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Fresh Air's summer music interviews: Lizzo

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. We're going to continue our series of interviews with musicians from our archive with Lizzo. Her latest album, "Special," was released earlier this year. The first single, "About Damn Time," became her second song to hit No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ABOUT DAMN TIME")

LIZZO: (Singing) Turn up the music. Turn down the lights. I got a feeling I'm going to be all right. OK. OK. All right. It's about damn time. Turn up the music. Let's celebrate. I got a feeling I'm going to be OK. OK. OK. All right. It's about damn time.

(Rapping) In a minute, I'm going to need a sentimental man or woman to pump me up.

GROSS: Lizzo spent years as an under-the-radar musician before rocketing to fame around the time of our 2019 interview. Her song "Truth Hurts" hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 2019, about two years after its release. She's been nominated for eight Grammys and won three. Lizzo is a self-described big girl. Her backup dancers are big girls, too. Earlier this year, she hosted the Amazon Prime Video reality TV series called "Lizzo's Watch Out For The Big Grrrls" in which women competed to be her dancers.

When she was in college, Lizzo was studying to become a classical flute player. Although hip-hop and pop won out, she's found a place for her flute in her music. Prince was a fan, and she recorded a track for his 2014 album, "Plectrumelectrum" with 3rdeyegirl. We spoke in 2019 just after Lizzo released her album "Cuz I Love You." We started with this track from that album, "Juice."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIZZO: (Rapping) Mirror, mirror on the wall, don't say it 'cause I know I'm cute. Ooh, baby. Louis down to my drawers, LV all on my shoes. Ooh, baby. I be dripping so much sauce, got to been looking like ragu. Ooh, baby. Lit up like a crystal ball, that's cool, baby, so is you. That's how I roll. If I'm shining, everybody going to shine. Yeah, I'm goals. I was born like this, don't even got to try. Now you know. I'm like Chardonnay, get better over time. So you know. Heard you say I'm not the baddest. B****, you lie. (Singing) It ain't my fault that I'm out here getting loose. Got to blame it on the Goose. Got to blame it on my juice, baby. It ain't my fault that I'm out here making news. I'm the pudding in the proof. Got to blame it on my juice. (Vocalizing). Blame it on my juice. Blame it - blame it on my juice. (Vocalizing). Blame it on my juice. Blame it - blame it on my juice. Ooh, baby.

GROSS: Lizzo, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your new album. Thank you so much for coming. I want to talk a little bit about the production on your album. It's so good, and there's different producers on different tracks. You're a constant on there. But, you know, even though there's different producers for different tracks, the album has a kind of very coherent sensibility to it. Can you talk a little bit about the production and what your role is when deciding what the sound is going to be on each track?

LIZZO: Well, as some people may know, I am, you know, classically trained in music theory and music performance. So I have kind of an innate ear and actually a highly skilled ear when it comes to frequency and harmony and dissonance and melody. And so for me, it's this thing that I can feel in my body. I'm almost like a tuning fork where if I hear the beat and I vibrate at the level that, you know, I'm supposed to, I know that that's what I want to get on. And from being trained, I think it's easier for me to speak a language to producers, and I can speak engineer to the engineers. And I think we all just have so much fun nerding out. And I'm credited as a producer on a couple of the songs because I was there, you know, and I'm a - and my DNA is in there as well.

GROSS: So you play flute. And I'll just start by saying you've played flute, like, on TV and on videos. And a lot of people thought, like, oh, it's dubbed by somebody else. She can't possibly play like that. She's not a classical person.

LIZZO: I don't know why people think that. That's racist (laughter).

GROSS: Yes. You have some very funny videos answering that.

LIZZO: Yeah.

GROSS: But tell us how you started to play flute. Like, this is - what? - fifth or sixth grade? Did you choose the instrument?

LIZZO: Yeah.

GROSS: Or did a teacher say you get to play flute and this other person gets to play trombone?

LIZZO: Yeah, they chose. The flute chose me. I remember I was in band in fifth grade, and we were sitting down. And there was one girl - her name is Ms. Johnson (ph) - and she was a flute specialist. And I really think she was, like, just going to college and was trying to get some extra credits. And he was like - Mr. Browdon (ph) was like, who do you want in your flute class? Who do you want to play flute? And she picks me. And I don't know why she picked me. I think - later on, she was like, you know, you just had a good embouchure. I could tell you'd have a good flute embouchure, which is, you know, your mouth. But I don't know. And I was, like, grateful because I wanted to play flute. I thought it was the coolest instrument. But, you know, who could have known? All the cool girls play clarinet anyway.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Well, how long was it until you started bringing flutes - your flute to gigs?

LIZZO: Well, I will say that I was playing the flute in my rock band when I first started playing shows. I played the flute. And we got an - I got nominated for best alternative instrument in the Houston Press Awards for flute. And I would pull that little girl out and just start playing, and they would freak out. But I think it was more - it made more sense to bring it out in a progressive rock band. I didn't start bringing the flute out in my rap career until, at least for my solo career, way later. And I think it was like - something that I did - so, for instance, my first tape ever, "Lizzobangers," all of the flute on that album, which - there's a lot of flute samples - I replayed because we couldn't clear the flute. So I had to actually replay the flute on that - on those songs. So I've been playing flute on my projects forever, but no one knew it was me until now.

GROSS: So how serious were you about a career as a flutist? Flautist? Flautist.

LIZZO: I was - you know, what's crazy? I always say flautist, and then, one day, someone's like, it's flutist. I'm like, shut up.

(LAUGHTER)

LIZZO: But I was very, very, very serious. I studied flute. I played it every night. I - when I was a senior in high school, or a junior, I started studying with the principal flutist of the Houston Opera, and she was also a professor at the University of Houston. So I was studying with Sydney Carlson for years. And she was kind of, like, priming me to go to U of H. She got me my scholarship to U of H. And then, when I was studying with her there, she was setting me up to study at the Paris Conservatory.

GROSS: Wow.

LIZZO: And I was going to to study flute at the Paris Conservatory. And I was going to really just, you know, wait in line for that first chair. I saw a life of Concert Black and Boston Pops and traveling the world. And when that didn't pan out for me, I was very depressed. I was very sad. I don't really know what happened. I think the pressure of those two worlds kind of got to me. Because I was waking up every morning at like 6 a.m. for marching band at U of H, and then I would go to the rehearsal hall, and I would practice in this tiny room for hours.

And then at night, I would stay up and rap at fashion shows, and try to stay up, and keep up with all the fraternities and sororities. And that was really taking a toll on me. And I was like, who are you, you know? At this point, you could do it all through high school, but you're in college now. You're about to be who you're going to be forever. And now, who is that?

GROSS: So you grew up in Detroit. What music did you grow up with?

LIZZO: In Detroit, I grew up with a lot of gospel music. I remember we would listen to "Perfected Praises" over and over and over. That was the Marvin Winans' family album. And they would always come out with family albums, and we would just listen to that. Like, it was strictly gospel. I didn't really listen to secular music or like radio music, but mind you, I was still very, very young. But it shaped who I am today on stage. Like, you get a lot of hallelujah moments from me, and that's from Detroit and growing up in the COGIC church.

GROSS: Which church?

LIZZO: The Church Of God In Christ, which is COGIC.

GROSS: So when you weren't listening to secular music, was that because of the church? Did your parents not want secular music in the house?

LIZZO: I mean, well, you know, it was the devil.

(LAUGHTER)

LIZZO: So we did - so my parents - so the funny thing is, you know, my sister and my brother, who are older than me, they remember different things. Like my dad, he really loved Elton John, and my mom loves Stevie Wonder. So, you know, we would have those types of things. Hall and Oates, you know. Queen, my dad loved Queen. So, like, those things would filter in here and there. But for the most part, you know, we tried to listen to gospel music. Music makes people feel things. And it made me feel things in church that I knew that I could bring to my music. You know what I'm trying to say? So, like, for instance, there was something about the way that the - what's it called? It's like a revival song or shout music. Shout music is when the drummers are going off, and the bass is like, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do, do...

(CLAPPING)

LIZZO: ...You know? And then at that point, everybody's just running around the church and everyone's shouting. Like, that reaction, that visceral, physical reaction that you see in people, that's driven by the music. Like, the pastor talking can make you say amen all day, but there's something about that driving music that makes you want to get out of your seat and run. And I knew that music had the power to move people physically, even - emotionally, but especially physically. So I don't think it's just because we're talking about Jesus, because even in those bass lines, the bass line's not talking about Jesus, the bass line is just running. And it takes you to God, or - you know what I'm saying? It's just a vessel. And so I want to use my music as a vessel to get you where you need to go, to a positive place.

GROSS: OK. So I'm going to play a song that I think really gets you moving. The lyrics are very not spiritual, literally. They're more profane. And I want to play "Boys."

LIZZO: Pfft.

GROSS: (Laughter).

LIZZO: Girl, what? This transition - (laughter). All right. Let's go. This song...

GROSS: It gets you moving...

LIZZO: This song...

GROSS: It gets you moving. And in terms of believing in your music, I think this succeeds.

LIZZO: Yeah. I will say that this song live, out of all the other songs, get the people stomping. So if you ready to stomp, OK, it's "Boys."

GROSS: (Laughter) And I know it's quite a segway from what we were talking about, but I see it as connected. So this is "Boys." And it was released first as a single, but it's an extra on the, like, expanded version of your new album...

LIZZO: Deluxe.

GROSS: "...Cuz I Love You" - The deluxe version. OK, so here's Lizzo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS")

LIZZO: (Singing) Ay, boy, whatcha (ph) say, boy? You tryna (ph) to play coy like a Gameboy? Hit my phone, boy. Is you home, boy? Are you alone, boy? Come get me dome, boy. Got a boy with degrees, a boy in the streets, a boy on his knees. He a man in the sheets. Sheesh. It's all Greek to me. Got this boy speaking Spanish, ay papi. Baby, I don't need you. I just wanna freak you. I heard you a freak, too. What's two plus two? Four, three, two, ow. Boys, boys, boys. Make a girl go crazy. Four, three, two, ow. Boys, boys, boys. Make a girl go crazy. Four, three. I like big boys, itty-bitty boys, Mississippi boys, inner-city boys. I like the pretty boys with the bow tie. Get your nails did. Let it blow dry. I like a big beard. I like a clean face. I don't discriminate. Come and get a taste. From the playboys to the gay boys. Go and slay, boys. You my fave boys. Baby, I don't need you. I don't need. I just wanna freak you. Want, I want it bad. I heard you a freak, too. That's right. What's two plus two? Four, three, two, ow. Boys, boys, boys.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 2019 interview with Lizzo after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my 2019 interview with singer and hip-hop artist Lizzo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I know you met Prince when you were living in Minneapolis and...

LIZZO: I was on his album.

GROSS: Yeah. And you did a track on the - on one of his...

LIZZO: "Plectrumelectrum."

GROSS: On "Plectrumelectrum" with 3rdeyegirl and - so how did he find you? Because he invited you to perform for him. He asked you then to do a track for "Plectrumelectrum." So I know you - when you moved to Minneapolis after college - after you - dropping out of college, you became a kind of important part of the music scene there. But so how did - how did he find you? How did he hear you?

LIZZO: OK, so there was a documentary being made about burgeoning musicians and also, like, you know, yeah, I think it was just burgeoning musicians, actually, in Minnesota. And it was on one of the, like, local news stations. And it was us - me and my best friend and my DJ, Sophia Eris' group, The Feeling, who won "The Voice," and "Plectrumelectrum," who is Prince's band. And I think some other people too, but I can't remember (laughter). And they did a piece on us. And the day it aired, The Current, the radio station in Minneapolis called and - or Saint Paul, Minneapolis, they called and said they hit us up and said, yo (ph), you won't believe this, but Prince just sent us an email asking for y'alls contact. And we were like, what? And mind you, this was maybe two years after I moved to Minneapolis. And I was - I couldn't believe it. I was like, well, give him our email - what are you waiting for? (Laughter) And the email just simply said, I would like for you to come to Paisley Park on Easter Sunday and...

GROSS: Easter Sunday? Wow.

LIZZO: Yeah, it was pretty - it was amazing. And to work on a song. And we went and it was magical. And from then on, we had a relationship with Paisley Park and with him where we would just - he would ask us to come perform for his parties, and we would come and perform. And we also had - he, you know, talked about me in interviews. He was like, you know, Lizzo's one to watch, she's up next. When nobody was checking for me, he was checking for, you know, young Black girls and young Black artists and giving us a voice and gave me my first big check. I mean, I have a lot of respect and a deep, profound relationship with one of the greatest artists of all time. So that's all I can say about that.

GROSS: OK, so I want to break here and play another song. And this is from your 2016 EP "Coconut Oil." And the song is "Good as Hell." I really love this. I know a lot of people do. Again, I'm going to ask you to talk about, you know, writing it and conceiving the sound.

LIZZO: Yeah. "Good As Hell" was the first time I had written a song that I was like, wow, this song could be on the radio. I never saw myself as, like, a big artist like that, that would have - I was very much indie minded, you know? And I remember it was one of the first songs I wrote with Ricky Reed. And we were in the studio. And I - he flew me out to LA. And I was like, oh, OK. I was, like, feeling myself. And we sat down, and he played this piano riff. And he said, how does this make you feel? And I was like, you know how it makes me feel? And I did a little hair flip. And I checked my nails. I was like, makes me feel like everything's going to be OK, you know. It's like, it makes me feel good as hell. And he was, like, all right. And that was, like, the basis of our relationship. Like, he would literally take words from my mouth and be, like, you know you just wrote the lyric, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

LIZZO: And I was like, really? So this was the beginning of a very beautiful relationship.

GROSS: OK. Let's hear it. This is "Good As Hell" from Lizzo's EP, "Coconut Oil."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD AS HELL")

LIZZO: (Singing) I do my hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell. Hair toss, check my nails. Baby how you feeling? Feeling good as hell. Woo child, tired of the bullshit. Go on dust your shoulders off, keep it moving. Yes Lord, tryna (ph) get some new shit. In there, swimwear, going to the pool shit. Come now, come dry your eyes. You know you a star. You can touch the sky. I know that it's hard, but you have to try. If you need advice, let me simplify. If he don't love you anymore? Just walk your fine ass out the door. I do my hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell. Woo, girl, need to kick off your shoes. Got to take a deep breath, time to focus on you. All the big fights, long nights that you been through? I've got a bottle of tequila I've been saving for you. Boss up and change your life. You can have it all, no sacrifice. I know he did you wrong. We can make it right. So go and let it all hang out tonight. 'Cause he don't love you anymore. So walk your fine ass out the door and do your hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 2019 interview with Lizzo after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with singer and musician Lizzo in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: So, you know, I read that when you were in, I guess, middle school that there was a period when you used to, like, put plastic wrap around your tummy and around your feet to make them smaller, kind of like girdling them. Can you compare your mindset about yourself physically then to what it is now?

LIZZO: (Laughter) OK. So I will say this. I would put plastic wrap around my stomach and I would walk and I would try to work out every morning in middle school. And I would try to, like, lose all the fat off my stomach. But the shoe thing is real because my feet were so wide, I would make my shoes slouch. And people would make fun of the fact that my shoes would slouch. Kids will make fun of anything, bro. Kids will find something about you - they would even make fun of the fact that your shirt had, like, nipples on it if it was on the hanger for too long. They'd be like, oh, you got [expletive] on your shoulders. So kids were so mean that I...

(LAUGHTER)

LIZZO: It's wild, right? I would go out of my way to - I would tape my feet up because I read about it. I read that women in, like, Asia would bind their feet. And, you know, I'm in middle school reading about this, and I was like, I'm going to bind my feet so that my shoes don't slouch over, especially my new ones. And - because I cared so much about what people thought because there was such a crazy consequence associated with being a little different. And I think that that consequence now is completely - it's the opposite, you know?

Now being different makes you stand out. Now being different makes you a star. And I think that I had to embrace those differences to become the person that I am or - you know what I'm saying? - the star that I am. Or else I would have just been homogenized like everybody else. I think when you're in middle school and in high school, you want to be like everybody else. You want to amalgamize and you want to be normal so badly. But I just couldn't help being weird. I was so weird that people went out of their way to point it out for me. And now I'm so grateful for that.

GROSS: I just want to ask you about one more song and it's called "My Skin," and I want you to talk about the song.

LIZZO: "My Skin" is a song that I wrote. And it was - I would like to say that this was the beginning of my body positive songwriting journey. I wrote it because someone asked a question. (Singing) Someone asked a question.

Hold on, Jesus. They asked me, what's my favorite thing about myself? And I told them my personality. And they said, OK, but physically, what's your favorite thing about yourself? And I did not have an answer. And for the first time in my life, I had to actually think about something that I liked about myself physically. And because it was so difficult, I was moved to tears. And in that moment, I remembered that, you know, I had just - well, I just fallen off a cliff because I was...

GROSS: Literally?

LIZZO: I was rope swinging into the river. And I am just so heavy, and the rope - I fell off the rope and fell on the ground. It was really scary and traumatizing. I'll never do anything like that again. But I scraped up my skin, and I remember my friend was like, look what you did to your beautiful skin. And I still had the cane and I had the bandages on my legs during this interview. And I looked down and I was like, oh, my God, my skin. That is my favorite thing about myself. And it was in that moment where I realized I had damaged my skin where I saw the value in it. And that was the first time I'd ever discovered my body love. And I just started with my skin and moved on from there. And I wrote this song to celebrate that moment because it literally changed my life.

GROSS: Lizzo, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your music.

LIZZO: Thank you.

GROSS: My interview with Lizzo was recorded in 2019 after the release of her album "Cuz I Love You." Her latest album, "Special," was released earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SKIN")

LIZZO: (Rapping) Real world, big girl meets world. A crazy position, now your dreams is your mission, huh. Staring in the mirror, realizing, wish it worked. Now all I wish is for a chance to give my kids a Ford. I got a family tree that's worth praising the Lord. Mama, looking like the second, woo. Look at God. Sister like a soldier, hold it down. Southwest going to hold it down. I love you. Don't forget it. You beautiful Black masterpiece. Boy, they don't make brothers like you. Make it happen with that Black girl magic The hat trick off of what we must do. (Singing) I woke up in this, I woke up in this, in my skin.

GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, as we continue our weeklong series of interviews with musicians from our archive, we'll feature songwriter and singer Rosanne Cash. In 1973, when she was 18, her father, Johnny Cash, gave her a list of 100 essential country songs. I spoke with her in 2009 after she recorded 12 of those songs on her album "The List." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2 BE LOVED (AM I READY)")

LIZZO: (Rapping) Girl, I'm about to have a panic attack. I did the work. It didn't work. That truth, it hurts. Goddam, it hurts. That lovey-dovey, was not a fan of it. I'm good with my friends. I don't want a man, girl. I'm in my bed. I'm way too fine to be here alone. On other hand, I know my worth. And now he callin' me. Why do I feel like this? What's happenin' to me? Oh, oh, oh. (Singing) Am I ready? Girl, there ain't a doubt. Am I ready? What you talkin' 'bout?

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "2 BE LOVED (AM I READY)")

LIZZO: (Singing) How am I supposed to love somebody else when I don't like myself, like, ooh. Guess I better learn to like this, ooh... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.