When Picastro, aka Liz Hysen, shows up for our 3 o'clock interview, she has something unexpected in tow: a baby boy. At eight months, he's all big, dark eyes and soft blond hair—and he and Mommy are obviously content with one another. This new knowledge helps Hysen's latest release come into full focus. Long one of Toronto's most subdued, haunted and minor key artists, there are hints that Picastro is starting to let in the light.
Don't get me wrong: Whore Luck, out on Polyvinyl September 11th, isn't exactly an album full of mushy poems to the zen of motherhood. But in the context of Picastro's past output, this latest release marks a subtle shift—replacing cold, barren dissonance with a warmer, fuller sound that uses discord as a strategic device rather than a mandate.
Picastro have been a part of Toronto's music scene since 1997 and boasted members such as Evan Clarke (Jim Guthrie Band, Rockets Red Glare) and Mr. Final Fantasy himself, Owen Pallett. Still despite, three albums and a long local history, the group have never really made too large a splash. The unrelentingly bleak, melancholic nature of Hysen's music certainly bears some responsibility for this low profile, but it is a great indicator, along with other unsung T.O. vets like Creeping Nobodies, as to just how deep the talent pool is in this town.
Speaking with her now, you get the impression that she doesn't care that much about this lack of exposure—at least not as much as she once did. The new perspective of motherhood? Maybe, but as she explains it, a little veteran confidence has a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. We talk with Liz about T.O. history, how her widespread connections have endured time, and how she's finding her voice.
Soundscapes: When getting ready for this, I was reading your website where you mention that Picastro started in 1997. Toronto was such a different city then!
Liz Hysen: Exactly! Yes!
SS: Ted's Wrecking Yard (an old T.O. club that was the original home of the Wavelength series) was still around...
SS: ...Arts & Crafts and Three Gut hadn't started, Teenage USA was still a label.
SS: So many things that are integral to the musical landscape of Toronto now, didn't exist. Throughout all of this, Picastro has remained an ongoing concern, but it's never been in a central spotlight in the city, despite your affiliations.
SS: What's your relationship with the city? How do you feel about it?
LH: Umm, that's a good question (laughs). I have mixed feelings, but (pauses) I do like how there's a lot of different kinds of music going on now, which there wasn't before. So, that's really nice. To have this many things going on all the time is really, really nice. And I definitely feel supported in the city. But, I've definitely had, I don't know... I've definitely gone in waves of being really dependent on the city, and being totally indifferent and not caring. So, it seems that things go in phases for me and I'm really happy with everyone that I know. I mean, (pauses) my concentration on things has changed too. Lately, I've been really into writing and recording, as opposed to playing, and I think at one point I would've been just interested in playing. And in Toronto playing a lot.
SS: Well, it did take a while too for your first record to come out (2003's Red Your Blues).
LH: Yeah, yeah. Totally. I didn't have a lot of confidence for, I mean, I still find I'm grasping for it. But now, because we've toured a lot, I can see Toronto in a better perspective. And I know it's a really good city, but my relationship, it goes back and forth between love and hate, y'know, like, all the time. (laughs) So, I don't know if that really answers the question.
SS: Well, that makes sense to me.
LH: Yeah. (laughs)
SS: It seems too, that there's been a lot of relationships over Picastro's history that have kept you in good stead, regardless of whether or not they've been a part of Toronto that people have focused on.
SS: It seems there's something really lasting about that foundation.
LH: Yeah, it's a very elastic band. It's very, um, I'm interested in playing with people... I mean, I have a very set idea about aesthetics I think, but at the same time, it's a really liberating thing to trust people enough to just say, "Do whatever you want," and hoping that they're gonna do what suits the song, and usually they do. Y'know? That's the kind of amazing part about it. But I do feel like I've been really lucky in finding people who are extremely caring and conscientious about the band. Like they really, really do pay attention to how things should sound and what the song needs as opposed to what they wanna do. I feel very lucky. Yeah, I don't even know how that happened! (laughs)
SS: How about some of the people from outside the city. I mean, you've got Jamie Stewart (of Xiu Xiu) on this record and you've worked with people like Greg Weeks (of Espers) as well. How did that network--and maybe this is a good time to talk about Polyvinyl as well--how did that network outside of Toronto expand for you?
LH: Well, Greg I had known for a while 'cause he and I were on the same label in Europe for like, a month or so (laughs). He was on this label and it folded, and we kinda got signed at the end and it just never happened. So we've been friends way before the Espers or anything. And this other guy who's on the record, Dwayne Sodahberk, he's on Tigerbeat 6--and he's actually on the last record (2005's Metal Cares)--he's on this record, and I've done a lot of stuff on his records.
SS: Yeah, I wanted to ask about him as well.
LH: Yeah, he's sort of, I mean he's... he's pretty amazing because he kind of contacted me out of the blue and said, "Do you wanna sing on my record?" And as soon as I heard his stuff, I was like, "This guy's perfect, like yeah!" So, we totally clicked right away and he's sorta been a constant collaborator. And Jamie, I just, as soon as I heard that music I was like, "Oh finally! Something that's creepy and catchy." That's kinda what I like. (Picastro) did this Fall cover for Derek (Westerholm) from the Creeping Nobodies--he had this Fall tribute night--and I'm really not that crazy about The Fall, but we covered this song ("Older Lover"), and then I thought of Jamie right away, "Oh, this is perfect for him!" (laughs)
SS: Yeah, it's a great cover.
LH: I was like, "This is totally gonna work. I know he'll like it." And he did. So, sometimes I just, I think of somebody, maybe it's subconscious, but I think of somebody in terms of, what is this feeling that comes out and reminds me of somebody. I usually just ask them. I 'm not really shy. I figure the worst they can say is, "No." And my instinct is usually right. But Greg I've known for a long time. Polyvinyl? I think they were just looking to branch out and the timing worked out, and they're great guys and I'm happy.
SS: Do you know how they stumbled across what you did? It doesn't strike me that you would have been soliciting it necessarily.
LH: No, no, no. I definitely didn't submit anything. One guy at the label wrote me about something, I don't even remember, this guy Adam, who still works there. I think he read a review of the first record, listened to it and liked it a lot. And I still really had no intention of asking Polyvinyl to do anything. He said, "Well do you wanna do a split?" because they were starting a split series, and I said, "Sure." And it kinda bloomed into, "Why don't you just do a record?" So, it definitely wasn't, I mean, it still felt natural, but I didn't think about it or anything.
SS: You mentioned not being particularly shy about asking people to work with you. Certainly my impression when I first met you was that you were pretty shy.
LH: Yeah! (laughs)
SS: But at the same time, once I knew you, you were always, "Hey! Nice to see you."
LH: Yeah, yeah.
SS: Sometimes what seems like shyness is really just a desire to not be overly gregarious. Have you always had a kind of quiet confidence or did that grow over time?
LH: I've definitely gained confidence over time. I think when I was younger, I was really shy. I think I was still trying to figure out social (laughs) ways of being or something. I really didn't know that it was OK to do certain things. Y'know, and sometimes people in Toronto they ignore you, like you met them seventeen times or whatever. And now I'm OK with everything. Like I'm OK with every level of friendliness, not being friendly, and I try not to take anything personally. Definitely touring has made a big difference--just being OK to be in front of a lot of people and talking and not worrying really about what they think. I definitely stopped worrying about that side of it.
SS: Speaking of touring, now that you have a child, have you thought about how that's going to work?
LH: I've kind of started thinking more about playing show that are a little bit more specific. Y'know, there's a band I really want to play with or, I'm a little bit less random about touring. I want to have everything planned out. Before, I would just go because I like to travel, and now, well, financially that's tricky thing to do. I really don't think touring, I think just lately I've been starting to think touring is just not an option for a lot of bands anymore. Unless you're a really huge band, it's just really easy to get, I don't know...
SS: Oh, I know a lot of bands who are making the exact same decision. It is getting harder and harder.
LH: Yeah, like we're going away to Europe for a bit, and we're playing some shows here and there. But I really feel that Europe is getting as saturated as North America. And North America isn't very fun to tour. It's sort of now, I don't know if one is better than the other anymore--one is closer, but...
SS: You mean Europe vs. North America?
LH: Yeah. I feel like over there is getting just as busy, especially in the times like the fall or spring. Everybody wants to go. It's really hard to justify (touring) after a while. Umm, but yeah, I just have to be choosier.
SS: You talked about Jamie's (Xiu Xiu) music being "creepy". Whenever I read any press about Picastro, a lot of the same themes keep coming up...
SS: ...being creepy, or morose, or ugly, that sort of stuff.
SS: I feel that, even though it's somewhat apt, it doesn't really address the "why" of your music. The idea that this minor-key music isn't really meant to be depressing. Have you thought much about why what's creepy to others is beautiful to yourself?
LH: Um, hmmm... (long pause) I mean, not really. I just, I think just want things to be really strong. Like strong emotions? I think it's just that really strong emotions tend to fall within that category. You know, like if you're very severe about something it's usually 'morose' or... I guess if you're excessively happy, maybe? Yeah, I don't know. But there's also people who find that music just 'neutral'. They don't see it as sad, they just see it as it is what it is. And some people don't even want to deal with (sadness) at all. They never want to hear a sad song in their life. They never want to hear a minor key in their life. And there's nothing wrong with either. It's just I think that I just see it as a 'neutral'. I don't even see it as sad, I just see it as totally neutral. Sad music to me is kind of a completely other thing. I think my vocabulary is different, or I don't know? My connotations are different? I think it's just the strong emotion part and what you see as 'normal'.
SS: One of the things that I like about your particular brand of 'sad', is that there are not many abrasive sounds, or 'white noise'. Your tones, especially the acoustic guitar and cello, are actually very warm and inviting.
SS: What about the basic language of those instruments speaks to you?
LH: I think I kinda normally don't go for anything too trebly or high on the register, so I almost always try to gravitate towards that. But having said that, I did some recording with Greg Weeks, and he said, "Y'know, you might wanna lighten it up a bit." There was one song in particular where the whole thing--the singing, the guitar playing--everything was low. And I was like, "Oh, yeah! That's a bit too much." And I think my ear sort of naturally gravitates toward that, but it can be a bit too much, a bit oppressive if you overdo it. I'm trying to sort of find the line, using that group of tones and still not having it all sound the same.
LH: Because it really can (sound the same).
SS: Well, I definitely found more variety on this record as compared to the others. Before, it felt as though from the first listen, you knew everything that was on a given track.
SS: This album has more hidden layers, like Owen's piano on "Hortur". I only noticed that after about the fifth listen. There's a richness on this album--was that a conscious decision...
SS: ...or just how everyone came together?
LH: Yeah. I kind of just decided to just ask all of the people that I wanted to ask to play on the record, and in whatever way they wanted to. I wasn't really specific. And then that's kind of what happened. And I think this was the first record where I wasn't so uptight about having things be just so. Y'know? I was less worried about things sounding out of place. I was just like, it'll be fine. I think that just happens the more you record, the more you play anything. You start to be able to let go a bit more, and that's the best thing that's happened in the past year or so.
SS: There's more warmth in the singing too.
SS: I felt with Metal Cares that there were these moments where, like say PJ Harvey, you were trying to make your voice as ugly as possible.
SS: I do love those moments, but they can be really abrasive. This record's a little less barren. It has a wider sonic spectrum.
LH: I think just because of touring and figuring out the way that I could sing naturally, I wanted to sing more and I was less afraid of being flat. I think there is a way of singing ugly, but I kinda, not to be sexist or whatever, but I kinda think that women just naturally sound 'nice', y'know what I mean?
LH: Guys can just get away with, if they have a distinctive enough voice, it's sort of good enough really.
LH: But women I almost feel like you have to do something to... I don't know why I think that, but I do. And I think this time I just didn't care. (laughs) It's just like, "I don't care. People are gonna say this or that but this is what sounds nice in this song, so that's what I'm gonna sing." This was the first time, like I said, that I really let go of being worried.