Published on BLURT – Friday, Nov. 12, 2010
Inspired by Leonard Cohen and powered by urgency, the Brooklyn group probes the human heart of darkness on a masterful sophomore album.
BY ANNAMARYA SCACCIA
There’s an aura of confidence in Elizabeth Ziman’s quick-paced stride as she makes her way to the back of Ozzie’s Coffee III, the spacious, wood-decked cafe on 5th Avenue and Garfield Place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area. While it’s almost bone-chillingly cool outside, there’s a balmy heat brewing inside the earth-toned organic café, its walls littered with Anime-inspired illustrations. Fashioned in – clothes fitting for an early October evening – a fitted three-quarter sleeve white t-shirt, skinny blue corduroys and brown knee-high boots, Ziman makes mention of the climate’s disparity after she comfortably settles into the picnic booth, a kitschy piece of wooden furniture with a picket fence backboard featuring heart cutouts. This modest detail is almost ironic in hindsight since the classically trained 28-year-old singer-songwriter/keyboardist is here to talk about The Other Side of Zero, the sophomore effort from her Brooklyn-based indie band, Elizabeth & the Catapult; ironic, because it’s about a break up.
Released late October on Verve Forecast, The Other Side of Zero started as a group of thematic tunes for a Lincoln Center song cycle commissioned by NPR’s John Schaefer. In the process of crafting the lyrics, Ziman was reading Book of Longing, the 2006 collection of poems from the venerated Canadian singer/songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen, one of her musical heroes. It was a book, says the New York native, that not only traced Cohen’s failure to reach his standards in his Buddhist teachings, but also how he was able to laugh and forgive himself for hitting that wall – a premise in which Ziman found a profound connection and ultimately helped shape, in addition to the break-up, the general crux of the album. And what has resulted is a much darker, more forthright, emotionally delicate and windswept record than their critically-acclaimed Verve debut, Taller Children.
“The Other Side of Zero was totally therapeutic for me. Thank goodness for the outlet,” says Ziman, in response to the album’s vibe of nursing an emotional wound. “It gave me a way to own up to my mistakes and misgivings, and learn laugh at myself a little. That’s always a good start.”
Since word of the new album hit Internet waves, talk has centered on the divergence between The Other Side of Zero and Taller Children, which was released nearly two years ago. On the surface, where Taller Children was more dissonant, avant-garde and objective, The Other Side of Zero is more mellifluous and euphonic, as evident by lead single “You and Me,” the jazzy, Carole King quality of “Open Book,” and even in its most jarring track, “Go Away My Lover.” But, for Ziman, the variance isn’t something that’s sonic. Instead, it’s much more abstract. “The main difference between the two records is that this one has more of a running theme. It’s more of a concept record,” says the young artist, who, along with 28-year-old drummer/multi-instrumentalist, Danny Molad (ex-Via Audio), formed Elizabeth & the Catapult in 2004. “It was written and recorded over a shorter period of time and hopefully sounds that way.”
Unlike Taller Children, which was completed over a two-year period and recorded in makeshift home studios “all over the place,” Elizabeth & the Catapult fleshed out The Other Side of Zero in half the time, written over a six month period and then recorded with producer Tony Berg (Peter Gabriel, Phantom Planet, Jesca Hoop) in an official studio within a month. It’s because of this, Ziman feels, their latest album sounds “like one entity,” as opposed to Taller Children, which she says is “sonically a little ADD.” The other benefit of working in the studio with Berg? His ability to draw out Ziman’s lyrical candor.
“I had a lot of more light-hearted [songs] or the song [had] a more hopeful ending to them and Tony was way more interested in the darker [ones],” says Ziman, her dark, unfussed long hair cradling her shoulders as she speaks in her commanding but hushed voice. She sits close as speaks, relaxed in posture, as intimate as her music can be. “He was like, ‘That is so much more honest and to the point. Just go for it. Just go for these songs.”
“One thing of many things I enjoy about working with Tony is that he is all about the song and all about the lyrical content specifically of the song,” adds the scruffy-bearded, fedora-wearing Molad, who bounds in to Ozzie’s 16 minutes into the interview. “He very much likes serious songs and serious art in general… stuff that he finds to be honest, and I felt like he did an amazing job of translating that both with Elizabeth’s vocals and the music. I’m really happy how it came out.”
The charismatic Houston, Texas, native admits that, to him, The Other Side of Zero is a “more mature venture,” something that “feels nice” to craft as they get older. When listening to Zero, it’s easy to hear what Molad and Ziman mean, respectively. When compared to the lighthearted mischief of Taller Children, Zero is much more polished and sincere, with an appealing flow that links the songs almost instinctively, as if it’s one long story. But, even with this change in perceptive direction, Elizabeth & the Catapult still play on their trademark dichotomy of inauspicious librettos versus exuberant arrangements, and vice versa. Like the title track of their debut, which, though phonically playful, was lyrically twisted (it was about the Wall Street bailout and financial irresponsibility), or its sober number, “Rainiest Day of Summer,” about the need to buy a coat, The Other Side of Zero features “Dreamcatcher,” an upbeat and exceedingly beguiling number that recalls Ziman’s need for a break from a despondent reality through a hopeful dream. But this method of songwriting is far from conscious for the group. In fact, says Ziman, it’s “a sort of spontaneous balance that seems to manifest itself in out recordings especially.” “I don’t think to myself, ‘Wow this is dark, I better sugarcoat it.’ We just make music we like listening to, and we try to keep it fun and surprising, even in the more serious moments.”
“My favorite songs are those [whose] ambiguity can be interpreted in a number of ways. I always leave it up to my audience to relate to the song in their own personalized way,” she adds.
As for a fan base, which ranges from established 35-year-olds to bouncy 7-year-olds who heard their Taller Children single “Race You” on a Google commercial, Ziman feels that, despite those who missed the intent of songs like “Taller Children,” get what they do (so much so that Elizabeth & the Catapult songs are already cropping up as covers on YouTube by users young and old). “I think that I say in a lot of interviews that there’s this duplicity about what the poppiness of the music sounds like versus the lyrics,” she says. “I don’t think that most of our audience doesn’t hear that. I give them more credit than that… I think that’s what drives people to us.”
At the time of this interview, Elizabeth & the Catapult were preparing for a national tour, but just this week had to cancel all their West Coast dates due to an illness in the band. They are slated to resume selected dates next month but the cancelled shows have not been rescheduled yet. Check their official website for updates.