Liz Longley Makes Heavy-Duty Songs Feel Weightless

Liz Longley is happy. Really, truly happy. Really.

That might be hard for some to believe, especially after hearing songs the expressive artist has written about a few heartbreaking relationships during her search for everlasting love.

Maybe the Pennsylvania native, Berklee College of Music graduate and current East Nashville resident has finally found what the heart wants. While determined to keep her private life just that, the lovely folk-pop-rock singer-songwriter did offer a few details about a relationship nearly two years in the making.

Punctually keeping her 2 p.m. EDT appointment for a mid-August cellphone interview to discuss her latest project, she did sound happy. Really.

Back with her second album in two years, Liz Longley feels "Weightless."

Even if the rough connection was coming from a plane that had just completed an overseas flight to New York's LaGuardia Airport, signaling the end of a two-week vacation in Ireland with her Irish boyfriend. She said the highlights were spending time in Northern Ireland, seeing Giant's Causeway and walking "across this bridge that looks over the ocean. It was just so stunning."

Now it was back to work, opening the Philadelphia Folk Festival the next night as long as she made her connecting flight to Washington D.C., followed by a two-hour drive to pick up her dog. Then there was dealing with a weak cellphone signal that could have added to the anxiety -- except this seasoned professional has calmly handled far dicier situations.

"All is well, yes," offered a cheerful Longley, who also had reason to be psyched because Weightless, her second full-length album since signing in December 2014 with formidable and firmly planted roots label Sugar Hill Records, was on the verge of being released.

Before discussing the stunning record that dropped Aug. 26, Longley was willing to give up the first name of her boyfriend (Tommy), a solo singer-songwriter from Westford County in southeast Ireland whom she met at a dog park in Nashville.

"He had just moved to town," she said. "He had been there for about a week and we met and hit it off. It's been amazing ever since."

Don't expect that newfound state of bliss means those sad, sad songs will disappear, though.

Longley actually laughed at the suggestion that her follow-up album seemed as emotionally heavy as last year's self-titled record, which helped land her in my top 15 artists of 2015.

Expecting Longley to admit she feels wiped out after writing such songs as "Weightless," "Never Really Mine" and "Say Anything You Want," her viewpoint was just the opposite.

"It's never draining," she said, resuming the conversation after exiting the plane. "Even the heavy stuff is somehow ... it frees me up to sing about it. It's a process that I really love, but I was going through a fairly emotional time when I started writing this record."

Longley wrote the title track while driving through Los Angeles in the summer of 2014.

"I had been arguing with my ex over who got what when we split up," Longley later explained in an email. "... Stupid things like the couch off of Craigslist. Writing this song helped me to realize that none of those material things matter at all."

As soon as she was finished -- with the song and the relationship -- there was a sixth sense, an empowering feeling of independence that had the potential to ring true throughout the rest of the album.

"I just felt like I needed to be free," Longley added. Her buoyant, Joni Mitchell-like lilt somehow serves as a graceful, gentle diversion from the disdain she feels for the person whose sole purpose was to "take, take, take, take, take, take, take" everything while leaving her empty-handed or, even worse, emotionally vacant.

"I didn't want to be held down, held back in any way," she said. "I just longed for that feeling of weightlessness. ... I kept writing for the record not intentionally going for that theme but I think also when I wrote 'Swing' (the lush, dreamy album opener, penned a couple of months later with Ian Keaggy), I was in a similar mindset."

Unlike others who might wait years before recording a vast supply of new, pain-inducing material, especially so soon after her March 2015 release, Longley was ready to start the New Year in the studio -- if only she could find the right producer.

Saying she was practically at the end of her rope with her search, Longley relied on the recommendation of new manager Chad Jensen (Colbie Caillat, Robert Cray, Eric Hutchinson) to choose Band of Horses bass player and producer Bill Reynolds. It was like hitting the jackpot, Longley said.

They started recording in late January, around the time of Longley's 28th birthday, and went until early April, though she did take a studio break to go on a brief tour.

"We spent three months working on it, which is to me just a complete luxury," she said, recalling the basic tracks of her previous album were laid down in two days. "We tried any idea that we had. As strange as it was, we would try it and just see how it felt. ... There was a lot of experimenting and testing things out and really not settling for anything until we felt the song was at its most emotional point."

Longley already knew of Reynolds after sharing the stage with Heather Maloney, another outstanding up-and-coming folk singer-songwriter who also made my best of 2015 list after releasing the Reynolds-produced album Making Me Break.

"I love that record he made with her," Longley said, feeling the same way about albums Reynolds produced for the Avett Brothers and Lissie. "In those three records, you can just see how versatile he is."

Birds of a feather, fly together. Longley's pliable vocals seamlessly shift from her drop-dead gorgeous ballads to bona fide rockers like "Say Anything You Want" and "What's the Matter," proving breakup songs don't have to be so dreary.

In the style of Linda Ronstadt or Paula Cole, Longley brings a passionate kick to the latter track, where she takes charge of the situation:

Got to get out of this place / It's some kind of hell /
Break all the habits I've made / For you if not for myself

Written at Fleetwood Shack, the basement studio in Reynolds' home where Jay Joyce once worked with popular roots and country artists, "What's the Matter" was built around a remark Longley heard Reynolds make about someone else: "We want the same thing."

"For some reason, that very simple sentiment stuck with me because I realized through any relationship, through the ups and downs, you ultimately, hopefully want the same thing. And that's what keeps you together," Longley said.

It's my favorite on the album, and Longley also expressed that sentiment, her feelings intensified when Reynolds talked the acoustic guitarist/pianist into playing his Fender Telecaster on that track.

"I was like, 'I don't know how to play electric guitar.' He's like, 'You'll figure it out,' and just handed it to me," Longley said of that first-time studio experience. "And off we went. ... That's why I think 'What's the Matter' felt so raw, 'cause we just kind of recorded it in the moment. You know, the moment was still raw. The feelings were still raw. And that's why it feels like it rocks."

Right then, the cellphone-from-hell's shoddy reception interrupted Longley's lucid comments for the third and final time, leading to the joint decision that the interview could be completed via email.

It was like binging on your favorite TV series preparing for the last delicious final episodes or getting to a pivotal scene in a movie and the electricity suddenly goes out, leaving you literally in the dark.

It didn't take long for this guiding light to return, though. She picked up where we left off, plugging into a subject matter that is producing some "Electricity," which happens to be one of Weightless' more hopeful songs.

Going electric might just take Longley down another path entirely, encouraging the former high school drum major to follow in the footsteps of "powerful chick singer-songwriters like Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morrisette. They have such a way of being raw and real and so completely relatable."

Longley was even moved to buy a Sparkle Jet Gretsch (shown in the photo at left, shot by her father Bob Longley), and plans to take it on the road this fall with her backing band.

"I'll definitely play the electric on a few songs," she wrote. "I hope to incorporate it more and more as time goes by ... it's definitely going to inspire some new songs."

The Weightless tour begins Sept. 15 in Asheville, North Carolina, followed by a prestigious AmericanaFest gig Sept. 22 at Nashville's Cannery Ballroom, where Rodney Crowell and the Indigo Girls also will appear that night. Along the way, Longley will undoubtedly share more of the relationship horror stories she's told while carrying emotional baggage to venues like Swallow Hill in Denver.

"I was trying to get over a breakup, a guy that I dated for a very brief amount of time," Longley revealed while introducing "Bad Habit" halfway through her set in November. "And I got a lot of songs out of him. (audience laughs) A lot of healing that had to be done after that situation. He had multiple personalities and apparently at least one girlfriend for each of them. So when I found that out, we broke up, obviously. And very soon after, he got engaged to one of them -- and asked me to sing at his wedding." (audience moans and groans)

Just like through her feisty performances, Longley tells these sad-but-true vignettes from her past in such an enchanting manner that her indefatigable spirit inspires you to join the fight.

Any tortured soul who endures such sorrow deserves someone in their corner to help with the healing.

"Never Really Mine," about finding your man with another woman, was the most difficult for Longley to write for Weightless, even though it was her third Keaggy collaboration.

"After a day's work, I walked away from the session liking the song but not really understanding it," Longley said. "It was an uptempo song with a catchy chorus but verse lyrics that meant nothing to me."

It almost didn't make the album until her supportive parents, Bob and Rosemary Longley, pushed their only daughter to reconsider, and Reynolds encouraged her to slow down the tempo to "the speed of molasses."

Longley decided to rewrite the verse lyrics with Keaggy, then "I went home that night, sat at my piano and got in the mindset of all the heartache I've been through ... that's always fun, right? ... Next thing you know, I was recording it. We turned all the lights off in the studio and let the song sit in that slow, sad pocket. It's now one of my absolute favorites."

While many of her songs go to depths others would rather avoid, Longley has managed to persevere until she's properly fulfilled -- whether it involves writing a song, righting a wrong or even concluding a frustrating phone interview.

Now that she's in a successful relationship, though, how might that affect the way she writes?

"It's hard to say!" Longley responded. "I'm not the type to write a ton of sweet sugar-coated songs. ... There always seems to be a hint of something deeper ... sometimes darker."

So don't plan on seeing this award-winning songwriter switch gears and make a sunny album about a few of her favorite things. Her final thought:

"I'll leave that job for someone else! Hahaha." 

Through thick or thin, Longley is happy to get the last laugh. Really.

Publicity photo by Bob Longley. Concert photo by Michael Bialas.