TEEN Seek Creative Solace Outside of the Big City
TEEN are a dynamic New York City quartet comprised of sisters Teeny, Katherine and Lizzie Lieberson and Boshra AlSaadi. Together, they fuse bright new wave melodies and atmospheric keyboards with sharp, driving vocals, wading into the waters of pop music but never fully submerging. They continuously surprise listeners with their exploratory sounds, and their latest album, Love Yes, is no exception. I sat down with the band and we discussed the path that led up to the album, their penchant for space, and their tour addiction.
MOLLY RAGAN: You just put out your fourth album, third full length--congrats by the way! Your first album, Little Doods, is relatively delicate and subtle and then getting more into the present, your music gets a lot more deliberate, confident and polished. What’s changed?
TEENY LIEBERSON: Well the first one I made by myself. And then the first one we did as a band, In Limbo, we sort of weren’t really even a band yet. It was sort of a mix match of all these people. Like Jen Turner from my old band, Here We Go Magic, played some drums. Kat wasn’t even playing drums on that record. It was just more production heavy, like Pete [Kember, of Spaceman 3 fame] was more heavy-handed in that sense. It was more pieced together. And then the next record, The Way and Color, we did as a band, but with a different bassist. And that was like, a solid group of us. We were a band.
And then different producers and stuff too, like Pete Kember for example. How did that relationship come about?
TL: Through friends. He was working with MGMT and we know those guys, but it was actually through a friend who was making a video with MGMT and wanted to make a TEEN video, so he introduced the music to Pete while he was working on the MGMT video with him. And he really liked it, so he just like sort of signed on to it, which I didn’t even really know was happening. He was just like “Yeah, send me some more of your stuff” and then he came to visit where we were recording and then he just stayed and made the record. [Laughs] So we were like “Oh! Okay! I guess you’re making the record!”
Have there been any constants through all of the albums?
TL: The three sisters.
KATHERINE LIEBERSON: Yeah, that’s the only one right? Well, and apart from In Limbo, we worked with the same producer, Daniel Schlett.
TL: But I feel like the band really became a different thing when Boshra joined, though. Like, that’s the band. That’s not an insult to our previous bassist, Jane, by any means, but it had a very different feeling. It feels like Boshra has a voice that makes a lot of sense in this band, which is present in both records. And the way we play together is a very interesting relationship.
I’m curious about the sister aspect. Do you think that playing together has helped your relationship grow?
KL: I feel like we’ve probably gone through 20 years of family therapy in a very short amount of time! Like the work you have to do interpersonally just to be able to live and travel and work together the way that you do with a band—with any band—I think you have to work really hard at relationships to make it work. So yeah, I feel like we would have different relationships if we hadn’t been doing this the past five years. Very different.
Did the playing with your sisters come about organically?
TL: Yeah pretty much.
KL: Yeah, Teeny had done the Little Doods record and basically I think wanted to just try to play it live and she wanted good singers and just asked us. I think she literally called me and was like “Hey, do you want to come sing on some shows?” And then it kind of grew from there.
You’re originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, and you returned there to record your latest album, Love Yes. What that decision to leave your current home of New York City informed by some desire to escape?
KL: Yeah, I mean, every record, except for the Carolina EP, we’ve done outside of the city. We’ve done them outside of the country basically. And that feels like an important thing for us. It’s also just more enjoyable, especially when you live and work in the same place. You’re really immersed in the music if you can escape from that. You know, you’re not worried about a day job or anything else going on in the place where you live. You’re really retreating. So we like to do that and then yeah, through a series of different things, this studio in Nova Scotia outside of Halifax, in the country, came up as an option and we could afford it so we were like “Yeah, let’s go to Nova Scotia and record. Sounds great!”
TL: That’s the hardest part of making a record in New York City is you can’t afford it. No one can afford it because it’s just too expensive to get studio time. So we always have to leave partially because of that too.
In the Rookie Mag interview you guys did, there was a lot of talk about nature and how that informs your work a lot. Nova Scotia is very open and spatially free. Has that at all informed your approach to music?
TL: I feel like I need the space in order to create. Maybe that’s partially from growing up somewhere so quiet. I feel like there definitely is a relationship between ideas and feeling inspired and having nature more available to me. And I think that we probably all relate to that feeling. You know, in New York, you have so many inspiring things around you, you sometimes can’t digest all of it. And so I need to have some room to think and also, yeah, I feel like I’m inspired by the natural world as a writer.
KL: Well and growing up, we were outside all the time. Like we just lived outside. Even in the winter when it was cold, you know you get dressed in a million layers and you go play in the snow. It’s part of basic healthiness I think, for me in my life, so yeah, there’s something that goes hand in hand with being able to be in the outdoors and then working really hard. Those two things have to coexist.
TL: Yeah, cause it sort of feels like you’re beating yourself up in the city sometimes.
KL: Yeah, and when we recorded in Riverport, if you hit a wall recording, you could step out the door and take a run along the shore of this beautiful river. That’s a great way to clear your head and start fresh. Or go swim in the ocean, 10 minutes away. So yeah, it’s important, I think.
So you see the space as a way to refuel.
TL: Yeah, it’s actually more natural in a sense. There’s nothing else informing your world other than you and nature. It’s like you’re being yourself. I think that that’s the biggest part for me. You’re not being influenced by all of the noise around you. You just have to sit with you. So then that’s the best place to be when you’re being creative.
Love Yes, to me at least, sounds a lot spacier than your previous albums, mostly with the bright keyboard action. When you were writing Love Yes, was there any different direction you were trying to go down with that?
KL: Not particularly. I feel like, especially with keyboard sounds, Teeny has a really good ear for that. And then Lizzie also has a good ear for that, and then our producer Daniel also has a really good ear for that. So it’s more like feeling what a song needs and trying to find the right sound, but I don’t know if there’s an intention with like “This whole thing’s feeling really spacey and really—
TL: But I also literally did get a new keyboard.
KL: Right and you were wanting to have more of an ‘80s synth sound. I remember talking about that before even going into it.
TL: The Way in Color was very smooth but in a sense also sort of angular in the way that the arrangements worked. Like, trade a part for this part, and this part’s traded for this part and it’s sort of like a puzzle. So I think with this record, we wanted that feeling but also I wanted to hear more ethereal pads, sort of all throughout, just to add another layer of space. Yeah, you know, I’ve been listening to a lot of ‘80s Kate Bush and I loved that there was always this nice undertone of something tying everything together.
TL: Yeah and having that layer of atmosphere which we didn’t have on the last record, which made it interesting. But is also sometimes felt choppy, listening back like two years later, I was like “Oh I wish I could go back and put a pad down over all of that!” So I think that that’s partially maybe why it sounds like that too.
It’s got a certain eerie-ness to it.
TL: Well we also recorded it in a big hall. I’m sure that has something to do with it too. The drums have a lot of roomy sounds in them. There was this huge ceiling. It was just this huge, big room. And all the vocals were done live around one microphone in that room, so that probably contributes to that too. And the space itself had a little bit of that eerie thing. Old and rickety and there probably were some ghosts hanging around.
Was that the first time you had recorded in such a big space?
KL: Well we made the first record in a barn.
TL: But it wasn’t the same feeling, like there was more stuff. Like this room was just an empty room made for recording. It was like a big stage. So yeah, that was the first time we’d ever done something like that, I think.
Ok, I'm so curious about this. Were there animals running around while you were recording?
KL: Yeah, one night we were mixing with Pete [Kember] and he was talking about how he could hear like crickets on the track.
TL: Yeah, there are definitely crickets.
KL: We weren’t paying attention or worrying about getting a perfectly quiet moment to record anything. We were just doing it kind of like “Whatever. Go. Sing”. So yeah, there are some crickets. I think some of that made it to the record.
TL: Oh no, yeah, there’s like car sounds and stuff too.
Do you think these albums would have been much different had they been recorded in the city?
KL: They’d be very different things. We would have been very pressed for time. Like I think we recorded the Carolina EP in a couple days. So there’s no room for rethinking anything, you just have to plow through and get what you get in the amount of time you have because the studio costs whatever it costs a day.
TL: Yeah, you can’t really do anything, with rethinking arrangements or overdubs or thinking about the overall picture of things. You have to do it really, really fast.
Has the city influenced your writing at all?
TL: I always have to leave in order to write, so I don’t know.
KL: I think it informs you in the sense that you’re taking a lot in. New York’s a very inspiring place. There’s so much there, continually, that I think living there you just naturally take it in. You can’t help it. But then yeah, you might need to retreat from that to digest any of it or have any of it come through in any way.
TL: Yeah, I think also I probably am paying attention to other musicians who I think are innovative and trying to recognize what they’re doing that I like. I think there’s definitely a lot of learning to be done in New York City because there’s so much talent and so much professionalism. You can go to a show every night. I feel like I’ve taken away a lot in that sense, just like watching people play, seeing what their approach is, and how we can bring that to whatever we do. That’s an important part of living in New York, I think.
I feel like there is so much negative competition between musicians in New York. Do you guys feel any of that?
TL: That’s definitely real.
KL: I feel like us and our friends, we’re all in the same boat of not making any money. [Laughs]
TL: But there’s definitely that vibe of the “who’s who” when you go out, and who you need to meet. There’s definitely a lot of that bullshit. It’s not the worse thing to pay attention to, but I feel like I’m not—we’re not, the type of people to make that our priority. We want to just make music the way that we want to make music, not according to trends or what’s popular, or like what we think is cool because that’s lame. And that’s also like the death of creativity. I mean it’s good to be around hunger because it keeps you on your toes, but at the same time it’s also kind of sickening. It can be kind of gross. But it’s just a part of the industry.
But that’s not to say you guys don’t have any hunger. You’d probably like to make music your livelihood?
TL: Yeah, that part of it I totally relate to. As far as having a ton of industry hunger…there’s different ways to channel that energy. I think for us, it’s making a lot of music, playing a lot of shows. That’s what it’s about. It’s not about being in an ad, which is how some people want to channel that, which is totally fine. It’s just not for us.
I know Love Yes literally came out like a second ago, but is there anything in the back of your mind as far as a next step?
TL: We actually were just talking about this. We’re gonna maybe work on some stuff when we get back. By the time this record came out, I’d written the songs a year ago and we started rehearsing them a long time ago. So it’s funny because I feel ready to write again, totally, fully. But we also want to tour a lot. We want to be able to play this live for people. Then we’re doing some stuff around New York. I think we’re gonna try to write and record a little while we’re home. And the back out again. Europe hopefully at some point.
So you’d rather just tour for a little while?
KL: We’re tour addicts.
TL: Yeah we like touring.
KL: I mean, in a way, for me anyway, being on tour is pretty close to feeling that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, this is the job I’m supposed to be doing. I want to play the music and play it for people and have that interaction. It feels like that’s the job. And when I’m in the thick of recording is too, but I don’t know, touring’s just rewarding.
TL: You get to meet people and you get to see how your music is affecting people.
KL: Yeah, there’s something outside of you that you’re influencing.
TL: And it’s fun to interact with an audience.
KL: Yeah, and we’re musicians, we want to play our music. So it’s like, we kind of just want to play shows.
Are there any albums that you liked playing live better than others?
KL: I had a lot of fun when we were touring the Carolina EP because we wrote the songs and recorded them as a band and most of them came out of just playing, so it felt very natural to play them live. And they’re fun, easier songs I think. With The Way and Color and a little on this record, there are a lot more moving pieces and samples.
TL: For me, there’s certain songs that I feel like are more exciting. “Rose For You” is always fun to play, and “Free Time” right now, too.
KL: It changes though; it shifts while you’re on tour. Like you start off thinking, “I love playing this song, I can’t wait to play this song every night,” and then like a week in something happens and you’re like “Oh, that songs? Ugh.” [Laughs] And then other ones will turn out the be really fun to play live that you maybe had a harder time in rehearsal and you’re dreading playing it and then you start playing it and you’re like “Wait, I love this!”
BOSHRA ALSAADI: I love when that shift happens with tough songs. We call them grumpy songs. Sometimes during tour, the song you were kind of irritated with will turn and you’ll start playing it better.
KL: And then the ones that felt easy, all of a sudden something happens and you’re like “I can’t play this anymore, what happened?”
Do you have any music recommendations?
TL: It’s a little dorky but I don’t care. I’m really into Esperanza Spalding. I mean, I don’t think it’s dorky. Maybe I’m judging myself because I think that people think being incredibly good at something is dorky or something, but it’s unbelievable. It’s crazy. It sounds like Joni Mitchell, Hissing of Summer Lawns era—when she got into 70’s soul stuff, but was still jazzy because she always had that—mixed with Betty Davis, like really heavy Parliament style funk. It’s awesome. It appeals to my senses because it’s complicated but also heavy. We were listening to Devo yesterday. Oh and Dram! We love Dram! Oh, and Kendrick Lamar, obviously. Azealia Banks has a new song that’s really good. I’ve been listening to Lena Novich.
BA: And Nina Hagen.
TEEN’s new album, Love Yes, is available now on Carpark Records.
Press photo by Hannah Whitaker
***This piece was originally written for KAMP Student Radio at the University of Arizona***