We spoke to the north London singer about sex, her new album, and her decision to take back control of her music.
“I was 17 when I got signed and swooped up into the industry side of things. It was really fun and exciting, you know; we were hustling, we were doing this pop thing. But, I always found myself coming head to head with them, and feeling like I wasn’t being true to myself in one way or another. In the end it wasn’t for me, I’m too controlling, and I want to be able to make music the way I want to do it.”
I’m sitting with Eliza Caird (fka Doolittle, now just Eliza) in the restaurant of the Covent Garden Hotel, as she explains her transition from fresh-faced pop singer to the artist behind one of the rawest, smoothest albums of 2018. “I’m still super proud of the old stuff – I think I tapped into a side of me that I didn’t even know was there, and I’m really glad for it. But I always felt that there was something else I had to be doing. It was like being in a band, and then waking up and actually becoming a solo artist. Even though I kind of was a solo artist. That’s the best way I can put it. Do you want some nuts?”
Eliza’s story is relatively unique, and rather interesting. Having made a name for herself in 2010 under the moniker ‘Eliza Doolittle’ with radio-friendly hits such as “Pack Up”, she made the decision to eschew what had become a significant and successful project in favour of a new name and, importantly, a new sound. This meant parting ways with her label, a decision that Eliza deems “the way forward”, but also feels shouldn’t necessarily be the only way. “I’d recommend that labels shift the way they’re doing things. It’s not like they can’t be useful – they’ve got money, they’ve got teams of people, global reach…yes, they are businesses, so I get why they’re churning out crap stuff, one hit wonders or whatever. But if they care about music at all, which I’d like to think that they do, then there should be some real rethinking with regards to working with true artists and helping them do what they do best, without getting involved in it too much.”
This is an interesting position, and one that bears some resonance in an age where some of the highest profile artists in the world, such as Chance The Rapper, are not only forging their own paths but being vocal about their resistance of record labels and the possibilities independence can give you. Eliza agrees: “It’s been an amazing experience – I’ve been driving the ship, and I’m really glad for all the things I’ve learned from that”.
The truth behind Eliza’s insistence that she is better off now is clear to see in her music, the proof being very much in the pudding with her new album, A Real Romantic. This is nine songs of smoky R’n’B performed in the basement of a Camden bar, of jazzy beats and blurry vocals, a patchwork collage of living and loving in London, the city where Eliza was born and bred. “I see people come from other places and they’re culturally overwhelmed by London”, she explains, “it’s addictive, it’s a special special city and nothing can replace it.”
Though the album doesn’t act as an ode to the city – it’s so much more than that – it is fair to say that it is characterised by London, its moodiness, diversity and DIY attitude all clear to hear. “Putting Out Fires” starts with someone asking “did I bring a jumper? Am I gonna need one?”, these snippets of quotidian urban life smattered throughout the project and bolstering its authenticity. This is enhanced by the fact that “most of the songs on the album are demos, they’re not re-works or anything like that, they’re all from the first day I did it. I think ‘demoitis’ is actually a great thing, because the minute you move away from the moment that spark of creation happened, and try to recreate it, you’ve lost something.” Hit single “Wasn’t Looking” is a highlight, while previously unheard songs such as “Loveable” and “Putting Out Fires” display an impressive ability to exist on a track with minimal instrumental support, and still produce something enchantingly intricate and listenable. “I don’t really think in genres at all”, Eliza explains. “The less I think in that way, the better. I just want to make sounds that feel nice in my ears.”
Thematically, the project serves a welcome departure from the fucked-up-ness of 2018, a vehicle for escape and a reassertion of love and life’s pleasures. Independence is also an important subject, the singer expressing the significance of not letting anyone run your life, and not blaming anyone else for your own problems. “Being on top of your shit, basically.” It is also about sex, or “escape in sex, loving sex of course, romantic moments. I’m just being open about love, and myself generally. Sex comes into that because sex is everything, we’re all here to procreate. Everything we do comes down to sex – the way you talk, wanting a certain job or a certain status. Let’s be real, we’re all human, we work in a system of statuses. It’s horrible, in a way, but it’s how it is. It’s like that for a reason – we find some things attractive, some things unattractive, but we’re all just here to mate.”
Eliza communicates in a way that makes you want to listen, and such assuredness, both in her speech and in her music, is disarming. However, she is keen to stress that these are just her thoughts, her experiences, using a vegan parable to make her point. “I just turned vegan actually– fuck, I’m doing it now. You know how when people turn vegan they talk about it loads? Like saying, “I can’t have that, I’m vegan” when people offer you cheese or something, and it feels like you’re just preaching it, and then the other person feels bad because they’re not vegan, and you get this funny feeling in the air, you know? I’ve realised that I just have to say “no thank you”. I’m not trying to make anyone else vegan, even though I do think it’s a good thing, but it’s important to just live your truth, and if people get inspired by that naturally, that’s great. It’s the same thing with the music. I’m not selling you anything, if you wanna get down, you get down, if you don’t, don’t. It’s all good.”
This is representative of the path Eliza’s music and life have taken since shrugging off her George Bernard Shaw-inspired pop moniker. She is making music for herself, and is relishing the creative freedom and independence that comes with it. This is someone who is not fussed about being manufactured, or ‘listenable’ (though she really, really is), who is instead focused on making art that moves her. “If it’s moving for others, that’s fantastic. But if it doesn’t move me then what do I do?” We talk a little more about her inspirations (Lauryn Hill, Destiny’s Child, Jeff Buckley), her dream collaborator (“Andre 3000 is a hero of mine. Will you spread the word for me?”) and her plans for the future, before I ask Eliza how she’s found everything since releasing her album. Her answer is refreshing. “I just feel like, at the moment, I’m kind of where I’m meant to be. I just feel at home at the moment, and it just put things in perspective. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s because it’s Christmas, but I just feel really grateful.”
Listen to A Real Romantichere, and get tickets for Eliza’s 2019 tour here.