Its About Time For Liza Oxnard (To Record with Billy Nershi and to Hit the Road Again)
In 1999 after eight years of performing and recording, the members of Boulder-based, funk-focussed Zuba decided to part ways. The band's lead singer Liza Oxnard embarked on an extended hiatus before returning with the Liza Band. In addition, after more than a decade of musical friendship with String Cheese Incident guitarist Billy Nershi she entered the studio with him to record It’s About Time. This release falls somewhere between the heavier funk of Zuba and the bluegrass side of String Cheese, yielding some pleasing songs, many of which have an alt-country feel to them. On October 3, Billy and Liza performed at the Fox Theater and on November 2-7 they will open a series of gigs for the String Cheese Incident (joined by Billy’s wife Jilian who sings on the new album, and, quite possible, members of String Cheese). For more information on the release or Liza visit www.lizarocks.com.
DB- Before we move on and talk about the new disc, I’d like to jump back and talk about your creative development a bit. I’ve heard that prior to the time when you started gigging with Zuba you weren’t listening to that much funk. How did you hook up with that band?
LO- Well Billy and I had been playing together for a year in Telluride at that point. Mostly we had done shows at the Floradora, which is a restaurant/bar there, three days a week. Zuba’s drummer Wallace Lester moved to town and saw me singing with Billy one night and then I ran into Wallace and Zuba when Billy and I were taking the summer off after playing at the bluegrass festival and the folk festival. They’d only been together for about a year. At that time I didn’t really have a career plan, what Billy and I were doing was mostly for fun from my perspective, so I said, “Sure I’ll try that.” I went to some practices and we booked a show and then it just kind of took off immediately and kind of swept me up. I started touring almost immediately with Zuba.
One thing that really clicked in terms of Zuba was that growing up all over the place, before I went to high school, I used to listen to all the old funk and soul stations. I didn’t really know what it was that I was listening to. So when Wallace said, “We’re in this band and we play funk music do you want to play some funk music?” I said, “What’s funk music?” (laughs) Then he started playing it for me and I was like “Oh yeah”
DB- During the years you were in Zuba did you write songs that weren’t quite right for the band, tunes that are more reminiscent of this disc?
LO- Absolutely. I’d bring one of those in and they’d be like, “Uuhhh” (laughs). I just kind of kept those in my vault but then once I started doing my own show I brought them out. At first I asked some of the people who were playing with me, “Do you want to do this song?” and they were into it. All of a sudden I was with a group of people who liked more of that style, so it was real refreshing and fun.
DB- Returning to the days just prior to that point, granted I live out east so I’m not totally tapped into what goes on in Boulder, but it did seem like you embarked on a bit of a musical hiatus. Was that your intention?
LO- I just felt really burnt out. We had toured for eight years and done over 150 shows most of those years and over 200 during some of them. It had been so many things: wonderful, hard, fun, disappointing, excitingso many opportunities and then not everything came through for us or we didn’t have enough of a team behind us.
I think that by the seventh year of touring I was starting to wonder if I could do this any more. We were doing figure-eights around the country but we didn’t seem to be making any progress, so I think I got disappointed and I needed some time to heal from that. When I came home I considered that maybe I wouldn’t play music anymore or maybe I’d come up with a different way to approach music, maybe do musicals or maybe dance. So I gave myself time and then I just started craving playing again, it’s such a part of me. I’m sure I will try many more artistic expressions but this is what I’m good at, it’s my gift. It just took me some time to remember that and come back to it. I did a lot of things including traveling just for fun, spending a few days on the road and getting to spend them with friends rather than just being there for one night, seeing them from the stage and waving to them.
DB- In terms of the new disc with Billy, how did that come about?
LO- He had approached me a couple of times and said, “You know, we should do an album together some time.” Well, people say things to each other all the time like “We should hang out,” and then never get a chance to do it. But we kept coming back to that over the years. Even when I was touring with Zuba, we’d run into each other briefly because we were both on the road so often. But still Billy and Jilian would bring their kids over and we’d jam a bit and talk or hang out and go get food. It seemed like a good idea to get back to that. It came up again when they [String Cheese Incident] asked me to do some shows last summer. Then Billy said, “Let’s do it.” We started planning it over the summer and we recorded it in January.
DB- And you first him about a decade ago in Telluride when he was playing outside the Floradora?
LO- That’s right, he was playing on a bench on the main street. It was a little social scene- people would walk up and down and chat with each other. He was playing and I sat down to chat and started singing a song with him. He was a fry cook there and after we had jammed together a few times and were having a lot of fun, he said, “Why I don’t I asked Howie [Stern] who was the owner, if he wouldn’t mind if we played one night a week. So we did that and skiied.
DB- How did you end up in Telluride anyhow? You went to school back east.
LO- I was traveling around the country by myself in my van and I dropped off a friend in Telluride. I decided to stay a few weeks because it was so pretty. I went around the country and ended up in Boulder. Then I randomly hit an open mike night and I got into a band. I knew I loved music but I never imagined I would be a musician. It was just a cover band but I started bringing in original tunes and they didn’t want to do that because they were making good money doing covers. So that was a short-lived thing for me and I went back out to Telluride because my friend was there and there were some other people I knew. I ran into Billy within a few months
DB- Jumping ahead again to this disc, how long did it take you to record?
LO- We stared practicing in December and we recorded for about ten days. Then he went on tour and when he came back we did a bit more.
DB- What was your approach to selecting songs? I would assume that both of you had many to choose from. Aside from the first track on the album, which you wrote together, all of the other songs were written by one or the other of you.
LO- He was on the road so much and we had such a small window to work together, so we brought in songs that we thought would fit with the vision of what we were trying to do with the album. We wanted to take some of my rock and some of his bluegrass influences and bring it all together. We have a reggae tune, a samba tune, a soul tune of mine, a couple that sound more poppy and a couple that some more folky.
DB- One thing that I think is interesting is that the two of you really switch things up a bit in terms of instrumentation, moving back and forth from acoustic to electric guitars. Then on a song like “The City Goes By,” you’re on acoustic and he’s on electric which is certainly the opposite of what you typically play. I assume that you made a conscious decision going in to shake things up a bit?
LO- It was definitely something we wanted to be aware of but I think the songs dictated it. Plus, sometimes we changed our minds and switched. Sometimes it sounded better when we both played acoustic or when we both played electric. We wanted the tones to stand apart so you can hear the parts- so sometimes he’d play acoustic with a slide and I’d do more strumming.
The focus on this album is more on this songwriting and the acoustic aspect of what I do but I’ve always done some of that. Even with Zuba, a few songs a show I’d get down to that style a bit and sometime people would be really loud and I’d scold the audience (laughs). So it didn’t always work but sometimes it did and especially in the last two or three years of Zuba I tried to show that side of myself more.
DB- What are some of your favorite songs or moments on the album?
LO- On “Wrong and Right I think I achieved what I was trying to do with the song. It has a bit of a soul feel, a sparseness that I like and that’s maybe something I’ve discovered over the past few years. You can say more with less, you don’t have to strum all the way through a song. I try to be conscious of dynamics which I think brings out the better quality in my voice. I also like “Style” because that gets rocking and I love to rock out with a lot of energy and intensity and then come down to that softness. Also “Happiness,” which is such a gentle groove and sometimes that can be harder to play. It takes a real restraint and a groundedness and I think we pulled it off really well. Really, I could name so many. It was quite an experince being in there with Billy after all this time.
DB- Speaking of which, from your perspective, how has his playing developed over the years?
LO- Oh, wow. It amazes me to see String Cheese sometimes and look up there that’s Billy still playing an acoustic but he’s playing samba, reggae and funk and rock and psychedelic and jam and fusion. I always knew he was a great musician. He won a flatpicking award back when I was living in Telluride back around 89 or 90, so he’s always been an amazing musician and he’s always practicing. But to see the evolution where he is now with the band and all those guy are such strong players they push each other further. They can almost do any style and do it well. They let their songs breathe and they have that jam band thing down in that they really take you on a journey, it is not just everybody noodling and taking solos.
DB- Well I know that people will be psyched to see you out there with Billy opening some shows for the band. Will Jilian be out on the road with you too [Billy’s wife Jilian sings on the album and has performed with String Cheese on a few occasions]?
LO- She will. In fact last night [At the Fox Theater] was her first full night being up on stage before an audience and she sang a lead tune. She did “True Love” a song that Bonnie Raitt does and it was so great. She had only sung before an audience at a String Cheese show 2 or 3 times before, she mostly sang with Billy at home. But she’s got a great voice, she’s just never had the opportunity before. It was a cool thing to watch her growth throughout the project- having the raw talent but not the experience and then seeing her do the album and then having her perform with all these musicians who are really experienced. She practiced so hard, she spent five times and much practicing as Billy and I did.
DB- Final question- it’s been a while since you’ve been out there gigging, what are your expectations for these upcoming shows?
LO- Hopefully I’ll get to sit in with the band some and hopefully they’ll be sitting in with us some. Otherwise its going to be Jilian and Billy and me doing a trio kind of thing. Then the band might or might not come out with us it really just depends on how it all flows. I’ll tell you though, I’m really psyched to get out on the road, you know?