Lia Ices Taps Into ‘the Primal Feminine’ on Her Stunning Fourth Record, ‘Family Album’

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Lia Ices’s new record, Family Album—out tomorrow via the singer-songwriter and pianist’s own label, Natural Music—is a family album in more ways than one.

At the most basic level, it’s a family album in the sense that the California transplant wrote it while starting her own family, with her husband, at their mountainside abode in Sonoma. (Ices moved there “full-time” from New York in 2015, but she had also visited while working on her last album, 2014’s Ices.) 

Family Album is also a family album in the sense that it was produced by the late Girls bassist and producer JR White, who helped Ices find a musical family on the West Coast by connecting her to the musicians that perform on the record and now play in her live band. One gets the sense that White, too, became something of an honorary Ices family member during the production of the album, making pilgrimages to “the mountain” for roughly eight months to help flesh out its nine songs.

Despite all these connections—to other musicians, to her partner and daughter, to the land itself—Ices’ songwriting throughout Family Album remains fiercely, bracingly attuned to her own senses and perceptions and desires as she explores motherhood, the natural world, and the shifting meaning of freedom in her life. In album opener “Earthy,” Ices delivers some of the most profound poetry of her career: “I gotta give / myself away / to find what it is I hold true.”

Musically, Family Album finds Ices returning to the piano, an instrument that she can’t seem to shake. “I think restricting myself to the piano limits me,” she told an interviewer in 2011 around the release of her sophomore album Grown Unknown. “I don’t even feel like a piano player to be honest. I feel like that’s my medium.” She makes a similar move at the start of “Earthy:” “I never wanted to sing,” she sings over… piano. “I thought I’d be a dancer / use my body like a language.”

What to make of these demurrals, these struggles? I don’t know. But I do know that Ices has a gorgeous, exacting voice, and it is very much at the center of Family Album. Maybe Ices considers her voice, like the piano, another medium, another tool.

“I think if I’ve learned anything from making music for over a decade,” Ices recently told American Songwriter of her music practice, “I find that if I treat it like a job, like it’s something that I have to do—it’s not necessarily something I thought I would do—but it is the thing that connects me most to myself and most to the world and most to the human condition.”

We caught up with Ices by phone on a stormy afternoon last week about writing the songs on Family Album, collaborating with White, and tapping into “the primal feminine” as a mother. Check out the full interview and listen to her latest singles below.

American Songwriter: Where are you right now?
Lia Ices: I’m in Sonoma. I just got back home from a rainy walk.

AS: Can you tell us a little bit about the place in Sonoma where this album came together? I know you had spent some time there before.
Lia Ices: Absolutely. So I wrote the bulk of the album up on Moon Mountain, which is just above the town of Sonoma. It’s kind of the first place I landed after I moved to California from the East Coast. I had lived in the Hudson Valley—I had gone from Brooklyn back upstate and had gleaned from my writing process that being in nature was much more conducive to my making music. So that wasn’t a total shock, but I think it was such a new feeling to be on top of a mountain. And I am really influenced—I mean, we all are—by where I live and how that permeates every part of your life. It’s a really dramatic mountaintop and this crazy garden that I would walk through every morning to get to my studio. I think being in California, in general, there’s this feeling of the wild west, of freedom. And I think that being on the mountain kind of encapsulated that as well. You just feel on top of things and free to create whatever life you’ve never imagined for yourself. So I felt free. Music makes me feel free, and this is the most free I’ve ever felt to just let what happens naturally come out without any idea of what I’m trying to do.

AS: How long was that writing period?
Lia: It was about two years. Two to three years. I moved here full-time in 2015.

AS: I read that you once spent six months in the woods of Vermont for another album, so you’ve done this nature approach before. But this doesn’t sound quite as extreme as that effort?
Lia: They were extreme in different ways. This is where I really live now—the other one was more of a retreat. I went to Vermont to write Grown Unknown, which was amazing and dramatic and, you know, snowy. And this is more like, “This is where I really live. This is where I’m gonna start my family. This is where I’m gonna start my life with my husband.” In that way you can own it more, instead of just trying it on.

AS: And you did start a family in the same timeframe.
Lia: I did, yeah!

AS: How did that factor into your experience crafting the record?
Lia: It was a huge influence on the writing, for sure. I got pregnant while I was writing, and then kept writing on and off during the pregnancy and during the first year of my daughter’s life. I mean, being pregnant and giving birth is still something I’m trying to wrap my head around. It’s a very psychedelic process. It just anchors you into the primal feminine, which, when you’re connected to that kind of threadline, I really tapped into my intuition in a deeper way, in a more profound way. 

I do think that the more life goes on and the more real it gets with making a family, making a person, the more mystical it feels, and the more surreal it feels. That’s a theme I really explored in a bunch of the songs. The song “Anywhere at All” is really about feeling like the world is new again after having a child. I felt like I could literally see differently… You never see things the same or hear things the same.

Another motherhood song, “Careful of Love,” is inspired by the love I have for my daughter, when your heart is outside of yourself.

AS: The opening number starts with you singing that you “never wanted to sing.” It’s such an intense way to start an album that centers your voice so much. Why start there?
Lia: I’m always inspired by the idea of the muse, of showing up at your workspace and then letting the muse meet you there so that you can possibly make some magic. I would just show up every day at the studio and sometimes magic would happen and sometimes absolutely nothing would happen and I would tinker around and hate everything I was working on. 

I think if I’ve learned anything from making music for over a decade… I find that if I treat it like a job, like it’s something that I have to do—it’s not necessarily something I thought I would do—but it is the thing that connects me most to myself and most to the world and most to the human condition. And I just thought it was kind of funny to open with that line.

AS: Around the release of Ices, you said, “I got really into the wild woman. The wild woman is the one who’s in tune with creativity and [is] powerful and sensual. A lot of this album is about finding strength.” Do these themes extend to Family Album, or is this one somehow less wild or differently wild?
Lia: I think I’m forever in search of my own wild woman, and I think that it changes as I change. I think this wild woman is more grounded. It’s more of the maternal wild, the Earth-mother archetype. I think the wildness I was talking about with Ices was a kind of coming outside of myself. In a way, that record was about challenging myself as a performer and a writer—and, actually, as an engineer, just to see if I could do it. And this one is much more about turning inwards and trusting that I have that inside.

AS: That sounds like a long-term journey.
Lia: For sure, it’s continuous.

AS: How’d you get connected to the producer JR White? Could you tell us a little bit about your sessions with him?
Lia: Well, I was and still am a huge fan of the band Girls, and when I moved to the Bay Area some of my husband’s friends were friends with JR. I knew that he was producing and I loved the Tobias [Jesso Jr.’s 2015] record [Goon] that he had just done, so I got his contact from a really good mutual friend and sent him my demos and he took to them right away and we just started talking on the phone about music. 

It was probably a few months of courtship and then he came up to the mountain and we started to chip away at it. He basically was on the mountain with us on and off for almost eight months. It was really incredible. We really immersed ourselves in the world of the music, and he introduced me to the band that plays on the record, who is now my live band as well. He kind of helped me create a music community in California, which I didn’t have previously [since] everything had been done in New York. I’m so grateful for that. I’m still unpacking what it was like to work with him, especially now…

AS: When you listen to these songs, are there certain instances where you can really hear his presence?
Lia: Of course. So many choices were him, like in “Earthy,” the big change where the band comes in was all JR. He plays a lot of percussion on it. Guitar lines were his idea. He’s completely embedded in it. And actually, the interesting thing is, the only other voice on the record is JR’s voice. He counts in on “Anywhere at All” and I kept that in for some reason and now I’m so glad to hear him. I’m so grateful I got to experience his genius, ‘cause he truly was one.

AS: Your last two records were on Jagjaguwar. You once said, of the label, “They heard the first album [2008’s Necima], so it was just figuring out if it was a good fit and also proving to them where I imagined the music going.” What led you to start your own label? Did you have to prove something to yourself?
Lia: Yes, I did. When the album was finished and it was taking a long time to figure out what was gonna happen and who was gonna release it, I was all of the sudden beholden to other peoples’ decisions whereas this album and everything surrounding it and all the choices I made—who I worked with, where I worked—I made completely on my own and felt really empowered by that. It felt like such an authentic offering.

I wanted to just follow that feeling of empowerment with my music. It’s a little more work for me—a lot more work for me—but at the same time, if anything goes wrong, it’s all on me. I’m more responsible for everything that happens. And I think that sometimes, not all the time, a label can be a way for you to relax as an artist. 

I still have a great relationship with those guys [at Jagjaguwar, but] Family Album felt different since the get-go. I made it slowly on my own terms, independently. It’s such an intimate piece of work of me and my family, and it felt right to hand hold it all the way through release myself, and so Natural Music was born.

Woah, I’m looking at a rainbow right now!

Family Album is out Jan. 29 via Natural Music. You can pre-order it here.

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