Q&A with Elizabeth Zilman of Elizabeth & the Catapult

Elizabeth & the Catapult is a Brooklyn-based trio playing the kind of jazz-inflected pop music that is simultaneously soothing and thought provoking. The act's debut album, Tall Children, bears favorable comparison to the more adventurous pop songwriters of recent years like Suzanne Vega and Tori Amos. As a live band, Elizabeth & the Catapult are equal parts charismatic jazz lounge act and spirited indie pop band with pleasantly unexpected twists and turns during the set. We had a chance to catch up with singer and songwriter Elizabeth Ziman while she was on the first leg of the band's latest tour and talked about the cinematic quality of the band's music and her spontaneous approach to songwriting. Read the full interview after the jump.

Westword (Tom Murphy): Why did you call your project by the name you do rather than under your own name and is there any significance to the image of The Catapult?

Elizabeth Ziman: It's really a band and not a solo artist. I write the songs but we work heavily on the arranging together. And we're all best friends. When we were trying to come up with a name we were having a hard time and we came up with a bunch of them. I was reading Roald Dahl at the time, James and the Giant Peach, and I had this image of a little Veruca Salt type character, a girl, with a slingshot aimed at a bunch of paper cranes in the sky. That actually ended up being on our EP cover. It was more about the imagery and it kind of just stuck. It was whimsical and fun so we embraced it. There's something theatrical to what we do so it seemed to fit.

WW: I read that you went to Berklee. A lot of people I know that received formal musical training feel like it hindered their creativity to a certain extent. How would you say your training has influenced or not influenced your music and how you write it?

EZ: Honestly I don't think Berkeley was where I learned to become who I am. I was a classical pianist and that was the main influence on what I'm doing now. But I went to school for film scoring and when I was there Patti Austin the jazz singer was there and they were looking for background singers. So I auditioned and went on tour and was really only in school for a year and a half. I learned a lot from my touring and didn't look at my film scoring education. But it lead to where I am today.

WW: Your lyrics remind me a bit of those of Aimee Mann, Suzanne Vega and Jenny Lewis because they're at once introspective, thoughtful and direct--at times even pointed. What would you say informs that approach to how you put your words together?
EZ: I think I try to stay as much out of the self-analytical process as I'm doing it. I try to be uninhibited and write and try not to think about what I'm writing. I get an idea while on the train or at work and I have a journal so I jot it out or sing it into a voice recorder or into a message on a friend's phone. Then I go home and try to flesh out the song. I think that's really important to take advantage of that in the moment and not let it go. But I also like for there to be art to a song, for it to tell a story, for it to go somewhere, for it to have a point.

WW: The music of your project is finely textured and diverse across the entire album. It's almost orchestral in effect. What influenced this aesthetic in how you write your music?

EZ: That's my classical training. Like I said, I went to school for film scoring. I was orchestrating almost literally. We like to have string sections and horn sections where it's necessary and correct to the song. I wrote string arrangements for "Everybody Knows" and "Rainiest Day of Summer." We have live strings and horns for local gigs. If we had the money, we'd put the string section in our pocket and go everywhere with them. Otherwise we play the songs differently.

WW: There's an obvious jazz sensibility in most of your songs. Was jazz an influence on your songwriting and what types of jazz and which artists had the most impact on you?

EZ: Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald for sure and even a little Monk. My father was always playing Monk on the record player.

WW: "Hit the Wall" has kind of an odd 70s classic rock riff on guitar in the middle and it has sort of a disco sound and structure. What were you trying to evoke with that song?

EZ: You'd have to ask to ask my guitar player for that. He was having fun. That song is just a laundry list of complaints.

WW: Why did you cover Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" and how did you come up with such an interesting arrangement of the song?

EZ: It's just a really classic, universal song. It was a little humbling and I felt a little bit of a pressure not to really fuck it up. I wanted to do it because it's such an interesting, cynical song. I wanted to change it and make it sound larger than life with strings. That weight of the world kind of thing. It started off sounding kind of primitive and chant-like.

WW: Mike Mogis was the producer on Taller Children. How did that come about and in what ways did he contribute to the shaping of your songs for the recording?

EZ: We produced half of it ourselves and we finished the album with him. We really helped produce it together. He helped us to kind of get our heads out of our asses. He had a beautiful studio and all this new equipment we never played and I recorded on this beautiful grand piano.

WW: How did it come to be that your song "Taller Children" was featured on NPR?

EZ: They contacted us and we don't really know why.

WW: So much amazing music has been coming out of Brooklyn over the last several years but most of what I've heard is nothing like what you're doing. What kinds of venues and shows do you end up playing in your hometown?
EZ: That's an interesting question. On this tour we're going and playing all these rock clubs. Our main bag is to play Joe's Pub or a theater space or an off-kilter art space. Where we can have kind of a more theatrical show. It's good to be on tour because it's a challenge. We're playing some nice clubs, some seedy clubs, some with nice sound, some without.

WW: Your live shows are known for being energetic but your album is filled with lush atmospheres, late night moods and rich textures. How do you approach your stage performances differently from your performing on an album?
EZ: I usually start the set pretty sleepy and that sound you talked about and that side of us people might not appreciate as much at a live show but that's what we start our set off with. Then we kind of build it. I think we just try to be ourselves.

Elizabeth & the Catapult performs this evening at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, at the Walnut Room with Greg Laswell.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.