Writer Of The Week: Elizabeth And The Catapult

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Meet Brooklyn’s Elizabeth And The Catapult, whose sophomore album, The Other Side Of Zero, is currently Number 1 on iTunes Singer-Songwriter charts. The album, which features a guest appearance from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, was produced by Tony Berg, who’s previously brought out the best in Michael Penn, Edie Brickell, and Aimee Mann. We talked to frontwoman Elizabeth Ziman about the art of songwriting, and her Leonard Cohen obsession.

Tell us about The Other Side Of Zero’s connection to a 2009 song cycle you did for Lincoln Center, and Leonard Cohen’s book Book of Longing.

I’m always deeply immersed in Leonard’s work. He is someone who I constantly revisit for lyrical inspiration and frankly, a general philosophical and spiritual inspiration as well. I jumped into reading his Book of Longing on tour last year. It’s beautiful collection of poetry Leonard wrote throughout a number of visits to a Zen Monastary in California. Most of the poems are accounts of his feelings of both accomplishment and failure while attempting to reach an enlightened Buddhist state. As a New York Jew who’s dipped my toe into Buddhism from time to time, I could definitely relate –  and found a lot of humor the similarities.

So when John Schaefer (of Soundcheck) asked me to put together this song cycle for the [Lincoln Center] show, I had luckily already been completely immersed in writing these lyrics on the road – and they all already bore a very conceptual theme. Therefore the assignment/label of a “song cycle” just helped give an umbrella to what really started out as a more unconscious, therapeutic writing process.

What was it like working with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings on the album?

It was completely unexpected and a huge honor having Gil and Dave sing on the “The Other Side of Zero.” It’s the title track and was one of the first songs I played for our producer Tony Berg when we were discussing making an album together. Right off the bat he told me he heard the song as more of a duet or trio, very organic, with lots of folksingers all in the same room at the same time. My first thought was that someone like Gillian Welch would be the perfect match, but I never believed it would actually happen. A month later, Gil and Dave casually dropped by the studio to say hello to Tony and I eagerly asked them to give a listen. They loved what they heard and the rest is history. I attribute most of it to kismet.

What’s a song on  your new album you really want people to hear, and why?

“Thank You for Nothing” is one of my favorite recordings on the album. I somehow just barely persuaded Tony Berg to play guitar on it himself (which is a rare but rewarding occurrence and requires extra provocation) – and my friend, the incredible Rob Moose did the string arrangement. It’s one of my favorite lyrical efforts on the album and I think the music mirrors the sort of broken, nostalgic but hopeful sentiment quite nicely. It’s also one of the simplest, most honest attempts on the whole record.

Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?

Sometimes I’ll revise the lyric of a song, little by little for a couple years. I find them to be the most challenging aspect of songwriting. And in that way, they can always get better. And they do.

Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?

One of my favorite living songwriters is Luke Temple of Here we Go Magic. His solo work is unbelievable. Another is a friend of mine, Josh Mease, who came out with a beautiful record called Wilderness in 2009. A stunning debut – If I had the money or clout to back any single artist today, it would be him.

What’s a song you wish you’d written?

Probably Joni Mitchell’s “Case of You”, that or Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”. Am I allowed two answers?

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