Liv.e: R&B’s new avant-garde star who’s ‘tired of whispering’

“I know, I know. You thought the song was over,” says Liv.e (pronounced Liv, the “E” and punctuation silent) with a wry drawl two-thirds of the way through ‘Lessons From My Mistakes… but I Lost Your Number’, the Dallas-bred, LA-based artist’s recent single, which arrives ahead of a debut album this summer.

These are words that sound like they come with a knowing wink, before Liv.e adds: “But that’s incorrect because life is going on…” With that, the beat switches… “And energy never dies, does it? No, it doesn’t.”

It’s a moment that epitomises the rising experimental-R&B star’s music as a whole: songs that feel expertly crafted, that shift between exuberant and laidback, frequently morphing and always defying categorisation.

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Liv.e’s previous project, 2018’s ‘hoopdreams’, infused funk, soul and Southern hip-hop influences with hazy lofi production. It was a project that caught the attention of one Earl Sweatshirt, who invited her on tour, eventually leading to Liv.e featuring on his ‘Feet of Clay’ EP last year.

Now, latest singles – the aforementioned ‘Lessons From My Mistakes…’ and ‘Bout These Pipedreams’  – see Liv.e’s songwriting become sharper, her voice coming to the fore a bit more, while still maintaining its esoteric edge. The latter track, for example, begins with a ’70s funk groove before Liv.e hammers homes single-line refrains of “love me”, “pipe dreams” and “reality” in increasing anguish before the song returns to tranquility once again.

Ahead of her full-length LP, NME spoke to Liv.e about her album ‘Couldn’t Wait To Tell You’, recent tour with Earl Sweatshirt and how she’s finding her voice through her music.

Your music features loads of touchstones to music of the past: hints of classic soul, jazz, funk. What did you grow up listening to?

“I grew up listening to a lot of gospel first and foremost, because of my parents. They were avid church-goers. So a lot of church music. Then a lot of jazz, R&B, stuff like that. I had two older brothers so I also got put onto hip-hop and OutKast. Then Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson too. So it was a pretty good combination of everything. People you wouldn’t usually expect a child to listen to.”

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You grew up in Dallas, and travelled around a lot before moving to LA. How have these places informed you and your music?

“I’ve travelled around for a long time, but I feel like LA has been one of my homes. My dad’s side of the family is from LA, so I spent a lot of time here during family trips. I think LA has the kind of freedom for you to come of age, at least for me. I remember learning a lot there, and learning that I could be independent.”

I read that you get a lot of your samples from crate digging…

“Honestly, I don’t know who lied on me and said that. It’s so funny how information can totally be made up and everyone will be like ‘yeah!’ But it also means that people need to ask questions for themselves.”

“I really didn’t crate dig, but I did used to DJ. Dolfin Records [Dallas record label] was just based off of us being inside and making hella music, trying to make something new from things we had heard. We would just listen to a lot of jazz, or things that make the soul say something.”

Sometimes it feels like you enjoy challenging expectations with your music. Would you say this is accurate?

“Really I just have to surprise myself. It’s not necessarily for the listener. It’s easy to catch people off guard with music because everything right now is so A-B-C-D, so formulated. The one thing I do miss [in music] though is bridges, I do miss that.”

Your album, ‘Couldn’t Wait To Tell You’, is out in the summer. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect from it?

“I think that people shouldn’t expect and should just listen without expectations. I would say it’s different from the rest of [my previous work] because it’s the longest project I’ve ever made.”

“It’s not necessarily a theme, but there’s a lot of different point of views [in it]. It’s like each song is a different character giving a page out of their diary. There’s 21/22 songs, so like 10 characters and they give two pages from their diaries. They’re characters I’ve made up, but it’s kind of like [different parts] of myself.”

Liv.e, 2020. Credit: Maya Patterson

On some of the more recent tracks, your voice comes to the forefront more, it’s a lot clearer, less shrouded in the production. Was this deliberate and does the album follow in this vein?

“Definitely. I’m less shy and have definitely grown since my last few projects. I think people are going to be able to tell that.”

You’ve toured and worked with Earl Sweatshirt. How did that come about?

“There wasn’t a very glamorous story behind it… I think he hit me up on Twitter. Either that or he was listening to me and had played me on Solange’s Red Bull radio thing. But he did end up hitting me up through my Twitter DMs and was ‘Yo, I’m playing in South Africa and I’m listening to ‘hoopdreams’ and this shit’s crazy’. I was like, ‘Ah, thanks bro’. Then he was like, ‘You have to come on tour’. So I was like ‘Oh word, cool’.”

“I love when artists make things happen like that, especially people of a different stature. It shows you that people are human and there’s nothing to be intimidated about.”

How was the tour?

“Honestly, I had performed a lot before but not to that many people. One of the first places we played was Montreal and it was so weird. There were a lot of people and they were all just standing there with a lack of anticipation on their faces. That was the moment I was like, ‘Okay, I need to be more confident in myself.’ Because [crowds] can really shake you up.”

Is the album all finished now?

“Yeah. I wrote the album before the tour in St Louis. I had made ‘hoopdreams’ in New York. Then I moved back to stay with my mom in St Louis. I just needed to be sheltered for that moment and for the seeds I was about to sow. I made the whole album in about a month or so, both writing and recording – mainly writing while recording.”

“But after performing the songs like 20 times on tour, I had a different ear for it. It made me bring more forth. I think I was just tired of whispering. I was like, ‘I can’t be shy or afraid of my voice.’ I wasn’t used to how powerful it was. This album is about exploring my ideas but also tapping into where my voice is.”

“The album has sucked a lot of life out of me, but I’m proud, grateful and very excited… and tired.”

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