Liz Vice has opened for everybody from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Cody Chesnutt and has received career advice from the Avett Brothers. On Thursday night, she’s bringing her blend of gospel and soul music to the Weinberg Center for the Arts as part of the venue’s Tivoli Discovery Series. We recently caught up with the singer via phone to talk about covering Nirvana and her decision to leave an acting career for a life in music.
Have you been to Frederick before?
No, I actually haven’t been to D.C. — that area — since I was 15 or 16.
What was your last memory of the D.C. area?
It was a trip I did with my high school. We were in a competition for an ensemble for other Christian schools who used the same curriculum we did. I remember going to McDonald’s and the floor was wet and that they had three sauces for chicken nuggets [laughs].
I’m a little curious about your background, wanting to be an actress and producing television and film. You went to film school and then decided to get away from it. Do you ever still want to go back to film and acting?
It wasn’t that I decided to get away from it, but music was unfolding in such a way to where I didn’t necessarily think … [acting] was my calling. I had this album and people kept asking me to play shows, so I just kept following that path. I wasn’t sure how long it was going to last, I wasn’t sure if it was mine — I definitely felt like a poser for a long time — but I had been working and doing casting on independent films while I was on the road, and I got a call asking if I could do background casting for a TV show that was filming in Portland. It would be a full-time job that would probably pay well, and I could sleep in my own bed.
My first tour was kind of gut-wrenching. I cried a lot and probably had a panic attack because I had been saving up for years to make a short film I wrote. I had a fundraiser and posters made — and that money, I used to go on my first tour. That first tour was difficult because I had to tell people it’s a commitment, it’s not going to pay a lot. I think about working on film all the time. I miss telling stories. I miss working on set and being with the actors and giving them the script — just being a part of that process. Now, I am that person standing onstage, telling stories.
You said you felt like you were a poser on some level — can you expand on that?
Yeah. I never had voice lessons. I don’t play any instrument. Growing up in Portland, I was surrounded by talented musicians who put in the sweat equity of playing for years and years and years, and here I was, someone who was in debt from going to film school. I felt like there were people who were making side comments like, “Well, if I had a band …” or “I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been in a band for 20 years” — when you’re bombarded by that or bombarded by people saying, “Yeah, if you don’t want to do this, don’t do it” — I just didn’t believe that. I didn’t believe I had the option to say no. I felt like it was placed in my hand, and I had a responsibility. It is a gift and I don’t have a say in the gift I receive, but I do have the responsibility in how I choose to use it.
You were a producer on the second season of “Portlandia.” I was wondering how that experience was for you. Do you have good memories from that?
I worked in the casting department. I got an email asking if I’d be willing to work on a low-budget TV show, and then I go to the office and it’s “Portlandia.” They wanted to hire me again, but it didn’t pay well, so I turned it down, and I had nothing lined up, so all of it was risk-taking. When I was hired to work on set to do casting, I felt like I was always hired to find the people of color in the city of Portland, which I think is the whitest major city in America. But then music showed up, and that’s what I’m doing right now.
Do you have any contemporaries that you are a huge fan of now. I know that you just played with the Blind Boys of Alabama — are there other artists right now who are really inspiring you?
I listen to a lot of soul music from the UK. Like, Lianne La Havas or Laura Mvula or James Blake. Then I just go on Spotify and listen to playlists. I listen to Childish Gambino, and I really love what Chance the Rapper is doing. I love the story that he’s nominated for a Grammy and he’s not even on a label and he gives his music away for free. There’s just tons of different people that I listen to.
Is there anybody out there who you haven’t worked with yet who would be your dream collaboration?
Oh, Leon Bridges. I know we have a lot of mutual friends because he was working with a label in Portland before he got signed to Columbia and the sound wasn’t totally different from what he does now. He wanted to be a hip-hop artist, that’s what I heard, and they were like, “Ahhh, you’re a singer.” His music isn’t over-produced. It’s very simple. It reminds me of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and Bill Withers.
I saw a video of you online covering Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I thought that was an interesting choice. How did you come by that song and wanting to cover it?
I have played with jazz/hip-hop drummers. One was like, “You should check out Robert Glasper. He does a version of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ It’s very trip-hoppy, jazzy, auto-tune-y.” I also listened to the lyrics and was like, “I kind of get what he’s saying.” I don’t know if I could articulate it well, but when I sing this song, it’s like, “I’m here because I have a message and I want to encourage you.” I usually start my set off with that song because I lay down the “This is why I’m here. I’m not here to famous, I’m not here to be cool. But if I could play any role in this world, it’s to bring a message of hope to all people.”
What’s next for you? Do you have new music in the immediate future? Do you have a sort of game plan?
I think the first step for me was to believe that I was invited to the table and now, I need to eat and stop saying, “Why am I here?” That was an epiphany I’ve had in the last month and a half. I recently moved to New York City — not because of music, not because of film, but because I’ve always wanted to live here because of the diversity and the city life. Since moving here, I’ve felt like I’ve had this space to grow. Now that I’m in New York City, I feel like I need to make an album to see what else is inside of me. So I have been writing. I am planning meetings with producers. I am visiting studios because I want to record some of the songs I’ve written. I don’t know if I’ll ever release them. This is a baby that’s been placed in my arms and I want to protect it. I don’t want to be selfish with it, because I don’t think that’s what gifts are for. So I do have plans to record new music. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I don’t know how to make it happen. But I know that I’m making myself available for it to happen when it does.