Connecting the shy country girl with the seasoned performer
The gift of a guitar from her bohemian uncle helped the teenage Liz Durrett to imagine a less isolated future – but singing her Southern Gothic songs on stage comes more easily to her than talking face to face, writes TONY CLAYTON-LEA
THE LOUDEST PART of this interview with singer-songwriter Liz Durrett, from Athens, Georgia, is when a balloon inadvertently pops as we take our leave of each other. The rest of the time, all is quiet as Durrett whispers her way through half an hour of chat. At last month’s Guinness Kilkenny Rhythm Roots Festival, Durrett was a minor triumph, an example of how good event programming can turn up unknown names that have something decent to offer.
But, my, is she quiet. At first, Durrett wanted to conduct the interview by e-mail – “I’m very shy,” she typed in lower-case letters – but even she realised how silly it would be not to meet face to face while we were both in the Marble City, mooching from one bar to the next checking out roots acts, bands and singer-songwriters neither of us had heard of before.
Her real entry into music (wisely, she doesn’t count the childhood poetry and songs) was spurred on by the gift of a guitar from her uncle, the rather less shy Vic Chestnutt, who married into the family when Durrett was 12. Now 31, she recalls Chestnutt’s entry into her life as something of a wake-up call.
“It changed things radically for me, because it was the first time I had really seen the bohemian lifestyle, the first time I’d seen someone live the life of an artist,” she says. “That opened up a whole other world for me, and I was really drawn to it. I had never seen anyone that focused on their art before. The fact that Vic had made a career out of it was something I wanted to try to do, and I’m still trying. It’s a lifetime pursuit.”
Early teenage forays into songwriting were interrupted by college studies (she majored in English and Spanish), but the impulse to write, record and play music proved too much to suppress, so Durrett forged ahead.
Assistance from her uncle aside (his nuggets of wisdom included the advice always to use swear words during soundchecks and never ever to listen to people who ask why she can’t write a happy song), Durrett has managed to make a living of sorts from turning her musings into music. Not that it makes her a great deal of money.
“You can live as an artist and make money in other ways by which to support yourself,” she remarks.
When she isn’t touring, Durrett supplements her music income with other jobs. “Right now, I’m working as a carpenter’s assistant,” she says. “I also work in the education system as a test scorer, and I do library work. You have to find a job that will be flexible to let you leave for periods of time. Fortunately, in Athens there are quite a few jobs like that because there are so many musicians in the same position as me. We take turns standing in for each other.
“Would I love to do music full-time? Absolutely, but that’s an American dream these days, isn’t it? It’s what everyone wants, but it’s virtually impossible to survive solely as a musician. That said, I’m not a very savvy businesswoman, and that’s probably a part of the dream not being realised.
“I’m not great at self-promotion, either – hence the interview-by-email thing – or the business aspect of it. I wish I could be better, but your ability to do that affects, I think, the ability to focus on the music.”
OF COURSE, it’s the music that matters. Durrett has three albums to her name, but it’s the latest one, Outside Our Gates, that is causing something of a stir. It’s been described as Southern Gothic – and it is indeed that – but there’s something else there too; a stillness, perhaps, that envelops the music and makes it stand out, eerie, forlorn, quite compelling. Durrett claims that having lived in Georgia for most of her life, there’s no denying its impact on her music and lyrics.
“I felt really isolated as a teenager,” she admits. “We were out in the country and sort of geographically isolated. I felt that prominently, and because of that it filtered into my songwriting. And while I realise that just because you’re geographically isolated it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re lonely, it did for me. Loneliness seems to be a strong theme in my songwriting and in my life in general. It’s just part of who I am, it’s in my nature. I sort of want to connect with people, but constantly feel like it’s not possible.”
Yet every time you perform, you’re up in front of people. “Yes, that’s a weird spot, I agree. It’s the big dichotomy for me. There are two different areas of my life: I’m extremely shy, but I was pushed to perform as a child, and so, on some level, I was forced to become comfortable with that. I have this weird split where I’m able to separate who I am personally and who I am when I’m on stage, at which point it’s all about the music. It’s not me, it’s the music, which is why I have a hard time talking on stage – it feels too personal.
“Yet the thing is the connection. It gives me an outlet to feel like I’m connecting with the world in a way that I feel I can’t in other areas of my life.”
There’s a sense growing here that Durrett is the glass-half-empty kind, yet she’s being true to herself by taking her uncle’s advice and not buckling under any pressure to be something she’s not.
“I want to be the glass-half-full person, but you know, there’s such pressure to be the glass-half-full person all the time,” she says. “I reckon it makes people feel better if they think you’re happy.
“But I am happy in my own way. Songwriting is a form of self-therapy for me, and yes, sometimes I feel I lean on it too much in that way. Ultimately, I want to write songs that aren’t about my psychology all the time.”
These are sombre traps, says Durrett, that she occasionally falls into, and to avoid them she is aiming to view music in other, less conflicted ways. “I mean, it can also be an intellectual pursuit or a frivolous diversion. I love the joy of music too; it can’t always be about the darkness.”
Outside Our Gatesis on Warm Records, and is available through lizdurrett.com and/or thewarmsupercomputer.com