Lizzy McAlpine: “The goal is just to not give a fuck”

Shedding commercial concerns for a yearning to be her authentic self, Lizzy McAlpine’s new album ‘Older’ is an evolution that marks out an artist in pursuit of genuine self-expression.

Words: Liam Konemann.

It’s morning in Hawaii, and Lizzy McAlpine is just easing into the day. We are two months out from the release of her third album, ‘Older’, and the music industry machine is whirring back to life. These are the early days of a new cycle of gigs, interviews and social media sprees with her at the centre.

Usually, she’d be bored of the songs by now. An album takes a long time to make, and inevitably by the time you’ve written and rewritten them, recorded and then re-recorded, you start to become detached. You get detached, you get bored. Or at least she has in the past. Not this time. 

“I think it’s a testament to how much the songs feel like me, because I didn’t really get bored of them,” Lizzy says. “I wasn’t like, ‘oh, suddenly these don’t feel like me anymore’, which is usually what happens, and especially what happened with ‘Five Seconds Flat’.”

On ‘Older’, an exploration of upheaval and personal growth set against the backdrop of a dysfunctional relationship, Lizzy looks back at the turbulence of her early 20s and charts a new path for artistic fulfilment. Turning away from some of the influences and techniques of her earlier work, she shares something altogether more authentic.

With each new album, Lizzy is moving closer to a sound that feels like her. In interviews ahead of the release of her second album ‘Five Seconds Flat’ at the age of 22, she reflected that her debut ‘Give Me A Minute’ – and, presumably, the 20-year-old who made it – now felt impossibly young. At 24, she’s leaving the artist she was on album number two in the rearview as well. 

While ‘Give Me A Minute’ resonated with fans and critics for its poetic lyrics and relatable themes, ‘Five Seconds Flat’ pushed Lizzy into the stratosphere. A sonic mish-mash of some of the biggest indie artists of the decade so far, the album made her an indie pop darling and social media superstar. At first, it seemed like a dream come true. She had made the kind of album that she thought people would like, and they did. And for a while there, Lizzy liked it too. 

Two years on, she feels very differently. 

“To me, it sounds like I was trying to make what other people thought was cool,” she says. “Now that I look back on it I’m like, who is that person? Who was making that? It doesn’t sound like me. It sounds like it was made to sound like what people thought was cool at the time.”

If the intention was mass appeal, then ‘Five Seconds Flat’ hit its target. It isn’t fair to say that Lizzy McAlpine got her start on TikTok, but it would be stupid to pretend it didn’t make a difference. Her song ‘Ceilings’, initially an album track appearing halfway down the listing on ‘Five Seconds Flat’, went mega-viral on the platform at the start of 2023, almost a year after the album came out. A sped-up version of the song’s final plot-twist verse was layered over literally hundreds of thousands of videos, replicating themselves seemingly endlessly. Lizzy’s vocal – pitched up to the point that she sounds like a singing bluebird in a 2D Disney movie –  soars over clips of young women in fairytale dresses running through the woods, or the rain or along the beach, like the climactic scene in a romance epic. About a year later, it’s still her most streamed track on Spotify by a margin of several hundred thousand. 

‘Ceilings’ was next level, but ‘Five Seconds Flat’ was a success even before it broke the viral barrier. It spawned two North American tours in 2022 and early 2023, and kicked off collaborations with Niall Horan and Noah Kahan. And yet, it didn’t feel as good as it should have. It didn’t feel as good as ‘Older’. 

“Sure, it was successful,” Lizzy concedes. “But now I’m not so concerned with that. I just want it to feel good. The difference between the two albums – sonically and the way I felt making both of them – is pretty wild.”

There was no one moment where she realised she needed to change direction. It was more the build up of a dozen different things, all feeling slightly wrong, slightly not what she expected or found fulfilling.

And then there was the touring. What might have seemed like a dream from the outside – an artist’s first-ever headline runs off the back of a dizzying second album after their first was released into a closed-down world – didn’t feel that way in real life. The situation produced one of ‘Older”s musically brightest tracks, the brassy ‘All Falls Down’, which Lizzy filled with lyrics about “feeling lost and weird about everything”. “Twenty-two,” she sings, “was a panic attack.”

“I was stuck in a lot of situations that weren’t right for me”

lizzy mcalpine

There’s a touch of old Hollywood glamour to ‘All Falls Down’, a horn section bolstering Lizzy’s soulful, sunny vocal. At first glance, the whole thing belies the dark subject matter. But the contrast brings out another layer of the lyrics – a kind of defiance, given that she’s now looking back on things from a better place. 

“It’s weird, because the lyrics are not as happy as the track would have you believe,” she says. “I love a juxtaposition in a song. It’s fun because it feels like you can dance to the song but listen to the lyrics, and you’re like, ‘Well, actually, this is kind of depressing’. But I like that.”

She can laugh about it now, but it’s clear it was a difficult time. 

“Not having a stable… like, anything, was really messing with me. I wouldn’t get enough sleep, because I can never really sleep on the buses, and then I would get sick. Then I would be miserable. It just wasn’t fun for me,” she says. 

The physical pressures weren’t the only thing weighing on her, though. There was also the issue underneath all the other issues. “I was also playing this music that felt so inauthentic to me. I felt like I’d have to go up onstage every night and put on a persona which was so draining for me,” she says. “I was like, this doesn’t feel like who I really am, but I have to pretend like it is for right now. Because that’s what people came here to see.”

It takes a toll. Maybe just as much as the not sleeping, as being kept awake by the road scrolling under you as you try to drift off in a narrow bunk – feet first, in case of a hard brake – getting up on stage and playing songs you no longer feel you can stand behind wears away at you.

“It was exhausting, having to do that every night. And I wasn’t actively thinking about it like that,” says Lizzy. “Back then I was kind of like, okay, this is just what I have to do. This is what people do. I just have to go up onstage and pretend, basically. 

“I didn’t think that wasn’t normal until I took a step back.”

In the face of all this, across the three-year project of writing ‘Older’ and rediscovering herself as an artist, Lizzy cancelled some shows and reconsidered the way she was working. Through the gradual process of writing and recording the album, she found her priorities shifting, prompting a reassessment of what it is that she’s actually pursuing with her career. 

It’s worth noting, on top of all of this, that she’s been working on this record since she was about twenty-one. Your early twenties are almost always a time of upheaval and change as you grow into the person you’ll be in your mid-20s, and maybe beyond. You commit to things that don’t end up working for you, and you start again. Most of us have the benefit of doing this beyond the public eye. Some of us have to do it on stage in front of hundreds of people. 

“I started making this album and I was a completely different person. I was stuck in this cyclical relationship that I was writing the album about. I was stuck in a lot of situations that weren’t right for me,” she says. “And in the middle of the three-year process, everything shifted. I met my boyfriend. I switched management like, three times. And my values were shifting – my goals, and what I wanted to say as an artist, what I wanted my art to be like – it was all shifting based on what was happening in my life and everything I was discovering along the way.”

“My values were shifting – my goals, and what I wanted to say as an artist”

lizzy mcalpine

This sense of trying to extricate yourself from the things that are bad for you comes through most powerfully on ‘Drunk Running’. A bruised meditation on dependency, memory – and, yes, alcoholism – ‘Drunk Running’ is one of ‘Older”s standout tracks, simultaneously tender and powerful, guilty and assured. Initially written in response to the slow death of a difficult relationship, the song took on a different meaning the more that Lizzy’s life and artistry began to change.

“A lot of the songs were about a past relationship that I was in – we would just go back and forth, over and over,” she says. “It just never seemed like there was an end in sight, and every time I would see him, it would just be the same.”

After the relationship was over and Lizzy was dating someone new, she saw her ex out at a bar with some friends. The distance between them put things in perspective. 

“It was the strangest thing. I was seeing how he was in a very bad place. When we were together, he was drinking a lot of alcohol, and it was even more apparent after we were not speaking anymore,” she says. 

She first wrote the song to process that moment. But as time passed, and after she had written ‘Older”s title-track, she began to see her own work in a different light. Many of the lyrics, about letting go of what is bad for you and moving on, could be just as applicable to her own period of growth. There was a lot to reckon with. 

As she was trying to pull herself out of the mire of this time, one of the things Lizzy realised was that commercial success, widely seen as the only legitimate measure, held no real appeal for her. The taste of it that she had with ‘Five Seconds Flat’ was more than enough to confirm that. 

“I thought those were my goals,” she says now. “I thought that my goals were like, ‘Oh, I want to be famous’. And then I had to do the things that I had to do to get there and I thought, oh, I actually hate this so much.”

It’s one thing to realise this and to decide to all but turn your back on the pursuit of industry-defined success, and another thing entirely to actually follow through. The value of fame and financial windfalls are pushed on most of us from birth. It’s peer pressure on a mass scale, and how can anyone be expected to hold up under that? But Lizzy has managed it. 

‘Five Seconds Flat’ was Lizzy McAlpine playing Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Punisher’, Holly Humberstone or Bon Iver. ‘Older’ is… Lizzy McAlpine. Having done away with the tuning she used on ‘Five Seconds Flat’, Lizzy’s voice shines through the folky indie-pop songs, more assured, more honest, and more like herself. These are songs she can stand behind. From cinematic opener ‘The Elevator’ to yearning closing track ‘Vortex’, the album’s heart is pure, unadulterated McAlpine. 

Getting here was, she says, ‘excruciating’. While three years is not a long time in the grand scheme of things – some albums take twice that, as Lizzy is quick to note – it felt like longer. “I was met with obstacles at every turn, it seemed,” she says. 

It didn’t help that for the first eight or nine months she was still working the way she always had before. She started out on ‘Older’ with herself and a producer, recording each element separately and assembling things later. Clean. 

Something wasn’t clicking. 

“It just started to feel… not right,” she says. 

So she found a band and started again, and the album started to open up. Recording live, she says, felt “so much more emotional.” It was very different from anything that she’d done before, and the effect of having a live band in the room adds an entirely different texture to the music. In one particularly quiet moment, there’s the sound of someone pressing down on a guitar pedal. In another, you can hear the creak of a piano bench as the person sitting on it shifts position. Call it the personal touch.

“I’m not just following in everyone else’s footsteps”

lizzy mcalpine

Those little moments bring some of the most affecting songs on the record to another level. ‘Older’ is deeply human by design. This is never more pronounced as on ‘You Forced Me To’, an emotionally raw reflection on an uneven relationship with a hypnotic, music-box riff. Written in the middle of a recording session for a different track, Lizzy went home and recorded the demo in her old apartment, incidentally capturing the sound of traffic outside.

She took the demo to ‘Older”s first producer, and together they added elements and created a more polished version. When that version of the album didn’t work out, Lizzy took the same demo to show her band what she was aiming for on ‘You Forced Me To’. 

“They were like, ‘This is it. Just use the demo’,” she laughs. “I was like, I don’t know, maybe. I’d recorded it so shittily, and I wasn’t expecting it to be the final product.”

Over time though, the demo grew on her. She came around to their way of thinking. “They were very adamant,” she says. 

A side effect of their persuasion is that ‘You Forced Me To’ is the one song on ‘Older’ where every writing and performance credit is one Elizabeth McAlpine. Almost by accident, it’s the ultimate expression of what she was aiming for with the whole album. Personal truth. 

Today as she talks about the album, Lizzy feels like she’s overusing the word ‘authenticity’. But what else is there?

“The goal is just to not give a fuck, really. I don’t want to do things just because that’s what people do. It’s like no, I can actually challenge that and do whatever I want to do. Because, obviously doing what everyone else has done was not really sitting right with my soul,” she says. “I wanted to make sure that I was being me. And I want people to see that. I’m not just following in everyone else’s footsteps.”

Even if they don’t see it, though, she’s with where this album has taken her. At this point in her career, Lizzy McAlpine is well aware that you can’t please everyone. So you might as well just do whatever makes you feel happiest, and hope that some other people come along for the ride.

“No matter what I do, if I follow in everyone’s footsteps or I do what I want to do, some people are going to be mad. No matter what,” she says. “At this point, I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever’. There’s been a huge shift in how I think about my career and how I approach the work now. And I hope it’s apparent in the music, and in everything I do around the music.”

Taken from the April 2024 issue of Dork. Lizzy McAlpine’s album ‘Older’ is out 5th April.


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