A Musical Memoir From Inside Out: The Relentless Humanity of Elizabeth & the Catapult’s sincerely, e
Elizabeth & the Catapult’s latest release, sincerely, e, has captivated music author James Campion. He sits down with artist Elizabeth Ziman for a deep dive into her album and the creative process of songwriting during a pandemic.
being human is a rare a condition
get in line now, here’s the test
to have patience, when your ambitions
must surrender to the truth at hand
It is somewhere around sometime; I don’t know. Quarantine days melt into one another, as if a Salvador Dali painting sifted through an arithmetical loop. Everything suddenly turns digital and virtual and what is this? New Elizabeth & the Catapult music floats across the room. Clean, organic, and starkly fierce, it careens off couches, over end tables and sleeping cats – all those things that pass for road markers along this traveling stillness. “read the news in california hope my family’s okay….” The song eases in, piano and voice, like a lifeline. “an old boyfriend called from arizona / said he was sick but no complaints.” It shuffles forth as an observational Fodor’s Guide to the introvert’s playground: “asked if i could sing a song right over the phone / so i sang him ‘purple rain’ and he coughed and sang along.” Forced to be less than free but not quite trapped, there are indeed voices outside, the song assures me, and the news they bring is more of the same. “tell your best friend not to visit / there’s no more use in going out / yeah the birds and the bees they’ve all come to agree / that no one’s gonna save them now.”
“birds and the bees,” a song of fearful warning, comes on as solace for the disquiet of solitude and the disengaged humanity that appears more comfortable every day with an unnerving lack of social contact. It sounds like the soundtrack to its carnal equivalent, those buck-a-peek booths in 1970s Times Square, that red-light glass box erotica – not quite lust but hinting at it. This bit of untamed nature is what songwriter Elizabeth Ziman is getting at with her take on COVID-19 – the people who have it and fear it and will, and have, died from it. But “birds and the bees” is not a current events song. These problems have been here long before anyone closed the planet, so says the man joyfully smoking outside her apartment in the second verse, where the singer buries the lede amidst the starkly shifting tempos and smoothly delivered piano lines. “this air’s gonna kill us anyway” is a dangerous truth sung sweetly, almost alluringly; a gentle fauna clutching an axe as it chases a boy through a snowy maze. This matters as much as the girl who hits on the narrator in the local deli, as she smiles behind her mask. And what the song offers her – offers us – is that “we are beloved / stranded here in space / we are beloved,” which is all fine and dandy if, as she sings, “we are alone together.” A paean to beginnings (the real stuff we share), and endings (stuff that gets in the way), “birds and the bees,” which the songwriter tells me is “like the public service announcement of the whole record,” sets the mood or, more to the point, moods to come.
sincerely, e is filled with moods – intimate contacts sheathed in sideways glances. It is what makes it a masterpiece for these weird times, but I think too it would have been one if it had come out in 2019, before any of this. There is now a distance between us, a chilly technological divide we choose to embrace. I do it. You do it. Most importantly, we do it. And this is why, more than ever, sincerely, e is a record that needed to be made and needs to be heard. It sure as hell doesn’t hurt that every song is a gem, fitting neatly into a long player that delights with journey, even if part of the trip is dark and bleak. All of it is soothed by the dulcet tones of a woman whose gift for melody and charmingly pitched vocals are only outdone by her facility to bridge the elusive key change with a dissonant piano solo that keeps your ears attuned.
I cannot stop listening to this record. It has gotten on top of me. Not sure if this says more about where I am now – furiously using the isolation to create, escape, hunker down and be visibly invisible – than it does for the vox populi. Does everyone feel this way?
Elizabeth Ziman is the singer-songwriter behind Elizabeth & the Catapult, the muse and filter for her art. sincerely, e is its fifth album. Released in March of this year, it is nevertheless steeped in 2020, the worst of years – global pandemic, environmental crisis, political lies, systemic racism, and street riots. There is something darkly poetic about the timing here. The songs regale the story of months of quizzical terror, isolation, and random paranoia, but they also offer a respite of cheerful walks through the downtown streets of Manhattan with a dog named Tokyo, of new-birth moms and new loves, and some of the finest songs about sexual yearning ever conceived. There is power in overcoming a shitty romance filled with pleasure-zone conceit in “thirsty,” specifically in its playful rhythms, chirping arrangement, and lines like: “i can see your face even when i’m half-baked / and it’s not even fair what i feel down there.” Ziman pushes things to the brink when she exclaims with a searing wit: “your feigned honesty means shit to me / i think i’d prefer an insult.” But it is the way she superbly purrs the jazz-oriented refrain – the very title – of “this rose comes to life” as if being reawakened from a spiritually erotic haze, as Prince did so masterfully, that fells me every time. It evokes a sign of life in all this doom.
A couple of weeks after the record’s release, I spent some time with Ziman, who also appeared on my Sunshine Spotlight YouTube series in early April. I had to tell her how I felt about these songs and she could not have been more forthcoming and honest about them. “There are definitely apocalyptic themes that keep coming back again and again for me,” she began, sitting comfortably on a couch in her New York apartment. “I first thought, sure, let’s just have the birds and the bees come to agree that no one’s going to save them, but come on, they’re really saving us.” Her signature smile creased her face when she said, “It felt like a perfectly objective view of humans: ‘Look what we've done to ourselves!’ It’s also a convergence of all these conversations around what was happening during the pandemic. It was really the writing of ‘birds and the bees’ where I said, ‘Oh, I think that I have more to say about this. And I can start collecting songs and ideas about it.’ That was really the spark for me, the ‘birds and the bees.’”
Ziman is classically trained, studied at Berklee College of Music by way of Greenwich Village through the jazz-vocal prism, thus she sounds very much like she does not try and fake that she ain’t sonically refined to better ease your sensibilities. She leans hard into song-craft – part of her many forays into soundtrack composing (her major at Berklee) – and storytelling. Dramatic dynamics fill much of the Catapult’s catalog and is joyfully evident in every groove of sincerely, e – aptly titled, in my humble opinion. It is both a musical memoir and sonic postcard from where the music makes her swoon and moan with lyrical observations, not of this pop-a-minute TikTok world. These are, dare I say, mature songs, feminine songs, defiantly vulnerable songs. She is also one of the most genuinely emotive singers for this type of material. The medicine goes down with a heaping spoonful of her honey-voiced phrasing. But make no mistake, she is taking no prisoners here. You’re all hers.
Listen to the album’s two requiems for the demise of human connection and our ensuing tontine with distance communication. ‘apocalypse in A major” takes solemnity as portent. You can hear the enemy of artistic expression and the void found in all performers’ sighs as she sings, “all is meaningless suddenly meaningless / would you know to find me? / when you don’t believe anything / would you know to find me? / when heaven comes down.” Love in a maelstrom, seduction amidst chaos. It is one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. And maybe “together, alone,” a gorgeously performed missive, is too on the nose for some, but it is important to this song cycle. So important, in fact, Ziman name-checks it on “birds and the bees,” providing its own sort of prescience. It forced me to push repeat three times. I had to hear it again. I needed to hear it again. “you’re never alone even when you are sleeping,” she sings, before she hits you with, “my brain is connected to my hand is connected to my phone.” Again. “my brain is connected to my hand is connected to my phone.” Again.
tell me a secret
i still won’t believe it
‘til after you shot it
‘til you make it public
and you said, elizabeth
i am just phoning it in
i lost the poetry
texting without feeling
a song without meaning
a dog without a bone
i’m talking without speaking
Ziman began to write these songs in isolation. Forced, as all of us, inside, to contemplate and face the muse. Disease outside, release inside. “Well, the whole thing was an obvious catharsis,” Ziman told me. “I don’t think that it would have been created as fast or as clear and focused if there wasn’t a need to be around other people. It was the reason why I called the record sincerely, e. It is my love letter to the outside world in the most symbolic way possible. ‘I need you.’ I'm writing this record as a child alone in the corner of the room talking to herself.”
Although the composing did come quickly when the muse took over, there was time to process the feelings eventually expressed in sincerely, e. “I can’t always write when I’m depressed,” says Ziman. “A lot of people need the pain and the struggle in order to express, but, for me, I experience the real pain and the struggle, and then I need time before I can actually start writing and be objective about it. I need to be away from it. I need some space from the pain. And I think that’s why it took me about six months into the pandemic, when things were getting a little better over the summer, to actually have the space to write about this stuff. Because otherwise it was too close, too scary.”
Still there is anxiety in the persuasion of our collective medication covered on the album, nailed down with uncanny precision in its second track, “pop the placebo,’ a playful, spiteful song of piercing platitudes with good old-fashioned guile. Ziman’s high-ranged, sing-song chorus is gorgeously polished, and yet controlled in righteous anger: “‘cause i don’t care how i get there darling / name the cure and i’ll come running / i don’t care how i get there darling / say the words with enough conviction / ‘cause i don’t care how i get there / as long as i arrive.” And you can tell that she means this. It’s hers, and she knows it. And it’s okay if you know it too.
Even the songs about shattered love affairs, untrustworthy lovers, and dashed amore, seem to drive a special kind of loneliness into our social disorder. In “the stranger,” an infectious melody charges: “‘cause i’m staring at the light but i’m seeing darkness / it’s all upside down.” As her disdainful lust triggers the vengeful verses of “thirsty,” so does it in “the muse,” a song about writing a song about betrayal, stalking, and weird vibrations, doubtless borne on the wings of social media advances: “you only call me to break my heart / so i could write your name in a song,” and later, “was it worth all the guile, babe / just look at all the damage you’ve done.”
I kept pressing Ziman on the delicate and sometimes dangerous balance of the tangible humanity in these songs buttressing up against the cold isolation of the world during her composing. She offered, “‘thirsty’ is as vulnerable and sexual in a way that I’ve never been on any of my albums. I basically vomited the song out from the anger I felt at my ex, while still lusting for him. And although it is painfully cliché, feeling this for someone who’s so obviously wrong for me is a form of addiction. And as it came along, I had to ask myself, ‘Well, am I going to release a song that has the words pity fuck in it? That’s what people are going to remember! Can I handle being so unapologetically honest about this experience that I had?’ And I thought, you know, maybe it’s about time that I just release what I wrote as I wrote it, with whatever intentions I’d set forth. And so…I put that out there.”
since you’ve been away
oh, my heart is black and blue
don’t give up on me, no
and i won’t give up on you
hope, my sometimes friend
“hope, my sometimes friend”
Storytelling became the songwriter's paramount device to "put it out there.” Her stories come down as vivid reminders of the people who suffer and laugh and love and seek refuge. “As I worked on these songs, I became obsessed with how everyone had to tell a specific story, to be almost like a vignette, like a little movie in and of itself,” says Ziman. “It was very clear throughout that the most important thing about this record is the stories. Make sure that you’re telling these stories as clearly as possible, and you got it. That’s it. All the rest of the stuff is secondary, so, in that way, maybe my focus was more honed. And I hope to carry that into my future writing.”
The naked emotion of these musical tales with themes of social disconnection and the very human desire to find an emotional lifeline translated to the album’s recording, all of which Ziman did in her apartment. After her roommates left to quarantine and a romantic relationship ended, she noted, “I’m about as alone as I will ever be,” and dove right in. “I was intentionally making this album as sonically rough around the edges as it could be,” she recalls with more than a measure of pride. “It was never intended to be polished, because it wasn’t in a studio. I knew that there were going to be flaws in the engineering, because I only used one mono mic like an old record where you just sit a mic on the piano…and you go. I told my mixing people, ‘Sorry if there's bleed, this is what you have to work with.’ And that’s the way I did the whole record.” Even the instrumental arrangements on the final mix were devised in the original takes. “I sang with a guitar or with a piano and then the rest of the parts I just sang vocal lines that I thought would be cool on other instruments,” explains Ziman. “And then I replaced them with those instruments and the song was done. It was very straight ahead. I was intentionally trying not to hone and edit to make it more perfect. If there is something that sounds like a mistake and it’s still in there, I probably went, ‘If it’s live…it stays.’”
The immediacy of the recording along with the sparse arrangements afforded to some of the tracks speak to a defiance of ornament for the sake of it. As the songs came to her, Ziman put them down, wasting little time. This adds to the aura that the album channels something deeper within the artist, a direct conduit to true emotions, which is both endearing and anxious for the listener. It is what attracted me to the songs, beyond their infectious melodies or intricate rhythms. “This relationship with my muse is very superstitious and quixotic and I think very spiritually about it,” admits Ziman. “I’m not the kind of artist who wakes up every morning to write. I write only when I am inspired to write. So, if I sit down and I have an idea, and it’s good enough, it almost writes itself. I get lost in the process. I feel like, ‘The muse visited me today, nice to see you, let’s get going with this.’ And then I can really get immersed. I would almost say that I felt like I was lucky this year to have that channel forced upon me in isolation. Perhaps it made me a better writer.”
everyone’s singing, someone’s singing
everybody’s singing along
you only call me to break my heart
so i could write your name in a song
Ziman’s use of lowercase lettering in the lyrics included in the digital booklet was part of this straight-from-the-muse edict. They appear as a drafted letter she whipped off to a loved one (hence sincerely, e) – once again an unrefined sensibility to the music that runs a thread through the writing, performing, and recording of it. Inspired by the artwork of Wendy Mark, a poet in her own right, whose work has been shown in New York’s Whitney Museum, Ziman attained the rights to many of her paintings that were created in a similar way. “Wendy creates these monotypes where she actually paints on the glass and she presses it to the paper, which maintains a real sense of lack of control and improvisation. She doesn’t know how it’s actually going to come out! This is what I wanted in the textures of what you hear with the music, for instance, the squeak of my piano pedal or my starting the song twice on ‘love always wins.’ You can hear me pushing out my piano bench. It was always about textures. Something raw. Something real.”
When Ziman approached a virtual album release show, her artistic director Lindsay Smilow shared with her what she describes as a “very clear vision of making everything fit together purposefully for the intent of what I was trying to say with this album.” This meant wardrobe, which Smilow suggested should consist of a silky robe, looking as if the singer were in pajamas. Ziman soon came to understand its effect; “Once I put it on, it felt like the most intimate version of me that you’re going to see, down to the lights behind me, and what I’m wearing. It felt like what I do every week, me in my living room.”
Ziman included essays for the songs released as singles, beginning in December of 2020 through to the album’s release in early March of 2021. I wrestled with the idea of reading them, but eventually decided that having an immediate and personal reaction to the songs without the prism of the artist’s voice beyond the art would be a more authentic approach to writing about them. Should I let her actual meanings cloud my interpretations or illuminate them? For instance, when I first heard “this rose comes to life” in the context of the album’s narrative on the visceral versus the virtual, and considering her lustful yearnings so honestly portrayed in “thirsty,” I was drawn to the imagery of the female orgasm. But when we spoke, Ziman explained the song was about a transgender man choosing to come out to his wife about his true identity. Once again, a sexual awakening, a secret to be unlocked and the emotional release of the freedom it engenders. It is all there in one song. Ziman shared, “Actually, I had a fan reach out to me and say, ‘This is something that I’ve been dealing with in my own life, and it just means so much to me that you’re writing about my story.’ This is the biggest compliment that anyone can give me, and it was so moving.”
“this rose comes to life” represents the other key element of sincerely, e: its empathy for the human spirit. Perhaps the best example of this is the album’s most beautifully framed piece, “sweet chariot,” a song Ziman wrote for her best friend who was having her first child during the year of sickness, death, street chaos, and political upheaval. It may be her finest vocal performance in an album replete with them. She wisps and soars, digs deep into the sugary melody and then casts off for a moment to converse. Of all the songs of broken relationships and inhumanity in sincerely, e, there is a place for a baby to arrive and remind us – remind her – that where there is hope (whether a sometimes friend or not) there is life. The illuminated side of hope is the child that is not attached to its phone or finding an ego-center in social media, but only needs that kiss Ziman sings about with such fragility in “together, alone.” In “sweet chariot” she offers this advice to the newborn babe: “being human is a rare condition / even for you, my perfect little one / just one false move, you’ll start believing / you’re not so deserving / of the ones that you most love.” Beneath its delicate phrasing, it tears your heart out.
Once the album was finished and Ziman was no longer independently clothed in her own cloak of creativity, when she was sure what she was doing had the kind of merit that would make her weep while playing, she realized that the process stirred up feelings she had not confronted before. “I definitely had moments of trepidation after I finished recording these songs, because when I was in it, I was truly in it, and I wasn’t doubting it as much,” she recalls. “As artists can do, I wasn’t taking a lot of time to just look back and say, ‘Is this good? Is this not good?’ The process was so cathartic. Even my mother said to me, as mothers will do, ‘Have you shared this with anyone before you put it all out there?’”
I got the feeling after she told me this that the song “sha-la-la,” an uplifting doo-wop number about a street woman collecting cans on a sunny summer day around New York City, is as much about Ziman’s subject as it is about reveling in her own realities. She sings delightfully, “we don’t make a killing / but hey, it’s still a living to me,” and it makes sense to all of us who put it out there and “don’t make a killing.” Living, it would seem, has its own currency.
you can tell me, i will understand
try and break me, i’ll take it best i can
you let me down, dear
time and time again
but love always wins
yeah love always wins
“love always wins”
And so sincerely e, a record so absolutely perfect for its times, which means any time, ends with the kind of backhanded optimism that fills its dozen tracks. It would be unfair to call “love always wins” cynical. I submit it as cautiously confident. It can be about two people whose damages can create a bond that some might see as love and others as a weakness for pain-equals-pleasure, but I see it in the context of the previous eleven songs – a pragmatic approach to how life, hope, and dreams can be our blessing and curse, our light at the end of the tunnel with scary monsters holding the lantern. Our better angels with impish horns, our natural resources on the brink, our leaders, pigheaded adolescents, our society felled by disease and economic tragedies. In the end, as is in the end of this song cycle, somehow, against all odds and evidence to the contrary, love, indeed, always (it has to, right?) wins.
“love always wins” also provides one last insight into its composer: her methods, her talents, her vision. “That song is very much like ‘hope, my sometimes friend,’ which is why I paired them together,” explains Ziman. “First of all, I just felt like I was in a smoke-filled 1930s Parisian bar while I was writing it. Sounds like a jazz standard to me. It’s a peculiar song, stylistically for me, but I think that it’s also, in its most bare bones, an essential song for this record. I kept thinking, ‘If I could just play piano and sing and nothing else and just have it live, that it will feel emotional enough that people will get this no matter how jazzy it is.’ But that’s kind of beside the point, because the lyrics are super dark. I’m talking about a relationship where we emotionally abuse each other, and we know it, but we still love each other and stay together and have our own brand. So, when I’m saying, ‘you can hurt me / I will understand,’ it is as dark as I can get. But when you also say, ‘love always wins,’ yes, there’s that little lilt. And I think that all of the songs, when I’m writing at my most honest, have that spectrum where you are being pulled in both directions all the time. And so, if it is heard as a perfect summation of sincerely, e and you’ve been on this emotional rollercoaster that I’m on, then that’s the highest compliment I could get.”
When we parted ways Ziman wanted me to know how the response to sincerely, e has given her a new confidence as a writer and an artist, both as the performer she once was before the pandemic and what she hopes she will be once she can play for people again and play with her friends, the Catapult, to make these songs come alive for an audience – connecting finally, which is finding the other side of the creative process: the receiving.
This is why sincerely, e is one of the truest artistic statements of the last year. Not because we have endured so much for it to be conceived, but because we come to understand, through Elizabeth & the Catapult’s music, that there are two sides to our story. And we should embrace them equally. “We always have to, for our survival, expect the best of the people we love, even when they’re hurting us,” concludes Ziman with her radiant smile. “Because if we actually expect the best of them, they can live up to that potential. If we just give up and quit on things and just say, ‘It is simple as this is the way we’re terrible and this is the pain we cause,’ then there’s no room for relationships. And this goes with the way that I feel about the world and the way that I feel about vaccines and COVID. I’m trepidatious; I’m not quite there and trusting that this thing is over. But I am going to imagine myself with my friends at Miles of Music camp, and out on the lake and we all have vaccines, and things are getting better, because that’s what keeps me sane. And I think that should show in the music we make. I mean, I could write a whole other album, and I have a whole other album of songs written already, just trying to figure out how to maintain a sense of hope in these times. And its work is literally the discipline of happiness.” ▲
James Campion is an essayist, music journalist, contributing editor to the Aquarian Weekly, and author of seven published works including Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon and Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon. His podcast with Adam Duritz, “Underwater Sunshine,” concentrates on new and classic music of all genres, as the two hosts curate a bi-annual music festival in NYC each year.