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How life in Minnesota prepared Lizzo for fame

Lizzo performed at Palace Theatre in St. Paul. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com – May 14, 2018, St. Paul, MN, Palace Theatre, Haim with Lizzo at the Palace Theatre Concert

Lizzo performed at Palace Theatre in St. Paul. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ • [email protected] – May 14, 2018, St. Paul, MN, Palace Theatre, Haim with Lizzo at the Palace Theatre Concert Carlos Gonzalez / Star Tribune

Lizzo is everywhere these days.

She’s on your TV, bounding through the audience in a bright pink outfit while performing her new single “Juice” on The Ellen Show. She’s on magazine racks, sprawling in fishnets and lingerie for Playboy as that antiquated mag races to adjust to changing standards of beauty. And she is online—extremely online—whether twerking giddily on Instagram or sassily recreating the jazz flute scene from Anchorman in response to an in-character taunt from Will Ferrell.

Celebs and brands want to befriend Lizzo, associate themselves with Lizzo, establish themselves as Lizzo-adjacent. She exudes her own personal kind of cool—a hard-won but casually displayed confidence, an overflowing good humor that won’t stop her from calling b.s. if you step to her—that everyone hopes will rub off on them. And, let’s not be proud about it: That includes us. Minneapolis is plenty quick to mention that we’re the city she called home for five years.

But Lizzo is also, at this particular moment, in one particular place, and it ain’t Minneapolis. It’s Los Angeles, where she’s taking a short break from listening to mixes of her upcoming major-label full-length debut, Cuz I Love You, to discuss her plans for the months ahead by phone. The album drops next week, just eight days before her 31st birthday; then she goes on a headlining tour that will bring her to the Palace Theatre on May 5.

That St. Paul concert will be Lizzo’s first time around these parts in a while. She doesn’t get back much, she admits. Lizzo has friends in Minnesota. Lizzo has history in Minnesota. But when she’s not on tour, there’s only one thing that brings her back here consistently: Lizzo has dentists in Minnesota. “My dentists are amazing,” she says. “So I do try to get back there and get my teeth cleaned.”

When Melissa Jefferson originally moved to Minneapolis, the quality of our local dentistry was the least of her concerns. In 2010 Lizzo was the former flute player of a defunct Detroit indie-prog band; she’d just moved back in with her mom in Denver after her father passed away. She had one creative outlet remaining: “I’d been writing songs via like, the fuckin’, not even Facetime back then—it was like iChat or whatever,” she says of her earliest intestate collaborations with Minneapolis producer Johnny Lewis, aka Larva Ink. He offered to let her crash at his folks’ place in Edina. She couldn’t think of a less bad alternative.

Lizzo performed at Palace Theatre in St. Paul. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com – May 14, 2018, St. Paul, MN, Palace Theatre, Haim with Lizzo at the Palace Theatre Concert

Lizzo performed at Palace Theatre in St. Paul. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ • [email protected] – May 14, 2018, St. Paul, MN, Palace Theatre, Haim with Lizzo at the Palace Theatre Concert Carlos Gonzalez / Star Tribune

“I knew literally nobody and I knew of nobody in Minneapolis,” she says. “But I went to South by Southwest right before I moved and every person I met was from Minneapolis, every band was from Minneapolis, and I was like, ‘What the hell? There’s something goin’ on up there.’”

Beginning with Larva Ink in 2011, the new transplant quickly forged a bond with Minneapolis audiences and musicians. In 2012, her group the Chalice won City Pages’ annual Picked to Click best new artist poll. The following year, her new group Grrrl Prty placed third in the poll—which Lizzo won as a solo artist. She recorded her first solo album, Lizzobangers, with Doomtree’s Lazerbeak that year; two years after that she hied off to Eau Claire to record her follow-up at Justin Vernon’s April Base studio with BJ Burton. In between those sessions she found time for a pit stop in Chanhassen to record a track for Prince’s album with 3rdeyegirl, Plectrumelectrum, at Paisley Park.

In short, if you jotted down a list of things any musician would want to accomplish in Minneapolis, by 2016 Lizzo would probably have crossed off every item. But as the title of Big Grrrl Small World implied, she was outgrowing her local-star status. The big grrrl needed a bigger world, and the next step was inevitable, even if not necessarily a dream come true.

“I never wanted to move to L.A.,” Lizzo says now. “L.A. was one of those obligatory things. It was this temporary thing that became, ‘Well, I’m still here.’”

Lizzo had two good reasons to go west in 2016. She’d just signed with Atlantic Records and had begun recording music for the label with producer Ricky Reed, whom she credited at the time for developing her vocal range. What’s more, MTV, once again attempting to re-re-rebrand itself, hired Lizzo to host its short-lived music show Wonderland.

But L.A. presented Lizzo with a much different creative dynamic than the one that had helped her flourish before. Minneapolis, she points out, is where she learned the art of collaboration. “I was able to bring my style together there, to get comfortable with myself,” she says. In L.A., she soon learned, a creative team worked together differently. “Minneapolis is like a collaboration of the vibe, a musical collaboration,” she says. “In L.A., it’s more a collaboration of the mind. At the end of the day, you don’t hear every person that was involved. You just hear the artist. But in Minneapolis, you can hear every single artist involved when you collaborate.”

“L.A. added polish” to her sound, Lizzo says. But at first the art-by-committee style that creates today’s pop felt like it was contorting her music into distinctly un-Lizzo-like shapes. “When you get to L.A. and you’re in these songwriter rooms, they overthink a lot of the lyrics,” she says. “I did that for a few years when I moved here. There was a lot of thought process that went into that music. And I tried it out and it just wasn’t for me. I’m not an overthinker. I’m off the cuff.”

Helmed by Reed, Lizzo’s first major-label EP, Coconut Oil, came out in 2016, driven by the anthem “Good as Hell,” which brought her wider exposure when it landed on the soundtrack to Barbershop: The Next Cut. But the experience left her unsettled, and she had to get out of town.

“I went to Atlanta and I made a bunch of music before this album and that really gave me a lot of freedom, to just really get back to my roots, and be myself, regain my fearlessness,” she says. After her stint in Atlanta, she was more “able to trust my instincts. I was like, ‘This is what I want to say,’ and they were like, ‘Well, fuckin’ say it.”

It’s a little hard to imagine a Lizzo who doesn’t trust her instincts, but the music industry has been known to throw even the deftest performers off their game. Pop stars, like gymnasts or ice skaters, start young, groomed as exploitable multi-talented entertainers. Lizzo entered the ring as an adult, already in her late twenties, which has presented her with advantages and disadvantages. “I know what I want,” she says. “I think that that’s something people say about me a lot in the industry—you know, A&Rs or creatives who work in these big buildings. They’re like, ‘Well, you clearly have a vision,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, bitch, I have a vision. I’ve been visualizing and making that vision manifest for years.’”

You can hear the fruits of that vision, the fearlessness she reacquired in her Atlanta sojourn, and that off-the-cuff personality expressed in the music on Cuz I Love You. And you can hear Lizzo meld the collaborative techniques she’s acquired—Minneapolis-style and L.A.-style. The first single, “Juice,” is another Reed production, helped out by a lively Quinn Wilson video that features Lizzo romping through a landscape of workout programs, late-night talk shows, and infomercials. The title track, produced and co-written by the rock band X Ambassadors, is a retro-soul ballad that’s both heartfelt and knowingly over-the-top. “Tempo” rides a cool electronic beat from the pop/R&B producer Oak, and features a verse with Missy Elliott, whose idiosyncratic musical and visual style paved the way for a Lizzo as much as any MC.

Lizzo has since acclimated to her new hometown. “Living in Minneapolis for so long and understanding what having a local community feels like made it so much easier to transition to L.A. and not feel pressure to live in Hollywood, try to be in a scene that wasn’t even designed for me,” she says.

And she’s benefitted emotionally from the fact that plenty of Minnesota musicians, some without label deals or industry hook-ups, have headed west in recent years to find freelance work. “I very much live in the ‘Little Minneapolis’ of L.A.,” she says of the Echo Park neighborhood where she’s settled. “I know that might make some people roll their eyes, but it’s where a lot of people who move from the Midwest come, because it has the most community of any place in L.A., in my opinion. It’s pretty chill.”

Ever the collaborator, Lizzo credits much of her success to the team she works with, mostly women, most of whom have been with her for years, many of whom are from Minneapolis: hair stylist Shelby Swain, video director Quinn Wilson, supporting MC Sophia Eris. They’ve created a sort of collective identity. “They understand me,” she says. “Anyone who comes into our group has to understand our DNA.”

For a woman born in Houston, raised in Detroit, with family in Denver and roots in Minneapolis, those relationships take precedence over geography when it comes to defining herself. “I’m touring so much it doesn’t even really feel like I’m here,” she says of L.A. “I kind of don’t really feel like I have a home, because I moved around so much when I was younger. Home is where music is, home is where my family is, home is where my girls are. I kind of feel at home on the road.” And that could be anywhere.

Or everywhere.