Lizzo On Feminism, Self-Love And Bringing 'Hallelujah Moments' To Stage
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this July Fourth, we're going to play back one of our favorite recent interviews, which also got a big response from listeners. It's the interview I recorded in May with Lizzo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EXACTLY HOW I FEEL")
LIZZO: (Singing) That's exactly how I feel. That's exactly how I feel. That's exactly how I feel. I woke up this morning...
GROSS: That's my guest, rapper and singer Lizzo, from her new album "Cuz I Love You." It was described in Rolling Stone by Rob Sheffield as Lizzo's legend-making breakthrough album where she finally claims her crown as a mega-pop queen. Lizzo is a self-described big girl. Her backup dancers are big girls, too. Her songs are body-positive. When she was in college, she was studying to become a classical flautist. Although rap and pop won out, she's found a place for her flute in her music. Prince was a fan, and she recorded a track for his album "Plectrumelectrum" with 3RDEYEGIRL.
Let's start with a track from Lizzo's new album. This is "Juice."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUICE")
LIZZO: (Singing) Mirror, mirror on the wall, don't say it 'cause I know I'm cute. Ooh, baby. Louis down to my drawers, LV all on my shoes. Ooh, baby. I be dripping so much sauce, got a bih (ph) looking like Ragu. Ooh, baby. Lit up like a crystal ball - that's cool, baby. So is you.
That's how I roll. If I'm shining, everybody going to shine. Yeah, I'm goals. I was born like this - don't even got to try. Now you know. I'm like chardonnay - get better over time. So you know. Heard you say I’m not the baddest b****. You lie.
It ain’t my fault that I'm out here getting loose - got to blame it on the Goose, got to blame it on my juice, baby. It ain't my fault that I'm out here making news. I’m the pudding in the proof - got to blame it on my juice. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Blame it on my juice. Blame it - blame it on my juice. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah. Blame it on my juice. Blame it - blame it on my juice. Ooh, baby.
No, I'm not a snack at all...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Lizzo, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your new album. Thank you so much for coming. The album shows off your rapping and your singing, and it's so well produced. What was your vision for the album? What did you want to say, lyrically and musically?
LIZZO: Well, I've been working on music for the last, like, three years. And I made, like, three different albums, like, different - I was telling different stories. It was different sonically. Like, one was more pop. One was more, like, trap. And then we made "Cuz I Love You." And I think what's different about this music is that I'm just a little bit more vulnerable than I am ever before. Even my vocal is a little bit more vulnerable. So I wanted to tell - and I wanted to show vulnerability and strength on this album - and even to the album cover. Like, you know, being completely naked, but also looking so comfortable with myself, I think, is a testament to this album showing vulnerability and strength.
GROSS: And for anybody who hasn't seen the album cover, you are literally naked on it (laughter).
LIZZO: I am.
GROSS: But you're covering your privates with other parts of your body. So...
LIZZO: Barely. Barely.
GROSS: Barely (laughter). True.
LIZZO: I was actually - we had done a lot of poses that day. And that was me - 'cause I was tooting my butt up. And then I, like, got - my back was hurting a little bit, so I just kind of relaxed and leaned forward. And then the photographer - he was like, look at me. And I looked at him, and that was the shot. Like - so that was me just so comfortable, not trying to cover anything up. But, you know, that's just how the magic happens.
GROSS: Whose idea was it to pose nude on the cover? Was it yours or another person's suggestion?
LIZZO: Well, my creative team is amazing, and, you know, we all have one brain. But we had done a shot - we had done a shoot before for the album cover, and I think that we had overstyled it and overdressed it. So I think when we had to do a reshoot, we chose to go the opposite route and start with nothing and build back up. But the nothing shots were the greatest, so I think it just happened naturally.
GROSS: You know, sometimes when I see somebody who's nude or who's half-nude (laughter) - largely nude on their album cover or in a photo and it's a woman - and I think, like - it sometimes bothers me 'cause I think like, oh, are you making yourself into a sex object for men? When you're doing it on your album cover, I think it's a really bold statement, and it's a statement for women. And - do you know what I mean? - because you are trying to break the mold of what beautiful is. And so you're making...
LIZZO: Yeah, but are you only saying that because I'm fat? You know what I'm saying? Because I feel like if I were a thin woman, maybe that wouldn't be the case. I feel like women who are smaller aren't really given the opportunities to be body-positive or role models either because we've been conditioned to believe that women are using their bodies for the male gaze. And I think if I were slimmer, I don't think people would look to me with the same type of like, oh, wow; she's so brave; she's doing this and representing everyone - that they would - you know I'm saying? - because I'm big.
GROSS: I know what you're saying. And I think it's just a really complicated issue for me because sometimes I feel, you know, like - I'm older than you are. And a lot of women in my generation fought against women having to display their bodies to sell cars or, you know - 'cause, like, scantily dressed women were always used to, like, sell things, you know?
GROSS: So, like, the woman was, like, the come-on for you to buy the car or buy the product or to sell the album or whatever. And it was just, like, selling women as, like - as sexuality, period. Like, that's what you were - your sexuality, period. And now I think things are getting really redefined. And I think, you know, you're doing it as part of, like, the redefinition and part of making - I mean, I think the statement you're making is very positive and more feminist.
GROSS: ...As opposed to, like, somebody is using my body to sell something to someone.
LIZZO: Yeah. But, I mean, I'm just as feminist as Megan Thee Stallion - you know what I'm saying? - and her album covers. I think what's happening here is that there's different waves of feminism. And it's definitely - it's just like - it's, like, a generational thing, you know I'm saying? Like, one generation asks one thing, and then that next generation is going to ask the complete opposite of it because of the lack thereof. You know what I'm saying?
So where there was a wave of feminism where we were burning bras, now I'm like, my bra is in your face. You know what I'm saying? And I think that that is just a testament to human beings and how we evolve. And I think that the wave of feminism right now that's overtly sexual and in your face, I think, is just the response to where we were. Like, I'm going to wear a suit, and I'm going to boss up on you, and - you know what I'm saying? - like, you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do-type vibes. Now it's like, no, I'm going to tell you what to do. Hello.
GROSS: So did you always feel body-positive about yourself? Did you always feel confident, or were there periods of your life where all of the fat shaming that happens in our culture made you uncomfortable about yourself?
LIZZO: Well, 10 years ago, I couldn't find a bathing suit, and I couldn't find bikinis for my body size. And I was being told every day that my face was great, but my body needs work. And I was being shamed in little ways that people didn't even realize they were shaming me. It was so ingrained. And I started to shame myself and actually believed what they were saying to me. And I think about 10 years ago, I made the decision that I just wanted to be happy with my body, and I just wanted to be happy with who I am and that I would wake up every day in the same body, and it wasn't going to change.
And that was the beginning of my journey with learning how to love my body. And it most certainly didn't end there, and it didn't apex there. Like, I had to work for many, many years to get to this point. Like, I think I was 20, 21 when it started. And I don't even think I fully realized or actualized and believed what I was saying - maybe seven years later.
And I'm still working on it every day. There's days where I wake up and I'm like, oh, my God. You know, this isn't me. But then I have to remind myself, this is you. It looks a little different, but it's still you. And you have to find that love for yourself deep down inside, underneath all of that, you know, questioning and ickiness.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I think what you're doing is helping a lot of people love themselves, so that's great.
I want to talk a little bit about the production on your album. It's so good. And there's different producers on different tracks. You're a constant on there. But, you know, even though there's different producers for different tracks, the album has a kind of very coherent sensibility to it. Can you talk a little bit about the production and what your role is when deciding what the sound is going to be on each track?
LIZZO: Well, as some people may know, I am, you know, classically trained in music theory and music performance, so I have kind of an innate ear and, actually, a highly skilled ear when it comes to frequency, and harmony, and dissonance and melody. And so, for me, it's this thing that I can feel in my body. I'm almost like a tuning fork, where if I hear the beat and I vibrate at the level that it - you know, I'm supposed to, I know that that's what I want to get on.
And from being trained, I think it's easier for me to speak a language to producers, and I can speak engineer to the engineers. And I think we all just have so much fun nerding out. Like, I don't actually like being given a beat. Like, I love to be there at the conception of a song from just watching the producer put that click track on and just build from there. Like, that's my favorite part, is watching the birth of a song and being a part of the birth.
And so most of the songs on this album, actually, were just, you know, little click tracks (laughter). And then I sat in the room and just watched them grow into the beautiful songs that they are. And I think that's why I'm so integral to the sound of the music and the sonics. And I'm credited as a producer on a couple of the songs because I was there, you know? And I'm - my DNA is in there as well.
GROSS: So I want to play another song from your new album, "Cuz I Love You." And this is the title track. And I want to play this because it really shows off, like, your singing. And you really sing terrifically. And also, you were talking about bringing a vulnerability now to some of your music, and I think this is an example of that too. So before we hear it, do you want to say anything about, you know, co-writing this or putting it together or the sound you wanted? It sounds like a power ballad to me.
LIZZO: "Cuz I Love You" is one of my favorite songs I've ever been a part of. I feel like it's one of the greatest songs ever written.
LIZZO: You know, if I didn't write it, I would say the same thing only because I've never quite heard anything like it besides maybe, like, CeeLo.
But I remember we were at lunch, and I was telling the producer, who was X Ambassadors and Sam Harris, that I was telling this guy like, I'm not crying 'cause I'm sad; I'm crying 'cause I love you. And he literally looked and said, that's a song.
(Singing) I'm crying because I love you - bom (ph), bom, bom, bom, bom.
And we were in the middle of a whole different song, and I said, we need to do that. And I sat down and wrote these lyrics in 10 minutes. And they made that music like that. And I feel like, you know, it's songs like that that just make you question, like, how is this even done? Where does music even come from? I'm so proud of this song, and I hope you like it too.
GROSS: I love it, so let's hear it. This is "Cuz I love You" from Lizzo's new album of the same name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUZ I LOVE YOU")
LIZZO: (Singing) I'm crying 'cause I love you, oh. Ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya, ya. Never been in love before. What the [expletive] are [expletive] feelings, yo? Once upon a time, I was a ho. I don't even want to ho no more. Got you something from the liquor store. Little bit of Lizzo and some more. Trying to open up a little more. Sorry if my heart a little slow. I thought that I didn't care. I thought I was love-impaired. But baby, baby, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm crying 'cause I love you.
GROSS: So you grew up in Detroit. What music did you grew up with?
LIZZO: In Detroit, I grew up with a lot of gospel music. I remember we would listen to "Perfecting Praises" (ph) over and over and over. That was the Marvin Winans family album. And they would always come out with family albums, and we would just listen to that. Like, it was strictly gospel. I didn't really listen to secular music or, like, radio music. But mind you, I was still very, very young. But it shaped who I am today onstage. Like, you get a lot of hallelujah moments from me. And that's from Detroit and growing up in the COGIC church.
GROSS: Which church?
LIZZO: The Church of God in Christ, which is COGIC.
GROSS: So when you weren't listening to secular music, was that because of the church? Did your parents not want secular music in the house?
LIZZO: I mean, well, you know, it was the devil. So (laughter) we did...
LIZZO: My parents - so the funny thing is - is, you know, my sister and my brother, who are older than me, they remember different things. Like, my dad, he really loved Elton John. And my mom loved Stevie Wonder. So, you know, we would have those types of things - Hall and Oates, you know, Queen. My dad loved Queen. So, like, those things would filter in here and there. But for the most part, you know, we tried to listen to gospel music. Music makes people feel things, and it made me feel things in church that I knew that I could bring to my music. You know what I'm trying to say?
So, like, for instance, there was something about the way that the - what's it called? It's, like, a revival song or shout music. Shout music is when the drummers are going off and the bass is like, do, do, do, do, do, do, do (ph) - you know? And then at that point, everybody's just running around the church, and everyone's shouting. Like, that reaction, that visceral, physical reaction that you see in people that's driven by the music - like, the pastor talking can make you say amen all day. But there's something about that driving music that makes you want to get out of your seat and run. And I knew that music had the power to move people physically, even - emotionally, but especially physically.
So I don't think it's just because we're talking about Jesus, because even in those bass lines, the bass line's not talking about Jesus. The bass line is just running. And it takes you to God. Or it - you know what I'm saying? It's just a vessel. And so I want to use my music as a vessel to get you where you need to go to a positive place.
GROSS: OK. So I'm going to play (laughter) a song that I think really gets you moving. The lyrics are very not spiritual, literally. They're more profane. (Laughter) And I want to play "Boys."
LIZZO: Girl, what?
LIZZO: This transition - (laughter) All right. Let's go.
GROSS: It gets you moving.
LIZZO: This song...
GROSS: It gets you moving. And in terms of believing in your music, I think this succeeds.
LIZZO: Yeah. I will say that this song live, out of all the other songs, get the people stomping. So if you ready to stomp...
LIZZO: ...Here's "Boys" (laughter).
GROSS: And I know it's quite a segue for what we were talking about, but I see it as connected. So talk a little bit about writing this.
LIZZO: "Boys" is the song that almost never happened. I remember, "Boys," I wrote, like, back during the "Coconut Oil" days.
GROSS: So that would be around 2016.
LIZZO: 2015, '16. And I remember, back then, I wasn't really as much as a playa (ph) as I am now, and I wasn't getting as much - I wasn't actually living those words I was saying. You know? I was hopeful, and I was - and I wanted to be there. But I wasn't quite there. And I remember, we kind of just put that song on the back burner. And it had a completely different beat and all of that. And then when - (laughter) - like, fast-forward a few years later. I was sitting in the meeting with my managers. And I was like - we were, like, looking for a song. Like, we just - I was playing them all these songs that I had been working on. And they were like, these are OK.
And then I went deep into my email, and I was like, let me play them this one and just see what they think. And I played them "Boys," and they just started laughing and giggling and moving. And I was like, uh-oh. Y'all like this one, huh? So we went in the studio, and we finished her. And this song, I'm so proud of. And that just goes to show you that, like, you know, it doesn't matter when you made something. Like, that song can come back and change your life.
GROSS: So this is "Boys." And it was released first as a single, but it's an extra on the - what? - like, expanded version of your new album...
GROSS: ..."Cuz I Love You." The deluxe version. (Laughter). OK. So here's Lizzo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYS")
LIZZO: (Singing) Hey, boy. What you say, boy? You trying to play coy, like a Game Boy? Hit my phone, boy. Is you home, boy? Are you alone, boy? Come give me dome, boy. Got a boy with degrees, a boy in the streets, a boy on his knees. He a man in the sheets. Sheesh. It's all Greek to me. Got this boy speaking Spanish. Ay, papi. Baby, I don't need you. I just want to freak you. I heard you a freak, too. What's two plus two? Four, three, two, ow. Boy. Boy. Boy. Make a girl go crazy. Four, three, two, ow. Boy. Boy. Boy. Make a girl go crazy. Four, three. I like big boys, itty-bitty boys, Mississippi boys, inner-city boys. I like the pretty boys with the bow tie. Get your nails did. Let it blow dry. I like a big beard. I like a clean face. I don't discriminate. Come and get a taste. From the playboys to the gay boys, go and slay, boys. You my fave boys. Baby, I don't need you. I don't need. I just want to freak you. I want it bad. I heard you a freak, too. That's right. What's two plus two? Four, three, two, wow. Boys.
GROSS: So that was "Boys," which is on the expanded, deluxe version of Lizzo's new album, "Cuz I Love You," and it also was released last year as a single. I hear so much Prince in the production on that. So I know you met Prince when you were living in Minneapolis. And...
LIZZO: I was on his album.
GROSS: Yeah. And you did a track on the - on one of his...
GROSS: ...On "Plectrumelectrum," with 3RDEYEGIRL. And so how did he find you? 'Cause he invited you to perform for him. He asked you then to do a track for "Plectrumelectrum." So I know when you moved to Minneapolis after college - after dropping out of college, you became a kind of important part of the music scene there. But - so how did he find you? How did he hear you?
LIZZO: OK, so there was a documentary being made about burgeoning musicians and also, like, you know - yeah, I think it was just burgeoning musicians, actually, in Minnesota. And it was on one of the, like, local news stations, and it was us - me and my best friend and my DJ Sophia Eris' group, The Feelin, who won "The Voice," and Plectrumelectrum, who was Prince's band, and I think some other people too, but I can't remember.
And (laughter) they did a piece on us, and the day it aired, the Current, the radio station in Minneapolis, called - or St. Paul and Minneapolis - they called and said - they hit us up and said, yo, you won't believe this, but Prince just sent us an email asking for y'all's contact. And we were like, what? And mind you, this was maybe two years after I moved to Minneapolis. And I was - I couldn't believe it. I was like, well, give him our email. What are you waiting for? And the email just simply said, I would like for you to come to Paisley Park on Easter Sunday, and...
GROSS: Easter Sunday, wow.
LIZZO: Yeah, it was pretty - it was amazing - to work on a song. And we went, and it was magical. And from then on, we had a relationship with Paisley Park and with him where we would just - he would ask us to come perform for his parties, and we would come and perform. And we also had - he, you know, talked about me in interviews. He was like, you know, Lizzo's one to watch. She's up next. When nobody was checking for me, he was checking for, you know, young black girls and young black artists and giving us a voice and gave me my first big check. I mean, I have a lot of respect and a deep, profound relationship with one of the greatest artists of all time, so that's all I can say about that.
GROSS: After you dropped out of college, figuring that you couldn't be both, like, the classical musician and the rap artist at the same time, your parents had moved to - I think it was Denver by that point.
GROSS: And you were no longer living in the dorm because you weren't in college. And you were kind of without a home for a while, so you slept in your car and slept in the recording studio. What was that like for you to, like, not have a home?
LIZZO: Man, you know, when you're - when it was actually happening to me, I didn't think of myself as homeless. You kind of just are in, like, survival mode. And I have a deep understanding and a deep sensitivity to people who experience homelessness. I think that not having a home and being homeless, I think, are two different constructs. Like, I didn't have a home for 1 1/2 to two years of my life - that I made a choice to not go back to Denver and stay with my family. There are people who do not have a choice in their homelessness, and homelessness is something that plagues, like, so many hundreds of thousands and millions of people, specifically Americans, due to so many extenuating circumstances. So I want to make that distinction very clear.
But I made this decision to not go back home to Denver, and I also did not have money. I did not have a job, and I allowed myself to just try to pursue music. And I think that I had a luxury and a privilege to be able to sleep on the floor of my drummer's house, to be able to sleep in a car my sister gave me, to be able to sleep at the studio where my rock band performed at, to be able to sneak into 24 Hour Fitness and use the showers there. I definitely was even privileged and abled to do that. It sucked. It was very lonely. It was very hard, and I think that I had risked it all for music.
GROSS: OK. So I want to break here and play another song. And this is from your 2016 EP "Coconut Oil," and the song is "Good As Hell." I really love this. And I know a lot of people do. Again, I'm going to ask you to talk about, you know, writing it and conceiving the sound.
LIZZO: Yeah. "Good As Hell" was the first time I had written a song that I was like, wow, this song could be on the radio. I never saw myself as, like, a big artist like that that would have - I was very much indie-minded, you know? And I remember it was one of the first songs I wrote with Ricky Reed, and we were in the studio.
And I - he flew me out to LA, and I was like, oh, OK. I was, like, feeling myself. And we sat down, and he played this piano riff. And he said, how does this make you feel? And I was like, you know how it makes me feel? And I did a little hair flip, and I checked my nails. I was like, it makes me feel like everything going to be OK, you know? I was like, it makes me feel good as hell. And he was like, all right. And that was, like, the basis of our relationship. Like, he would literally take words from my mouth and be like, you know you just wrote this lyric, right? I mean, I was like, really? (Laughter) So this was the beginning of a very beautiful relationship.
GROSS: OK, let's hear it. This is "Good As Hell" from Lizzo's EP "Coconut Oil."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD AS HELL")
LIZZO: (Singing) I do my hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell. Hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell. Woo, child - tired of the bulls***. Go on; dust your shoulders off. Keep it moving. Yes, Lord, trying to get some new s*** - in there, swimwear, going to the pool s***. Come now; come dry your eyes. You know you a star. You can touch the sky. I know that it's hard, but you have to try. If you need advice, let me simplify. If he don't love you anymore, just walk your fine a** out the door.
(Singing) I do my hair toss, check my nails. Baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell. Hair toss, check my nails - baby, how you feeling? Feeling good as hell, feeling good as hell. Baby how you feeling? Feeling good as hell.
(Singing) Woo, girl, need to kick off your shoes. Got to take a deep breath. Time to focus on you. All the big fights, long nights that you've been through - I got a bottle of tequila I've been saving for you. Boss up, and change your life. You can have it all, no sacrifice. I know he did you wrong. We can make it right. So go, and let it all hang out tonight 'cause he don't love you anymore. So walk your fine ass out the door. And do your hair toss, check my nails.
GROSS: That was Lizzo doing "Good As Hell" from her 2016 EP "Coconut Oil." Her new album is called "Cuz I Love You."
Do you remember any of the first rhymes that you wrote?
LIZZO: (Laughter) Yeah, I do. One of the first - well, actually, I was writing pop songs before I was writing raps (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, really?
LIZZO: Yeah. I remember when I was 9, I started a group called Peace, Love and Joy with my two best friends Pips (ph) and Mary (ph). And I was Peace, and my other two friends were Love and Joy. And we would sing little Spice Girls songs that I would write. And I remember I wrote this one song for one of the groups that I was in called Initials, and it was called "Broken Households." (Laughter) And I was, like, 13. And it was like, (singing) broken households, children lost hope, families struggling, battling sin.
LIZZO: And I remember they were like, why would you write a song? Even in the bridge I remember telling my friend Alexia (ph), who's still my - she's one of my best friends. I told her I wanted her to sing like, (singing) Daddy, I need you more right now. Mommy, can't you see?
(Laughter) And they were like, why would you write a song - like, did you have a broken household? I said no. And they were like, why would you write a song like this? I'm like, I just wanted to, like, speak up on this issue.
GROSS: I like the line battling sin. Where did that come from? You were already not going to church when you were 13.
LIZZO: I mean, I - I mean, but we were still church folk.
GROSS: I see, OK.
LIZZO: You know, we just - you know, when you come from a - and sidebar - when you come from a family church that your great grandmother and great grandfather founded...
GROSS: Oh, wow.
LIZZO: ...In, like, 1912, you know, it's kind of hard to find a church that can beat that, (laughter) so...
GROSS: Wait; wait; wait; tell me more about your great grandmother and great grandfather founding this church.
LIZZO: Well, Mama and Daddy Kirkwood - they started the Mercy Faith Temple, and they put an anointing in a - there's something really sacred about Mama and Daddy Kirkwood that we talk about to this day. She lived to be 106, and she prayed over all of her grandchildren and prayed over all of her children. And everyone who comes from the Kirkwood lineage is blessed and favored and protected no matter where we go.
So Mercy Faith Temple is right now, right here with me and you, you know, in this podcast. Mercy Faith Temple is onstage with me at the 9:30 Club tonight. So when you move down to Houston and you go to all these other churches and sometimes megachurches where the pastor is flying in on a helicopter, you lose some of that intimacy that you felt when everyone in the congregation is your cousin or your second cousin or, you know, family friends so long that y'all think you cousins. You know what I mean? So I think that it was hard to replace that. But we always had it in our hearts.
GROSS: So you play flute. And I'll just start by saying you've played flute, like, on TV and on videos. And a lot of people thought, like, oh, it's dubbed by somebody else; she can't possibly play like that; she's not a classical person.
LIZZO: I don't know why people think that. That's racist (laughter).
GROSS: Yes, you have some very funny videos answering that (laughter).
GROSS: But - so tell us how you started to play flute. Like, this was - what? - fifth or sixth grade. Did you choose the instrument?
GROSS: Or did a teacher say, you get to play flute, and this other person gets to play trombone.
LIZZO: Yeah, they chose. The flute chose me. I remember, I was in band in fifth grade. And we were sitting down, and there was one girl, her name was Ms. Johnson, and she was the flute specialist. And I really think she was, like, just going to college and was trying to get some extra credits. And he was like - Mr. Broughton (ph) was like, who do you want in your flute class? Who do you want to play flute? And she picked me. And I don't know why she picked me. I think later on, she was like, you know, you just had a good embouchure. I could tell you'd have a good flute embouchure, which is, you know, your mouth. But I don't know. And I was, like, grateful because I wanted to play flute. I thought it was the coolest instrument. But, you know, who could have known? All the cool girls play clarinet anyway.
GROSS: Why did you think that flute was the coolest instrument?
LIZZO: I don't know what I thought was so cool about it, but it was cool.
GROSS: So you started in, like, I forget - you said fifth or sixth grade. But then later, like, in junior high or high school, you started, like, forming rap groups with friends. Did there seem to be this, like, huge disconnect between your interest as a flute player and your interest in rap music? You don't hear a lot of flute in rap.
LIZZO: You do. You hear a lot of flute in rap. And people keep saying that to me, and I'm like, y'all, have y'all heard of J Dilla? Have y'all heard of Metro Boomin? Like, these producers use flute all the time. Like, one of the biggest hits was "Mask Off," and it just had - the chorus was just a flute solo.
I think we don't see rappers play flute. We hear it, and we don't subconsciously put two and two together. I think it would've been way more impactful to see Future actually playing the line on the flute to "Mask Off," but he wasn't. I think that flute and hip-hop are very sexy. I think that flute and hip-hop have gone together for a long time. I think this is just the first time you actually see the artist actually playing the flute.
And there wasn't a disconnect. You know, growing up in Houston - and freestyle rapping was very first-nature to me. Like, that was what I wanted to do. That's what you had to do as a rite of passage. Like, I was very nerdy, and the fact that I knew how to freestyle on the bus or freestyle in the cafeteria and bang on the desk just gave me a little get-out-of-being-a-nerd-free pass. And so I did it. Like, everybody did it.
You know, Houston, I think, is, like, the king and the queen of freestyle. Like, that's the city that freestyle really found its swag. And I'm just lucky that I was a part of that while it was happening and also a classically trained flute player. I think it's just weird to everybody else, but it's not weird to me.
GROSS: Well, how long was it until you started bringing flutes - your flute to gigs?
LIZZO: Well, I will say that I was playing the flute in my rock band. When I first started playing shows, I played the flute. And we got - and I got nominated for best alternative instrument in the Houston Press Awards for flute. And I would pull that little girl out and just start playing, and they would freak out. But I think it was more - it made more sense to bring it out in a progressive rock band.
I didn't start bringing the flute out in my rap career until - at least for my solo career - way later. And I think it was, like, something that I did - so for instance, my first tape ever, "Lizzobangers," all of the flute on that album - which, there's a lot of flute samples - I replayed because we couldn't clear the flute. So I had to actually replay the flute on that - on those songs. So I've been playing flute on my projects forever, but no one knew it was me until now.
GROSS: So how serious were you about a career as a flutist - flautist?
LIZZO: I was - you know what's crazy? I always said flautist, and then one day, someone's like, it's flutist. I'm like, shut up.
LIZZO: But I was very, very, very serious. I studied flute. I played it every night. I - when I was a senior in high school - or a junior, I started studying with the principal flutist of the Houston Opera, and she was also a professor at the University of Houston. So I was studying with Sydney Carlson for years, and she was kind of, like, priming me to go to U of H. She got me my scholarship to U of H. And then when I was studying with her there, she was setting me up to study at the Paris Conservatory.
LIZZO: And I was going to study flute at the Paris Conservatory, and I was going to really just, you know, wait in line for that first chair. I saw a life of concert black and Boston Pops and traveling the world. And when that didn't pan out for me, I was very depressed. I was very sad.
And I don't really know what happened. I think the pressure of those two worlds kind of got to me because I was waking up every morning at, like, 6 a.m. for marching band at U of H. And then I would go to the rehearsal hall, and I would practice in this tiny room for hours. And then at night, I would stay up and rap at fashion shows and try to stay up and keep up with all the fraternities and the sororities. And that was really taking a toll on me. And I was like, who are you, you know? At this point, you could - you could do it all through high school, but you're in college now. You're about to be who you're going to be forever. And now who is that?
GROSS: So did you choose rap over a classical career, or was the choice made for you?
LIZZO: I chose rap.
GROSS: How come?
LIZZO: Because to me, it was the most instantly gratifying. I was in college for a music performance degree, but I was already performing. And I thought my - you know, everyone thinks they know everything when they're 19, 20. I was like, I'm already performing. What do I need a music performance degree for? And I just stopped.
GROSS: So, you know, I read that when you were in, I guess, middle school, that there was a period when you used to, like, put plastic wrap around your tummy and around your feet to make them smaller, kind of like girdling them. Can you compare your mindset about yourself physically then to what it is now?
LIZZO: (Laughter) OK, so I will say this. I would put plastic wrap around my stomach, and I would walk, and I would try to work out every morning in middle school. And I would try to, like, lose all the fat off my stomach. But the shoe thing is real because my feet were so wide, I would make my shoes slouch, and people would make fun of the fact that my shoes would slouch. Kids will make fun of anything, bro. Kids will find something about you - they would even make fun of the fact that your shirt had, like, nipples on it if it was on the hanger for too long. They'd be like, oh, you got [expletive] on your shoulders. So kids were so mean...
LIZZO: ...That I would - it's wild, right? I would go out of my way to - I would tape my feet up because I read about it. I read that women in, like, Asia would bind their feet. And, you know, I'm in middle school reading about this. And I was like, I'm going to bind my feet so that my shoes don't slouch over, especially my new ones and - 'cause I cared so much about what people thought because there was such a crazy consequence associated with being a little different.
And I think that that consequence now is completely - it's the opposite. You know, now being different makes you stand out. Now, being different makes you a star. And I think that I had to embrace those differences to become the person that I am, where - you know what I'm saying? - the star that I am. Or else I would have just been homogenized like everybody else.
I think when you're in middle school and in high school, you want to be like everybody else. You want to amalgamize, and you want to be normal so badly. But I just couldn't help being weird. I was so weird that people went out of their way to point it out for me. And now I'm so grateful for that.
GROSS: I just want to ask you about one more song, and it's called "My Skin." And I want you to talk about the song.
LIZZO: "My Skin" is a song that I wrote, and it was - I would like to say that this was the beginning of my body-positive songwriting journey. I wrote it because someone asked a question.
(Singing) Someone asked a question.
Hold on, Jesus. They asked me, what's my favorite thing about myself? And I told them, my personality. And they said, OK, but physically, what's your favorite thing about yourself? And I did not have an answer. And for the first time in my life, I had to actually think about something that I liked about myself physically. And because it was so difficult, I was moved to tears. And in that moment, I remembered that, you know, I had just - well, I had just fallen off a cliff because I was...
LIZZO: I was rope swinging into the river. And I am just so heavy. And the rope - I fell off the rope and fell on the ground. It was really scary and traumatizing. I'll never do anything like that again. But I scraped up my skin. And I remember, my friend was like, look what you did to your beautiful skin. And I still had the cane and I had the bandages on my legs during this interview. And I looked down and I was like, oh, my God, my skin. That is my favorite thing about myself.
And it was in that moment where I realized I damaged my skin where I saw the value in it. And that was the first time I'd ever discovered my body love. And I just started with my skin and moved on from there. And I wrote this song to celebrate that moment because it literally changed my life.
GROSS: And it was about skin and about brown skin.
LIZZO: Oh, yeah, because you know what's crazy? The thing that I like about myself the most is the thing that's weaponized against us. People with black skin, you know, we get that weaponized. And this was amid all of the - well, it's still happening to this day. But, like, this was the - that the beginning of the #blacklivesmatter when there was just, like, such a public amount of executions of unarmed black people by police officers.
And so I think that it was extremely dichotomized. And it was almost oxymoronic to be like, I love my black skin, when that was the thing that's held against me the most in the society. So I wanted to write a song about that too and talk about how I'm proud of it no matter what. But, you know, here it go. This is the song. I hope y'all like it (laughter).
GROSS: Lizzo, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for your music.
LIZZO: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SKIN")
GROSS: Lizzo's new album is called "Cuz I Love You." Our interview was recorded in May.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SKIN")
LIZZO: (Singing) What's deeper than, what's deeper than the darkest best-kept secret? Beneath the surface, we could let it bring us together or it could tear us apart, oh. I'm filled with it. I got to love with no conditions, though it's hard to reenvision time and time again, even when, even when it didn't matter anymore. The most beautiful thing that you ever seen is even bigger than what we think it means. Reflections in my bloodstreams, it's even bigger than. (Singing) I woke up in this. I woke up in this, in my skin. I can't wash it away, so you can't take it from me, my brown skin. Real world, big girl meets world, a crazy position. Now your dreams is your mission, huh? Staring in the mirror, realizing, wish it worked. Now, all I wish is for a chance to give my kids a Ford. I got a family tree that's worth praising the Lord. Mama looking like the second. Look at God. Sister like a soldier, hold it down. Southwest going to hold it down. I love you, don't forget it, you beautiful black masterpiece. Boy, they don't make brothers like you. Make it happen with that black girl magic, the hat trick off of what we must do. I woke up in this, I woke up in this. In my skin...
GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with journalist Adam Higginbotham about the untold story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, or with actress Sarah Jessica Parker, who stars in the HBO series "Divorce," which began its third season this week, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY SKIN")
LIZZO: (Singing) I see someone like me ashamed to be. And honestly, I'm really, really - I'm fed up with it. Try to send it up like a FedEx. I'm wondering what they saying next. Can't pretend to not hear it. It's your beauty. They can't have it. It's yours. They can't have it.
I'm done with the struggle. I want to - I just want to enjoy my life now and maybe appreciate my skin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.