SPOTLIGHT: Lizzie No on Climbing Personal and Musical Mountains
Lizzie No (photo by Cole Nielsen)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lizzie No is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for January 2024. Read more about her and her new album, Halfsies, in this interview, and watch a video of No performing her song “Getaway Car” here.
I listened to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for the first time last night. Like most people with radio, TV, and/or computer access, I had heard Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1967 masterpiece many times — after all, I am a child of the ’90s, that golden age of family films that produced Remember the Titans and Stepmom — but I have to admit the song never got stuck in my ears the way some of Marvin’s other work had. I had listened to “What’s Goin’ On” while taking the subway and imagining what the future might be like. I had made the stank face of musician approval while nodding along to “Chained,” so many times in fact that I am probably at risk for lasting wrinkles. “Pride and Joy” has been the soundtrack to a number of solo drives. I revere Marvin’s vocal performances and often turn to his catalog when I need to be inspired. But I never found “Ain’t No Mountain” relatable. I should have known an artist like Marvin Gaye would find a way to catch me off guard.
The song opens with the crack of the drums, the shimmer of a glockenspiel, and then the rattle of the Funk Brothers’ percussion. Mid-register strings are plucked pizzicato, creating a tense and almost crowded sonic forest over which Marvin sings, “Listen, baby!” At 15 seconds, an arpeggiated harp chord glides upward, introducing Tammi’s vocal. By the first chorus, the two vocalists are singing “ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough” in harmony over an irresistible groove on the drum kit.
My first album was all about work. As the title suggested, Hard Won was a collection of songs about struggling: to find one’s place in the world, to make it, to be seen, to be different. I wrote from the mountaineer’s perspective; she was climbing and so was I. On Vanity, I flirted with my ego, wrestled with it, was almost destroyed by it a few times. It has occurred to me that neither album contains a love song. I sang about searching for love and losing love and hoping love could last, but I never described the experience of it. I could describe in scorching detail all of the ways in which relationships could go wrong, but love itself was a house my songwriter self did not know how to enter. I experienced love in my life, but to describe it sincerely, and share the feeling with the world through my music, felt impossible.
Even as I grew confident as a performer, there was always a gap between how clearly I saw myself as an artist and how difficult it was to see myself as a person. Self-love was a concept I firmly believed in for other people, but I always kept it at arm’s length. It was not that I didn’t like myself (well, most of the time); the problem was I did not know what the verb “love” could possibly mean when applied in my own life. My job was to be excellent. My job was to tell the truth in my songs. Loving myself was another matter, one for which I did not have time. Lyrics like “Tell me what you know about loyalty; I’ve been breaking my neck making people like me” and “please don’t change your mind, change your mind about me” strike me as eloquent verses spoken from a place of alienation.
What is the sound of a tiptoeing spirit who has begun to run?
In verse two of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” the strings widen, velvety bowed phrases running alongside the story of “the day I set you free.” Jangly piano lets the listener know it is safe to start having fun. Marvin’s voice lilts joyfully upward on the last notes of “from that day on” as he vows constancy. What moves me about this verse is how sure it feels. Nobody is asking for anything. It is not a wishing song or a begging song. It is an “I’m here and that’s that” song. It is the story of a love that gives its participants the courage to be steady and to overcome any obstacle. It is a love song for Black people who love one another through the very worst life has to offer.
Halfsies comprises the most tender stories I have ever been able to tell. It is also a project where I flex my strengths as a songwriter, a vocalist, a co-producer, and an intellectual. I was able to accomplish what I did on this album because of a team of people who believed in my work fiercely and also in me as a human being. Through trauma therapy, I began to understand the reasons why it has been so difficult for me to love and accept myself as I am. Through my continuing political education as a socialist and abortion advocate, I learned some of the ways in which capitalist white supremacy has alienated me from myself. I started giving away clothes that didn’t fit. I started speaking with confidence in the studio and in interviews. I started saying my shoot-for-the-moon goals out loud. And where it felt dangerous to sing about genuine love, I started to get curious about what I might say about it.
When I wrote the album’s final song, “Babylon,” I was trying to figure out if it would be possible for me to be a parent in a country that is hostile to my survival. As Black people we are always climbing, always urging one another forward. But when do we rest? When do we get to look back at what we have been through, and feel safe? I think the relief comes when we are able to love ourselves and one another without reservation. I need to believe that our love defines us as much as our work and our strength and our flaws and everything we have survived.
When a key change comes around to signal the song’s big finish, Marvin and Tammi shout “ha!” in unison, and of course they do, because they have unlocked the secret of living. They know that there are high mountains and low valleys and wide rivers yet to traverse. But they are unafraid, cocky even, about their chances. What hardship could possibly scare you once you know what love has made you capable of?