PLACE OF PARADISE
Talking About Life and Music with Singer ELI LIEB
By Leandro Justen
Wearing blue jeans, a leather jacket and a fresh new hair cut, Eli Lieb arrives at Patrick McMullan’s studio a few minutes before our scheduled interview. We small-talk about the
unusually warm winter weather in New York City, I take him on a micro-tour of the studio, and we sit down for a chat.
Despite his good looks and international notoriety, Eli is refreshingly unassuming. He is polite, yet he radiates a calm, confident energy.
A self-taught musician, Eli moved to New York City at the age of 20 to pursue his music. By performing open mics shows, he met other musicians, and was quickly drawn into the the industry; but it was YouTube that made him a star. Like a number of young, innovative singers, he used the video site as a platform to access a larger audience. After posting videos of himself singing hits from Adele, Lana del Rey, and Kate Perry, he became a YouTube sensation. His videos, watched by millions, propelled Eli to international notoriety, providing him with a musical outlet and connecting him to fans all over the world.
With an impressive ability to teach himself anything musically, he started on the journey of writing, recording and producing his entire album, a collection of songs that combine orchestral sounds with electronic beats.
In our PMc Magazine interview, Eli talks about his music influences, his upbringing in a transcendental meditation community, and reveals his “Place of Paradise”.
Leandro Justen: Did you write your entire album and produce it by yourself?
Eli Lieb: The whole album was entirely created by me. I have a studio back in Iowa in my house and that’s where I did all of it: production, songwriting, everything.
LJ: How was the process of being totally in charge of your album?
EL: It was really freeing doing it on my own because I didn’t put any pressures on myself. But it wasn’t until maybe after I finished 6 songs that I really decided to make and release an album. When you’re recording or writing under the hand of label, a lot of of the times you can feel the pressure to get it done. You feel like you’re making music not just for yourself or for the joy of it. It becomes a pressure thing and that’s when I start to filter myself too much because you’re afraid that what you’re doing isn’t good enough. But with my album I just wanted to make music just for the joy of making music. I allowed myself to just explore and have whatever came out be the final product.
LJ: When you started writing, did you also intend to produce an album? How did it happen?
EL: I had been in the music industry for a really long time. When I was a lot younger I was doing it more with labels and I had a specific goal in mind, an idea of what I wanted. But then I kinda let go of that midway through and took a couple of years break to do nothing music-wise. Once I got back into it, I just started basically buying equipment and teaching myself how to use them, that’s sort of how this album came about.
LJ: How was the process of self-teaching and that moment you realized you could do the whole album?
EL: It’s hard in the beginning because, when you first start something, there are so many things to do. Taking that first plunge is always the hardest part. It’s intimidating right at first, but then once you dive in everything unfolds and opens up. One thing that I do with music is that I teach myself anything. The instruments I play, the equipment that I use, I just kinda put it in front of me and figure it out.
LJ: It’s definitely impressive that from teaching yourself how to play instruments you were able to take to the next level and produce an entire album.
EL: I think that things have been going well with it because it came from this place of pure honesty. I wasn’t trying to create something with an ulterior motive in mind. I wasn’t thinking that I wanted to become rich and famous. I just wanted to make music because it made me happy to do so. Back at home, I can spend pretty much the whole day making music on my own. Then at night I go see my brother, my sister-in-law, my mom, my nephews, and I couldn’t be happier. I think when you’re living your life in a happy, honest place to yourself, that’s when you have the greatest chance of capturing yourself in whatever it is that you do.
LJ: Your album starts with an instrumental song, then it goes from love songs with orchestral sounds to electronic, yet manages all this in a very cohesive way. Did you want to create that seamlessness?
EL: The whole album came together really well, organically and on its own. When I’m writing one kind of a song I don’t think “now I need this or that.” There’s a slight thought in my mind of the balance of the whole album, but when I’m writing a song, I just write it regardless. There are a lot of other songs that I didn’t put on the album, but once I write enough I can choose the ones to create that balance instead of thinking of the balance when I’m writing the songs.
LJ: Who are some of your musical influences?
EL: I have a lot of different influences. I love Fiona Apple–I like to write things that are just piano and strings. I love Björk, I love electronic music–Robyn. I like incorporating all of that. Strings are a huge thing for me musically, and I like starting the album out with a lot of orchestral sounds and evolving it into beats, then weaving everything through it.
LJ: The singers you have mentioned as influences: Fiona, Robyn, etc. often write songs about heartbreak. Is there a particular experience or relationship that defines your album?
EL: It’s an accumulation of things. Definitely the situations I was going through at the time when I was writing largely influenced the songs that came out. But I can also write one line in the song that has to do specifically with a situation, or a person, a relationship. But then I can choose to make the whole song about that one thing or then use that inspiration as the seed of a song and build everything else around it that doesn’t necessarily have to do exactly with what started it.
LJ: Tell me about the time when you left Iowa for New York City.
EL: I moved to New York when I was 20. I came here because I knew I wanted to do music, but also because I just felt the pull to come here. For me, when a thought enters my mind, it feels like it’s guidance, something like “this is the place where I need to go now.” It’s something inside that’s very big that speaks to me.
LJ: Did you have a plan? A specific project you wanted to work on in the City?
EL: I didn’t know what exactly was gonna happen, so I came here and got an apartment right away. I enrolled in music classes at the New School. I spent the first year taking classes and adjusting to the city. I remember that one of those classes was a songwriting and performing class and the final assignment for this class was that we all had to go out and perform at a club together.
LJ: How was the experience?
EL: That was my first time ever performing my own music out in public. I then started going to open mics, and from open mics I’d book a show at the place. It’s amazing how quickly things can escalate. One thing that you have to do is to put yourself in that position. That’s why when people ask me what advice you’d give to get started I say that is to put yourself out there. There’s so much nature organizes for you once you have the intention and the drive to do it.
LJ: How did you start posting YouTube videos?
EL: Everything in my life is just so random, in a good way. I have very specific intentions for myself and directions, but so many things that come into my life that are very significant come in totally unexpectedly and in the most bizarre circumstances. A really close friend of mine suggested I start putting songs on YouTube. At the time I met him, I had just started writing again, and really had the desire to go back into music. I think I never would have thought to do it, but then it just sort of became this great outlet for me musically.
LJ: You write, sing, produce. Of all these things, which one do you enjoy the most?
EL: Singing definitely gets me to another level. Inside, singing is the one thing that I feel resonates with my whole psychology. But I enjoy all of it. When you get on a roll, you have those days where you’re just constantly making music. The day flies by in 2 seconds and I’m so charged and it feels so good. But singing is on the top level of everything.
LJ: Where’s Eli Lieb’s Place of Paradise?
EL: Honestly, it’s just being anywhere that my family is. We spend a lot of time in Iowa and that’s paradise to me just being to talk walks at night with my family makes me the happiest. But Iowa is where my center is. I just feel so happy when I’m there off of the simplest things.
LJ: You seem very centered and focused and I know you practice transcendental meditation. What can you tell us about it?
EL: I grew up in a community of people who meditated and practiced transcendental meditation (which is the meditation that the Beatles did). My parents started meditating about the same time the Beatles did. They wanted to raise their kids with meditation and with the knowledge they had learned. So the community in Fairfield is where all these meditators are. There’s a school established there and we meditated twice a day in school.
LJ: What can your fans expect from you?
EL: That I’m not gonna stop making music. You can always expect more music coming from me.
Eli Lieb is a singer, musician and producer.
Eli Lieb interviewed by Leandro Justen
Written by Leandro Justen
Edited by Tyler Malone
Photography by Leandro Justen
Hair and Make-Up by Janera Rose
Design by Marie Havens
Eli Lieb, 2012, Photography by Leandro Justen