Becoming Secret: An Interview with Liz Hysen of Picastro

Become Secret
Monotreme/Blocks Recording Club

Toronto’s Picastro, well, they put it best themselves in their profile at the CBC (the Canadian BBC): “Picastro began in 1997 as an accident. The band was quiet and aggressive. The band is still quiet and aggressive but now we know better jokes.”

Over the course of four cultishly adored, difficult to obtain records, frontwoman Liz Hysen has guided the band through everything from noisy atonality to graceful piano/cello duets. They’ve worked with everyone from Owen Pallett to Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart to Espers’ Greg Weeks, and actually, those three bands could form a rough approximation of the range that Picastro’s music covers. Yet Picastro has such a consistent viewpoint and tone that no matter what happens, they always sound like, well, Picastro — and that’s largely down to Hysen’s drowsily majestic voice (both audibly and lyrically). There’s a reason writers keep referring to Nico when talking about Picastro, although like most comparisons that one doesn’t really do either party justice. With 2007’s jarringly great Whore Luck (an album in which the closing cover of the Fall’s “An Older Lover, Etc.” was probably the most comforting track) Picastro finally seemed to be attracting more much-deserved attention, and so with the gorgeously spare Become Secret about to see CD release on Monotreme Records (it came out on vinyl last year via Blocks Recording Club/Polyvinyl) PopMatters talked with Hysen about boxing, dark music, and why she writes “mean love songs.”


PopMatters: Most of Become Secret feels a lot sparser than Whore Luck, with many of the tracks here feeling like it’s just you and maybe one other person in a room playing the music. Was that a deliberate aesthetic choice, or a necessity forced on you by circumstance (economic or otherwise)? Do you write songs and then look around at what’s available in terms of arranging/playing them, or do you start with a notion of the kind of sound you want an album or song to have and then work from there?

Liz Hysen: The songs are all a result of jamming sessions Stephanie Vittas and I had over the course of a couple of years — Stephanie is the original Picastro cellist. With the exception of a few songs where maybe I started them before I played them with her, I usually can tell if the song needs an elaborate treatment or can just be played solo in a live setting. Maybe I unintentionally thought it was time for a “solo” record or something more bare but really I think I wanted to play with Stephanie again and I find her aesthetic and mine blend really well and our ideas about string arrangements are similar.

PM: With regards to the changes in instrumentation and band members that Picastro has had over the years, what makes a record a Picastro record? Is it like the Fall, where as long as you’re the one making music then the name fits, or is there a certain sensibility to the music Picastro makes that’s not just identical to your own? Have the changes in Picastro’s sound over the years been (again) out of necessity, or from wanting to try new things, or maybe even from trying to find the right approach to do something? Do you already have an idea what future Picastro music will sound like?

LH: I think the Picastro aesthetic is pretty much my own aesthetic. By writing the songs, I am dictating mood but my band mates also inflect the delivery of it, the tension or lack of tension. Some people play in a very strict, controlled manner, some are loose. It took me ten years to figure out that changes in personnel stress me out, though that has sort of opened my eyes a bit to how I approach things. Now that I have a looser definition of what a band is, it feels like I can experiment more and play with almost anyone. If it doesn’t work out, you stop and move on. I think my approach has changed but I still haven’t found the “right way” or anything. The future might have less acoustic and more electric guitar though I still don’t think I am done with figuring out how to make a song catchy and musically interesting at the same time.

PM: I remember reading in the press materials for Whore Luck that you didn’t really understand why some would find Picastro’s music depressing or scary or off-putting, and that you hoped that the music would be of comfort to people. Is that still true? What kind of comfort do you hope people derive from Picastro’s music? Is making the music a source of comfort to you? Do you feel similarly about other bands and kinds of music that people might tend to think are negative?

LH: Well, I know some of it is scary. I do think there is a level of comfort in it. It’s extremely personal, I mean, I know people who are embarrassed by it. Someone told me at a solo show recently it felt like someone in their bedroom singing songs, as in, it was very intimate. There just isn’t that much filtration going on. I don’t have that ability, it’s just not there. That makes it harder for me to listen to music that I think is useless or not genuine and I can understand how someone might be put off it by it if they’re not comfortable with that much intensity. I have no tolerance for music that has nothing at stake. If you listen to a Roky Erickson song, I mean, I am worried what would happen if that guy couldn’t play music. There is no waste there. The same with Alice Coltrane. You don’t have to play scary music to get that across. I know not everyone can listen to a Diamanda Galas record, but for me, it’s comforting. I don’t like sublimation. Every time I listen to Joy Division, I love it, but that is some dark, dark stuff.

PM: The song titles here definitely give a sense of place (“Twilight Parting,” “A Dune a Doom,” “A Neck in the Desert,” even “Suttee” which is one letter off from the title of one of Cormac McCarthy’s goth Westerns) and also the sense that something very bad has happened (“Split Head,” “I Know My Time Now,” “The Stiff”). With the caveat that listeners sometimes read too much into things, was there a deliberate attempt to give Become Secret more of a thematic focus than Whore Luck? Do these songs hang together in any way other than sonically? Are there any topics or concerns you found yourself writing about on this albums?

LH: The titles were deliberately chosen to form a story arc based on certain biblical themes (the temptation of St. Anthony) and western imagery. I was also very into the idea of the wandering man, exchanging identities, being a stranger in a new town. “Suttee” is actually a funereal rite that is no longer practiced but it involves a widow throwing herself on her husband’s flaming dead body basically. At that point in the album, romance is no longer possible. I guess I see it as a bit of a luxury if you were trying just to survive. I do feel like achieving a kind of anonymity would be ideal but the way things are going now, it’s difficult to be under the radar, to be a no man. Hence the album title, I crave secrets!

PM: Picastro songs seem to have at best a deeply ambivalent take on love and sex (“Friend of Mine,” “Split Head,” “Pig & Sucker,” “Suttee,” and so on), but in a more realistic, less dramatic way than a lot of music. Do you consider any of Picastro’s music to be romantic, or even anti-romance? Is there any attempt here to work out or work through any particular concerns when it comes to love, sex, or relationships?

LH: Zak [Hanna] used to call them “mean love songs”. I guess the act of devoting a song to a person you love or have sex with is supposed to be a nice, sweet thing so yes, I would say it’s anti-romance music. It’s in the details really; there are many crazy songs about love where the singer isn’t actually saying anything nice. I am just being matter-of-fact about it. There is a nasty side to all things and it’s not something I am going to talk about with my friends or just bring up in casual conversation. So I guess I am working things out.

PM: Picastro songs are usually addressed directly at the listener, and it can be hard to tell whether the narrator and the singer are the same or not, or even if the narrator is the same from track to track. Something like “I Know My Time Now”‘s opening “I’m a man, I’m an emotional man” at least suggests that the narrator in these songs isn’t necessarily you, so who do you write from the perspective of? Are you setting out to express or examine any particular viewpoint in your music? If so, have that changed over the years?

LH: Yes, definitely. The songs stopped being autobiographical a long time ago. I think I started writing songs from a male perspective (not necessarily narrator) on Whore Luck and then it morphed into this which is more a straight male narrator. It started as an exercise to try and write songs from a male perspective and I really liked it. This could change again too of course, but for now it’s a good experiment.

PM: Do you have any current obsessions of note, especially non-musical ones? I think I recall you mentioning Black Sabbath as an inspiration before, I’d love to hear about other non-obvious influences and antecedents that have affected how and what you write and the music you write.

LH: I am really into the Goslings, Ovo, Corrupted and this band Orn Nick [Storring] introduced me to. For the past five years or so, I have become interested in boxing, in particular the early Mike Tyson fights. Then I saw Tyson, which I highly recommend and read Shadow Box by George Plimpton. I know people have reservations about Mike Tyson, but there is no way a person can size up their opponent in 30 seconds and not be gifted in some way. Plus, in the Toback film he just comes across as the least pretentious person ever which is also kind of rare these days. I love this idea of someone everyone is afraid of but who is most terrified of himself. It’s wild, he is a very truthful person. I could go on and on but yeah, that is some heavy shit!

PM: Are you happy with Become Secret? Did you accomplish what you set out to do with it? Generally speaking, how do you feel about your music once it’s out in the world? Do you still have things you want to accomplish, musically? If you had an unlimited budget and no other financial concerns, what would you do with Picastro’s music?

LH: I didn’t intend to accomplish anything in particular but when I started it, Greg Weeks did sort of ignite the idea of having a solo album since he thought that’s what most people wanted to hear (and I do get asked for that a fair bit). Once a few songs were underway, I started thinking of all these themes that wouldn’t get out of my mind and then I remembered that movie The Passenger by Antonioni. It’s pretty dead on for how it maps the story line of the album, you have a relationship, you leave it, you take over someone else’s story and see what happens.

Generally speaking, I am worried my music gets mistreated a lot once it’s out in the world. It usually is, I am afraid to say. It’s demanding but worth it. I’d love to write a new classical album, maybe not with a full orchestra but with a mini-orchestra. That would take years and tons of money but I would love to visit the idea of a narrative with no words. I have been talking it about it with my friend Duane Pitre who writes microtonal music. It hasn’t happened, but some day it will!