Album cover via Liv.e/Instagram
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Donna-Claire watched her strawberries ripen in her garden while listening to this new Liv.e album.
Things begin with a whisper in February. I’m spending my days planning my spring garden, drawing sketches in green pen, and buying bee balm seeds to attract butterflies. Lemon balm, too, for nerves. I quit my job in January. I’m rehabilitating my relationship to music by ignoring it. I don’t need to stay current—I need to figure out where we’re going to fit six beet plants if we’re also planting watermelon. I live in the city with my wife, two cats, and a parrot. We have a modest backyard, but we really want to plant a few watermelons.
Things will grow, I figure, because they always do. Life returns. Trees flower. Music comes back too. I don’t expect to feel struck by a record much these days. We need to clear space for an indoor greenhouse, and I need to clear my mind to love music again. So I start sweeping and I put on Liv.e’s Girl In The Half Pearl. It’s her second album, following the Dallas-raised singer-producer’s 2020’s Couldn’t Wait to Tell You…, which was beloved in all the right digital circles (Read: my underground rap comrades thought Liv.e was “next.”)
Couldn’t Wait was Liv.e’s nearly formless R&B debut album – a strong show of tinkering and emotional brevity. Liv.e’s debut album slotted neatly into the experimental threads of the Southern music tradition. Sounds crunched and expanded in tandem, clutching the ear of a curious listener as the “Stories with Aunt Liv” seep out of speakers. Paired with her love for underground grit, Couldn’t Wait felt like a sinuous answer to the archive of Noname raps over Knxwledge beats, hidden away on YouTube and my old iPod. Twenty songs, in barely 45 minutes. It was a plume of thick, slow-clearing smoke.
“I do all my spring shit in the winter,” Liv.e shares with me between bites of applesauce over Zoom. We connect a few months after the “birth” of Girl In The Half Pearl, where Liv.e equates the time following the release of the album to going through postpartum depression. The record is my spring awakening, and while she agrees, for Liv.e, it’s also a capsule to explain a two-year silence rooted in being “mishandled” by a partner.
“All my transformation shit happenin’ when I’m just sitting there inside,” she explains. “I don’t make until it’s absolutely necessary. Whenever that happens, it’s a moment that’s calling on me. I couldn’t tell you what that mindstate looks like—I feel like I deal with a lot of dissociation when it comes down to making stuff. Sometimes it’s really just spirit. Making usually comes after life experiences, but my mindset? I’m usually in an extremely inspired state, or f*cking depressed. Depressed in a way where it was like, ‘So?’ Real, emo vibes. I’m sad, but I guess I kinda like it here!”
Image via qlick
Girl In The Half Pearl appears in the same concise breath as Couldn’t Wait, featuring a wizened Liv.e, a post-breakup Liv.e, a Liv.e who, in my humble estimation, would probably have a thought or two about where we’re going to fit a strawberry plant in this garden plan. Meaning, she’s growing. She’s really getting at it. Girl In The Half Pearl is tender and muscular. It is an album built upon the disorienting curves of self-improvement and emotional reckoning. The first words of the album spill out of my speakers as I dust and I hear a cacophonous, “Oh, no!” Things make sense affirmatively from there. The chanting “I love you” on “Six Weeks” grounds the listener in a state of despaeate sorrow. “RESET!” has the singer fighting for her life in search of freedom. Liv.e bursts through a series of tactful, jazzy, but ultimately unclassifiable, productions with sharp and elemental songwriting. If Couldn’t Wait was as elegant as it was diaristic, Half Pearl is unfettered chaos with a sweet twist.
Some of her songs come to her in dreams and sporadic thoughts recited into her phone between instances of gleefully doing nothing at all. “Ghost,” a song mimicking the brutal sensation of being ripped in two, began as a foreshadowing dream for Liv.e. She describes being “sadly awake” for much of Girl In The Half Pearl’s narrative moments, with “Clowns” being another emotive standout made moments after the album-catalyzing breakup. “We broke up in a therapy session, and then, 20 minutes later, I’m like, ‘Okay!’ That’s a little funny to me,” she remembers.
Liv.e has co-signs from Eryka Badu and Earl Sweatshirt dating back to the release of Hoopdreams in 2018. Her music has nods to the angular world of architecture and design, plays with harmony and cacophony in the same way I imagine Liv.e structured her world while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Despite originally not wanting to make music—following the family lineage felt like a nonstarter—Liv.e found her way to music formally in 2017 with the release of her EP, FRANK.
Speaking with Liv.e is like connecting with an old friend who is in turn connecting with themselves. Her laugh fills the rooms of the home she paces through as we talk. Still, as our conversation turns heavier, and Liv.e reveals the understood feelings of guilt that come with speaking your truth and setting boundaries, she carries a sense of lightness. Fear seems to circle her, but not drag her down. “Once I was able to free myself and actually talk about shit, it felt scary,” she explains. “It felt like I was doing the wrong thing. It felt like people knew too much without knowing.” She battles a fear of being perceived as “bad,” while also juggling the feeling of being an artist worried no one is listening.
Image via Catherine A. Lomedico
But people are listening. I’m listening to this album and reveling in the feeling of being in one of those arcade games where you’re trying to grab tickets out of the air. So much material swirling and you don’t know where to look, how to grab. Fingers failing, wrists locking up, but you try and try, and try. And I keep listening. I’m the type to listen to an album twice in a sitting, looping it back and taking notes—mentally, and sometimes in a small notebook my wife brought me from a San Francisco gift shop housed next to a cat cafe—on the fragments of lyrics that most matter to where I’m at and where I’m going.
“I plant my feet and I soak my roots” from “Lake Psilocybin” stays with me as I start the seeds for cucumbers, Thai basil, and sage. The heavy refrain of “They wanna use me” from “HowTheyLikeMe!” tenses my chest. The title of the self-produced “NoNewNews!!!” strikes me down once Liv.e sings, “When I think about it, all I do is surrender.” And I wonder, after those early listens, if surrender is the bravest thing we can do? Is it the humiliation of giving up, or is it following the flow of water towards some kind of a-spiritual salvation? We are just angling towards the elements whenever we can, aren’t we?
By March, I think of myself as a humble houseplant, waiting for the light to bring me back to myself. I listen to Girl In The Half Pearl at least twice a day. I work tirelessly on my second book, and try not to hate it in the process. I feel the slow piece of jumping off the content wheel. New music comes out, and I try it, and I come back to Liv.e, sheltering myself from the need to be “up” on trends. I don’t need to be anything. I commune with the pleasurably discordant quakes driving this record. I find in myself the same static pulses. I’m moved to do and breathe with intention. And, eventually, spring formally begins, and I’m moved to bring the plants outside. So many of our seeds have sprouted and curved towards the shifting sun. Is this not the way an album is made?
Liv.e’s writing sputters across Half Pearl. Little blips of heat shoot in all directions, and her quiet intensity never undoes itself. Instead, she surrenders to her innate sincerity. Girl In The Half Pearl is explosive. The production, influenced by the techno noise Liv.e was listening to at the time of recording, bounds and waves on a rush of unnamed feeling. It’s like doing acid and drawing a “summoning circle for good health” in your specified “acid trip notebook,” or so I’ve heard. Listening to Half Pearl is like reading the end of a James Joyce fiction, becoming and becoming and becoming and becoming…
Image via qlick
“The process of healing and making is a thing, but the process of suffering and making is also a thing for me,” Liv.e admits, citing the emotional abuse of a past relationship. “It’s so taxing. It’s funny, because I think a lot of the suffering I do is suffering I have to do because I’m built for it: ‘You go through it, because you can handle it, so you can be safe for the rest of your life.’ It’s a little tricky.”
Everything is flowering. It’s May now. Little green strawberries reveal themselves in our garden, reddening all over. I find new reasons to return to Girl In The Half Pearl, somehow a luxurious waking-nightmare that soothes through its rough edges and buried angst. The album came to me with no expectations, and has stayed with me effortlessly. Liv.e’s music is not demanding; it is reassuring and inviting even at its most painful. The album is a lush, colorful sand pit. I splash around like a big kid, get my fingernails dirty for a time, or maybe that’s just the soil from repotting heirloom tomatoes.