Interview: Liv Austen talks pop and Popsicle

“These are not just cover versions to me, they represent the writing tradition I grew up with. This music inspired me to do what I do”

Norwegian singer-songwriter Liv Austen rose to prominence in the UK country scene but if you expected her first covers EP to be all Dolly, Garth and Shania, you’ve not been paying enough attention to her artistic development. She’s long been known to slay a Sigrid or Dua Lipa track in her live set, and her debut album, A Moment of Your Time, was a masterclass in pop perfection.

Therefore, when Austen decided to record songs that inspired her musically when she was growing up, there should be no surprise that hits by Hanson, Hilary Duff, Avril Lavigne and Vanessa Carlton made the grade.

Austen took a break from working her way through as many cinnamon-based recipes as she can find and taking romantic “walks around the garden as if we’re in a Jane Austen adaptation” to give us the inside scoop on Popsicle.

Photo Credit: Oly Barnsley

We’re seeing a lot of covers lately as a consequence of the new normal of remote recording and live streaming. However, the timing of the release of Popsicle was coincidental. It was recorded before lockdown: “I sent it off to my distributor way before things went crazy so I just stuck to my release date and I’m glad I did.”

Austen gave us an insight into the mechanics of the recording: “The whole album was recorded at our studio, Jon Wright played all the guitars and programmed strings, as well as doing all the engineering, mixing and mastering. I played piano on [Vanessa Carlton’s] A Thousand Miles and [Hanson’s] Penny & Me. My drummer Stuart Pringle played drums on Penny & Me, the only thing not to have been recorded here. He did one play through and sent it to us, and I told him “great, that’s it!” He was like “You sure? I can… do it again!” I didn’t want it to be too perfect or meticulous – which is quite a change from when I worked on the album.”

Some of her contemporaries have released covers as singles in the interest of gaining exposure through playlists, but Austen’s motivation was different: “Releasing covers is definitely not the wisest financial decision but, man, it’s fun!”

“My plans have been very clear so far, with the album coming out and releasing singles from that before and after the album release. I think having done that, I now want to try something different too! It’s fascinating to do different types of releases and see how they are received.”

This EP is just me going “hey, have this, why not!”

If some fans think Popsicle is a surprise departure from country, this is really going to shock them: “I don’t really see myself as a country artist. I did when I first came on the music scene, but both that genre and I have changed so much over the last few years – I guess you could say we grew apart.”

Photo Credit: Oly Barnsley

“I wanted to do the EP to bring it back to the music that actually got me in to songwriting in the first place.”

“These are not just cover versions to me, they represent the writing tradition I grew up with. This music inspired me to do what I do – write songs from the heart that are also catchy and fun. I wanted to invite my fans to see a part of my past, before we start looking to the future.”

We asked Austen to describe her life back in the early 2000s when these songs first came out: “Yikes! I was an awkward, skinny teen. I wasn’t very cool and I wanted to be an actor and singer/songwriter. I think everyone thought that was a really “cute” dream that I’d grow out of. I remember spending every free moment when I could hide away at a music room in school and write my first songs and play the piano.”

Music was a brilliant escape for me when life got tough.

She took us through the significance of each song on Popsicle.

Hilary Duff’s Come Clean

Come Clean was the first song to get a guaranteed spot on this EP – the song I’ve always wanted to cover. It’s just a fantastic pop song…I had such a clear idea in my head of how I wanted to do it, and I’m proud of how it came out.”

I was obsessed with Hilary Duff in my teens. Let’s face it, I’m still obsessed. She’s perfect!

Avril Lavigne’s Complicated

Complicated is such a cool tune. Avril just represented all angsty teenagers at that time, I felt.”

Vanessa Carlton’s A Thousand Miles

“I have a really vivid memory of asking my piano teacher to teach me A Thousand Miles – and that piano theme has just lived in my muscle memory ever since!”

“That song, and a lot of Alicia Keys, was what kept me passionate about playing piano in my teens when I’d got sick of playing classical pieces and just wanted to do something different.”

“I saw Vanessa Carlton live in London a few years ago, and she started the show with that song, just to get it out of the way so people could focus on her new music. And she wrote that song on her own (which is my favourite way of writing still).

I just thought “man, imagine having written a song that is such a huge hit that you just have to get it out of the way!” – that’s a nice problem to have!

Hanson’s Penny & Me

“Penny & Me is a song I’ve covered live and I used to have a YouTube piano cover on my You Tube channel as well, which got lots of great feedback! I love Hanson and there are tons of songs of theirs I want to cover, but I knew this would be one that a lot of people knew.”

I love their harmonies and it was fun layering all of those and pretending I was all three brothers in the studio!

We’re no strangers to discussing Hanson with Austen, having previously interviewed her for a Hanson website! So we’re familiar with the fact that Penny & Me is lyrically dense and fast. How did she decipher the words?Austen explained: “I googled the lyrics – but there were a couple of moments where I was like “I don’t think that’s right!”

“Speaking of which, I recently learned that the lyrics to [Austen’s song] The Next Time come up when you google them and they have mistakes in them! Which makes me feel like I’ve made it because they definitely weren’t uploaded by me or my team!”

That led us nicely into asking what songs she’d like to hear each of the artists covered on Popsicle perform if they were to return the favour and play her songs: “This is a fun game! Ah man, I wanna hear Avril Lavigne do The Next Time. Vanessa Carlton doing But I Know I Love Him with a really gorgeous piano solo break. Hilary Duff doing Window Shopping would be amazing! Damn, I should have pitched it to her! Hanson would do an incredible version of Nothing Less, Nothing More.

Now time for the most important question – what four songs would she least like to cover or, indeed, hear ever again? “For some reason I can’t stand Mr Big’s To Be With You. Cotton Eye Joe is up there, I think. What’s Up by 4 Non Blondes makes me want to slap someone. And Play That Song by Train. What the HELL is that about?!

It’s just that piano tune that everyone learns as a child. Releasing that as a single should get you 5-10 years without parole!

Good point, well made!

As much as is possible in these uncertain times, Austen is looking towards the future. She’s eager for the chance to play the songs from Popsicle, especially to make up for a planned charity fundraiser in Cardiff where she was due to play A Thousand Miles on a grand piano. “I also had gigs coming up that weren’t even announced yet that had to be cancelled. So the whole “celebrating these songs live” idea changed drastically.”

She’s also working on the next release: “You will hear with my new music to come that I’m playing around with lots of different styles…I have some new songs written and recorded that I think are appropriate as single releases, so keep an eye out for those later in the year!”

Popsicle is out now digitally.

Abstract image of Liv Austen - Popsicle EP cover
Photo Credit: Oly Barnsley

During lockdown, you can get your Liv Austen fix during her weekly YouTube hangouts on Friday at 6:00 PM (UK time). We hear that the April 24, 2020, edition may feature some piano work, so if you’re lucky you might get to hear that A Thousand Miles rendition after all!