Like many New York stories, this one starts with a landlord threatening to jack up the rent. It was a particularly frigid February when Elizabeth Ziman – the namesake of Elizabeth and the Catapult – moved out of her apartment, which housed her beloved baby grand piano, into a small windowless room across the street, and came down with a nasty, lingering flu. Anxious and feverish, her dreams became more lucid than ever, so she started writing them down in a dream journal. “The more I wrote down, the more I remembered. It felt like this unwinding clock, jumping around in time. I’d have a memory of my childhood, somehow set in the present day or the future but more surreal, like a scene out of Dada painting.”
Elizabeth’s dream journals turned into lyrics and though she had already written dozens of songs for the follow-up to her 2014 album Like It Never Happened, she kept coming back to songs that focused on her dreams. Eventually, the loose memory-focused concept that weaves through her new record, KEEPSAKE, due out October 20, 2017 on Compass Records began to take shape. “It’s about how our feelings about the past inform our actions and choices in the future. But this is not just an album about regret; it’s an album about nostalgia and transformation. It’s hopeful, really.”
That’s the sentiment behind standout track, “Underwater”, the chorus of which leads with “I’m not afraid of sleeping like I used to be/oh I can take to dreaming like a fish in the sea.” Then there’s the refrain of “Better Days”, which revisits Ziman’s childhood moments of pretending to be something she wasn’t to cope with disappointments and fears. “On better days, I believe I believe in the words I sing aloud/I recall what I meant when I first wrote them down/And I don’t second guess what I learned along the way/It’s all just the same in better days.” It ends with “I just to take it all like a woman twice my age.” There’s a theme on this record of reclamation: ‘I’ve been down this road a few times and I can be easier on myself. I’m not afraid of falling.”
Spinning her past pains into positive feelings coincided with a string of good fortune. As the temperature warmed, her flu mercifully disappeared, she opened for her friend Sara Bareilles at Madison Square Garden, and her old landlord decided not to raise the rent after all. With her pet bunny rabbit in tow, she moved back into the apartment and reunited with her prized baby grand piano, a gift from musician Rob Moose.
Finally home and comfortable, Ziman started fleshing out her dream lyrics, her keepsakes, into songs, with the help of longtime collaborators Dan Molad, who produced most of the album, and Peter Lalish, both from Lucius. Moose, who’s worked with Bon Iver, Antony and the Johnsons, and Joan as Policewoman among many others, helped arrange strings and other backing tracks. Once they had enough material, they recorded at the Portland, Oregon studio of Richard Swift, whose album Atlantic Ocean is a huge influence on Ziman, and later at Panoramic House Studio just outside of San Francisco, surrounded by deer, trees and the Pacific. Her West Coast sessions brought about the warmer, more serene sounds of Juno pads and Mellotrons, while back in her beloved Brooklyn apartment, she overdubbed and recorded a few tracks solo, like the ballad “Land of Lost Things”. “I was exploring how much cool stuff I could make in my house with just a shitty mic, no preamp and my amazing piano,” she says. “My baby served me well.”
Though she would’ve ideally recorded the album in a couple weeks, Ziman had to spread the sessions out while also touring with the likes of Sara Bareilles and Kishi Bashi and working on documentary film scores with partner Paul Brill (In My Father’s House, Knuckleball, The Other Shore). Her latest film with Brill, the abortion rights documentary Trapped, won numerous awards including a Peabody, a Special Jury Award for Social Impact Filmmaking at Sundance, and was featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. In the end, after the dreams and fevers, losing and reclaiming her home, and recording on both sides of the country, KEEPSAKE became Ziman’s most personal and cohesive record yet. Now she’s ready to share her songs and what she learned from writing them – that everyone has their own keepsakes and can control how they’re affected by them, with a little effort and dedication. “Our lives are this amalgamation of expectation and hope and regret. We mythologize both the past and the future – and when you write it down, you can really make it into whatever you want it to be.”