For painters, the joy and challenge of creation begins with a blank canvas. For Liz Longley, it started in an empty room.
"I was living in Boston and my roommate had just moved out, so I paced the hardwood floors of her room with my guitar," Longley recalls. "I walked back and forth until the songs were done. It was as though they were stuck in the apartment walls."
Longley has a gift for culling musical treasures as though straight from thin air. And now, the Berklee College of Music graduate and award-winning songwriter is set to share them with listeners on her self-titled album-her first after signing with Sugar Hill Records in December 2014.
The collection of 11 songs was recorded in Nashville with an all-pro band-and in a pulse-quickening fashion so rare in today's world of overproduced, airbrushed records. "I love being in the studio and feeding off the energy of other musicians. It's not something I get to do often on the road because I've mostly toured solo."
While Longley's songs and vocals invite complimentary comparisons to Shawn Colvin, Paula Cole and Nanci Griffith-all artists she's supported live-her latest effort spotlights a style and confidence that's all her own. You can hear it in the subtle-yet-soaring vocals on "Memphis," the dagger directness of "Skin and Bones," the bittersweet farewell that drives "This Is Not the End" (featured in the 2012 season finale of Lifetime's Army Wives). They're all cuts that dare you to hold back the goosebumps.
In fact, Longley's singing never fails to thrill and enthrall. Her voice and tone, touched with the slightest of country inflections, pours out like clean, crystalline water. Still, she can roar like a waterfall or flow effortlessly along the bed her backing band lays down, as on "Peace of Mind." The track showcases Longley yearning after silence and stillness to beat back demons of self-doubt.
The new songs grew amidst a period of transition and travel in her life; moving between Boston and New York before finally settling in Nashville, and spending much of her life on the road in a succession of minivans. To that end, the songs have been road tested at Longley's live shows, their power to connect with fans beyond question.
These numbers pack the punch of pages torn from Longley's journal. And fans have rewarded her transparency with tangible loyalty. For while many acts have no clue how an album will be received, Longley started her project knowing just how much her fans wanted her to succeed.
It's like this: Her Kickstarter campaign, which set $35,000 as an album-funding goal, exceeded that amount by nearly 60 percent, raising $55,000. "We reached the mark so quickly and I'm just really, really lucky to be connected to my fans," she says. " I feel like they've adopted me-like I have this big supportive family."
And to that end, Longley confides with you as though you're sitting on the sofa with her in a talk that's intimate and vulnerable. "Bad Habit" strides the valley road of heartbreak, its pounding toms and plaintive electric guitar providing an ideal frame for Longley's vocal, the very portrait of love's rock bottom: "I couldn't stand the smell of smoke 'til he lit that cigarette/ Never felt the temptation 'til I smelled it on his breath."
"I wrote it after dating a guy who had a lot of bad habits, and somehow he became my bad habit," Longley recalls. "He was just one of those people-a smoker and a drinker who also had a habit of cheating. When I broke up with him and wrote the song, it was hugely therapeutic for me. It cleansed him from my system. And when I started playing it live, I realized that so many others had toxic people in their lives."
Why write and sing songs so transparent and confessional? For Longley, it boils down to the simple truth of authenticity. "I just try to be myself," she says. "If I feel like a song is not genuine to me, I absolutely do not present it because people see right through it. It's all about the honesty, and I try not to overthink it-then it would lose some of the magic."
Longley first felt the magic while growing up outside of Philadelphia. A song she wrote in ninth grade-her first ever-earned a standing ovation when she performed it for the student body: "I was unprepared for that sort of reaction and it was life-changing moment," she says. "That's when I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life."
The track record she's assembled since shows just how much Longley grew into her dream. She's taken home top prizes at some of the most prestigious songwriting competitions in the country, including the BMI John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship Competition, the International Acoustic Music Awards and the Rocky Mountain Folk Fest Songwriting Competition.
But it all traces straight back to Longley's first song. She says she'll continue to open her soul in the service of her art because that's what matters most to her. "Every time I get into these songs they resonate with me, lock with me, because they're based on something I went through," she says of the new collection. "I hope they connect with people and that they'll help with whatever they've gone through. That's what music does for me, and I hope I can do that for someone else."
After all, what better way to fill an empty room than with fully realized music?