Liz Cooper: The Hot Sass Tour
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On the porch of her one-time Nashville home, Liz Cooper had a multimedia project that combined two of her loves: lips and cigarettes. She painted her own lips with red paint and kissed a canvas two or three hundred times, later dotting them with the detritus left behind in ashtrays by her friends. An overlap of intimacy, indulgence, cheekiness, and sensuality, the piece complements Cooper's roiling second record, Hot Sass. Over jagged, frenetic guitar parts, Cooper sets expectations aflame with the record's title track. Her songs unfurl like smoke spiraling off an incense cone late in the afternoon, with Cooper pushing deeper into psychedelic openness, punk ferocity, and beyond.
Hot Sass marks multiple departures for Liz Cooper: from her nine-year home of Nashville, from her band addendum of the Stampede, from any genre-burdened expectations she'd accumulated over the years. After heavy touring in support of 2018's Window Flowers, where her songs stretched out in live settings, she felt constricted by the Americana-adjacent associations that the Stampede carried. So with her bandmates' blessing, she dropped the moniker, pursuing sounds and songs that let her chase the inspiration lent to her by the likes of Courtney Love, Lou Reed, and David Bowie.
In Burlington, Vermont, Cooper and her cohort -- Ryan Usher, Joe Bisirri, and Michael Libramento -- recorded Hot Sass at Little Jamaica, the personal studio/private residence of producer Benny Yurco (Michael Nau). The intimacy of the space and the players' provided a wide-open approach to Yurco's live setup for rolling forward with minimal takes, a sensibility abetted by a whole lot of psychedelic mushrooms consumed in the process. Cooper recorded her guitar parts from the kitchen and living room while Usher played drums in a bedroom.
Completing Hot Sass, Cooper realized she needed a change of scenery from her longtime home of Nashville, where she'd lived in a freewheeling house of itinerant artists known as the Pennock Palace. She settled in Brooklyn at the beginning of March 2020, and found herself confronted with the new challenges of staying still as touring ground to a halt.
"I'm learning more about how to take care of myself -- just facing the darkness head on that I've been running from by being on tour and being so busy my whole life. It's taught me more about what kind of artist I want to be and what kind of person I want to be," she says.
But now, Hot Sass is crackling into public life, charging forward with Cooper's revitalized creative energy. Her Nashville confidant Daniel Yocum, a painter and friend who collaborated with her on the music videos for Hot Sass, first encouraged Cooper to pick up the practice for herself. She's finding new mediums to explore in paints and pedals, discovering even more exciting, untamed space to be herself.
Where did the concept of "hot sass" come from, and how did it become the central focus of your record?
It's something that scares me. It's another part of myself that I'd never really show. It's something that pushes me that goes hand in hand with me not hiding behind a band's name anymore. It is this other side of me, this wild side.
I feel like it is this madness that I've been more comfortable with accepting and like, this fucking attitude that I do possess that I've been hiding from. It's this confidence and sexiness, it's something that I've always been very afraid of. It's me learning about what kind of woman I am and It's not pretty all the time. It's not this thing that you can put in a box. I'm inspired by women who speak their mind, and who don't give a fuck what people think about them.
There's a sense of restlessness that carries across the record, and right after you finished it, you left Nashville for New York. How did that feeling make its way into the songs?
A big thing about touring is how you're not really able to reflect, you're just so in the moment all the time, and you're always surrounded by people. I am an introvert, and I feel like I have to refuel by being by myself, which is literally impossible when you're on the road. I was exhausted. But I think it's also a lot of growth and just learning about myself and trying to be confident. I've always struggled with my confidence and self worth, and facing that.
What was your approach with beginning to write Hot Sass? Where were you trying to push yourself musically?
Really what the beginning of it was, was, very organically and naturally, I met Benny Yurco, who is a fucking creative genius. I just texted him one day, and I was like, "I want to make a record with you." And he was like, "Let's do it." So really that was the beginning push for me to be creating with an artist that I really respected. I knew I had to really bring it for him and for myself.
I wrote this album on the road and any chance I could find, so in between soundcheck and the show, I would hide in the van, or I would write in motel bathrooms. Whenever I'd get home for however long, which is not usually very long, I would just dive in and write.
As soon as we got to Benny's, it was this complete safe haven. All of us trust each other so much, and we let our guards down completely. We flew through recording these songs and tracked the drums, the bass, guitar, and vocals all live. There was no intention besides just making the best song and without any ego.
You spent a few years touring pretty heavily, even by a lot of musicians' standards, and you recorded most of Hot Sass live as a group. How has it been going without that kind of in-person energy for the last year or so?
This is the longest I've gone without playing music my entire life. It's been really important for me, because music is my spirituality and my release, and I've never not had it. To take that away has been a total withdrawal, and an incredible emotional roller coaster to be in an unfamiliar city with that.
It affected me a lot. I know that I needed that break, because it made me learn more about myself: "Okay, well, if I can't just chase this thing all the time, who am I without music? I'm still learning."
What has picking up painting meant to you over the last few years?
I've just been finding my voice with it just like music. And I definitely have ideas of how I want to push boundaries with it. It's just another way to expose my insides which scares me but also makes me feel whole and healed. I love to paint because I don't feel any pressure from myself or from anyone else. It's just fun and it's pure. Purely expressive. If I make something that is horrifying and super shitty, I don't care. You move on, and you learn from it. And that's it. Daniel [Yocum] is the one that really made me fall back in love with it. We push each other, and we're gonna do some collaborations with visual art beyond videos, see what we can dream up in the painting world.
What do you most want to get across with this record?
I'm not sure if there's anything specifically that I'm aiming to get across. I'm still processing these songs. Still reflecting. And I think that's the thing -- Hot Sass is just a stamp in time of what was happening in my life. I just want to continue making art that displays myself, the moments, and the people around me.
When the New Madrid earthquakes of the early 1800s finished rumbling, the Mississippi River famously ran backward for a period of time. This was temporary but resulted in one permanent change: the rearranged flow of the river actually created a new peninsula known as the Kentucky Bend. This part of the state is completely isolated from the rest of Kentucky surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River and to the south by land that belongs to Tennessee.
When New Madrid (the band) last put out an album five years ago, they lived as one unit in Athens, Georgia. Gearing for a 2020 release, Phil McGill moved to New York -- creating a Kentucky Bend of his own. It's unexpectedly become a phase reminiscent of how the band got its start: writing with Ben Hackett, Alex Woolley, and Graham Powers in Tennessee and McGill in Georgia. It wasn't the plan though, as the band was due to share their forthcoming self-titled album.
Writing for New Madrid (the album) started in the immediate aftermath of 2016's magnetkingmagnetqueen, stretching out over nearly two years. Recording began towards the end of 2017, and, due to a desire to grow as artists and tap into new inspiration for the new songs, didn't conclude until early 2019. This elongated process broke the band's previous stride of releasing an LP every two years (with 2014's Sunswimmer and 2012's Yardboat preceding magnetkingmagnetqueen), but the time spent has delivered a collection that Hackett describes as "all the things we liked about our previous albums with new stuff put on top of it."
The early demo sessions were driven by Hackett's growing studio skills at Athens, GA's renowned Chase Park Transduction, as well as each band member coming into their own as songwriters. The final piece of the puzzle was bringing in Drew Vandenberg (Futurebirds, Bambara, Faye Webster) to produce and engineer the project. Self-titled to mark a renewed focus, the resulting 10-song set finds New Madrid revisiting the southern indie rock sounds of their Yardboat debut, while exploring new elements of dreamy psychedelia, jangly pop, and energetic post-punk. "It feels like a cool re-set," says Hackett. "This is the closest to what the band has always sounded like in our heads."
"Do you only ask the question for the answers," McGill sings across the chorus of album standout "Q & A." It's a statement of purpose, in the form of a question, for how the band approached the album as a whole. Being able to flesh out the songs over years of writing and playing live prior to the pandemic allowed them to look at the questions as art in themselves without needing answers.
Songs like the raucous "I Tried to Wait" actually grew harder as it was more and more road-tested, even gathering a studio saxophone part inspired by improvisational playing from guest musicians while on the road. Lead single "It's Ok (2 Cry)" lopes along with a woozy guitar line before descending into a propulsive beat that could've been pulled out of the Madchester era. McGill sings, "Off goes the light / and I wring myself dry / is it okay to cry," as the song turns inward and floats off into the noisy cocoon of its close. "Are You the Wind" utilizes a mixture of live and electronic drums which sandwich a middle section like a variation finding its resolution. The drums speed up in initially imperceptible ways before creating a chaotic build that drops out and reconvenes with the opening part of the song that had previously seemed abandoned.
In a year where we have spent a lot of time inside, New Madrid is an album, and a band, that engenders some inward reflections to bring us back out of ourselves -- leaving behind the questions that don't need any answers.
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