MORE THAN ZERO Elizabeth & The Catapult

Inspired by Leonard Cohen and powered by
urgency, the Brooklyn group probes the human
heart of darkness on a masterful sophomore album.

 

BY ANNAMARYA
SCACCIA

 

There’s an aura
of confidence in Elizabeth Ziman’s quick-paced stride as she makes her way to
the back of Ozzie’s Coffee III, the spacious, wood-decked cafe on 5th Avenue and Garfield Place in Brooklyn’s Park Slope area. While it’s almost
bone-chillingly cool outside, there’s a balmy heat brewing inside the
earth-toned organic café, its walls littered with Anime-inspired illustrations.
Fashioned in – clothes fitting for an early October evening –  a fitted three-quarter sleeve white t-shirt,
skinny blue corduroys and brown knee-high boots, Ziman makes mention of the
climate’s disparity after she comfortably settles into the picnic booth, a
kitschy piece of wooden furniture with a picket fence backboard featuring heart
cutouts. This modest detail is almost ironic in hindsight since the classically
trained 28-year-old singer-songwriter/keyboardist is here to talk about The Other Side of Zero, the sophomore
effort from her Brooklyn-based indie band, Elizabeth & the Catapult; ironic,
because it’s about a break up.

 

Released late
October on Verve Forecast, The Other Side
of Zero
started as a group of thematic tunes for a Lincoln Center
song cycle commissioned by NPR’s John Schaefer. In the process of crafting the
lyrics, Ziman was reading Book of
Longing,
the 2006 collection of poems from the venerated Canadian singer/songwriter,
poet and novelist Leonard Cohen, one of her musical heroes. It was a book, says
the New York native, that not only traced Cohen’s failure to reach his
standards in his Buddhist teachings, but also how he was able to laugh and
forgive himself for hitting that wall – a premise in which Ziman found a
profound connection and ultimately helped shape, in addition to the break-up,
the general crux of the album. And what has resulted is a much darker, more forthright,
emotionally delicate and windswept record than their critically-acclaimed Verve
debut, Taller Children.

 

The Other Side of Zero was totally
therapeutic for me. Thank goodness for the outlet,” says Ziman, in response to
the album’s vibe of nursing an emotional wound. “It gave me a way to own up to
my mistakes and misgivings, and learn laugh at myself a little. That’s always a
good start.”   

 

Since word of
the new album hit Internet waves, talk has centered on the divergence between The Other Side of Zero and Taller Children, which was released nearly
two years ago. On the surface, where Taller
Children
was more dissonant, avant-garde and objective, The Other Side of Zero is more
mellifluous and  euphonic, as evident by
lead single “You and Me,” the jazzy, Carole King quality of “Open Book,” and
even in its most jarring track, “Go Away My Lover.”  But, for Ziman, the variance isn’t something
that’s sonic. Instead, it’s much more abstract. “The main difference between
the two records is that this one has more of a running theme. It’s more of a
concept record,” says the young artist, who, along with 28-year-old
drummer/multi-instrumentalist, Danny Molad (ex-Via Audio), formed Elizabeth & the
Catapult in 2004. “It was written and recorded over a shorter period of time
and hopefully sounds that way.”

 

Unlike
Taller Children, which was completed
over a two-year period and recorded in makeshift home studios “all over the
place,” Elizabeth & the Catapult fleshed out The Other Side of Zero in half the time, written over a six month
period and then recorded with producer Tony Berg (Peter Gabriel, Phantom
Planet, Jesca Hoop) in an official studio within a month. It’s because of this,
Ziman feels, their latest album sounds “like one entity,” as opposed to Taller Children, which she says is
“sonically a little ADD.” The other benefit of working in the studio with Berg?
His ability to draw out Ziman’s lyrical candor. 

 

“I
had a lot of more light-hearted [songs] or the song [had] a more hopeful ending
to them and Tony was way more interested in the darker [ones],” says Ziman, her
dark, unfussed long hair cradling her shoulders as she speaks in her commanding
but hushed voice. She sits close as speaks, relaxed in posture, as intimate as
her music can be. “He was like, ‘That is so much more honest and to the point.
Just go for it. Just go for these songs.”

 

“One
thing of many things I enjoy about working with Tony is that he is all about
the song and all about the lyrical content specifically of the song,” adds the
scruffy-bearded, fedora-wearing Molad, who bounds in to Ozzie’s 16 minutes into
the interview. “He very much likes serious songs and serious art in general… stuff
that he finds to be honest, and I felt like he did an amazing job of
translating that both with Elizabeth’s
vocals and the music. I’m really happy how it came out.”

 

The
charismatic Houston, Texas, native admits that, to him, The Other Side of Zero is a “more mature
venture,” something that “feels nice” to craft as they get older. When
listening to Zero, it’s easy to hear
what Molad and Ziman mean, respectively. When compared to the lighthearted
mischief of Taller Children, Zero is
much more polished and sincere, with an appealing flow that links the songs
almost instinctively, as if it’s one long story. But, even with this change in
perceptive direction, Elizabeth & the Catapult still play on their
trademark dichotomy of inauspicious librettos versus exuberant arrangements, and
vice versa. Like the title track of their debut, which, though phonically
playful, was lyrically twisted (it was about the Wall Street bailout and
financial irresponsibility), or its sober number, “Rainiest Day of Summer,”
about the need to buy a coat, The Other
Side of Zero
features “Dreamcatcher,”
an upbeat and exceedingly beguiling number that recalls Ziman’s need for a
break from a despondent reality through a hopeful dream. But this method of
songwriting is far from conscious for the group. In fact, says Ziman, it’s “a
sort of spontaneous balance that seems to manifest itself in out recordings
especially.” “I don’t think to myself, ‘Wow this is dark, I better sugarcoat it.’
We just make music we like listening to, and we try to keep it fun and
surprising, even in the more serious moments.”

 

“My
favorite songs are those [whose] ambiguity can be interpreted in a number of
ways. I always leave it up to my audience to relate to the song in their own
personalized way,” she adds.

 

As
for a fan base, which ranges from established 35-year-olds to bouncy
7-year-olds who heard their Taller
Children
single “Race You” on a Google commercial, Ziman feels that,
despite those who missed the intent of songs like “Taller Children,” get what
they do (so much so that Elizabeth & the Catapult songs are already
cropping up as covers on YouTube by users young and old). “I think that I say
in a lot of interviews that there’s this duplicity about what the poppiness of
the music sounds like versus the lyrics,” she says. “I don’t think that most of
our audience doesn’t hear that. I give them more credit than that… I think
that’s what drives people to us.”

 

At the time of this
interview, Elizabeth
& the Catapult were preparing for a national tour, but just this week had
to cancel all their West Coast dates due to an illness in the band. They are
slated to resume selected dates next month but the cancelled shows have not
been rescheduled yet. Check their official website for updates.

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