Lydia Liza sobers up, gets real, and returns with her first album in five years

Lydia Liza celebrates her new album, "Of Unsound Mind," at the Cedar on Saturday.

Lydia Liza celebrates her new album, "Of Unsound Mind," at the Cedar on Saturday. Zoe Prinds-Flash

Most 25-year-old musicians are still looking to get a record deal, have a song go viral, or play First Avenue. Over the past 10 years, Lydia Liza has already done all that.

Liza (real name Lydia Hoglund) was just 15 when her high school group, Bomba De Luz, won a Battle of the Bands contest and went on to achieve indie acclaim. She briefly experienced international attention in 2016 when her consent-centered update of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Josiah Lemanski went viral.

But behind that success, Liza was struggling with alcohol addiction and depression. She checked herself into Hazelden for treatment and has been sober since early 2018. And with a clearer head and a renewed sense of purpose, Liza has just released her best album yet, Of Unsound Mind.

“When I think about when I was a teenager, I just felt really sick all the time,” Liza says over coffee on a crisp fall morning in downtown Minneapolis. “I felt really depressed. I had some good friends, but I sought out some pretty shitty friends. I felt really unsupported, really confused. For me, personally, it was really bad. But it led to me being a lot more stable as an adult, because I’ve had to work through that loneliness.”

That newfound stability permeates the new songs, which have a lot more punch, both emotionally and sonically, than the restrained folk pop of her former band. But not all the songs are new: Some date back to her time with Bomba, like the re-recorded “Be Minor” and “He Should Know By Now,” which was written when she was 16. A snapshot of Liza’s personal journey, Of Unsound Mind addresses the highs and lows she’s experienced with candor and grace.

“At the end of my drinking, I started to get really manic about wanting to create but never being able to finish anything,” Liza says. She assembled a band with guitarist Kelly Blau, bassist Jimmy Osterholt, and drummer Jessica Anderson, but just as she started working with them she realized she needed to go into treatment. “It was three or four months into being sober, I was like, ‘Let’s just fucking do it. Let’s make a record.’”

Liza decided to fund the album via Kickstarter, then Justin Courtney Pierre of Motion City Soundtrack, touring solo, asked her to join his band. “The day I left on tour was the day we made the Kickstarter live,” she says. “Justin was such a huge part of us reaching our goal, because each night at the shows, he was telling his fans to donate. He’s a very good man.” The Kickstarter raised over $13,000, exceeding Liza’s $12,000 goal.

Pierre is also a guest vocalist on one of the new album’s standout tracks, “Crow on a Branch,” and helped Liza rediscover her love of pop punk, which courses through the record. Pierre gave Liza a custom-made pedal board made by Pierre’s other guitarist, Tommy Rehbein, that featured both a fuzz and distortion pedal, which encouraged Liza to get noisy.

“Being a woman in the music industry can be really difficult. Especially if you fit the trope of being a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar,” Liza says with a sigh. “It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. Picking up an electric guitar, for me, made me feel like I could take myself more seriously, and that other people should too. And I’m going to yell on the record, darn it. I felt so empowered being one of the guitarists on Justin’s tour. I felt like, ‘I can do this! I can rip! I want to rip!’”

And Liza does indeed rip on “Be Minor,” “Crow on a Branch,” and “Starting to Choke,” a song that was originally a “jazz ballad,” Liza says. But when she came back from Pierre’s tour she transformed it into a Brand New-inspired pop-punk jam that also has elements of the slow-burning vulnerability of Jeff Buckley and the fierce erudition of Laura Marling.

Of Unsound Mind has moments of hushed elegance too. “Cardiologist,” about a heart condition that required Liza to have surgery, is also a kiss-off to a guy who quickly proved that he wasn’t the one. And the acoustic album-closer, “No Fighter,” serves as a lovely denouement to the album’s themes of survival and rebirth, with a heavenly string arrangement by Jillian Rae.

Where Bomba featured a collaborative approach to songwriting, Liza is leading the way with her new group. “We haven’t had a chance to be that creative together yet,” she says. “So I have been in way more a directorial role than I’ve ever been. Where it’s like, ‘OK, I’ve finished this song, you do this, I’m kind of hearing this, we need more of this.’ I’m actually managing that in a way that I’ve never had to do before, which is terrifying. I never in my life took myself seriously, so now I’m kind of learning how to.”

Liza’s public candor about her sobriety and her mental health struggles translates fluidly to the songs and subject matter on Of Unsound Mind. It is an assured, confident collection of songs from a musician who refused to fall victim to addiction and depression, took accountability for her mistakes even as she learned from them, and didn’t let herself get jaded about the music industry’s treatment of her as a teenage girl.

“I feel it really does have a timeline to it, especially since some of the songs come from when I was a teenager,” Liza explains. “It feels more like a catharsis, stuff that I had to get out in order to even think about doing anything else. I think the thing that scares people so much about sobriety, or recovery, or even just pulling back on their abuse of a substance, is reality and having to truly deal with shit. But that is where the depth comes from that allows people to be creative, I think. Once you look the thing you are afraid of in the face then you can name it and you can talk openly about it, which I think is a really important thing to do in order to create art that other people identify with.”

Lydia Liza
With: The Nunnery, Gramma's Boyfriend, Big Cats
Where: Cedar Cultural Center 
When: 8 p.m. Sat. Nov. 30
Tickets: $12/$15; more info here