“I Get It”: A Q&A with R&B Singer-Songwriter Liz Vice

Photo by Katrina Sorrentino

Portland, Oregon singer-songwriter Liz Vice never envisioned having a chart topping gospel/r&b album (2015’s There Is A Light), a record deal, or even a career in music, for that matter. In fact, she originally set out to pursue a career in acting.

Liz was the third of five children, and at the age of 19, she began hemodialysis due to her failing health and obtained a kidney transplant in 2005. In 2012, she reached a decision to follow a career in music inspired by a solo performance in church, and she hasn’t looked back since.

Now, with some success in the music biz under her belt, Vice talked with American Songwriter about her young career, what she’s learned, and the release of her new album, Save Me.

When did you first get into songwriting? A great number of these new songs seem very personal. So I feel like you definitely had a big hand in writing them.

Honestly, it feels like a miracle, every time I listen to these songs, or any songs that I’ve written over the past three and a half years. I haven’t been writing music very long, and I feel like that was always my go to response whenever people asked me about music, ‘This is awesome, what’s your process?’ I don’t want to downgrade or downplay that I have been a part of the process, but I’ve been finding my voice, and then realizing that I also have the ability to write songs.

So, just having friends who ask really good questions has been helpful as far as writing the songs. So the two people that I actually wrote songs with, [one is] Dana Halferty. I met her on set six years ago when I was doing casting for a film in Portland that her brother wrote. That’s how I knew her, and she knew me three years before I actually started touring and doing music full time; and then Micah Bournes is a spoken-word artist out of Long Beach, and he loved my first record, but I didn’t write my first record, it legit was like a one-off project. But I got to make them my own with my voice, my emotions, and my experience. And so he’s a really good listener and would ask really good questions. He would send me a poem and I would break it down, especially if the poem connected to me, pertaining to our conversation. And make like five to eight different versions of the song in Logic.

Do you play any instruments?

I can play chords on a piano. I would go to my Grandmother’s house and just sit at the piano. When I was a little girl, even though I never wanted to be a musician, my aunt bought me a keyboard. I would sit at this keyboard and listen to songs and see if I could play it back, just by ear. When my friends, who could afford music lessons at school, would come over, I would have them put tape on the keys that I would have to press to play a song. So that’s how I played by ear.

When it comes to your own songwriting, do you mess around with melodies first, or do a lot of the lyrics come to you and you’ll put music to them later, or do they sort of happen at the same time, just naturally?

They kinda happen at the same time. I hear melody more. Like if someone asked me to sing with them on stage last minute, I focus more on learning the melody, the rhythm, the inflections before I focus on learning the actual words. I can fake singing the words, but I can’t really fake singing the melody, I mean some people can. I mean it’s all feel to me, how my tongue hits my teeth, how I round my mouth, I can remember those things. I’m still discovering these things about myself. And the more musicians I meet, the more I realize that there are so many different processes. It’s really just the person, the individual, and you can’t really make yourself be something that you aren’t naturally.

That makes a whole lot of sense. “Feel” is half the battle, you know?

Yeah. I’m such a feels person, to the point where, when I first started doing music, I felt like an imposter. I sang as a child in the basement where music was just mine, it was mine! It was my secret. No one knew I could sing. And it was my way of having my alone time. As I reflect on my childhood as an adult, I’m like, ‘I think I was an introvert.’ But I never really thought about the scales and blah, blah, blah. I don’t know any of that stuff. I’m like, “It sounds like this.”

Your faith is a huge part of your songwriting. On your first album, There’s a Light, you talk about it on every single track and so I was curious if you could tell me more about that and whether or not you set out, originally, to become a gospel artist.

Hmm … What’s so crazy about my story is that I went to film school, I wanted to make movies. When I was a little girl I wanted to be an actress and I didn’t see a lot of brown women on the screen, so I decided to make the movies that I wanted to see. Especially, because I have nieces and I wanted them to watch a movie and say, ‘That princess looks like me.’ That was my motivation. I got offered a full ride scholarship to a film school on the East Coast, but I just felt like it wasn’t time to go to school and I turned it down. Three months later, I sang on ‘Wounded Healer’ with Josh White and Eric Earley from Blitzen Trapper. They made this compilation record for the church that I was a part of in Portland, Oregon. They had me sing a song called “Enfold Me” and [that song] was one of the first solos I have ever sang in front of anyone, and it was in church in front of 300 people.

From that day on, from singing at church, people would say, ‘Have you ever thought about doing music?’ and I would say, ‘No, I’m not a musician. You’ve got the wrong person.’ To the point where my close friends would tell me that they think that I’m supposed to be doing music. We talk about “calling” in church often, and “calling” always seemed like something you want to do. Now I’m like, this purpose and passion always align. When we released this first record, Josh White said, ‘I want to write another record for you.’ I’m like, ‘Sure, ok, that’s great.’

A year and a half to two years later he presents all of these songs to me, I learned them, we put them in my key, we change up the feel for my sake, and then we had one practice, one rehearsal. Two days later, we went into Jackpot! [Recording] Studios and recorded live instruments to tape, and then I go into the studio and I’m singing these songs and I’m like, ‘I mean I know what gospel music sounds like, so I guess there’s a light. I’ll sing it like this.’ The whole time I’m in my head thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. What am I doing?’

Right. Just jumping in headfirst.

I’m singing these songs with these professional musicians? The album was released and I thought it was a one-off project like, “sure.” Every record we’ve released for the church, there was a live show, but we decided to do it at a venue called Mississippi Studios [and Bar Bar]. I still keep in touch with the venue owners because they’re so awesome, and we sold out in ten days. The buyer said, ‘We’ve never seen this happen. Would you be interested in opening up for Cody Chesnutt?’ And I’m like, ‘Wait what? Me? I don’t even have a band.’

So I opened up for Cody Chesnutt. Somebody was at that show, ‘Would you be interested in opening up for St. Paul and the Broken Bones?’ Someone was at that show, ‘Would you be interested in playing at the Portland Blues Festival’ and so on, and so on. It started happening so fast that I thought, ‘Can I walk away from this?’ ‘Can I just say no?’ [What if] it comes back 20 years down the line that I’m doing music again, it finds me again. Why don’t I just do it now and see what happens? It was just unfolding so rapidly that I felt like I couldn’t say no, but I also resented it too because it was so uncomfortable and vulnerable.

Yeah, but you know, from that uncomfortableness, usually there is personal growth, did you feel like you grew at all?

Oh, so much growth. And you would think it would be super cute and fun, like “I grew so much! Oh my gosh.” But it was hard, it was so hard. And I wanted to run, I wanted to flee. I wanted to put my head back in my shell, but I was on stage and I can’t do that. I was invited into these people’s lives who have different beliefs than me and I’m thinking, ‘Well, what do I actually believe?’ Then I hear stories that these songs help people in a really dark time in their life. I remember when I had severe health issues, near death, I would listen to music. And now I get to do that for other people. “Can I just run away from this?’ ‘Am I obligated, forced to do this?’ It’s like, ‘That’s great people are touched, but this just isn’t my thing.’

A lot of the songwriting on this new album is less geared toward the praise songs that were on There’s a Light, and they are more introspective and subdued, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Did you draw on some of your prior suffering with your health when writing the album?

I worked with people who are really good listeners, who ask great questions. I don’t know. I’ve told people in interviews or friends that I wouldn’t make another record unless I had something to say. As I toured and I’ve done music, I don’t play a lot of churches, actually, it’s very rare when I get invited to play a church. When I do, sometimes its like, ‘You can play these songs, but none of these songs.’ I want to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” because I get it. I don’t feel those restrictions when I go and play at music festivals, and the people who are like, ‘Oh, I’m an atheist, but I love your message.’

That is the point. It’s that we all can relate to the idea of forgiveness. We’ve all had days where we cannot get out of bed, or we don’t see what the point is. We all have eyes to see and ears to hear what is going on around the world. In my faith, following Jesus, and I read the scriptures, Jesus loves people. I am not called to save people, I am not called to change someone’s mind, I don’t have that power, but what I do have the power to do is say, ‘I understand, I get it.’ It even says in the scriptures that the holy spirit intercedes for our moans and groans.

Like if I go make a record of moans and groans, can you say, ‘This can only be played in the church?’ No, everyone has had these moments where they are sighing, and they feel this heaviness, or they’ve experienced death. They’ve experienced an identity crisis, ‘Who am I? What does it mean to be feminine? Masculine? What does it mean to not fit in?’

So for you, songwriting and playing music for people is more of a conversation? Just about life and how exactly we all try to make sense of it?

Yeah, I was just talking to a friend today about it, how a lot of it doesn’t make sense. I really get frustrated with certain things that are happening in the world, in my life, in my heart, everyone, whether they follow Jesus or not. What if this is all an invitation to participate in the mystery? Sometimes that’s so simple, and it’s frustrating because it’s so simple, ‘No, I want black and white answers. This is right, this is wrong.’ And what does it look like to participate in the mystery? Why does music have a way, an ability to transcend language, faith and belief? To transcend religion? And struggle?

So what does that look like to surrender and say, ‘Ok, I choose to participate in the mystery.’ I have no idea what’s going to happen. I think there are times where it’s like, ‘Ok, well I have some songs for our third record,’ but I don’t even know what’s going to happen with this one. I don’t know how people are going to react to it. The first project did so well, but no one, I mean it was a one off thing, so what do you do?

In terms of going from There’s a Light to Save Me, what changed for you in terms of your songwriting between the two albums? It seems like you’re treading a lot of new ground with this new record. I didn’t hear a lot of the R&B influence on There’s a Light, but on Save Me it’s everywhere. You’ve got 808 drum pads, arpeggiated keys and synths and all this good stuff.

Um … Touring. Finding my voice. Working with like-minded people. I don’t know, not being afraid to fail and saying, “Well, what does it sound like to sing it this way?’ There are so many songs on the record where I feel like I sound like my mom. I remember growing up and my mom would sing throughout the house, she raised five kids on her own. She would wake us up every morning to the song, “Rise and shine/ and give God the glory, glory.” I hated that song. But I can hear her voice in my songs, and I can hear the voice of my Grandmother in my songs.

I can hear it with the first song, “Drift Away.” That’s a song that I grew up singing in Sunday school with some of my best friends. We still keep in touch to this day, text[ing] every single day. Those are the people that I started doing music [with]… That’s how I learned how to sing. Singing these old hymns. Sometimes we had a piano and sometimes we didn’t. Whoever started the song, that’s the key we sang in and that’s how we learned how to sing.

So I just wanted this record to be a thank you for everyone who has come alongside me in this journey, in my life, who has walked into the ring with me and who fights for me to do well. Who fights for me to keep going. I didn’t think it would be through music and it was. R&B is just the bomb.

I was reminded of a lot of popular names when listening to it like Janelle Monae, some of her old stuff… Even Chance the Rapper on Surf with Donnie Trumpet. What are some of your influences now that are guiding you or that you’re inspired by?

You know, I can still listen to Stevie Wonder. I mean, I love Nina Simone, how do you categorize that woman? Marvin Gaye. I love old school. Ray Charles. His version of ‘Ring of Fire’ is so incredible. I love Adele, but she was influenced by Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack. But then I can listen to Moses Sumney, who is, oh my gosh, amazing. Jacob Banks and PJ Morton. Oh, that man can sing… Laura Mvula. These alternative, R&B artists who are blowing my mind. I love it.

The highlight for me was “To Dance with Death.” It sounded like a culmination of your previous work as well as this new sound that you are trying to put out on [Save Me]. Can you talk about that song for a bit?

Yeah, I actually just had a friend contact me about that song, and she said it sounds like every conversation we’ve had over our years of friendship in one song. That is the one song that is very, very vulnerable to me. I can’t listen to it often, but it’s the most human song for me. I feel like, as a person of faith, a lot of times we don’t know how to lament and mourn well. Just the state of our country, it breaks my heart a lot of times. That’s why I love the song “Brick by Brick,” but “To Dance with Death” was like a dark night of the soul where I experienced my own encounters with death.

There were a lot of times where I felt like, ‘What’s the point in fighting,’ and ‘What’s the point if I come out on the other side just to go through that for no reason.’ The part that used to really get me is, “You’ll resurrect the walking dead/  With songs of miracles.” I have to remember that what I’ve gone through is going to be used as a light for people who feel like they’ve lost their way. Life sucks sometimes, it’s really hard, and as much as I want to choose joy, I feel like my soul is heavy, I feel like I’m shattered into pieces and I don’t feel like I can continue.

So what does it mean to acknowledge your humanness, and still remain hopeful? To invite other people into that experience? When you feel like you don’t have faith anymore and you can borrow it from other people. When you don’t feel hopeful you can borrow it from other people. Even in the darkest times, I held on to my faith, and not in a way of like, ‘Oh work,’ like not in a religious way, but when all is stripped away what’s left.

Of the project [Save Me], as a whole, what is the message you are trying to put out with your songwriting?

I wish I could have this long speech and like beautiful thing, but honestly, ‘It’s going to be okay.’ We have each other, and we actually really need each other. The more we stand divided, the easier it’ll be to feel alone and isolated. So it is my version of [#]metoo before it was tied in to sexual assault. Like, I get it.