Portrait by Eric Ogden
Lia Ice’s musical career began aged five, on a paper piano built by parents keen to foster creative impulses in their child from an early age. She took to her instrument, a humble combination of touch-sensitive paper keyboard, soundboard and conductive paint, with enthusiasm, and soon found herself getting to grips with the real thing. “They got me a real one when I’d been playing for about a year,” she says. “I guess I’ve always known that performance was a way I was able to express myself.”
Like the surreal image of a paper piano, Ice’s music is delicate, organic and possessed of a homespun elegance you’ll want to crawl inside and call home. Her second album, Grown Unknown, is a folk-rock epic of uncommon poise, like a more spectral take on Cat Power’s polished latter-day material, or a less flighty Kate Bush. Its ever-tasteful arrangements employ baroque orchestral flourishes, horns and, of course, piano, dipping them all in a stately reverb that lends her sound a vintage, 1970s glow.
“I think, with this album, it was really important me for me to spend time with the songs and figure out what instruments I’d like to hear,” Ices says. “I realised that it’s one thing to write a song and another to figure out what you want that song to sound like. Everything was written on the piano, but I didn’t want to be bound by that because I don’t feel particularly attached to it as an instrument, only as a writing tool. So on this one, I really let myself play around with what sounds would suit the song best.
“One thing I did was put a lot of background vocals on there. I felt like that was a kind of through-line I needed in every song, to have these emotive vocal sounds that weren’t actually saying any words. I’d been listening to a lot of Enya’s older stuff and I realised with some of her songs there must be more than a hundred vocal takes. So that interested me and spurred me on to do more takes myself.”
The record was written during a stay in freezing Vermont over the winter of 2009, and Ices took inspiration from the beauty of her surroundings. “It was very stripped-down, very elemental,” she remembers. “When you woke up you had to make a fire, because it was freezing, and you only went to the grocery store once a week. There’s a different way of relating to everything out there and I was really excited to change my mental energy. I feel like the processes in nature and the organic world really inform the way that I understand myself, my desire and my art. It’s about letting the natural world be a mirror for our human experiences, in a way that helps me understand what’s going on.”
Ices’ holistic approach to the arts is not entirely self-taught. Before devoting her energies to music, she studied experimental theatre at Brooklyn’s Tisch School of the Arts – with a sandwich year at RADA in London – though, ironically, it was her time there that inspired a change in direction. “I had experimental voice training,” she explains. “It was about using the voice as an emotive tool and instrument. Which is the exact opposite of classical training, really, where there’s a right or wrong way of breathing and placement. They’d have us making sounds, exploring sounds our bodies can make. Some of it can get really far-out. But I definitely think that mix informs me as well. The classical, more rigorous stuff and this kind of thing – they’re both in me, for sure.” §