Liza: Boulders Bird on a Wing
For those who don’t know who Liza Oxnard is, well, you probably didn’t live in Boulder, Colorado in the 1990’s. Or maybe you just didn’t pay attention. Regardless, over the past 15 years, Liza has resonated as a lasting mainstay in the thriving Boulder cultural community (and beyond). Since beginning her career in 1991 as the storytelling singer, guitarist and songwriter for Zuba and acoustic partner to then relatively unknown Bill Nershi, Liza has returned to the music world with Bird on a Wing, her debut solo studio recording. After Zuba decided to disband in 1999 as Liza and her band mates would take some personal time off the road, she is once again deeply engaged in making music, not to mention a marriage and mothering not yet year-old daughter Kalea. In the seven years since Zuba’s break, she’s lost everything and picked it all back up again. Through all the harsh reality, dramatic life changes and personal anguish, has arisen a renewed and rejuvenated artistic spirit and self that has resulted in an emotionally inviting new record.
After teaming with several talented local Boulder musicians (keyboardist and co-producer Erik Deutsch, drummer/percussionist Brian McRae, bassist Aaron Snyder, pedal steel guitarist Glenn Taylor and backing vocalist Ryan Tracy), Liza has arrived at a fresh beginning of sorts. She’s now equipped with the creative independence to craft a personal collection of poetic tales of heartbreak, struggle and the light at the end of life’s vast tunnel.
Jambands.com caught up with Liza while in Boulder on two separate occasions to discuss her revitalized life and music career. We spoke of the vivacity of being a solo artist, rising from the depths of despair and what the thriving artistic community in Boulder has meant to her revitalized career.
CC: So let’s begin by talking about the making of your first solo album, Bird on a Wing. How does being a solo artist compare to your time with Zuba? Has that been much of a departure?
Liza: Before, I think I was very into the group, going with whatever everybody wanted. It (solo career) was a real slow learning process for me. That was a new role for me to take.
CC: Describe that learning process. How has your role changed?
Liza: It’s been sort of a long process. This was the first time that I’d been in charge of everything. I was the final say with everything and that was a new role for me. I realized a lot of my shortcomings but also a lot of my strengths.
I hadn’t crafted my songs as in-depth at that point. I think I wanted to go to a more vulnerable place and talk about what was happening in my life and talk about my story a little more. I wanted to get a little more deep and serious. There was a lot more inward focus that I needed to write those songs. It was a tough time to be honest. Through that hard time came a lot of beautiful music.
CC: How did you assemble this particularly eclectic group of musicians for Bird on a Wing? Give our readers a sense of the players, how you decided on them and what the process was like to put together this group of musicians for the album.
Liza: They were a long time coming. One of the reasons why I wanted to get off the road was I was feeling somewhat limited in my scope. Zuba was kind of a funky, dance party band. I wanted to play with some musicians who could play anything. So I just started searching around Boulder, you’d hear about people like Brian McRae and Erik Deutsch. The core group has all been with me since 2000.
CC: You’ve had a lot of change in the past several years, both personally and musically. How has your songwriting process and musical style changed from Zuba to your own solo band?
Liza: The music has been changing and evolving each year. I’ve been coming back a little bit more to my roots and spending more time jamming with the band. With this band, I’ve been crafting songs, crafting melodies and crafting and creating grooves around my lyrics.
CC: How has your guitar style matured over the years? Do you still feel that same joy and flare with a guitar in hand?
Liza: I used to play guitar just so I could sing. Zuba changed that quite a bit, I wanted to rock out, I wanted to really get that guitar energy and harness it some more and solo. This has been a huge step up the last handful of years, playing with these musicians. They’re very well trained. I think that exposure to other really accomplished players challenged me to dig deeper and find some more subtleties in my playing. I had to step back and pick things apart and remove the extraneous.
CC: This is a bit of a side note, but I’m sure many of those who read this are wondering, are you still playing with Bill Nershi (String Cheese Incident)?
Liza: We haven’t played together in a long time. I’ve been super busy (marriage, birth, solo record, etc). It’s been a pretty busy time in my life so I haven’t seen him as much.
CC: Do you miss playing those intimate acoustic shows with him in places like Telluride? That seemed be quite some time ago, doesn’t it?
Liza: Oh God I miss all my past music life. We used to play three days a week for a couple of seasons. That was such a great stepping stone for what I did in the future. And I miss the Zuba days. We just had a lot of hardship and we had a lot of fun.
CC: How was the transition to a solo career from life in a touring jam act, especially after taking some time off? Did you set out to create a band that sounded similar to that of Zuba or did you want a complete change of pace?
Liza: In 2000, I started thinking about what I wanted to do. It was the first time I’d actually lived in Boulder. There’s just such a great group of musicians from this area. Putting the band together, I still wanted to be the featured guitar player. Erik Deutsch was very instrumental, he’s a wonderful player.
CC: You mention that this is first time you’ve lived in Boulder. What has Boulder meant to you both artistically and personally?
Liza: I like the pace here. To me, I want a personal life. I like being able to walk out my back door and go for a three hour walk. I also have everything the city has to offer. I’m inspired by what’s around me. Boulder is like a mini-Austin.
CC: I can see that. What do you think separates Boulder from other culturally thriving towns like Austin, Burlington, Santa Cruz and Portland?
Liza: I think it’s a smaller community, so there’s going to be pluses and minuses. It’s very supportive; there are a lot of great musicians here. There’s everything here. For a small city that’s pretty incredible.
What it lacks in maybe a deeper diversity, I think we make up for in community, musical community. I love it. You can always find a musician for what you’re looking for.
Almost any show you might see in New York you can probably see in Colorado.
CC: 1999 seemed to be a pivotal turning point in your personal life and your career, to say the least. Tell me a little about why it was so critical, how you rose up from it all and what good has come out of all the struggle.
Liza: That was just a big, big life change. I decided at that point that I wanted to get off the road a bit and figure my thing out. There was a lot of upheaval. I started teaching. I lost my job, my relationship and my house within a period of two days. It was a really sad time but it also really needed to happen. I love what’s come out of it.
I wanted a family life. I wanted friends, I wanted music. I wanted to find peace and happiness in my personal life. Now I’m coming full circle again.
CC: How has all the happenings of your personal life affected your career as a musician? Has all the difficulty had a positive affect on your career and how did you incorporate the last several years into the making of Bird on a Wing?
Liza: Well, it’s my most personal work yet. The stuff that I’m singing about is very intimate, very vulnerable. Like, the title track (“Bird on a Wing”) is about my relationship with my mom. There are aspects that say we have to take charge of our own destiny and not blame things that have happened on the past. It lets the listener come to you.
One of the album’s songs, “Boys on Parade,” is a gentle jab at this silliness that happens in the whole bachelor and bachelorette party world. It’s a fun tongue and cheek. Some of the ballads are really good, intimate moments, “I Gave it Away,” shows that.
CC: So now that you have the nee album and your core band are you going to step up your touring a bit?
Liza: The touring is hard. I can’t leave for as long, so it doesn’t make as much sense. I want to do a handful of shows in LA and some in New York. I’m definitely going to keep playing in Colorado. Who knows? It’s hard to plan those things. I want to continue to make music and share my music background by teaching. I want to make great records.
CC: One more thing before I go, what’s the best aspect of playing music for a living?
Liza: It’s my passion. It’s what makes me want to wake up in the morning. Every week I get to dive into music to some degree. It’s what I love and I think it’s what I’m meant to do.
After all the life changes, Liza Oxnard remains on track. Now married and a proud mother, she has come “full circle” as she would say, and her latest work truly reflects it. Although catching her live may prove to be a daunting task (at least for the time being), to experience a woman who’s felt the ups and downs of life and turned it into such a positive experience, pick up a copy of Bird on a Wing. Above all else, Liza’s singing and song writing are as always, plenty to please.