words by Jake Heinitz
photography by Serene Supreme
I look through the front window of a cafe in South Minneapolis just in time to see Lizzo jump onto the sidewalk from a tour van that seems to have barely reached a rolling stop. Still in the clothes and accessories from last night’s out-of-town performance, she seems exhausted. “I’m here!” she says, meaning it in more ways than one. In a city that prides itself on homegrown talent, Lizzo is the exception to the rule - since moving to Minneapolis in winter of 2011, she has experienced a crash-course in the local music scene that most aspiring artists can only dream of. She’s come a long way since the first time I interviewed her two years ago.
Her group with Sophia Eris and Claire de Lune, The Chalice, shot to local popularity after an in-studio session at the Current last spring, throwing the young women into extensive bookings, a new album, and a recording session with Prince. But even with all the recent success Minneapolis has given her, Lizzo tells me she’s different from other local talents because she challenges herself to a higher ceiling than First Avenue or The Current. “I'm like, I'm trying to play Madison Square Garden sold out. That's my dream,” she says. “And not to say my dreams are better than theirs, the cap is just bigger."
At 25, Lizzo’s journey to Minneapolis has been unpredictable. Born in Detroit, she spent her first ten years in the Midwest before her family moved to Texas, where she lived another 10 years, eventually attending the University of Houston on scholarship. But not for rapping or singing- Lizzo played the flute, and she played it well. In fact, her instructors assured her that if she stuck with it, she would end up at Conservatoire de Paris, studying under Patrice Caire.
But Lizzo had a different vision. After her sophomore year, she headed to her family’s new home in Denver with the intention of not returning to school in the fall. “Something happened... that just sent me over the edge,” she says.“I dropped out, flew to Denver for summer vacation, went crazy and decided to become a singer.”
After moving in with her mother and brother, Lizzo says she entered an unintentional vow of silence for three months. She spent the summer within herself, speaking only in shrugs as she walked through the grocery store, each trip filling her shopping cart with ten grapefruit and ten chocolate bars. The only time she would make noise was when she would sing Beyonce’s “B-Day” as she marched down her block every night.
Her mom and brother felt hurt by her silence, but eventually got over it. “My mom is still like- anytime I’m quiet she’s like hey, Melissa! Don’t go nowhere!” she laughs. “[I went] crazy... in a good way though, because I got inspired,” she says. “That was a summer of metamorphosis.”
After emerging from the cocoon-like state, Lizzo returned to Texas with a new passion - she was going to be a singer. Meeting her friend LeRoy in Dallas, her first shot at stardom was through the glorified talent show, American Idol. After not making the cut and getting into an argument with LeRoy, she was left stranded and ended up hitchhiking to her friend Kitty’s house. They carpooled back to Houston and Lizzo began searching for a band that would launch her into the spotlight. After spending three years in a rock group that she felt wasn’t progressing quickly enough, she dipped and returned to Denver, where she would eventually meet Johnny Lewis (a.k.a Larva Ink), who convinced her that Minneapolis was where her talent would blossom.
It can be challenging for incoming artists to find their footing in Minneapolis, a place where local talent is celebrated in absence of larger music industry structure. But Lizzo believes that’s only a barrier if you accept it as one, and her 2012 resume proves it. In December of 2011, she performed at a sold-out First Avenue for the Doomtree Blowout. A month later, The Chalice dropped “Push It”, their debut single, and it caught the attention of The Current, who invited them to do an in-studio session in March 2012. By October, she and the crew had gained such attention that they were number one on the “Picked to Click” Best New Bands list, granting them the front cover on the most heavily-circulated publication in Minnesota, City Pages.
“It just kind of snowballed,” she says. “The boot camp that we went through in a year that some bands go through in five years, we just kind of got like a shot of being in a band, a shot of industry, local industry.” She pauses. “Marginally successful, local industry on the rocks.”
If Lizzo wasn’t covering her Minneapolis music bases enough, it goes without saying that working with Prince was the home run. After seeing The Chalice on a local news network spotlight called Soundcheck MN, Prince had his manager connect with the group through The Current’s Andrea Swenson; Swenson contacted Lizzo saying that Prince wanted to meet.
“I was in Denver with my family and when we got the phone call, I was jumping up and down,” Lizzo says. “And [we] drank... a lot. We were really excited.” She laughs.
Prince invited them to record on Easter Sunday. “Paisley Park is like church for a lot of people,” Lizzo acknowledges. But when she and The Chalice showed up to the gates of Prince’s abode, they were half an hour early and the doorman told them to come back at the scheduled time. The women hung around a coffee shop nearby for a while before returning.
“Low and behold we got there and the gates opened,” Lizzo says. They were led through Paisley and into the studio, where the studio engineer played a track Prince wanted them to “do their thing” on. Lizzo was amazed just to be able to use the same microphone as him. “I was like, Prince’s mouth has been on this!” she says, leaning forward. “It was like- does it smell purple?”
Lizzo has no misconceptions about the edge that Minneapolis has given her so far in her music career - but she does believe she created her own “lane” here. “It was like there was this opening, this lane, like where’s that silly person that raps really fast? Like Prof?” she says. “I just happened to come in at the right time, and just be homies with the right people, not even purposefully.”
Through friends, Lizzo was introduced to some bigger-name local acts who noticed the raw dynamic that she brought to the stage. One of the first to take notice was Caroline Smith, who asked Lizzo to join her nationwide tour as a backup singer from January through May of 2013. Next it was Dessa of Doomtree, asking Lizzo to sing backup at her two sold-out release parties a month later.
“I needed to be refined as a stage personality and a vocal performer,” she says. The performances taught her aspects like breath control, finesse, standing still at times, and overall dynamic. All of those things culminated into what she calls the ‘Lizzo Experience’, which she will unveil when she starts touring for her new solo project, Lizzo Bangers. “I’m preparing myself. I’m preparing the Lizzo Experience,” she says. “Because you can’t just let a horse out there running, man. Or else it’s gonna trample some people.”
This fall she’ll be touring with Har Mar Superstar as both a backup singer in his band and an opener to promote her new album. Lizzo Bangers is a collaboration between Lizzo and Lazerbeak, and the name is a play off the project Lava Bangers, a beat tape he released last year. Lizzo had never met Beak, but saw him and Plain Ole Bill perform at Fifth Element and was blown away.
“They were on stage together playing superhero music, and I was like, this is so tight!” she says. After seeing them at Fifth, Lizzo was given the Doomtree discography by their publicist, Mary Thayer, and the first one she popped in the tape deck was Lava Bangers.
“I put it on and immediately I was just writing to it,” she says. “The beats were so big and I was like I wish I could track on all these, I wonder if he'll give me one.” So she tweeted at him. “Man, I wish I was ballin’ and could afford a @_Lazerbeak_ beat.” Lazerbeak replied, "Well, do you have a Mike’s Hard Lemonade?"
It was on from there.
“I was like okay, well yeah let’s do it! From that point it just happened, I had no control, it was just the universe working its butt off to finally give me a product that doesn't belong to anyone but myself,” she says.
Lizzo is aware of the challenges female emcees face trying to break through a male-dominated hip-hop industry. For an artist that grew up during the rise of female emcees like Lauryn Hill and Bahamadia, but claims she was more influenced by Crime Mobb, Lizzo reassures me that at the end of the day, she’s going to do her own thing - whether that be opening for 2 Chainz backed by a full drumline (December 2012) or pulling out her flute in the middle of a rap set. With the forthcoming solo album and the newly refined ‘Lizzo Experience,’ whichever lane she takes, she promises that it will be for the city that refused to treat her like a stranger.
“I'm excited to go on tour and learn myself, learn my body, and develop my performance so when I do come back and they experience my set, it will be perfect,” she says. “I feel like I owe it to people in Minneapolis.”