Photo: Jarrod Anthonee
Liz Brasher Opens Up About Memphis, Mental Health & Her New "Sad Girl Status" Video
Singer/songwriter Liz Brasher definitely took the backroads to discover and develop her distinctive style of Southern music. Influenced by everything from the spirituals of Mahalia Jackson to the crafty harmonies of the Beatles, Brasher honed her self-described mix of "garage rock meets the Delta blues meets gospel meets soul," along the winding personal and musical journey from her hometown of Matthews, NC, through Chicago and Atlanta.
The backroads eventually led her to the home of legendary labels Stax and Sun Records, Memphis, Tenn., where she began her career in earnest and found her new creative home.
"It’s a really healthy place to write and to exist as an artist. There’s no feeling of industry or competition here," she says. "I came to Memphis to record an album and hopefully get signed. And literally the first weekend I was here, those things happened for me."
Fast success awaited Brasher in Memphis. She was snapped up by Fat Possum Records and soon found herself on the road, opening for the Zombies and the Psychedelic Furs, and making her highly acclaimed first appearance at SXSW in 2018. She released her debut album Painted Image in early 2019 and even earned a place in the hallowed halls of the Stax Museum, with one of her stage outfits and guitars on display, further celebrating and cementing her connection to the "Home of the Blues."
But soon, Liz started to see her promising young career stall out just as the lights were turning green.
“You’re promised that things are going to go one way,” she remembers, “then you see yourself fall to the wayside because... things aren't the way you were told they would be.”
Instead of succumbing to adversity, Brasher poured her disappointment into her music. She sat down at her piano one day and out came a heartfelt ballad called “Sad Girl Status.” The song is a powerful expression of personal anguish and fiery determination written with ample room for her wall-shaking vocals to boom out. Appropriately, it’s matched up with a video featuring the wildly talented artist walking with purpose through Memphis—both guided tour and a reminder of her place in the musical history of this legendary city.
While she waits for the quarantine to lift and for her touring life to begin again, Brasher spoke with the Recording Academy about the hard times that led to the creation of “Sad Girl Status,” inheriting her work ethic from her immigrant mom, and what her adopted hometown of Memphis means to her.
Let’s start off by talking about your new single “Sad Girl Status.” In the notes for the song, you talk about how it was born from a really low point in your career and your life. What was going on at that time?
We had just released my debut album Painted Image. Everything in my whole life had been leading up to this moment. Like, it’s your first record. You really want it to do well. I had just come off a really good previous year of touring. Then suddenly I watched everything fall into this stalemate. It didn’t matter how many songs I was writing. It didn’t matter what I was doing to get better, I couldn’t propel anything forward. That was just so frustrating because I’m not a person who sits still very well at all. That’s what I was now forced to do for almost a year. I found myself in this cycle of frustration. I knew what my potential was, but I couldn’t get myself to where I wanted to go. So, in that really low state, I sat down at the piano, and in a few minutes, the song completely came out of me. It was really melancholy, but I thought it was beautiful at the same time. I think it was really what I needed to make this mental switch. It was the catalyst for me to be able to make changes that needed to be made in my career.
What changes did you make to help you move forward?
I took my career into my own hands. As an artist it’s easy to feel like a lot is out of your control. You write the music, perform it, record it, but you can feel so disconnected to everything from the business side – like it’s something that’s happening to you. Some artists are okay with being hands off, with just getting informed as things happen, but I realized that’s not what I wanted. That forced me to take a step back and see that, while I have help with my career, I ultimately needed to own the fact that it’s up to me to make sure it’s driving forward in the way I want it to go.
Is it normal for you to start with the piano to write a song? A lot of the material on Painted Image is very guitar-forward.
Aside from singing, piano was my first instrument. My mom started me on piano lessons when I was four. When I began to join bands, I would just sing. Later on, I picked up the guitar and that kind of overtook everything for me. It’s so much easier to lead a band as a guitar player. I’ve got some songs that are more piano-based but not like this. Not stripped down—just vocals and piano.
Your hometown of Memphis is such a huge part of the video for “Sad Girl Status.” What does the city mean to you?
The thing that attracted me most is that Memphis refuses to conform. There’s this very unique grit and hustle to this city. This constant mindset that Memphis is going to do whatever it wants to do. It’s a really healthy place to write and to exist as an artist. There’s no feeling of industry or competition here. I came to Memphis to record an album and hopefully get signed. And literally the first weekend I was here, those things happened for me. I don’t know if I’ll be in Memphis forever, but it’s always going to be the place where my career began.
Liz Brasher's stage outfit and guitar on display at the Stax Museum in Memphis
Photo: Shane Trulin
Was it easy for you to get into the grind and hustle of the city?
That’s something that was ingrained in me from childhood because my mom is an immigrant. She had to work her ass off to support me, including having multiple jobs so that I could take piano lessons. She’s one of nine siblings that came from the Dominican Republic where they all lived in a one room shack with dirt floors. My family came here seeking a better life. I grew up seeing how many things they had to balance and struggle with just to make ends meet. For me, it was like, how could I not work as hard as my mom?
How has your family responded to your music and your career?
They just kind of stay out of it. Some will ask or keep up with how things are going, but most just act like it doesn’t exist. I have a very strict religious family. I grew up singing in the church and I wasn’t allowed to listen to secular music. I had to sneak out to go to concerts and had friends burn me CDs so I could hear what was going on. I had to literally hide in my closet with my radio because I was so addicted to music and wasn’t allowed to hear it. I grew up singing and was always playing some instrument, so it really shouldn’t be a shock that I turned out to be a musician. It can be an issue of contention because a prevalent thought within my family is that any time music is used outside of the church it’s automatically evil or negative. I think it’s a cultural and age difference, more than anything. My mom had me at 40, so that’s a huge age gap. You combine that with a different mentality from a different country and a legalistic view on faith, it just makes for a melting pot of misunderstanding. But I think all artists feel that way to a degree. My family’s response actually drives me. I want to be even more successful because I want them to see that this is a valid career and way of life.
Do you have any ideas about what comes next for you – once you can get back on the road and onstage?
I'm going to take over the world. I’ve written so much, even from the time of my first record. I’ve got multiple albums just waiting to be recorded right now. We’re having the conversations and discussing what the best options are. Is it building our own team independently or is it working with a label that’s going to be fully on board? Right now, we’re sorting through all of our options. I want to ensure we avoid repeating what I just went through. We’re just taking it one song at a time right now.
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