Dallas native and In Real Life artist Liv.e (pronounced Liv) is quick to credit her family for nurturing her love of sound. Between her father playing keys for regional blues and gospel acts, her mother singing in the local church, and her brother Taron Lockett drumming for Erykah Badu and joining the group Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles, she has always been surrounded by people with a deep reverence for music.
Though she attended the famed Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – which boasts Badu and Norah Jones among its alumni – and created impressive chopped and screwed songs during her teenage years, Liv.e admits she didn’t foresee a future in music after completing high school in the spring of 2016. It was only when she decided to leave college after a year at School of the Art Institute in Chicago that she decided to commit more comprehensively to the studio. She returned to Dallas, and with musically-minded peers from her Booker T. Washington years, she fed into the eventual formation of boundary-pushing, genre-bending label Dolfin Records.
Liv.e – “I Been Livin” video
The acquisition of Ableton Live – which she affectionately dubs “ton ton” – helped her generate several solo projects over the past three years that fall somewhere in between avant garde and R&B. These scuffed, raw and lo-fi EP releases turned heads quickly, and she soon amassed a steadily growing fanbase in the instrumental hip-hop community due to her collaborations with producers 10.4 ROG and Swarvy.
Liv.e further demonstrated her depth and range in the Dolfin Records ensemble Kryptonyte with Lord Byron and Pink Siifu. Under the alias Jade Fox she spat verses over Ben Hixon’s ‘90s Memphis rap-inspired beats for the group’s 2018 self-titled album, meshing naturally into a project that sounds nothing like the rest of her discography before or since. Her own projects are freewheeling in nature, but this proved her muse is versatile enough to gel with like-minded peers too.
In her pre-pandemic life, Liv.e was moving between different places that fed different energies into her creative process. As well as the community around Dolfin Records in Dallas, she was splitting her time between her own base in LA, her mother’s home in St. Louis and New York. While Dallas was familiar and comfortable, she fed off the high-stakes environment and fierce competitiveness of her semi-regular visits to New York. “I definitely like working under pressure,” she says. “When you go there everybody is making money. I feel like that’s a good type of energy to be around when you need it, because you can make a lot of stuff happen if you know how to handle it.”
Her seven-track, 10.4 Rog-produced 2018 release ::hoopdreams:: benefitted from New York’s pressure-cooker vibe. With rent payments due in Chicago hanging over her and a cache of 10.4 Rog beats to work with, she channeled her nervous energy into one marathon nighttime session recorded at the apartment of now-labelmate Nathan Bajar. The majority of the album’s vocals were freestyled takes – similar to the creation of her 2017 RAW DAYBREAKS VOL.1 EP. A self-professed night owl, Liv.e often finds herself inspired to record when most people are asleep. “I just feel like when you’re working in the daytime you’re tired because everybody else is awake and you also have to deal with other people’s energies,” she says. “When it’s hella dark outside, it feels like you’re the only person that’s awake in the world.”
The outstanding results on ::hoopdreams:: don’t hint at the off-the-cuff nature of the session, but Liv.e herself doesn’t find it all that remarkable. “I made that whole album in like one night,” she shrugs. “That shit was just fun honestly. It wasn't even like too hard to think about, you know?”
Conversely, Liv.e also found staying with her mom and creating in the slower pace of St. Louis helpful in a different way. The peacefulness of the surroundings allowed her to unplug and focus on her most ambitious project to date, 2020’s Couldn't Wait To Tell You.... “Creatively [St. Louis is] a cool city,” she says. “I was able to sit down and be quiet for a minute and just focus.”
After putting out many releases on her Bandcamp page, Liv.e considers her latest the first fully-fledged solo “album” of her brief but impressive career, likening her shorter projects to something like a mixtape. “I don’t know why, but me and my friends tend to call the projects that we drop ‘tapes,’” she says. “If I wanted to send you an album, I’d probably give you a CD. But if I’m giving you the small shit, I’ll put it on tape.”
As well as Couldn't Wait To Tell You... running longer than her previous releases, her circumstances around the recording of the album also set a different tone for her creative process. “I think I’m in a different place than when I made those tapes,” she says. “I was making them to help me pay my rent, and also to help me express how I was feeling in the midst of having to pay my rent on time.”
That precise energy on projects like 3AMSPACECADET initially drew fans to her work, but she believes replacing financial necessity with increased peace of mind was a net positive for her songwriting on Couldn’t Wait To Tell You.... Freed from some of the anxieties that informed her earlier work, she was able to deliver more introspective lyrics – a change of pace she found both refreshing and needed. “This time I was able to focus on... not really the stress of my life, but more what’s happening in general. Definitely more of the lovey dovey shit,” she says with a laugh. “I think it’s cool. It’s more of a storytelling-type album.”
Despite the broader scope of the lyrical content, many of the tracks were still freestyled or based on short, journal style sketches instead of fully written songs. And though there is a concept driving the flow of the music and words, Couldn't Wait To Tell You... doesn’t follow a strict linear storyline. Instead, Liv.e treated the tracks like diary entries from different invented characters who comprise her personality. With 20 total songs of singing, spoken word, and rapping on the album, each individual character was given two entries to speak their mind.
The lyrics discuss everything from her perseverance despite a worn out mindstate to the excitement of finding true love. On “I Been Livin,’” the slightly off-kilter piano sounds and soft drums blend perfectly with Liv.e’s beautiful voice as she tells listeners, “I'm as tired as you see/I've been walking down a long road and/I’ve been living as long as my soul's been in existence.” Though the words have a somewhat weary tone, there’s also strength and resilience to them as well, as she adds, “Looking back never made any sense/Imma keep on movin.'”
On “You the One Fish in the Sea,” she uses a beautiful, infectious soul groove and a very loose Debarge interpolation to profess the joy and vulnerability she feels for the love of her life: “My teeth all the way out, my smile real big now/Please now baby don’t leave my side/Please don’t drop me from the great big sky (I just want this to last forever).”
Liv.e also rethought how to treat her vocals with relation to the rest of the production on Couldn't Wait To Tell You..., seeking to blend her words in with the instrumentation instead of sitting on top of it. “I feel like in this one, it's probably me more using my vocals as instruments instead of samples,” she says. “It's like, sometimes I don't like to think that I'm trying to float on top of the track. I'm trying to incorporate myself within the track.”
To help give her lush vocals proper backing tracks, Liv.e enlisted the help of Oakland-based beatsmith mejiwahn, who used Casio’s vintage SK-1 keyboard on certain songs to add different textures. Daoud Anthony – the man behind the music for New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project– and Pink Siifu collaborator ShunGu co-produced Couldn't Wait To Tell You..., while Brainfeeder’s Salami Rose Joe Louis, Oakland-based artists Cheflee and Pacific Yew, and Portland, Maine pianist Kafari added additional flavor to select tracks.
Meanwhile, Dolfin Records comrade Ben Hixon produced the track “It’ll Be Okay (Hymnal5)” and Liv.e herself handled production on “These Pipe Dreams.” She credits Live’s ease of use and reliable sample chopping capabilities for helping her execute her vision. “I used Ableton Live to make ‘Pipe Dreams,’ she says. “That was fun. Live just makes it so easy to get all the kind of chops you want at the perfect time.”
Even on the tracks she didn’t produce, Liv.e had a very hands on approach with the final sound. With “To Unplug,” there is a drastic, unexpected tempo shift that she decided to include. In the wrong hands it might feel overly abrupt, but she pulls it off flawlessly – a decision she’d rather not overthink. “I probably was trying to slow it down at one point and then I was like, ‘Actually I like both tempos,’” she says. “I don't know, my shit is really not that complex. I'm not out here like, ‘Yo, damn. You know what? One plus one equals five and I can explain why.’ I'm not that person.”
Though Liv.e doesn’t find her process overly complex, she managed to balance the impressive roll-call of musicians and producers on Couldn't Wait To Tell You... with her own sense of control over the whole project. Not all producers are happy to have the fruits of their labr tampered with, but Liv.e maintained the freedom to experiment, offer feedback on beats, and adjust what she was sent as needed. “He just sent me the loops and that’s it,” she says of mejiwahn’s contribution. The bottom line is, she likes to have control of the recording and mixing process no matter who is feeding into the sonic stew.
Liv.e is hesitant to put a specific label on herself when asked if she considers herself a singer, a songwriter, or a producer. “If I say, ‘Yeah, I'm a singer,’ then I'm probably gonna stop singing,” she says. “It's just too much pressure. I'm none of those things, but I am a vessel. I am here and really, I can only create If I'm being poured into spiritually or I'm being poured into by the universe.”
Emerging from the online underground that nurtured her early work, the high praise for Couldn’t Wait To Tell You… has been widespread, from leading features and reviews on flagship platforms to cosigns from major producers such as Alchemist. It certainly sounds as though, through the combination of a daring, idiosyncratic sound and its widespread appreciation, she’s feeling spiritually fulfilled. Regardless of the glowing reviews and kind words from others, perhaps most importantly, Liv.e feels satisfied with the final result.
“I’m pretty proud of it,” she admits. “It’s about so many different things it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it’s about. I don’t even know, I just felt it.”
Keep up with Liv.e on Bandcamp, Twitter, Soundcloud and Instagram
Text and interview: Gino Sorcinelli