SPOTLIGHT: Lizzie No Takes Hold of Possibility in Music and Beyond
Lizzie No (photo by Cole Nielsen)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Lizzie No is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for January 2024. Her new album, Halfies, will be released Jan. 19 via Thirty Tigers. Look for more about No and Halfsies all month long.
The photos are glossy, black and white, early 1960s. A little girl of about five in a crown and sash is flanked by grown men with big smiles, their arms around her, giving the thumbs up. She is crying.
These images were the artist Lizzie No’s first window into Freedomland, a figurative dreamworld based on the defunct Americana amusement park that, for just a few short years, stood proudly in the Baychester area of the Bronx. “Often touted as the Disneyland of the East,” reads a piece in the New York Times, Freedomland “shrank the United States down to theme-park size. Visitors to the park … could ride a stern-wheel boat on the Great Lakes, help fight the Great Chicago Fire or experience the San Francisco earthquake.”
The little girl at the center of these photographs is No’s mother, Catherine Quinlan, who won the Miss Freedomland beauty pageant, a sordid slice of history that has fascinated No (née Quinlan) on a cerebral level.
“If this shit happened today, it would be shut down. It’s so Toddlers & Tiaras,” she says. “There’s even one where this man is lasso-ing her because it was, like, a Western theme, and she’s like, ‘I hate it, I don’t wanna be here and I’m 5. Why am I here? These adults are making me do this stupid thing.’”
But beyond the bizarre surface of it, something deeper stuck with No. “It’s a reminder for me to keep that really defiant, fighting little-girl spirit even as you go into professional spaces,” she explains. “And it’s gonna take that little-girl fighting spirit to get free.”
This idea was the driving force behind her latest record, Halfsies, out Jan. 19 via Thirty Tigers. It’s even connected to her stage name, Lizzie No, which she says was born out of hearing the phrase so much as a kid. It also serves as a reminder of the power of saying “no” herself.
“As a musician you really have to do that,” she explains. “There’s so much good stuff that you could do if you have a pretty voice, and God bless, that’s fine. But I wanted to be really focused on, ‘What is the art that’s going to communicate my life experience to the world and make me come alive?’ So I knew I was gonna need to say ‘no’ to a lot of things.” (She was also inspired by Beyoncé’s name for her onstage self, Sasha Fierce, which the admittedly shy superstar has said allows her to be fearless when performing.)
Halfsies drops listeners, Sims-style, into No’s version of Freedomland for what she envisions as a choose-your-own-adventure video game journey to, hopefully, eventually, get free. “I think about that as the setting for all of these songs and it’s kind of like the mythos of America. In theory, it’s land of the free; in practice it is not for 99% of us,” she says. “So how do we make it Freedomland, or how do we make it out?”
Autobiographical From Afar
As this conversation is taking place, No is just days away from her own adventure, moving from her longtime home of New York City to Nashville. Born in the Bronx and raised mostly in New Jersey, No is taking a leap in service of her art, breaking free so to speak, from the parameters she once set for herself back when she thought she would never move south. But things have changed. She has friends and collaborators in Nashville, and there’s also her crucial work on the board of Abortion Care Tennessee.
“It’s one thing I can do to be a part of the better world that we’re making. Abortion forever, no matter what. No qualifications,” she says. “I’m trying to immerse myself in a community of people who are really about something, and that’s musicians and activists and people of all backgrounds that are not scared to work toward the better, more free future we all want. I’m excited to live in Tennessee.”
Fittingly, Halfsies has a foot in both places and at least a toe dipped in quite a few genres. Partially recorded in New York and Nashville, the album defies categorization. No fearlessly flexes her muscles across pop, country, rock, folk, bluegrass, and all the gray areas in between. Her songs are earnestly melodic but narratively complex, catchy but soul-stirring, from the rollicking guitars of “Lagunita” to the delicate vocals of “Done” and “Deadbeat,” the complicated world-building of “Annie Oakley,” and the kicks of twang in “Getaway Car” and “Shield and Sword.”
Populated with vivid details, No’s songs revisit traumas both faded and fresh, but she does it through a kind of avatar of herself. It feels safer that way, to plumb the depths of her own despair, relive brutal bouts of depression, and remind herself of all the survival tactics she’s had to save up. And that’s where Miss Freedomland — a character No has co-opted like a suit of armor to guide her through these songs — comes into play.
“You’re being put on a pedestal and you’re absolutely fucking miserable and all you want is to be free and dress comfortably and be a kid and be yourself. And even though you’re in Freedomland, you don’t feel free at all. And as a Black woman, all of that resonates so much with me,” she says. “I want people to be forced to step in my shoes and be forced to survive like I have. And fight to survive in the ways that I was fighting to survive when I wrote all these songs. … I want people to — instead of looking at me — look through my eyes at how expansive and terrifying and beautiful and mystical and really confusing the world is.”
On first listen, songs like “Sleeping in the Next Room” or “Mourning Dove Waltz,” which capture the last dying breaths of a love, could be heard as breakup songs. But what No is after is much too big to fit in the confines of that well-worn template.
“That ‘searching for the cause of my emotional landscape’ is the spirit of the album. It’s not like, ‘let me explain my childhood, let me explain this relationship, let me call out this person.’ It’s about when you find yourself, like ‘Lagunita,’ waking up windswept on the desert with a wounded hip, then you have to work backwards and find out that you wrestled an angel all night. But what it starts with is the pain,” she says, referencing the song’s powerful lyrics. “It’s about trying to get free of something that’s holding you back.”
Triggered, in part, by the press cycle of her friend Allison Russell’s acclaimed 2021 album Outside Child, which No felt focused too heavily on the personal stories behind the songs and, as she puts it, “really did not give her her flowers as an artist and as a creator,” No isn’t ready for her own history to be examined so closely. “There might come a time when I’m more open with my personal life, but I’m not ready to have people take biographical information about me and superimpose that onto the songs in a way that I don’t feel is appropriate,” she says. “I don’t often know what events in my life have inspired a song, and that can change over time. Sometimes I’m writing about a breakup, and then months later, I realize I was writing about my depression or I was writing about my sense of not fitting into the gender binary.”
As she sings in the album’s title track, sometimes it’s just “pain without a reference,” and at least for now, that is enough.
Creativity and Confirmation
Embodying Miss Freedomland as she navigates all the hard stuff felt just as empowering for No. Maybe it’s what gave her the confidence, the freedom, to try new things on Halfsies, to co-produce and call the shots, to cold email Sheryl Crow’s drummer Fred Eltringham and ask him to play on the record, to assemble an all-star community of collaborators, to write about experiences and pain she hadn’t been ready to dredge up before, to play country music (a fraught genre for No) unapologetically, to trust her instincts.
“I can make music that I believe belongs to a particular genre, but it’s not up to me because I’m not white. So what do you call it if you want people to listen to it? You call it indie folk, because people aren’t uncomfortable with someone like me making indie folk. I’ve had people tell me, ‘You will never be played on country radio.’ And it’s regardless of how good the music is and whether or not it adheres to genre constructs musically, so I kind of throw up my hands,” she says. “Let go and let God, and hope that it finds the right audience.”
Witnessing fellow Black women artists in her orbit has radicalized No’s ideas of what’s possible. Russell (whose vocals can be heard in some of Halfsies’ harmonies), Valerie June, Adia Victoria, Brittney Spencer, and Rhiannon Giddens, among others, have shown No that it’s powerful to be smart. “Their ferocity inspires me a lot,” she says. “I think there’s a real stigma against being a smart woman in entertainment because it comes with all of this baggage of being bitchy and thinking you’re better than other people, being preachy. And all of that is doubled or tripled as a Black woman. People really want you to be friendly and a caretaker and a ‘#inspiration’ and soulful and intuitive. And all of those things are great, but these are women who are intellectuals also, and they’re political. And they face backlash for that all the time.”
Seeing how their careers have expanded beyond just recording and performing music has pushed No to explore other ventures herself, including as a co-host with Cindy Howes of Basic Folk, a podcast that’s given her a platform to have real conversations with fellow musicians, particularly women, many of whom have imparted their own wisdom and tips for survival.
“I always thought that I had to sand myself down, sanitize myself, kind of audition for people’s approval,” No says. She doesn’t anymore. “Having someone whose work you really respect say, ‘You’re a journalist and you have something to say,’ … other women in the industry saying, ‘You’re onto something.’ You’re not just out there getting attention, you’re on a path. It’s confirmation from other women professionals that helps me the most.”
“The Heartbreak Store,” a standout track on Halfsies that came to No in a dream about a “spiritual pawnshop,” sums it all up best. It’s an undeniable pop country gem about being suspended, if only for a moment, in the liminal space that allows you to choose what comes next on your path toward healing or self-realization or whatever you might be searching for, and it positions No — or Miss Freedomland — on the cusp of shedding whatever she’s been dragging around, nearly ready to move to the next level where she’ll be a little more free. “Bring your memories,” she sings sweetly. “Sell ’em all at the heartbreak store.”
“It’s a place of solitude and reflection and planning and scheming, and where you’re not in danger so you can actually play out what’s possible,” says No. “It’s me, but it could be you, too.”