Liv.e: “There’s a lot of cold cut reality on this record”

A move to LA and a period of personal tumult have meant that the experimental R&B artist has come a long way since her 2020 debut

Few debut albums of recent years have been rendered as sharply in the image of their creators as Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… by Liv.e. When it landed in 2020, it took the potential that Olivia Williams had already demonstrated on a clutch of EPs – most notably on hoopdreams, a collaborative 2018 release with 10.4 Rog – and delivered on it in visceral style. hoopdreams borrowed its title from Steve James’ searing 1994 state-of-the-nation documentary, but only the Texan lilt in Liv.e’s languid, semi-spoken delivery would give away that she was American; she appeared to be of no fixed musical address, drawing influence from across the spectrum of R&B, soul and pop and building her own world in the process, setting intimate, conversational vocals against experimental collages that melded gospel, jazz and chopped and screwed hip-hop into a sonic language all of her own.

In what we can take as confirmation that imitation remains the sincerest form of flattery, Erykah Badu emerged as a kind of mentor figure to Liv.e, appearing in the livestream that announced Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… and making a guest turn on the record itself. She is the only obvious point of reference when trying to figure out Liv.e’s place in the pantheon of modern R&B; the stylistic wanderlust that defined that debut album evoked memories of the seminal Baduizm, but even those quick to draw the comparison between the two would have to concede that Liv.e appears to be playing with her own musical currency.

On that basis, it’s not inherently surprising, in and of itself, that she has thrown some serious curveballs on the full-length follow-up to Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… What does catch you off guard, though, is the manner in which she reflects on who she was then and who she is now. Her first album oozed with the confidence of an old hand, and belied, in its slick assurance, the fact that it was a first attempt by a 19-year-old who made the record in her bedroom at her mother’s house in St. Louis, Missouri.

Now, though, when Liv.e looks back at the girl who wrote Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, she sees only the naivety of youth. “My outlook on life is completely different now,” she says over a Zoom call from the city she now calls home, Los Angeles. “I couldn’t have written the new album in the same mindset I was in last time. A lot of it is really the sound of me evolving into an actual woman, as opposed to a young one.”

If that makes Girl in the Half Pearl sound like a standard-issue coming-of-age album, it is in fact anything but. It is 100% a heartbreak record; dark, stormy, burning with tangible anger, scored through with the kind of excoriating self-examination that only the most painful emotional experiences can provoke. “When I made Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, it was like I was living in this fantasy of what I thought love was going to be,” she relates. “And then all that shit just came crashing down very, very dramatically. I think the metamorphosis from Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… to Girl in the Half Pearl is about me coming into the reality of what love is. I had a lot of wisdom on Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, but I was still living my life in a very naive way, thinking everything was sweet and shit. I still like fantasising, but I think I’ve realised that the reality of love is definitely not all roses. The album is a reflection of what that has taught me about myself. I learned how important it is not to lose sight of what’s real and what isn’t.”

It’s a stark admission from somebody who sounded so self-assured last time around, who gave off the impression of somebody who had everything figured out, who expressed herself with such conviction. The emotional tumult of Girl in the Half Pearl instead shows us a different side of her, one that suggests she’s realised that she remains a work in progress. “I wouldn’t say that I’ve lost my innocence,” she says of the obviously devastating fallout of the breakup that hangs heavy over the album. “I think I still have some innocence to me, and I still feel pure – it’s just that I have different stripes now. I’m not trying to be melodramatic about what I’ve been through, because I know it’s not the end of the world, and I know myself better now. The girl who wrote Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… had a lack of herself. She wanted to put herself in somebody else’s hands; she wanted somebody to choose her, even if it sounded like I was playing it off and pretending I didn’t care. My music, then, was a bit more like premonition. I was speaking to the future, or how I imagined it would be. Girl in the Half Pearl is me right now, in the moment, which is rare for me, but I feel like real life is all I know how to write about.”

Liv.e, now 24, is open about the emotional carnage that the breakup wreaked, and admits to having self-medicated throughout that period “with weed and with alcohol, driving myself into that shit because I didn’t want to face the reality of what I was really going through. There was a lot of cognitive dissonance.” She’s moved past that unhealthy moment in time now, and found facing her situation head-on in her music helped her to process her troubles. “There’s a lot of cold cut reality on the record,” she laughs.

It’s something that’s reflected in the often discordant sound of the album. Liv.e shies away from melody and leans into noise, name-checking a disarming array of influences on Girl in the Half Pearl that include The Slits and Sonic Youth (alongside a few more obvious touchpoints, like “Sign of the Times-era Prince, duh”). Either way, it means that sonically, Girl in the Half Pearl is an accurate document of a time characterised by personal turbulence. “A lot of electronic stuff, too,” she recalls of the musical backdrop to the Girl in the Half Pearl sessions. “Anything with noise, rather than melodic shit. That’s what I was feeling. So, that was way, way different to Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… It resulted in a different energy, that’s for sure. I wanted to written shit where I’d be able to fucking scream, to feel like I could choose to sing on a song or scream on a song and the feeling would be basically the same.”

Liv.e avoids hard drugs, but talks about wanting Girl in the Half Pearl to “feel like I’m on drugs. Last time, I was trying to connect with a sort of warm, fuzzy feeling inside of myself. On this one, I was going for something cold and murky, but I realised there are a lot of similarities between being in a toxic relationship that’s like an addiction. So it made sense to me to be thinking of each song as having a feeling of different drugs – this one feels like speed, that one feels ecstasy, That was the reality of how my psyche felt, because I was kind of addicted to this toxic situation.”

If it sounds like Liv.e has taken a drastically different approach, it’s in keeping with the fact that her life and circumstances have changed beyond recognition since she finished up Couldn’t Wait to Tell You… as a teenager living at home. She’s put down permanent roots in LA, spent time working at London’s restaurant venue Laylow as part of its residency programme, and got a taste of life on the road when she went across the US opening for Earl Sweatshirt right around the time the debut album dropped. “It’s an opportunity for me to see what sticks and what doesn’t,” she says of her experimental live shows. “If I have the opportunity to see how people receive my music right in front of me, then that’s my shit. You just have two remember to take feedback with a grain of salt, because relying on that too much doesn’t teach you to trust yourself.” 

By betting on herself with such a bold change of direction on Girl in the Half Pearl, Liv.e has laid down an early marker in the contest for the year’s most strikingly personal artistic statement; this is a dazzling reinvention. “Whoever that was on Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, I’m not that person no more,” she accepts. “That shit is actually crazy, how much has changed. But that’s what I was thinking about when it came to naming it; I think of the half pearl as an actual womb, and a pearl is an egg, right? So it’s like I’m in the belly of myself, and this is my rebirth. Or maybe even just my birth; the birth of me, right now, and me as I’m going to be in the future.”