Ask musicians to honestly talk about their work, and they'll likely admit that talent only takes you so far.
Liz Longley can attest to that. After more than 11 years of carrying around ambitions heavier than an overstuffed piece of excess baggage, it took a double date with fate and Lady Luck to join a waiting list of performers as Nashville looks for the next Mr./Ms. Write.
Now signed to a prestigious label that's releasing her self-titled album Tuesday (March 17), anything is possible for Longley, who's on her way in a minivan filled with hopes, dreams, songs and three male touring band members.
Conducting a mid-February interview while enjoying a smooth ride on a New England highway to a show that night in Plymouth, New Hampshire, the outgoing 27-year-old momentarily fell silent while pondering a choice that -- until now -- she's never had to make, even theoretically: If you had to pick either singing or songwriting, what would it be?
"Oh, my gosh. That's a really hard question," she said, quickly recovering to add, "I would choose singing. I consider them both to me the two most important forms of expressions in my life. But I can get into someone else's songs, and the emotion of their songs, just as easily as I can get into my own. If it resonates with me, it resonates with me. Anything that resonates with me is a joy to sing."
On this new album made two years ago, produced by Gus Berry and crowd-funded by Kickstarter, Longley coolly displays that skill with personal works of art written as far back as 2009. Joining the Sugar Hill Records roster in December gave her a fresh start, and she is ready to introduce herself -- along with songs old and new -- to audiences who are lining up to catch this up-and-coming performer.
After making a record that meant too much to release on her own, Longley found a booking agent (Peter Loomis at New Frontier Touring) and a new management team (7S Management in Denver, headed by Chris Tetzeli). With most of the pieces in place, the launching pad was a three-song private concert for about 10 people attending a board meeting at the Franklin Theatre south of Nashville in August 2013.
That where's Sugar Hill general manager Cliff O'Sullivan met Longley, then said, "I want to sign you."
Hitting it off with him, then the label's team, she said, "It took a while to get everything sorted out, to get the contract done. That was the most time-consuming. ... And ever since I've been with their team, they've just been kicking butt. It was worth the wait. ... They've done some amazing things already. And we're already talking about the next record and starting to record that this year. We just want to keep the ball rolling."
The family that plays together
Patience is a virtue, but it doesn't always stick around. Longley has wanted this since she was 14 or 15, singing along to a karaoke machine and having "every little note" analyzed by her dad. Supportive parents who were musically inclined raised Liz and her younger brother Robert on the outskirts of Philadelphia. Bob and Rosemary Longley let their daughter pursue her dreams ("I value their opinions more than anyone," she said), long ago putting aside their own artistic aspirations to team up for a career that continues today -- after 30-plus years -- as owners of Longley Insurance Agency.
Bob Longley learned an instrument from his father, who was an Army bandleader/trumpet player with a drill sergeant mentality, making his five children go to their rooms nightly to practice what the cool kids wouldn't -- tuba or bassoon, for instance.
"So my dad thought that was totally normal to do with my brother and I," Longley said, adding that Robert became an artist who is studying at the New School in New York City. "At first, we hated it but now I'm so grateful that he enforced that. My mom always wanted to be a singer. She's super-musical but she never pursued it, so all the pieces are there and I think because neither of them got to make it their life's work, they really encouraged us to."
After learning to play the piano, Longley said she went through some "super-nerdy" years at Downingtown High School West, where she took up the clarinet and became drum major of the marching band.
But writing and singing her first song, called "Bye Bye Baby," and receiving a standing ovation from a couple of hundred people in the school auditorium convinced a wide-eyed ninth-grader what to do with her life. She was just 17 when Naked Trees signaled her recording debut.
Earning the requisite training, voice was Longley's instrument of choice as she majored in songwriting and graduated from the only school on her wish list -- Berklee College of Music in 2010.
"I'm really, really, really glad that I got into Berklee because it certainly changed me as a songwriter, as a singer, as a musician, and just made me ready for the real world," she said enthusiastically, imagining just how many professionals got their start there. (Aimee Mann, Paula Cole, Diana Krall, Gillian Welch and Susan Tedeschi are among the Grammy-winning alumni).
Mentors like college professor Livingston Taylor, younger brother of James Taylor, were go-to gurus. Then there was what Longley calls "one of the coolest experiences I could ever imagine," spending a week with 11 other students getting schooled by John Mayer, another Grammy-winning alum (class of '98).
As the professional wannabes took turns doing live versions of songs they had written and originally posted for him to hear on their MySpace pages, Mayer would counsel them.
"I got so nervous I didn't know what the heck to play for him," Longley excitedly recalled. "So I played this song (called "Queen," available on 2009's Somewhere in the Middle) that was kind of new. ... But he gave me advice on how to restructure it and where to change a chord. And then the next day I remember we were in the studio and he came in and it was a morning where we're all just like eating our breakfast and he was like spinning around in his studio chair and started singing one of my songs that was on my MySpace page (that still exists) and it was just unreal to hear someone like John Mayer singing back one of my songs, saying he couldn't get it out of his head. I think I cried right on the spot. ... I had to text my mom right away."
While fellow students such as Kiesza, Karmin and Charlie Worsham were able to succeed on varying levels, Longley enjoyed the college experience so much, she said, "You can never know enough. You can never play music enough. If I could afford it, I would do it all over again and just keep learning."
Instead, she followed the path of other Berklee alums. First, though, she put out three "official" records starting with Take You Down in 2007.
Winning the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival songwriting showcase in 2009 and the BMI John Lennon Songwriting Scholarship Competition (in 2010 for "Unraveling") happened while she still lived in the East. Then Longley moved to Nashville in 2011 -- and ran smack-dab into a writer's block as thick as a brick wall.
"I cowrote a lot of songs (including "This is Not the End" on the new album, also heard on the Season 6 finale of Army Wives), but as far as writing alone, I was really stuck," she said. "I just wasn't focused and I wasn't inspired. ... I just wasn't feeling it."
Longley found collaborating during the first four months in Nashville "an amazing way to meet people," and cowrote 40 songs during that period. "But at the end I felt kind of like depleted and lost in my own writing," she said. "And that's really when I kind of went into the whole writer's block thing. But now I'm back to cowriting and I love it, I absolutely love it. It's changed me in my own writing and made me, it's made me ... I don't know how to describe it, but basically during my writer's block, I would try to write and I would be really hard on myself. And I wouldn't get anywhere. And when you're in a cowrite, you usually want to walk away with a song. You have to learn to push through those moments where you're like, 'I don't know if I like this. I don't know what I think of this.'
"It's kind of helped train me to do the same thing when I'm alone. Definitely, when I feel like I can't write and I can have a great cowrite, I feel reinspired to do better in my own writing."
She also got help from a book titled The Artist's Way that was given to her last April by friend and former Berklee student, Johnny Duke, a guitarist who has worked with Little Big Town and has been part of Longley's touring band that has included Eric Jackowitz (drums) and Brad Shapiro (bass). Guitarist Brian Dunne was scheduled to join the second leg of the tour.
"I started journaling right away," Longley said after reading the self-help guide to higher creativity written by Julia Cameron. "And it broke down all my walls and made me realize that I was unhappy and had to change a lot in my life to get into a better place where I would be inspired every day. And I had more songs in those couple weeks that I was reading the book, more song ideas than I knew what do to with. So it just totally changed everything for me."
Digging into her past
Calling herself an over-sharer who keeps no secrets, Longley at the end of this interview did reveal a previously undisclosed but lighthearted experience that likely had nothing to do with her malady, but -- looking back -- could be construed as a foreboding omen by some amateur psychologist.
Before her family moved from nearby West Chester to Downingtown when she was 8, Longley buried a pencil in her yard.
"I always thought I would move back to the house I grew up in, but I never did," she explained. "But I wanted to see how long the pencil would last and if I came back if it would still be there. The next time I visited, it was still there."
Despite occasionally returning to West Chester, Longley never looked for that pencil again. Not that she needs it now.
While slowly trying to do the write thing, it's possible that finding the Midas touch by revisiting past experiences has been more challenging than discovering buried treasure. The sincere sensation that flows though "When You've Got Trouble," which "came out in one good cry" in 2009 in her bedroom at the Downingtown home her mom and dad still own, doesn't happen everyday.
"It felt like it wrote itself," Longley said of the number that appeared on 2010's Hot Loose Wire. "And it was probably 10 o'clock at night and my parents were probably getting ready for bed and I knocked on their door and I said, 'Can I play you a song I just wrote?' And we all sat on their bed and I played it for them and we were all crying by the end. And I knew that ... I mean that meant something to me that it moved them. ... One moment where I make my parents cry, I'm like, 'OK, this is something special.' "
Caught in the throes of relationship highs and lows while working on her latest album, those feelings get captured intimately on "Out of My Head," "Bad Habit" and the dreamy "You Got That Way," her pretty pop sensibilities and luscious lilt to an expressive voice suggesting Sarah McLachlan more than Sara Watkins.
Then there's the emotionally uplifting "We Run," written in memory of a cousin in the armed forces who was planning to return home to enter the Marine Corps Marathon with his father, retired Col. Tom Manion.
After Marine 1st Lt. Travis Manion was killed in Iraq on April 29, 2007, Longley's uncle still ran the marathon, crossing the finish line with his son's entry number proudly pinned to his shirt. Longley went on to enter her first marathon as a tribute, and other family members continue running for Team Travis and other fallen soldiers.
While numbers like that hit so close to home, Longley contends there is no single track that encapsulates who she is today, saying, "I think it would be too hard to fit one person into a song."
Yet the fan with eclectic tastes relies on plenty of invaluable influences, ranging from Cole ("one of my actual heroes") to Eva Cassidy ("my heart melted the first time I heard her") to the Weepies ("one of my favorite duos"). Duly inspired, she is eager to share new material on the road, while also performing monthly shows with featured guests on Concert Window.
Longley recently yielded a crop of at least six songs ("I'll take all I can get," she said, laughing) and is particularly proud of "Only Love This Time Around," her cowrite with Michael Logen.
This time around I'll be open /
This time around I will not fear /
This time around I choose forgiveness /
Only love this time around
"We were talking about near-death experiences and people who have said they've gone to the other side and come back and what they've seen. And not necessarily saying that it can happen but saying if that did happen, how would you live differently?" Longley said. "No matter what kind of mood I'm in, it makes me feel ... when I get to play that song onstage, I'm completely ... it reminds me that I'm lucky to not only be alive but to be doing what I love to do every night and sharing music with people that seem to care and seem to want to listen."
For an introspective artist who no longer hangs with the new kids on the writer's block, Longley seems ready, willing and able to make the most of her lucky break.
Publicity photos by Alyssa Torrech. See Liz Longley's solo performance of "Only Love This Time Around" on Feb. 7 at the Lancaster Roots & Blues Festival: