I remember with my first album, [laughs] god bless all who worked on that with me. I was such an over achiever. I think that some of the tracks, I stand by the songs, it was my first album my first work. I’m proud of it, but I know that I was over producing and over thinking a lot of things. Every picture had to be perfect and all the art work, and it was just so much tinkering with stuff that can be better in its raw state. I think I've learned a lot since that. And just try to put a lot more content out there hopefully, without a lack in quality.

FO: This is a hard question to answer. When do you, if you are not a perfectionist, when do you know when you are done when making music or any art?

EZ : When do I know when I’m done, that’s a good question. I think it really helps to have people who you trust and that you believe in, that you are working with, and that can tell you to shut up when you need to shut up. I think otherwise it’s kind of a feeling you know, there's like that indescribable feeling that you've made something worthy, or that something is connecting. There's something in this that I've seemed to say what I wanted to say, and I think that if I wasn't a musician, I think all those years of when I started doing this, especially with my film scoring work, I think I would be an amazing editor [laughs]. My dad is actually a script doctor, but I feel like I’m really good at knocking things out and keeping what matters. I love over editing [laughs], so I think I would be an editor of some sort, and I think now that I've finally learned in the last couple of years and with this record, I made it really fast, this most recent record I think took six weeks in total with everyone to finish, I’m getting a lot better at just coming in and knowing what I want to say. And really celebrating the mistakes and the happy accidents. I’m just king of embracing all of it, you are kind of embracing a moment in time. So while you can believe in that and a lot of people say that, but to actually do it takes a lot of playing practice performing.

FO: Editing is one of the more important things in art, music, writing, anything.

EZ: Yes. I just saw American Hustle, I do not thing that movie was edited correctly. Everyone else seems to love it. I think it was a rush job. I think the costuming was great, the actors were great, the writing, they had some really good lines, it just wasn't edited. [laughs] I think something happened where they were like we had all this amazing stuff now we have to get it done in two minutes, or something happened, cause it was so long. It was like two and a half hours, my friend Lauren actually fell asleep in the movie. [laughs] I couldn't even discuss it with anyone after. Most people loved that thing. I wrote about it on Facebook and people were outraged that I didn't get it. People loved it. I thought it had its moments.

Like It Never Happened is out now on iTunes and Amazon. Catch Elizabeth & The Catapult at Jammin' Java, Saturday January 25, at 7 p.m. Tickets are $12.

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