Elizabeth Abrams has been working with writers and producers since she was a young teenager and, with over a decade of studio time put in, the industry must seem like just another facet of life, as natural as brushing your teeth or taking your dog for a walk. But it wasn’t until early 2013 that she started to come into her own as an entity — as LIZ — under the Mad Decent umbrella. The past few years have been marked by a series of progressively stronger tracks that showed her experimenting with a wide variety of sounds and collaborators. Her most significant work to date is last year’s Just Like You EP, her official debut release, which is a grab bag filled with some genuine pop candy in the pinging jumps of “Do I Like U” and “Y2K“‘s spacey glitch. Yet even the tracks that don’t exactly hit display a willingness to adapt, a malleability that’s necessary and welcome in a pop world that is viciously trend volatile. LIZ’s growing pains seem like the result of artist who has so many ideas to work with, but just hasn’t found the right groove yet.
That’s why “When I Rule The World” feels like such a revelation, for both the future of pop music and LIZ in particular. The SOPHIE-produced track dropped earlier this summer in a commercial, which was quickly followed by the full song, and then a nostalgic candy-coated video. The track takes the PC Music affiliate’s pointed maximalism and dulls it with a smoothed-out, palatable shimmer. It’s the first test as to whether or not the ultra-gloss of the London underground can become a bonafide pop sensation, and “When I Rule The World” provides ample evidence that it can. It may not be this song specifically, which is probably destined to be prototype for the inevitable onslaught of music that tries to ape this sound, but it does position LIZ as a magnetic force, one that can carry a song of this magnitude on sheer personality and force of will.
We sat down with LIZ to talk about this song in particular, what she’s been working on recently, and where she envisions her career is going. Also, check out a behind-the-scenes look at the “When I Ruled The World” video shoot below.
STEREOGUM: How did “When I Rule The World” first come together?
LIZ: I met SOPHIE in L.A. through Diplo — it was at the Mad Decent studio, actually, and I ended up working with him later that week because I told him I had seen him at SXSW. I was such a fan and was dying to work with him. And he was looking for vocalists, so we got together and we were in the studio and we were actually working on another song, but he played me some other ideas that he had started and “When I Rule The World” was one of them and I just … I knew right away. I was like, “We need to work on this one.” We did a bunch of different versions of it — I cut it a couple of different times, and we added a different second verse. He’s very specific about how I phrase things, and it was a fun process. He’s just great to work with in the studio, and he’s got a very specific idea of how he wants things to sound. We definitely see eye-to-eye.
STEREOGUM: How does the collaboration process work for you when you’re in the studio? I know it’s different with every producer, but do you typically work on the lyrics together or was something like “When I Rule The World” more fully-formed when you got it?
LIZ: Usually, I work more from scratch with people. But I’m also not one of those artists who thinks they are too good for any idea that someone has brought to them. Like, I appreciate songwriters and producers that have specific ideas. “Rule The World” was definitely a little bit more fully-formed than some of the other tracks that I work on.
But, honestly, it’s different every time. I can’t say that there’s any formula for making the song. Otherwise, everyone would be doing it and it would be boring and it would just be like, you know, math or something. It’s not. There’s so much that goes into it — there’s instinct, there’s how you’re feeling that day, your mood, what you ate for lunch. You never know what’s going to inspire you.
STEREOGUM: “When I Rule The World” is very empowering, but it’s also weirdly cocky. It’s has a dynamic where, yeah, you as a listener are singing along to the lyrics, but it’s also kind of all about you. What sort of attitude were you trying to convey?
LIZ: I think it’s about channeling your inner powerful self and brat. I have such a devil child inside of me — we all do! It’s about going to that place inside of you that’s just really fun and — what’s the word? — saucy. It’s also one of those songs that’s very tongue-in-cheek at the same time. There’s a juxtaposition there, because there are all these elements of being like a little kid. There’s these childish vibes but then there’s some, you know, underlying dominatrix-type lyrics. But when I was making this song, I wasn’t really thinking about it in a sexual way at all. It was really more about getting back at people who try to push you down or make you feel like you are less than them.
STEREOGUM: Moving onto the video, how did your initial concept compare to what it turned out to be?
LIZ: I originally had the idea to shoot it in Japan. I’m very inspired by Sebastian Masuda’s work — he is kind of like the ambassador for kawaii culture over there and his art is really incredible. He’s the artistic director for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and he and I actually made a lot of ideas for this song. He sketched out a lot of things, and we were very close to doing the video together but it didn’t quite work out. I hope to work with him in the future, though.
But I got the director Justin Francis here in America, and he totally got it. He’s great. I liked the video he had done for Kimbra — the genre, the colors, the mix of animation — so I gave him Sebastian’s sketches, and we just created our own world. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use kids, and SOPHIE had that idea, too. We had talked about how the song reminded us of Annie, the musical, with all the kids going, “It’s a hard knock life for us.” So I saw that last chorus, with this number where we would all just be dancing. All the little girls had so much fun. I rehearsed with them all week. They’re a group called the ML Kids and they’re based out of L.A., and I guess this was their first big project. I always wanted to have a kind of mini-me, so I had Freak City design us matching fake FUBU windbreakers.
STEREOGUM: What are you working on now?
LIZ: I’ve been writing for the past year. I kept quiet for a year because I knew that this SOPHIE record was the one I wanted to come back with. It just took a while to get everyone on board because it is such a polarizing track and a little different than my previous stuff. It was a process. So I’ve been sitting on a lot of records that I made over the past year, and I’m still in the studio. I don’t think I ever really stop because there’s always opportunities to write things for other artists.
So, yeah, I have a bunch of songs. I think I’m going to put out an EP in the fall before the album. We have an idea what the next release is going to be, which I’m pretty excited about. And I’ve been testing out records by playing them live. The other night, I did a radio promo event and performed for a bunch of mix show DJs, and people have been saying what songs they’re reacting do. It’s interesting because I love all my songs equally, so I don’t really care which ones people aren’t into. It’s cool with me — there will always be chances to put out more stuff. There’s a lot of different sides to me as an artist, so I want to keep doing what I’ve been doing as far as highlighting different aesthetics and experimenting and having fun, grooming certain sounds to the forefront and hopefully pushing them up to the mainstream.
STEREOGUM: What sounds do you want to push that you think should be more out there?
LIZ: Well, I mean, I definitely like SOPHIE’s sound.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s going to be big soon.
LIZ: I hope so. People have either been loving or hating it. It’s a good thing because at least I’m getting a reaction and it’s making people feel something. I think “When I Rule The World” is definitely the type of song where people are obsessed with loving or hating it, and it gets stuck in their heard whether they like it or not.
STEREOGUM: It’s polarizing, but I love that kind of stuff.
LIZ: I also have a song with A. G. Cook, too, that I think is just going to be on a PC Music compilation. But there’s more sides to me than just that. I’ve been working on some cool, like, freestyle-type songs. Some Jersey club, I have a reggae track with Major Lazer called “Still The One.” And there’s “Burnin’ Up,” one I did with Corin Roddick [of Purity Ring] and Charli XCX. I did some stuff with Shift K3y from the U.K., which is a garage-type track. Some R&B, some more street-pop stuff.
STEREOGUM: So when you actually end up putting together an album, are you going to try and go for a more cohesive vibe or would you rather just show off all of these different sounds?
LIZ: That’s something I’ve been struggling with. Because I want the album to be cohesive, but at the same time I think that cohesiveness should come from the artist and should come from your message and the themes in your lyrics. I think the most fun thing about being a pop artist these days is variety. People like Gwen and Rihanna and Madonna have been really successful at that. I’m not the type of artist that wants to put out an album with a ton of the same songs. I think it’s a very single-driven world right now, especially for pop artists. I don’t know — I just love music and I’ve been doing this since I was 13-years-old. So I plan to have an interesting, long career.
STEREOGUM: Does it ever get old? Do you ever get tired and sick of the whole industry?
LIZ: No, never.
STEREOGUM: I feel like it’s so potentially exhausting, especially since you’ve been doing this for, like, a decade.
LIZ: Yeah, I don’t know… I don’t know anything else. I think because when I was growing up as a person and a teenager and a young adult, I was growing up as an artist as well. It was the main way that I learned how to express myself. You know, I’ve kind of had problems in the past with communication and I felt like I was a little weird socially sometimes, but music was really my way to just relax and be myself and get out certain parts of my personality. I remember when I would play shows as a teenager, my friends would come up to me after and they would kind of look at be differently and be like, “Oh, I feel like I know you better now.”
STEREOGUM: What kind of things do you feel that you can get out in your music that you can’t necessarily get out in real life? What do you turn to music as an outlet for?
LIZ: Well, lots of things. I mean, girls are moody animals, right? [laughs] They’re moody people. I actually draw a lot from fantasy-based themes — how I wish I could be, or how I wish a relationship would go. I wonder how it would turn out if I met this person now instead of five years ago when I was super-naïve and not in the right headspace. I did another song with SOPHIE called “High School Love” which is basically about me never having a boyfriend in high school, and still holding out for that dream that one day I’m going to have a love like that, one that’s going to feel so exciting and so pure. In that song, I talk about how I was, like, a weirdo and stalking certain guys.
You know, I’m not afraid to be vulnerable and have a sense of humor and be tongue-in-cheek about my stuff. Some of my song ideas literally start out as emails. Like, ones I obviously can’t send, so I’m just like, “I’m going to turn this into a song and this is going to be my letter to him.” Then, once you get it out, it’s kind of like … okay, I set that free. Now I can move on. It’s almost like therapy in a way. I guess when I was a teenager, I was a little darker and angsty, but now I find that making music that makes me feel good and makes me have fun and feel nostalgic for certain things is more therapeutic. Having a sense of humor about things just helps everything. It’s funny because I’ve been going through some of the darkest times in my life over the past few years, but my music has been positive. It’s been so bright. I think I had to do that on purpose to get through everything.
STEREOGUM: So where do you see yourself in a year’s time?
LIZ: I would love my stuff on the radio. That’s a big dream of mine. Radio is so important for pop stars these days. I really hope to tour more. I really just want to be a multifaceted entertainer. You know, I feel like I’ve gone through a lot in my life, and I’m a little bit older than a lot of the pop stars that are out there right now. I have a lot of stories to share and I really, genuinely enjoy talking to tweens and to teens. And I really would like that to be part of my career, whether that’s writing more songs or being involved with a lifestyle brand that helps kids around that age.
I grew up in L.A. and I went to one of the most judgmental high schools, and it was tough. I came from a really small private school where you couldn’t really pick your friends. You just sort of float around, you do your thing and you’re a big fish in a small pond. I don’t think growing up is easy for anyone. There’s so much going on — with your family, in school. It’s hard. So that’s kind of the deeper message with my whole project. It’s really about learning to accept yourself because it took me a really long time for me to do that. It really did.