Interview: Lizzo on self-confidence, music as activism, and feeling ‘Good As Hell’

“Wild style, balls to the wall, ass to the ceiling” — that’s the tour punchline that Lizzo serves me on the phone before kicking off her slew of North American tour dates this June. Her statement holds water, too, because with every sultry drop of self-confidence, she offers an ocean of always-vibrating talent to back her ass up.

“Feelin’ like a stripper when I’m lookin’ in the mirror/I be slappin’ on that ass, getting’ thicker and thicker,” she raps on “Scuse Me,” perhaps one of the few songs that frames women getting “thicker” (i.e., putting on weight and getting curvier) as a godly thing.

Self-assurance is a theme that has always run through the bloodstream of the rapper’s music, but it took the forefront of her image last year when she released her Coconut Oil EP, a six-song swan dive into suave r&b jams and odes to self-love. Unlike the ranks of so many pop stars who make a fashionable “you should love yourself” single and quickly abandon the mentality once the song dips on the charts, self-love has become the entirety of Lizzo’s brand, namely because her message is actually genuine. Her song “Good As Hell” for Barbershop: The Next Cut, which we ranked as one of the best tunes of 2016, is just a fraction of her positivity potential. “Scuse Me” and “Coconut Oil” pack even more power without ever mentioning trying to impress a man — not that Lizzo’s not confident on the dude front; on “Ride,” the lyrics “I swear there should be support groups for men without Lizzo/Meet once a week and deal with y’all issues/Google me and jack off into tissues” are particularly notable proof.

Lizzo brings her glow of positivity to the Paradise Rock Club this Saturday (June 17), and Vanyaland dropped the rapper a line to take a page from her gospel of self-love and talk about her forthcoming debut album on Atlantic Records.

Victoria Wasylak: You’ve been playing flute for a very long time, but you didn’t decide that you wanted to be a singer until you were about 20 when you went through that period where you didn’t speak for three months. Can you elaborate on that?

Lizzo: I’ve always wanted to write music, and I’ve always sang, but it was an insecurity thing where I would write songs with singing and rapping but I never thought I was good enough to be the singer. Everyone’s story is different, and mine is a little later and you can see that in my story, that mine is all about patience and finding yourself, all in due time. I think I just had to get the confidence to believe in myself, that I could sing. It’s just very scary if you think about doing something like that onstage in front of a bunch of people… it’s terrifying! That that vow of silence — which I didn’t even realize what it was back then, everyone’s like “you took a vow of silence,” [as if] it’s so glamourous now — but it was not cute when it was happening.

I think I was just so crazy — like honestly, I almost lost my mind. “I can do anything! I’m going to be a singer!” I think there is a little bit of — you know when a cowboy is riding his horse on his way to go shoot up a bunch of dudes and they’re like “He’s crazy! He’s a hero!”? That’s what it is, the edge of insanity and heroism where you find the confidence to do something like that.

Do you think you would have been able to push yourself to that point to be confident enough to be a singer professionally if you hadn’t gone through that period?

No. That was pivotal, that was an extremely big moment. That was a make or break moment there.

What do you think you would be doing if you hadn’t gone through that? Would you be performing as a flutist?

No, because even then, that was what started it, the fact that I had given up on being a professional flute player. I don’t know where I’d be dog — I think I’d be in Denver, Colorado for Cirque du Solei or something.

You said in one of your past interviews that just the act of being a musician is activism. Can you explain your thought process on that?

I don’t think musicians, influencers, or artists are obligated to be political activists, and I think that’s where people really twist it. When you hear the word “activism” or “activist” you’re like, [silly voice] “is he a democrat or a republican?” or “are you a liberal?” That’s not what I mean when I say that, I mean you’re activating your community. Regardless of what you want to do or not, you have a higher platform or higher reach, and you’re activating people every night when you sing to them. You’re activating them every time someone listens to your song. I think my voice is always so deeply rooted in a political nature because of who I am. I am black — if you wanted to characterize me in the ways that we characterize people and black women — and I grew up in Detroit and Houston and didn’t have the privilege of the upper class, do you know what I’m saying? We all have privilege, but I think that when I tell my story, coming from that place and giving you that perspective, I think that by default that makes me political.

So what I’m saying is that my music is political activism. When I sing a song like “My Skin,” people are getting activated to think about people of color and thinking about Black Lives Matter — even if they don’t agree with it, it’s on their mind because I’m saying something. I think when I realized the power in that, it showed me that it’s so easy to activate people to make the world a better place or put people in a mood — the power of music and the power of a voice. I don’t think this is the part of being a professional singer or an artist that a lot of people identify with or even care about at first, I think they’re more worried about the performance and songs and their fans, but I learned quickly because of my position that I have this influence.

I also activate people for positivity and change for good, for better, and keeping that in mind, I’ll never be thinking about what other people want me to make in my music, but I’ll definitely be thinking about “what kinds of change do I want to make?” And “What kinds of feelings do I want people to have to make the world better?”

I think Coconut Oil, the EP, is a really excellent example of that — a really positive and uplifting group of songs. Nobody wakes up in the morning and is suddenly confident in themselves. How did you get to the point where you were confident enough to put out that EP?

The songs on Coconut Oil were cherry-picked from a bunch of songs that we had. I was so excited to share them and I was in such a good place in my life. I felt like I had maxed the level of self-love and I started to move into self-care, which is super important and still super important. I was kind of creating a foundation of strength so that when these building blocks get higher and higher, the harder it is to knock me down. When you listen to these songs, you don’t hear any vulnerability, you hear a lot of strength. I think I needed that as my thumbprint in the world and as my first adventure into the mainstream and major label world, I think I needed that as my identity. I’m really proud of those songs, they were the ones that stood out in the batch of songs we had. We were like “we’ve got to put these out now.”

A message for my #bbws!!! Who seent it??

A post shared by Lizzo (@lizzobeeating) on Jun 14, 2017 at 11:02pm PDT

I think that through that EP and through all the messages that you put out through social media, you really live the positivity/be confident in yourself mentality, whereas a lot of musicians pretend to – they’ll make one song about how “you should love yourself” but nothing else that they really do reflects that attitude.

I can’t speak for any other artist because I don’t know their personal lives, but I will say social media is such a window into what we want people to see. I realized early on that I wasn’t a huge fan of social media — I would not have an Instagram or a Twitter if I weren’t making music. But I’ve realized that because it’s so directly linked to my music that I might as well show the process and show these people the authenticity of my work and the “practicing what you preach,” because that gets challenged really quickly. People see me or they watch a show and are like “are you really like this? Are you really that confident?” [And I say] “Dang, I don’t know, what do you want from me?” I think it’s important that you’re getting tiny glimpses into my world and me in the studio sometimes — it helps people connect even more so and it makes the music believable.

Even a few days ago, you posted on Facebook about how you were working out, but for your mental health, and encouraged people to do the same and take care of themselves — this isn’t a publicity stunt.

You know, I’ve never done anything like that specifically before — I’ve never shown myself at the gym and wrote a “bopo” or body positive message, but I felt compelled to because lately I’ve been going online and getting really encouraged by other people’s messages. I’ve gotten some backlash and negativity because human beings — I don’t know why, but sometimes we love to find the negativity in something — and I really, really listen to their critique of that. It comes off to them as vain, but you think about that one or two or three people who are posting negatives and then you see all the hundreds of other people who are like “I needed this!” and “thank you” — they’re not just saying “I needed this” because they want me to like their comment or to read that they exist, they’re saying “I needed this” because they really did.

I literally just scrolled my Instagram and the first thing that popped up was this girl — she posted a quote, and the quote was so on point and I needed it in that exact moment and it moved me. I was like “the timing on this was so perfect, thank you.” We need these messages. I’m always shy to post like that because It’s self-congratulatory and it’s like “hey guys, looks at me! Mhm!” but people need that because there’s so much negativity online too. The more that we can saturate it with positive imagery and messaging, the better off we’ll be. We can really defend ourselves against the grossness that exists in the world and on the internet.

I remember I deleted my twitter back in the day, before being Lizzo or verified — this was back when it was Lizzo Music or whatever weird thing I had. I was tweeting these diary entry posts from my mind, basically — pretty angst-y stuff and subtweeting a lot, putting tweets out to someone who I knew would see it. It was so gross; I deleted it and the only reason I got it back was because of music. And Instagram I refused — I was like “I am NOT going to get an Instagram, I don’t want one of those.” Everyone was like [silly voice] “but Instagram is so cool!” And then I had this idea to be a food blogger — I just wanted to be a food critic so I could get free food — and I made @LizzoBeEating because that was going to be my food blog, and that was the only way I was going to Instagram. I’m taking pictures of food, writing really good reviews, and then I can start eating for free. [laughs]

Your debut album via Atlantic Records is in the works right now — how far along are you with that?

We’re solid, man. We just had a “come to Jesus” meeting this week and we were like “woah, we’ve got some really good music here.” We’re starting to take photos and we’re starting to really master the music, and it’s like, time. It’s coming along, but the cool thing about my experience as an artist is that nothing is ever rushed or thrown together — everything is treated really, really gingerly [and] with patience. Like I was telling you, on Coconut Oil, I had all this strength, and this is going to be very vulnerable — vulnerable but strong, because I created that foundation of strength in Coconut Oil.

Are any of the song from Coconut Oil or your prior releases going to be on the album, or is it going to be 100 percent stuff no one has heard before?

I think in the classic EP fashion, we might throw some of the [Coconut Oil] favorites on the album because there are just some songs that deserve a replay. But it’s mostly new songs.

I’m so excited and so nervous. I just want it to do well and people to love it and I just want to be able to perform these songs — everywhere!

LIZZO + BROOKE CANDY :: Saturday, June 17 at The Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., 18-plus, $18 :: Advance tickets :: Featured photo by Jabari Jacobs