Eliza Legzdina: "I’ve sung in the Vatican… Now I want Hollywood..."
The last few years have seen an enduring shift in the hip-hop zeitgeist, specifically surrounding the empowerment of female sexuality. These days, the same aggressive sexual bombast that characterised the flow of most male rappers twenty years ago has shifted across gender lines, prompting Ol’ Dirty Bastard-style carnal tirades from women – stories about being tooth-grindingly horny (and owning that horniness), as popularised in Cardi B’s recent hit ‘WAP’. The feminist efficacy of this is still a hot debate but there’s no denying the ascendance of this musical strain. Of course, art is about a great many things and can’t be reduced, but these are halcyon days for female songwriters and rappers looking to reclaim ownership of their libido.
One such songwriter is Eliza (El-ee-za) Legzdina, who recently made a splash appearing on the soundtrack of the BBC's I May Destroy You with her 2020 single ‘Tic Toc’ – a vainglorious carousal, complete with a heavy sway and a party in a South London off-licence. More recently Eliza has teamed up with DJ and vocalist, Laura Bettinson (lau.ra) for the release of vogue dance track ‘Wicked’ and put out a new single, ‘Curse 4 U’, last month.
In one of the rare face-to-face interviews we in the music press are afforded post-pandemic, I met up with Eliza at a pub in Shoreditch – just a week before Tier 3 restrictions – where we chatted about her music journey and what new material might be coming up come 2021.
“Don’t worry about the cold,” she said, picking an outside table, “I’m Latvian, I’m used to it.” You might not know it from her transatlantic accent, but Eliza’s probably the most famous ex-patriated, Latvian, female rapper around today and her upbringing as a classical singer in Eastern Europe has had a distinct effect on her music. “I was singing before I could talk,” she said, “I was a really musical child so my grandmother would take me to singing lessons at the Soviet Culture House every night… twenty-five minutes walking through the snow, I put in the hours. I sung in the Vatican once, I’ve done the whole choir girl thing, I’ve ticked the boxes. Now I want Hollywood…”
Slowly, after Eliza moved to the UK, her musical allegiances started to switch from Handel and Chopin to Missy Elliott and Three 6 Mafia. “I really love Missy Elliott, there’s an energy about it, I want to make music that requires people to dance and to move, I want that ‘heavy’, that ‘lean’.” Heavy lean aside, Eliza recognises that a lot of the hip-hop she reveres (along with industry itself) is distinctly patriarchal. “To be a modern woman” Eliza says, looking earnestly ahead “is to accept that everyone who’s come before us is a misogynist in some capacity. There’s probably artists from that era who I wouldn’t work with now, but everyone’s a product of their environment… It’s important to understand that you can live in a contradiction, music can work on many levels, you can appreciate it without having to defer meaning from all parts of it.”
At the start of the year, Eliza released her first EP, Iron Curtain, Golden Pussy. The title was meant as a witty rebuke to the patriarchy of her post-Soviet upbringing, referring back to that same notion of female sexual empowerment which runs like a thick vein through her work and life. “There’s only two things that men fight for,” she told me “and that’s precious metals and women. There’s 2.5 women in Eastern Europe for every man. There’s more of us. I’m very sex-positive, loud and fat compared to how Latvian women are meant to be, but there’s a freedom that in saying that I’m both Latvian and all of those things too.”
This all being said, some of the tracks on the EP actually disclose a certain vulnerability, that flip-side of sexuality where intimacy begets a feeling of defencelessness, this is exemplified on tracks like ‘Tom and Jerry’ an R&B homage to the online hook-up. “Online dating has been a reality for lots of people, certainly for me. I’m not singing the praises of that lifestyle, but I am trying to describe the reality of that lifestyle. I’ve met some amazing people online, but I recognise how toxic the technology can be.”
Something that ties a lot of Legzdina’s oeuvre together is its distinct danceability; there’s a vitality to her song-writing and an energy to its concurrent output. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting people to dance. And you should ask yourself ‘why’. Why do you want people to dance? Do you wanna be king of the club? You want people to get hammered? No. I want people to dance because dance is a form of prayer, it’s about moving your body in space where people can connect with you – like prayer. Dancing is very important, especially now where the pandemic has killed rave.”
Eliza treads an interesting line in some of her lyrics; there’s a thin and fragile divider that separates overt self-confidence from narcissism – one that can be tough for performers to effectively straddle. “I think I can be selfish,” she said, “I think I can be sometimes self-indulgent but I’m not a narcissist. It is prevalent in performers because we’re so insecure but at the same time we’re so confident. There’s probably a narcissism to performance in general but singing your own praises is so important; it’s part of self-acceptance.”
This all ties in to Legzdina’s conceptions of body positivity, an advocacy she sees as vital for society’s wellbeing and something that shapes her life on and off the microphone. “I grew up being told I was too fat” she explains with an air of defiance, “and that I wasn’t ‘acceptable’. But I realised after I moved to the UK that my body was desirable, and that who even gives a s*** anyway? It’s your body.”
Part of the image Eliza likes to embody is the notion of the occult, of witchcraft and vindictive curses. This is energetically encapsulated by her latest single ‘Curse 4 U’ which sees Eliza parading around rural Somerset with subservient falcon familiars and framed by fires in the night. “I didn’t used to call it witchcraft but I guess in Latvia we were always more aware of the occult so it’s been kind of like a homecoming. I wrote ‘Curse 4 U’ when I felt like I was attracting a certain type of person into my life, and the song – that incantation – was partly me trying to dispel those people, to burn a bed...”
Eliza couldn’t disclose everything that’s currently in the works, but seemed very excited about it, “2020 is the first time that you do not have to settle for one genre. What people are definitely going to see is more singing, more vocal flexing and melodic finesse.” She said, attempting to remove a piece of melted chewing gum from between her fingers, “hip hop is something that I love but I’ve been running away from my classical roots, a lot of the hits that I’ve been coming up with now are a merger between those two worlds. I always think about the artist that had to get to the top before they could really do what they wanted and I’m just like nah, I can’t do that.”
At the end of the interview, after we’d been talking for well over an hour, I asked Eliza what she’d like an insecure teenager to take away from her music after hearing it for the first time. Eliza’s the kind of person that rarely hesitates before deploying an answer, but this time there was a pause as she sat back in her chair, crossing her arms. “I’d want her to know that she’s allowed to explore her identity before anyone tells her who she should be. I hope that she can just dance to it, that she can feel free, and that my music gives her a pep in her step on their way to somewhere where they feel she might be judged. I wanna see people feel free in themselves. It’s a lot of things but I’ve added it all to the recipe so I hope you can taste it…”
To listen to more Eliza Legzdina, click here.