Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Lizzy McAlpine Wants to Go Offline

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In 2022, the singer and songwriter Lizzy McAlpine released her second studio album, “Five Seconds Flat,” a collection of winsome bedroom-pop songs about feeling heartsick and alienated. McAlpine, who was then twenty-two, seemed to fit neatly between Phoebe Bridgers and Olivia Rodrigo, two other visionary young songwriters who became enormously famous during the pandemic. McAlpine’s work was funny and forthright, but also vaguely elegiac. She has a velvety, agile voice that trembles in the right moments. She is also unusually adept at writing the sorts of tender, yearning hooks that move legions of aspiring warblers to pull out their iPhone tripods. McAlpine had collaborated with Jacob Collier and Finneas on the record, and would soon work with Noah Kahan and Niall Horan. She felt like a singer of her time and place.

Almost a year after “Five Seconds Flat” was released, the single “Ceilings” went viral on TikTok. McAlpine, who was brought up in a suburb of Philadelphia, wrote the song while she was in London, working on an EP and muddling through a breakup. It tells the story of a relationship’s heady and intoxicating early days, when everything feels possible but the ground is still unsteady. The song’s narrator bites her tongue rather than confessing devotion too soon: “I don’t wanna ruin the moment / Lovely to sit between comfort and chaos.” Much of McAlpine’s writing wobbles between those two poles. Like Bridgers and Rodrigo, she is prone to contemplating the distance between what feels safe and what feels thrilling.

Yet the final verse of “Ceilings” suggests that it was all an elaborate fantasy. “But it’s not real / And you don’t exist / And I can’t recall the last time I was kissed,” she sings. Plenty of songs feature extended daydreams about getting subsumed by a new romance, but far fewer include invented thoughts of love-related angst. “Ceilings” feels particularly modern in this way, and in conversation, somehow, with the loneliness of quarantine. McAlpine’s longing for love is also a longing for confusion, for nervousness, for weird feelings. She wants the whole imperfect and exhilarating package: comfort, chaos.

It was the verse containing the plot twist—it was all just a dream!—that started whipping across TikTok. The audio was typically sped up (users will sometimes increase a song’s b.p.m. so that they can cram more lyrical content into a very brief clip—yes, this is nuts) and played over footage of girls in long dresses twirling around outside, sometimes during a rainstorm, with beatific expressions on their faces. For several years now, the music industry has been hyperfocussed on TikTok as a kind of magic portal to huge, near-instantaneous success. Although the platform can be confounding—the particulars of its algorithm are famously kept secret—it’s a cheap and efficient marketing tool, and omnipresent in the lives of its billion-plus users. It works to create a certain kind of outsized, often momentary fame. “Ceilings” has now been streamed more than five hundred and thirty million times on Spotify.

When we first spoke, McAlpine, who has long brown hair and an air of seriousness, was seated on her bed at her house in Los Angeles, an open, high-ceilinged space with heavy wooden beams and white walls. I asked how long she’d been living there. She paused, then laughed. “Time is weird,” she said. “Two-ish years?” She found the city isolating at first, but has slowly settled into a domestic rhythm. She told me that she has come to understand virality as something of a curse. “I play ‘Ceilings’ toward the end of the set,” she said. “The song I play after ‘Ceilings’ is about my father, who passed away. Hundreds of people just get up and walk out. Like, you really paid that much money to come see my show, and only wanted to hear ‘Ceilings’? It’s mind-boggling.”

Of course, griping about the inanity of TikTok can make a person feel dusty and oblivious. For a while, I was so resistant to resisting it that I found myself engaging in all sorts of mental and spiritual gymnastics to justify its galloping pace, its endless expanse of fun-sized content, the way it reduces even the most dynamic and emotionally complicated songs to neutral blips. But the more a person mulls over the mechanics of virality the more odious the experience seems. Building a career the old-fashioned way—slow and steady—is not glamorous, but being launched into the stratosphere seemingly at random, with no personal or professional infrastructure in place to support sudden fame, tends to leave musicians stricken, if not traumatized. This is partly because virality is understood as a gift, the whole point of being relentlessly online. It can be irksome when artists don’t express endless gratitude for their luck. As we spoke, McAlpine was careful not to complain too much about this kind of notoriety. “It’s kind of disheartening, a little bit, sometimes,” she said cautiously. “But for the most part it’s fine. I’m just going to move ‘Ceilings’ to the encore. If they really want to see ‘Ceilings,’ they can wait.”

In April, McAlpine released her third album, “Older,” an eerie, sparse, and gorgeous folk-rock record that deliberately eschews the melodramatic swooning of “Five Seconds Flat.” She is in the middle of a world tour, and will perform two shows this month at Radio City Music Hall. “Older” is a slower and more mature album, focussed on grief, culpability, and the tumult of change. The songs were inspired by a romantic relationship McAlpine had while she was an undergraduate at the Berklee College of Music. “We dated for a month and a half, and then the next four years were on and off, basically,” she said. “I was just going back to him over and over again because I knew he would be there.” Now she’s trying to hold herself accountable: “I only hear songs about ‘You hurt me and you left and you suck!’ That’s not my experience.”

The melodies on “Older” are rich but subtle. On the title track, McAlpine details her regrets over mournful piano lines:

Over and over
Watch it all pass
Mom’s getting older
I’m wanting it back
Where no one is dying
And no one is hurt
And I have been good to you
Instead of making it worse.

It is impossible, the song suggests, to understand or control our lives as we’re living them. “I wish I knew what the end is,” she repeats in the final verse, her voice splintering. I told McAlpine that I found the album to be a poignant meditation on self-loathing and the time we lose to pain. “I’ve seen so many people just be, like, ‘It’s really boring,’ ” McAlpine told me, of the record. “It’s not ‘Five Seconds Flat,’ but ‘Five Seconds Flat’ was so not me.” She went on, “I’m kind of losing the people who don’t actually care about my art, which is hard, but also good, probably, in the long run, because this album sounds the most like me that I’ve ever sounded. If people don’t fuck with it, ‘Five Seconds Flat’ is still there for them.”

McAlpine also said that she has been turning away from social media. “I used to put myself out there a lot more, in the early days, when I was building my career. But recently, I just . . . I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t want to have people know my every move and every thought. With this record specifically, I was, like, I’m not doing that. I don’t care if my music goes nowhere. I’m not going to be lip-synching the songs on TikTok every day to get them to go viral. That’s not who I am.”

Instead, McAlpine has spent much of the last two years reëstablishing herself both creatively and personally. She initially recorded a different version of the album, but the results left her cold. “As we kept going, it just started to feel less and less right,” she said. “We were doing it like my other records. I listen back to my first two albums, and I can just hear the perfection. We would Melodyne every vocal. It was perfectly in time. I felt like this music deserved something more messy than that, more human.” She ended up reworking most of that material, and ultimately helped produce the record herself. “I found a band,” she said. “Finally being in a room with people who are real, and in the same room, and we’re recording things in one take, playing off of each other—it just felt so good. It was exactly what the music was missing.”

She recalled her previous tour, in support of “Five Seconds Flat,” as harrowing, anxious. She wrote “All Falls Down,” one of the more beguiling tracks on “Older,” while in the midst of it. “I was trying to put on a show that I saw other people doing—the pop thing,” she said. “But it just didn’t sit right with me. This tour is completely different. It’s like night and day.” On “All Falls Down,” McAlpine sings about being miserable over jaunty, AM-radio horns. The track is playful but intensely grim, in the mold of Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman. “Twenty-two / Was a panic attack,” she sings, her voice soft. “I can’t stop the time from moving / And I can never get it back.”

Lately, McAlpine has been reëvaluating her aspirations. “I didn’t play gigs growing up—all I really did was do theatre,” she said. “I wanted to be on Broadway. I liked writing songs because it helps me process things, and for a long time the songs were just for me.” I asked if she could imagine a future in which she stopped touring and concentrated on a different kind of performance, maybe auditioning for a musical. “That’s all I’ve been thinking about, honestly,” she said. “This album took so long to make, and it took a lot of the joy out of making music for me.” Now she’s considering a life centered on selflessness, slowness, privacy, quiet. “After this tour, I’m fully going to pivot to something else,” she said. “I want to work on other people’s words. I want to be a part of someone else’s ideas. I need to live a little before I can write more.” ♦

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