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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

More Than a Genre

Photo courtesy of LizCarlisly.com
Photo courtesy of LizCarlisly.com

Liz Carlisle is a rarity in the local music scene. The eloquent country artist is making a name for herself in a city more readily known for power pop bands (The Cars) and alternative artists (Pixies, the Dresden Dolls). This is probably due to the fact that Carlisle is a native of Missoula, Montana and she retains the sensibilities of someone who went to Hellgate High School. Carlisle recently graduated from Harvard University with a degree in ethnomusicology. When she isn’t delivering commencement addresses, Carlisle writes modern country songs that strike a chord with listeners all over the nation. She has played in Boston at venues like the Avalon, opening for Michelle Branch’s the Wreckers. Carlisle took a time out from her busy schedule to speak to the Mass Media before performing at the Boston Folk Festival at UMB on September 17th.

MM: You grew up in Missoula, Montana and came to Boston for college. What were your first impressions of the city?

Liz Carlisle: I really liked Boston. The first time I came here was actually for the Berkley summer program. I was 17, it was before my senior year in high school. I loved the diversity in the city. I met a lot of people from other countries. There’s an international feel surrounding the colleges, and surrounding Harvard and I just enjoyed the energy. You know, a combination of the energy that, unlike some other large cities, there’s a friendliness about it. It’s a small city. A good example to me is the way people come together around the Red Sox. Coming from a smaller place it still feels like that kind of city where you could talk to a stranger about something and have some common ground.

MM: What did you think of Boston as a music town, especially as a country/folk artist?

Liz Carlisle: I think it’s funny that we’re talking right here at UMB because I think Boston really is a center of acoustic music and folk music, however you define what that is. I have met a lot of people who are involved in that music community, involved in songwriting, and a lot of fans who are interested in hearing more than just Top 40. People are interested in hearing some kind of original acoustic music that people are creating just from themselves and the guitar. I think that does lend itself to country songwriting even though you don’t see a lot of country venues here, I think this is a great place to do country music.

MM: How do you feel about identifying your music as a particular genre? Is that difficult for you, labeling yourself?

Liz Carlisle: Well, I think I’m always comfortable saying that I’m a country artist, and then you sort of describe from there how you approach it. I think my music is a combination of me, Montana, coming from a house with a lot of music, including a lot of acoustic music, and everything I take from that, and then on the musical side, on the production side, working with [fellow Harvard grad] Russell Wolf, who really has a lot of that pop sensibility.

MM: Your music has been described as “cross country,” one of those funny genre labels. Has that hurt you at all? A more mainstream audience might listen to your music and say, “Well, that’s definitely country,” while a more astute country fan might say that sounds more like Pop?

Liz Carlisle: I think most people that are listening to country today, if they are listening to say, mainstream country radio would see me as fitting within the direction of country now. There are certainly people who are more old country fans, who don’t like as much the contemporary direction that’s going on now. I think we’re still pretty tied to the roots of that state of country music that is very basic. I write very simple forms and I try with my music to say things that are really on the bottom level of human understanding that’s not isolating anybody who has a different way of thinking about things, that you get to some kind of core human truth that’s going to communicate

MM: Are there any more mainstream artists that you listen to, or are influenced by?

Liz Carlisle: The first person I always have to mention is James Taylor. My Dad was a huge James Taylor fan, all through the time I was growing up. My Dad played acoustic guitar and sang, he would just play and sing those songs every day in the house. That was the soundtrack that would run in my head. I love that music, I love the music the whole Taylor family makes. That’s definitely a first influence. Then I heard a lot of great stuff on country radio, when I was in high school and first driving and listening in the car. There are a lot of great songwriters out there

MM: Do you have any thoughts about folk’s popularity? It seems there are a lot more mainstream artists around that carry some element of folk with them.

Liz Carlisle: I think, obviously, that “O Brother Where Art Thou” influenced that a lot. People are interested in hearing acoustic music forms and the whole instrumentation and the attitude that goes with folk. I actually wrote my thesis on a folk festival so I’ve thought a lot about what folk is and to me there are certain types of music you think of as a genre. Folk is really a community, folk isn’t just a genre.

MM: Besides living here, what brought you to the Boston Folk Festival?

Liz Carlisle: I started out at Club Passim doing Open Mic sets and as soon as you’re sort of involved with circuit you hear about UMB radio, the only 24 hour folk station in the country. Followers of acoustic music in this area are very proud of it. They sponsor this festival. The first summer I was doing music, the first thing I did to get involved was volunteer at a bunch of different festivals, and this is one of the first ones I did.

MM: What does the future hold for you? Touring in support of your last record?

Liz Carlisle: Yup. And I’m going to record again in December. I’ve been doing a lot of openings for other artists. I will be opening for Miranda Lambert and LeAnne Rimes and Hal Ketchum in the next few weeks. A lot of playing, and a new album, and listening to as much music as possible!

Liz Carlisle will be performing along with LeAnne Rimes at the Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom, Hampton Beach, NH on September 28th. You can learn more about Carlisle and her record Five Star Day at her website: http://lizcarlisle.com