I’ve been a fan of Picastro for going on 15 or more years now, and when I say Picastro, I really mean Liz Hysen. She’s the one constant of the project and someone who has such a distinct, honest approach to her composing and songwriting that even when she covers songs as iconic as “Pale Blue Eyes,” it becomes a Liz Hysen song. She never shies away from making bold choices (handing over most of the vocals on her 2019 album, Exit, to other artists, for example), but at the heart, she’s an artist whose creative practice and expression will shine no matter the circumstance and no matter how dark it is outside.
I was thrilled to interview her recently and cannot recommend digging into all her wonderful music over at Bandcamp.
What are some of your earliest memories and experiences related to music that you can still remember and made a lasting impact on your life?
I am a CODA which means I was raised in a deaf household without any music. They had some kind of toy record player and 2 records which I played constantly. I think the first time I heard music (one was Beethoven, one was the Beatles) I was hooked. But I was at least 6 or something when it happened so I didn’t really know how sound worked. My parents watched the TV with the sound off a lot of the time which I thought was normal.
Building off that, how did you first start playing music and learning an instrument and all of that?
I played drums for a year in high school and couldn’t get my parents to spring for a kit so I got a job and bought myself a guitar. I do remember taking lessons but it was to learn like Led Zepplin songs and stuff. Then I joined a band in high school, a goth band and I started writing my own songs when I was 16 or so. I was super into the Cure and by the time I found Sonic Youth everything sort of changed.
And all that eventually leads to the formation of Picastro. You’ve been doing the project for almost 25 years now and it continues to morph and grow into new sounds and directions. What keeps you inspired and continuing on?
I still basically make music that I don’t think exists. I am usually guided by some mixture of pop and experimental music that I want to play with but mood also guides the sound and finding the right textures. I want to be able to reach into the speaker and feel a part, like tactically with my hands! I know I can’t but in general, I get super bored with music unless there is some play with that and also expectation. If I have a feeling I know where the song is going to go and it’s somehow predictable, I lose interest.
Obviously when I think Picastro, I think Liz Hysen, so when I first heard Exit I was pretty shocked since you aren’t front and center as usual, but in some strange way it feels like the most Picastro Picastro record. When did you have the idea to do a record where, for the most part, a different – mostly male – voice is the main voice on each song?
I had the idea for Exit for years. I struggle a lot with how I am going to present myself in music or really anything representational (which I think is pretty obvious if you look at the Picastro album covers, videos, and such, there is always an aspect of meta that I need to protect myself with) so I just wanted to see what would happen if I just took myself out of that role. It was intentional to have only male singers and was a project I wanted to do for a while.
How did you change or shift your approach when writing the songs and lyrics, thinking about who would be singing them? And did you know who, exactly, would be doing each song as you wrote them, or did those decisions happen later? That last part is interesting because it’s amazing how each different singer really imbues their personality and style on these songs even if they still feel like your songs.
I definitely had some ideas of who would be singing what but I gave everyone 2-3 options based on range and tone. I did put in a track of me singing as a guide so they would have a sense of melody but I am pretty open when it comes to that sort of thing, if the person naturally sings one way, I am not going to interfere. I am never really sure if I write lyrics in a way that comes off as “female” I guess so this was a good way of seeing how they came across. The only song that uses both genders in its voicing is “To Know” and I deliberately wanted a man to sing about being a woman.
I love hearing your songs like this, though, and it reminded me of an interview I read years and years ago where you talked about wanting to write an instrumental album for a small orchestra, to create a narrative without words. Selfishly, I would love this to happen, too ha! But is this still something you think about doing? Exit works on so many levels, but the compositions and arrangements are so rich and emotive and it seems like the current line-up of Picastro would really lend itself to this kind of thing…
Definitely! I started a film about 15 years ago that is about sound and barriers and has no dialogue so it might actually be the perfect vehicle for something like this. I am trying to finish another EP but I should probably start this one soon too. I feel like it should have some kind of visual component.
Speaking of the current line-up, how did it come together?
We haven’t actually played together in a while because of COVID and some members are pretty busy but Matthew (Khora) joined the band after going on tour with Picastro and Germaine I met through the cellist (Nick). Tim from Fresh Snow has been playing with me for these 2022 shows because he worked on the covers EP with me and I think we have all shifted in how we approach rehearsing and all that. But there is time! There is always time.
One thing you said to me about I’ve Never Met a Stranger is important it was for you to do Elfin Saddle and Fire on Fire justice in your covers because of your friendship with those bands and how they’ve been some of the nicest and most supportive bands you’ve played with, worked with, etc. I always think doing covers – and especially a covers album – is daunting because of this, but the added personal relationship aspect feels so overwhelming. How were you able to overcome those obstacles and even, maybe, harness those feelings and put them into your interpretations of those songs?
It was harder for sure. I had been stuck on Hangman since maybe the first time I heard it and being friends with them makes you want to work even harder, like create a version of the song that celebrates it and doesn’t try and correct it which I find a lot of covers do very badly. I stressed over the Elfin Saddle song the most. Their arrangements are lovely and I was so wowed by Jordan’s kindness on tour. He was such a beautiful person and their music was so special to me that I really wanted to honor him. I hope I did. I spent a lot of time arranging it because their music pulls you in and is both melodic and interesting but our singing styles are so different, it was hard. I hope I did it justice.
More generally, when you’re picking a song to cover and deciding how to approach and arrange it, what considerations are you using and what are some of the most important aspects of your thought process when it comes to putting a cover song together? Where I think you succeed so, so well on I’ve Never Met a Stranger is that it sounds like a Picastro record, not a covers record.
I am very picky about lyrics so I basically only pick songs to cover that I feel like I could sing or that have something to do with the place I am in mentally at the time. The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed have so much to do with Picastro in a way but there is no way I am going to sing half of those lyrics. I covered Roky Erickson because I was really drawn to the lyrics in “If you have ghosts” and same for Sonic Youth, it could also be an exercise for a musician to just get out of a rut and encourage them to write lyrics differently too.
I think it was the same interview where you talked about wanting to do an instrumental record where you talked about, at that time, being really into boxing and Mike Tyson. What is holding your interests these days outside of music?
I spar regularly now, maybe three times a week. Boxing is pretty addictive and not unlike music so I love talking about boxing, reading about boxers, and just thinking about it. I don’t play chess but its sort of has me thinking that might be good. I also like gardening and learning regional recipes and stuff from pretty much anywhere. I can’t wait to travel a bit more soon!
So what’s next for you and Picastro as 2022 barrels ahead?
Funnily enough, I am just working on a split EP with Steve Gullick, a really great musician and photographer in London. It is more blues-influenced and all of the songs are roughly based on Sonny Liston! I thew in some other boxers in there too I had been reading about. I have been writing on piano and on Ableton more which is fun, just trying to arrange and compose in a different way.