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LGM Interviews: Elizabeth Nelson of The Paranoid Style

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One of my favorite albums of the last 5 years is The Paranoid Style’s Rolling Disclosure. It turns out that their songwriter and lead vocalist Elizabeth Nelson is an LGM reader, and she graciously agreed to do an e-interview with us. The band, which also features her husband Timothy Bracy, has a new EP called Underworld USA available for your purchasing and streaming needs, and for those of you lucky enough to be in NYC on Friday night, TPS is gonna be raising hell at the Union Hall and very possibly driving themselves right over the wall in Brooklyn tonight, along with (inter alia) Charles Bissell of the Wrens. You can — and should! — follow Elizabeth on Twitter. 

For readers who aren’t familiar with The Paranoid Style, can you give us a little history about the band and how you and Timothy put it together?

Well, if I’m being very candid, I guess I’m a little surprised at the stipulation that some readers might not have heard of us. That strikes me odd. But I’ll play along. I think the first Paranoid Style sessions took place around 2012. I’d been playing in a lot of different bands, but hadn’t really ever recorded my own songs. I’d write them and then put them away. Timothy would hear me playing them and strongly insisted that I try making a record, which I am extremely grateful for. I probably would have gotten around to it eventually but he definitely hurried me along. We made the first EP, sent it around, got signed to label and the next thing you know here we are. To be clear, I don’t know where that is, but here we are.

When did you start recording Underworld U.S.A, your new EP?

We did it over a couple of days in July down in Durham. I think maybe three days total to record and mix. It was a great group of players including Bruce Bennett from the A-Bones, William Matheney from the Strange Constellations and Peter Holsapple from the dB’s. The engineer was John Plymale who has done all kinds of terrific stuff – Tift Merritt, Superchunk. He was great. We didn’t overthink it.

Rolling Disclosure, your previous record, immediately hooked me not only with your wonderfully deadpan singing but with lines like “Keep up with the Joneses/Keep up with the Strummers” and “You say you’re this year’s model/But there’s no action.” How do you approach the use of references in your lyric writing?

You know, I find that I just do that stuff. As a record collector girl and a student of the craft, it just kind of preoccupies me. I’m besotted with song lyrics from bands I love and it works its way organically into my writing. But I’m also very interested in the the re-contextualization of canonical work and the possibilities that follow from taking something familiar and appropriating it for my own purposes. This is something that Dylan has always done with old blues and folk melodies and lyrics, recasting them in modern setting which both underscore their original importance and also cause you to consider them in a different light. I’m a big believer that there is a tradition of popular song that runs through Guthrie and Leadbelly to Dylan and Van Morrison through Costello or the Clash and beyond. Everyone borrows from and burnishes that shared history. I flatter myself that I think I am part of that.

Speaking of which, on the new EP you reference “Some Kinda Love” on “Revision of Love” and “Sister Ray” on “Dominoes in Drag.” Which is interesting, because I love the guitar sound on the record — power pop on the surface, but a nice Velvetsy edge and precision reveals itself. Is this a conscious case of form matching content or just a coincidence?

I’m delighted that this was your observation and it was definitely not a coincidence. The Velvets are huge for all of us- probably the thing we all agree on the most. I was producing for the first time and the thing I had in mind was the final VU record ‘Loaded’, which is full of winsome guitars and a generally buoyant manner about it, while still dealing with some pretty hard-scrabble stuff. I wrote the songs knowing that Bruce can really do that kind of Sterling Morrison thing, that very specific kind of guitar which can careen from beautifully melodic to a tonal in just a phrase. Peter Holsapple kept encouraging us to capture the chug of some of those songs – unhurried. I tend to rush through things. While we were recording “Revision Of Love” Peter would slow us down. He’d sing “Train Comin’ Round The Bend”.

If I can be forgiven for asking a question you’re probably already sick of, what’s it like to be a politically aware songwriter in Trump’s America? Underworld U.S.A. definitely has some political implications but without any didacticism, which I think is a sound approach, but were you tempted to really unload on the president?

Yeah, I guess. But you know, there is so much richly deserved contempt toward Trump out there, every day, a constant tsunami. Orange hair, or whatever. That work is being done. I think what seemed more interesting to me is not Trump as an individual but rather the ways in which he is not new. Since the time of the pharaohs there have been these individuals who have risen to power, exploited division, governed with ignorance and cruelty. Hunter Thompson said about America: “what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.” And yet here we are again, at its apotheosis. Trump makes Nixon look like Solomon. I was less interested in his particular buffoonery and more interested in the conditions that cause it.

Charles Bissel of the Wrens is opening your show in Brooklyn tonight. As it happens, “She Sends Kisses” came on my iTunes shuffle earlier this week, and it’s the kind of song that I need to immediately replay — it’s just a marvel of song construction. What are some of your other favorite contemporary songwriters?

Well, Charles is about as good as they get. That song is amazing and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying new Wrens is absolutely unbelievable. Charles has great craft and a fearful attention to detail which supersedes my own capacity by orders of magnitude. As a person who loves him dearly, I think he is solidly 50% crazy in the way he obsesses on his songs. But we are the beneficiaries To your question: There are so many good writers working. Some of my favorites are James Toth of Wooden Wand, William Matheney from Strange Constellations, Dylan Hicks, Courtney Barnett, Sleater-Kinney. I love that band Tacocat and this woman Emily Nokes who writes the songs. And my favorite band is Wussy who has two incredible songwriters in Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker.

Not surprisingly, I love your Twitter feed, which has a considerable overlap with LGM’s obsessive interests. I especially love the arbitrary lists of tracks from great albums. I don’t know if you’ve done this one and I missed it, but…Sticky Fingers?

I haven’t done that one yet! Oh fuck yeah, let’s do this. 1) Moonlight Mile 2)Sway 3)Bitch 4) Wild Horses 5)Brown Sugar  6) Dead Flowers 7) Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ 8) I Got The Blues 9) Sister Morphine 10) You Gotta Move. This is a difficult one, because I would like very much to occupy all of these tracks as my lifelong residence.  Such a perfect record. And for anyone inclined to be hard on Mick, amazing that “Moonlight Mile” and “Sway” were both written by Mick and cut entirely without Keith. [SL: superb choices, although the objectively correct answer is 1)Sway 2)Moonlight Mile 3)Dead Flowers 4)Knockin’ 5)Bitch 6)Wild Horses 7)Brown Sugar 8)Sister Morphine 9)I Got the Blues 10)You Gotta Move.]

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