Taste-shaping outlets such as Pitchfork, Spin, and Uncut have used terms like funereal, mournful, and dreamy to gush all over Lia Ices’s second album, Grown Unknown. Reached on tour during a pit stop at an Ann Arbor, Michigan, delicatessen, the Brooklyn singer-songwriter suggests a more abstract but somehow more fitting description.
“I feel like this album maybe sounds like winter,” Ices says simply.
That’s no accident. When Ices started thinking about what she wanted to do with Grown Unknown, escaping the roar and grit of New York City was at the top of her list. Her plan was to connect with nature, and while that may make her sound like a Birkenstock-wearing granola muncher, it shouldn’t. She was after something more spiritual and pure, the goal being to tap into something primal. She did just that in a remote, rented farmhouse in Vermont in the dead of winter.
“We had to hike up half a mile since we didn’t want to pay for snow-plowing,” Ices relates. “So we would only leave the house once a week for groceries and then take them up on a sled. It was on 40 acres—a little red house with a barn and a lake. It was a really idyllic winter scene—there was so much snow. I think that being in an extreme natural setting, and letting the natural world and what it’s doing permeate your thoughts, is super-interesting and super-important. Coming from New York, I just had to let myself be mellow and just give in to a complete lifestyle shift, which I felt that I really needed.”
As one might have expected, changing gears didn’t happen overnight.
“It was slow living. I would read a chapter of a book and then go for a walk and think about whatever I needed to think about. It was important for me to figure out what I wanted things to sound like. I had apprehensions because I’d never done a writing retreat. I’d never left New York to do something like this, and there was a definite fear of ”˜What if nothing comes out?’ ”
Ices needn’t have worried; as evidenced by Grown Unknown, the creative process couldn’t have gone more splendidly. When the classically trained pianist first surfaced with 2008’s Necima, she played things more or less straight, her songs drawing more than one comparison to the likes of Cat Power and Regina Spektor. Released on indie heavyweight Jagjaguwar Records, Grown Unknown finds the gorgeously smoky-voiced singer dramatically refashioning her career. Right from the kickoff track, restraint is the key to the record’s hushed brilliance, with “Love Is Won” starting with nothing but delicate piano and wounded-heart vocals then gradually bringing church-service organ and soft-patter drums into the mix. Elsewhere, “Ice Wine” is layered with stately strings and exotic timpani, “After Is Always Before” meshes baroque harp with military-march percussion, and “Daphne” marries psychedelic-country piano and funeral-pyre guitar with stunning results.
Ices is careful to note that Grown Unknown’s songs came together in two stages. The first was the writing, which took place in Vermont, plenty of good red wine helping fuel the process. The second had her doing her best to mess with her creations when it came time to record them in New York, with producer Nicolas Vernhes (Deerhunter, Animal Collective) helping her veer off in all manner of unexpected directions.
“I’d put out a record before this one and didn’t spend as much time on the arrangements as I did the writing,” Ices says. “It was more like ”˜Oh, I can write a song, so let’s record it.’ This one was really important because I would write the song on piano, and then be confident enough to abandon the piano and be like, ”˜Maybe horns can do this better. Or maybe there’s a weird-ass harpsichord that would be way more interesting.’ ”
That Ices is already at the point where she’s intent on messing things up makes sense when you consider her background. Before she embarked on a career in music she studied experimental theatre at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Included in her education were classes that concentrated on voice work.
“They were about finding your own sound and not being afraid to use your voice and body as a vehicle for expression and motion,” Ices relates. “Some of it was really insane, but it really taught you about playing with the voice. We’d get assignments like ”˜Sing a dream.’ Dreams are like the most abstract thing ever, so the challenge was using sound and your voice to express things that are unexpressable. I took off in that voice class, realizing that my voice was really different and didn’t fit into the classical theatre world. I realized that there was much more to my voice than I’d ever been led to explore, and that I could make my own songs.”
Today, Ices continues to take the attitude that exploring is a healthy thing. That’s a warning to her fledgling fan base that she’s only begun to embrace her inner artist—and that Grown Unknown’s tunes bear little resemblance today to the wintry creations that came together in that farmhouse in Vermont.
“I wrote, arranged, and recorded the songs without ever having played too many of them live,” says Ices, who performs with backing musicians on-stage. “They’ve since taken on a whole new energy. It’s born from the record, but much more extroverted. There’s an energy from being in a band that’s really tight and can play really loud. And that will maybe end up informing the next record.”
A record that, Ices notes, will very likely sound like summer.
Lia Ices plays the Biltmore Cabaret next Thursday (April 21).