Lizzy McAlpine on going viral with 'Ceilings', wising up, and her third album 'Older'

Interview Lizzy McAlpine: Wising Up

Thrust into the spotlight via a moment of unexpected viral success, Lizzy McAlpine is making firm choices on third album ‘Older’: a record that prioritises artistry over chasing fame.

Last year, Lizzy McAlpine thought she was done with her second album, ‘Five Seconds Flat’. The record had been out in the world for 12 months, and the Philadelphia-born, LA-based singer-songwriter was deep in the process of making its follow-up. Then, ‘Ceilings’ - a track that hadn’t been released as a single - suddenly got picked up as part of a TikTok trend where users filmed themselves lip-syncing to the song, running through fields, city streets and along beaches. It sent ‘Ceilings’ viral, launching her up the UK singles chart to an eventual Number Six spot, and pulled its creator back into the world of the album.

Sitting on the porch of her home today, Lizzy is largely nonplussed about the attention that experience brought her. “It was cool,” she shrugs. “It was fun. I really wasn’t expecting it - I didn’t try to go viral on TikTok, but it was amazing.” However, despite her relative nonchalance, the track’s success allowed the singer to tick off some of the things she had on her bucket list, like performing on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon or filming a Genius lyric video.

Simultaneously, the experience of unexpectedly having to revisit that record was proving jarring. “I had definitely moved on, but then I did a second tour around that album, and I was kind of miserable,” she says, quickly backtracking to correct herself. “Not at the beginning - when ‘Ceilings’ first went viral, I was like, ‘This is really cool!’ But then it didn’t stop.”

Touring ‘Five Seconds Flat’ another time was hard, the singer explains. She’s spoken before about the relationship she has with her songs - a cycle that begins with her liking them before growing bored of and falling out of love with them as she becomes a different person from the one who wrote them. “Performing those songs always felt weird, but especially on that second tour,” she says. “I was like, ‘This is not me anymore - I have to go on stage and pretend to be an old version of me right now’. It was so draining.”

It was an eye-opening time for the 24-year-old, and one that put her in the middle of a process of upheaval and reckoning as she tried to figure out who she wanted to be as an artist. She grappled with big questions over her career - follow this current path to perhaps even greater success, despite it not connecting with her anymore? Or take another direction, maintain her integrity and find creative satisfaction? The latter became the only option. “I became less concerned with being famous or whatever - not that I ever really was that concerned with it,” she says of that time. “But I realised I just want to make art, and I don’t want to play ‘the game’ but do things that are cool and fun for me. I just want to feel good while I’m doing my job.”

Lizzy McAlpine on going viral with 'Ceilings', wising up, and her third album 'Older'

“I’m so grateful for the way that things happened, and I feel like I’m at a point now where I can just do whatever [I want].”

Feeling good is something McAlpine can lay claim to thanks to her third album - and major label debut - ‘Older’, which may even have broken that cyclical love-hate relationship she’s previously had with her music. Some of its tracklist has been with her for three years, others for just a couple of months, but she’s yet to see her feelings towards them sour. “It’s very weird for me!” she laughs. “I think it’s because it took so long to get them right, so for a while I was listening to them half-baked, or they didn’t sound exactly like what I had in mind.”

Now happily complete, ‘Older’ is a lush, layered record of folk-tinged indie. Its songs grow and swell with poignant instrumentation, but know exactly when to strip things back to just the singer’s voice and a guitar, letting her words shine and deliver an emotional sucker punch to the heart.

It also presents a more evolved version of the singer-songwriter - and you can feel that transformation taking place across the record itself. She started writing this collection of songs when she was still in the relationship prior to her current one, acknowledging “the cycle that happened [with]in it”. Halfway through the record’s conception, things changed. “I met my current boyfriend and everything shifted,” she says. “I was no longer in that cycle, so I started to distance myself from it naturally, and that gave me new songs and new perspectives on the situation.”

These new perspectives were followed by new methods in the studio, with Lizzy forming - or rather, nicking - a band. Late last summer, after trying to finish the songs with a host of different collaborators, she was feeling lost. “I didn’t even know what I was searching for, but I knew I needed something new and people to take this in the right direction. I just didn’t know who or how to find them,” she recalls. One night, she went to see Ryan Beatty in LA and had a eureka moment as soon as his band started playing: “I was like, ‘This is what I’ve been missing! I need these people!’” Luckily, her boyfriend’s friend’s brother was in the band, allowing her to make the introduction and, as she says with a mischievous grin, “steal them”.

Band successfully nabbed, Lizzy was finally able to translate what she heard in her head onto record. “I listened to the versions I had before I worked with the band, and it’s like a different record,” she shares. “It was very polished and perfect. With the band, we did a lot of songs in one take, with everyone playing together, and then added stuff on top. You can feel the passion from everyone in the room [in the songs now] - it just brings so much emotion into the music.”

“I realised I just want to make art, and I don’t want to play ‘the game’.”

Case in point is the double whammy of ‘Broken Glass’ and ‘You Forced Me To’. The former takes on a forbidding tone, with whispers of strings threading an eeriness through the song as Lizzy reflects on the toxicity of her old relationship. “Broken glass on the table, pick it up, hold it to your throat,” go the opening lines. “I can see who you are now that the window’s broke.” Midway through, it becomes a thundering storm, battering ram drums pummelling below as the strings grow more frenzied. Immediately after, ‘You Forced Me To’ takes a different - but still slightly sinister - approach; just Lizzy, a fingerpicked melody and piano ripple. “‘Broken Glass’ is the realisation and coming-to moment where I’m like, ‘Oh my god, this is horrible’,” she says. “‘You Forced Me To’ also sounds creepy but in a different way - it feels so intimate.”

As she talks about the ins and outs of ‘Older’, Lizzy is consistently excited and engaging. It’s no surprise to learn, then, that she calls this album her truest statement yet. She still fully stands by ‘Five Seconds Flat’ and 2020 debut ‘Give Me A Minute’, however. “I wouldn’t have released those albums if they didn’t feel authentic to me in the moment,” she reasons. “I’m trying to remember they’re who I was at a certain point in time, and just because it’s not me anymore it doesn’t mean it’s bad and should disappear forever.” But as part of that process, she’s viewing authenticity as an ever-transforming concept - just like who she is as a person. “Something different will feel authentic to me in that moment, and then maybe a year later, I’ll be in some completely different place,” she says.

Though ‘Ceilings’’ viral moment saw more eyes on her than ever, there’s long been an element of finding her voice in public for Lizzy. Sometimes, she wishes those first two albums weren’t available for the world to hear, but she also recognises she wouldn’t be at this point without them. “I’m so grateful for the way that things happened, and I feel like I’m at a point now where I can just do whatever [I want], which wasn’t the case with the last album. I think it all happened for a reason, even if it is hard to listen to my old stuff.”

Behind The Cover

“My boyfriend and I went to my family’s farm in West Virginia and shot photos all over this past 4th of July weekend. We found this lake, and I knew those photos were probably going to be important. We got the film back, and I just saw this photo – it’s so striking; I look a little bit scared and confused, but it’s also bold. That expression encapsulates what I’ve gone through in the last three years – and just my whole life – growing up. It seems like you can look at it a million times and every time, it will give you a different emotion. And that is what life is like, for me at least, especially in my mid-twenties.”

Because of those two previous albums, she’s now able to bring some of her ambitious ideas to life. After creating a short film around ‘Five Seconds Flat’, this time she’s been working on a documentary of the making of ‘Older’, which she plans to screen at viewing parties. “It really just shows me as an artist, which I’ve been wanting people to see more in-depth and transparently,” she says.

They’ve also helped her to catch the ear of other artists, like music’s most suddenly-famous man Noah Kahan, who invited her to feature on his song ‘Call Your Mom’. “He asked me to sing it at The Greek [Theatre in LA] and then he was like, ‘We should just record it’,” she says nonchalantly of the collaboration. The pair had never met in person before that show - she assumes they first connected on Instagram because “that’s how I meet most people these days”. “People loved it so much, so I was like, ‘I’m down’ and that was that. It was pretty simple.”

Now she’s in a better groove with her own work, there’s plenty left for Lizzy to achieve and enjoy. She’s reluctant to share exactly what some of those things might be, keeping the bucket list on her phone notes app tucked away. “I don’t want to jinx anything by saying them out loud,” she laughs. Instead, she offers up what she hopes people will take from ‘Older’. “I hope they’re reassured that life is messy for everyone. And not having anything figured out is totally fine.” She smiles and, perhaps unwittingly, nods to the lesson of her whole career so far: “It’s all a journey.”

‘Older’ is out now via Columbia.

Tags: Lizzy McAlpine, From The Magazine, Features, Interviews

As featured in the April 2024 issue of DIY, out now.

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