Eliza McLamb On How Fiona Apple, Sally Mann, Carrie & Lowell, & More Inspired Her Transformative Debut Album Going Through It

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Eliza McLamb On How Fiona Apple, Sally Mann, Carrie & Lowell, & More Inspired Her Transformative Debut Album Going Through It


Eliza McLamb’s face on the cover of her debut album Going Through It is a bit blurry under a layer of water and a cluster of bubbles rippling outward across the surface of the pond. It’s unclear whether she’s going under or coming up for air — an ambiguity that parallels the two tracks that bookend the record. There’s the wide-eyed, childlike curiosity of “Before,” which acts as a sort of prologue to McLamb’s bildungsroman arc, and the half-asleep haze of closer “To Wake Up,” which finds peace and clarity in “unremarkable days” in the wake of a stormy coming-of-age journey.

McLamb has described her Sarah Tudzin-produced debut LP as following a deep dive into the waters of adolescence — as she descends, the narrative gets murkier and McLamb’s growing cynicism challenges the sensitivity and wonder that characterized her temperament at the beginning of the record. This conflict comes to a head at the bottom of the lake and the album’s halfway point — the demoralized and ASMR-y “16.” From there, Side B shows McLamb slowly making her way back up to the surface, having pulled up the muck and the roots to examine them in the light of adulthood.

This overarching water metaphor feels apt, not just for Going Through It, but for McLamb’s career path as a whole. Having bounced from North Carolina to Kansas to Los Angeles and recently settling in New York City, she’s had to get used to going with the flow, so to speak, adapting to the mercurial nature of her various career pursuits. McLamb was attending George Washington University when the pandemic forced her and a whole generation of college students off their campuses and back into their parents’ homes. This universally destabilizing event made McLamb abandon the educational and professional path she’d previously laid out for herself. She left her childhood home of Chapel Hill, North Carolina to work on a farm in Kansas, writing and releasing music independently. Following her stint as a farmhand, McLamb spent the next couple years working various odd jobs (nanny, door-to-door solar panel salesperson, an “account manager” for an unnamed adult content platform). Throughout all this, she recorded two EPs, which garnered her a sizeable following as a musician and landed her an opening slot on illuminati hotties’ tour and a contract with Royal Mountain Records.

Now, at 23, McLamb’s creative work is her full time job. In addition to being a touring musician, she provides cultural commentary on her Substack blog and with her cohost Julia Hava on Binchtopia, Gen-Z’s hottest pop-culture-and-history podcast — I’ve jokingly described it to friends as “if Call Her Daddy had a brain and Red Scare had a soul.” It makes sense that her songwriting style would have a conversational quality and a knack for interweaving sharp cultural critique with introspective self-reflection.

I caught up with McLamb over Zoom shortly after her first headlining tour and her move to New York, and we got dove deep (pun intended) into the inspirations behind Going Through It. Stream the album below, and read on for our interview.

Southern Gothic Literature, Specifically William Faulkner, Specifically The Sound And The Fury

ELIZA MCLAMB: There’s a quote from The Sound And The Fury on the insert of the vinyl that says “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” That’s one of my favorite quotes in general, but also by him and in the context of the novel. The Southern Gothic movement is super inspiring to me, but Faulkner in particular was one of the first people I read who wrote about time and memory in this way that really, really connected with me. There’s a line on my second EP, Salt Circle, in the song “Pulp” that says, “I don’t think I understand time as a line.” And that’s kind of the prevailing challenge of my life, that my memories and my internal experience affect my life so significantly that it doesn’t feel meaningful to me to explain my lived experience as chronological because I spend so much time on the interior, and I think Faulkner really gets that.

Kind of a fun easter egg is that I wrote this song several years ago called “Quentin Compson,” which is a character from The Sound And The Fury. The central battle of the Quentin Compson character is basically like, “Will I move forward with the changes in and adapt my life and my expectations around that?” When I wrote the song initially, it was about that kind of place in between where you feel like you have two options. I thought about it specifically in terms of this traumatic recall state where you have the option to stay in that sort of comfortable but obviously stuck and difficult place, or to move forward. I don’t intend on releasing that song, mostly because I took that picking pattern and made it into “To Wake Up.” And that was something I didn’t even really register thematically, but now I think makes so much sense, because “To Wake Up” to me is a song about the gratitude of the new life and about accepting the present moment.

The Lakes, Rivers, and Creeks of North Carolina

MCLAMB: The whole album obviously is kind of like one big metaphor involving water. The cover is that kind of Quentin Compson-esque moment of like — Am I being pulled under or am I coming out of it? The first moment of [Going Through It] is like standing on the dock of my grandparents’ house on Lake Gaston, looking out at the lake when I was a child. And I kind of think of the album’s arc as jumping into this lake, going all the way down to the bottom — which is “16” — and then coming back up into this new world. There’s so many songs on the record that have water references somewhere in there. “To Wake Up” talks about a bath. I embedded a lot of creek stuff too — the “Glitter” music video, which I directed and shot in my hometown. I spent a lot of my childhood running around in the woods, going in the creek and the river. There’s also something so symbolic about water as a collective consciousness space, but it’s also just what was around me as a child and what I always felt refreshed by and called to.

Water is so universal and so rife for metaphor, because it’s this thing that every human being needs, but it can also kill you. And basically every major religion has some kind of ceremony or ritual that involves water.

MCLAMB: Totally! Also we literally come from the sac, you know what I mean? [laughs] Like we were all floating in water. Babies get born into bathtubs and it’s totally fun, and then they grasp their first cruel breath of air and they start screaming because birth is such a traumatic experience, coming from the water into the air.

I want to talk about the visualizer for “16” — this image of a person floating on the surface of the water and a lot is left ambiguous. You can’t tell if it’s being filmed from below or from above, you can’t tell if the person is facing up or down, you can’t tell if it’s a swimming pool or a natural body of water, like a lake or something. I would love to just kind of hear the thought process behind that.

MCLAMB: It’s kind of similar to the album cover in that way of like, “Am I going under? Am I coming up?” We lucked out by finding a stock video and glitched it out and made it sort of dark, and at the end it fades into this beam of light.

“16” is the closest thing I’ve ever made to a horror movie. I didn’t want something big and complicated. There’s a world in which I made this kind of trauma porn-y, extremely literal representation, but the song is already so literal. So I wanted something to kind of capture that horror essence, that loop of that person just like floating in the water. You’re watching it, feeling that anxiety, having those questions like, “Is she sinking? Is she swimming?” And that’s kind of what that period of my life felt like. I truly think that regardless of whether or not you have dramatic family trauma happening as I did, I think literally just being a 16-year-old girl is just waking up and being like “Am I gonna fucking die today?”

That is so real. It makes me think of that one scene in The Virgin Suicides where Cecilia’s talking to the doctor.

MCLAMB:Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13 year old girl.” Yeah, obviously!

“16” is very minimalistic instrumentally, it’s very stark, it’s almost devoid of metaphor and very lyrically direct. It has the same sort of flatline melody for almost the whole song. And the visualizer is almost like a scene in — like you said — a horror movie. Like you’re watching something really terrible happen to someone and seeing them squirm around in pain. And you don’t want to watch this horrible thing happening to them, but you don’t want them to stop moving because that would mean they’re dead. And in terms of the album as a whole, there’s a lot of dredging stuff up and deciding — or being forced to decide — what stays beneath the surface and what comes up to the light.

MCLAMB: I’ve always kind of described Side A as seeing what we’re dealing with, going all the way down to the bottom, and coming back up to the surface. And Side B is like, “Okay, what am I like taking with me from there?”

Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell

MCLAMB: Carrie & Lowell is this huge, total reckoning with your childhood and who your parents were as parents to you, but also as people. It was sort of mind blowing that someone could distill what feels so huge and total into something like, “You left me at that video store.” I’ve never been left at a video store, but you hear that, and you’re like, “Spiritually, yes, my ass has been left at the video store!” [laughs]

And “Fourth Of July” is just a fucking incredible song about something that I’ve never personally dealt with — the death of someone in my immediate family. But it was life changing for me, not only because I felt so recognized by that music, but also because it was during this period where Sufjan himself was like, “I know I’m kind of a poster child for like, the most miserable person you know.” So many people would see me listening to Sufjan and be like, “Girl, are you okay?” And, like, most of the time, I wasn’t. [laughs] But also, [“Fourth Of July”] is hopeful and inspiring as well.

I’m thinking of the live version of “Fourth Of July” that has this really huge extended outro, and when they’re doing the “We’re all gonna die” refrain, there’s one point where Sufjan says, “But I’m still alive!” like he’s laughing through it. He almost sounds a little braggy, it’s incredible.

MCLAMB: Oh my God, yes. Reckoning with the beauty and the terror — I mean, obviously there are a million songs that I love and think are great, complex songs that are just like, “Life fucking sucks and I want to run my car off the road into a ditch and kill myself.” And I’m so glad there are songs like that, but I am a perpetual optimist and the way I connect with my experiences of loss and grief and pain and sadness is like I’m mourning because there was something good there. The beauty and the terror work together, and sometimes the terror is more horrifying because of how amazing the beauty is.

In many ways Sufjan kinda got the woman treatment by being dubbed a “sad boy.” It’s my experience and the experience of a lot of other women I’ve talked to in creative spaces. We get dubbed “sad girls,” when actually, I’m profoundly hopeful and optimistic. I think if you’re listening in the way I’m intending you to listen, you’ll come away with that kind of sentiment. Like, yes, I’m like clawing through shit, but I’m clawing!

That’s how I feel when people talk about someone like Fiona Apple and are like, “She’s a sad girl!” Like how can you listen to “I Want You To Love Me” or “Daredevil” and not hear someone with an unstoppable joy and hunger for life?

MCLAMB: She’s on my list too!

Fiona Apple

MCLAMB: I used to have an iPod — one of the big, fat ones — and it had like three music videos on it: Muse’s “My Time Is Running Out,” “Disturbia” by Rihanna, and “Criminal” by Fiona Apple. I watched the “Criminal” music video over and over and over again. I was like, “This is the most amazing woman who’s ever lived, I love her.” But then didn’t really revisit her until Fetch The Bolt Cutters came out during COVID. Obviously it was kind of funny that this title track is, like, “fetch the bolt cutters, I’ve been in here too long” when we were all in quarantine. But that’s totally how I felt too, because I was on this break from college and I had come back home to my dad’s house in North Carolina.

I had this one person I would see — she was 56, her name was Yvonne. I met her because I bought a chair from her off Facebook Marketplace. I was like, “Why are you giving this chair away? It’s so wonderful.” And she said, “Well, I love it so much. And if I practice non-attachment with objects, I practice it with people.” So I was like, “Let’s hang out.” [laughs]

So, it was on my way to Yvonne’s house every day — my one friend during COVID — I would listen to Fetch The Bolt Cutters. I was so struck by basically everything about it. It really inspired me to leave my parents’ house and start working on these farms across the country — which is what I did for that summer of 2020 because I was like, I have been in here too long — “here” being, obviously, the physical place of my dad’s house, but also in a spiritual way.

When I went to college, I picked [George Washington University] because they gave me the most money, but also because I thought I was going to be a lawyer because I was really terrified of not making any money. But in 2020, I just had this moment of reckoning of like, it kind of seems like everything’s falling apart. Maybe everything will always fall apart for my whole life. And if that’s the case, let me not bank on this mythical future that I would prefer only in the reality in which everything goes according to my expectations — which clearly, is never going to happen for me or anyone.

That album really gave me the kick in the ass to go on the farms. And I’m very grateful for that part of my life and how that album lived with me. But also, the more I learned about [Fiona Apple] and how she approached her journey as a musician, she’s always had this refusal to be commodified or be propped up to say and do whatever. And that’s very inspiring, because the pull is there. I was approached by every major label that said, “We want to make you the ‘Porn Star Tits’ girl” [referring to a 2022 song of McLamb’s that went viral on TikTok and has since been removed from streaming platforms]. And I was like, that’s actually not what I’m going to do at all. I think it’s because of women like her who have been able to say, “I’m actually not gonna fit into that marketable box you want me to.” That’s always been so inspiring to me.

“Bird” has very Fiona Apple-y drums. Another thing I love about [Bolt Cutters] is that you can hear her dogs barking in the background. When we were at Bear Creek recording the record, there was this chorus of frogs outside. I was like “Sarah, do you hear those crazy frogs?” And she was like, “Yeah! We should record vocals for “Bird” with the frogs” — which felt very Fiona Apple. We got Brendan, my drummer, with all kinds of weird utensils, and the sound of beans cooking on the stove. All of that would have felt strange and impossible to me if I hadn’t heard [Bolt Cutters] and heard it work so well.

There’s this one specific Fiona Apple quote where she compares her band to a group of frogs: “Maybe we are like frogs (the kind under horses’ hooves), in that the action of us coordinating together to move forward is what combats the gravity that would otherwise slow our horse down.” I didn’t know this was a thing, frogs and horses collaborating like that.

MCLAMB: Wow. I mean, she’s on some other shit. I need no further information on that. That sounds really right to me.

Sally Mann’s Photography

MCLAMB: Another influence was the photographer, Sally Mann, specifically her series called Immediate Family. She really inspired my mom, who was also a photographer. My mom was always trying to stage me like Sally’s children, which I thought was annoying at the time, but now I have these cool Sally Mann-esque pictures to look back on.

[Mann] takes a lot of photos of her children just out roaming around like little creatures on the farms where they grew up. There was a lot of controversy around her photographs because she photographs her children naked a lot. I feel like any woman especially is on high alert for which photos of children are sexualized and which are not. These are, in my mind, very natural, authentic photos of her family.

Her memoir is called Hold Still, which is a phrase I heard a million times in my childhood. It was like, “Hold still, hold still,” and I would be in this weird position wearing a Victorian like nightgown being staged for a photo.

Her and Stacey Kranitz are both photographers that I feel capture this kind of intimacy that feels both like a peek behind the curtain and a clearly stylized representation of something. I think that’s the kind of intimacy I’m always trying to capture and transmit. I want there to be this truthful representation of something real and raw, but also it’s important too, especially as our personas — specifically as women artists — get increasingly more commodified. It’s important for me to translate that what I’m doing is stylized art. You are not seeing me, the person, through this art. You are seeing this artistic product that I’ve made and now that you get to interact with. I hope that what is valuable is what this art represents to you as a viewer, how it makes you feel and how it makes you think about art in general and not what you think it actually says about me.

That’s why I hate whenever someone’s talking about a female songwriter and they’re like, “Oh, it’s like reading her diary!” No, it’s not! You don’t know what’s in her diary! Her diary is completely different! It’s probably worse!

MCLAMB: Yeah, because it’s not for anyone else to see! And there’s also a very real pressure on women, especially, to sell their secrets, to build up a fanbase through this parasocial relationship. You usually get people attached to the persona. I’ve talked to many other female artists about this who feel that they opened up a little too much too quickly because they wanted people to just listen to them.

All this Sally Mann stuff is to say that veneer and truthful intimacy — but in a clearly artistic, thoughtful way — is what I want people to take away from my record.

Internal Family Systems Therapy

MCLAMB: Internal family systems therapy is a type of psychotherapy that I started a few years ago and has really transformed the way that I think about my emotional world, and kind of everything else. The philosophy behind it basically is that you have a self energy, but your self is made up of different parts. If you think about people with Dissociative Identity Disorder — I think it’s the new term, it’s not multiple personality anymore — those are people whose parts are really scattered and disconnected. So they’re kind of shifting back and forth between these different modes. We look at those people and we think, “I’m nothing like that.” But you have a self that you are when you are around your friends at a bar late at night, just hanging out. And then when you go back home for the holidays, I feel like all of us have this experience of like, “Oh my God, I feel like I’m a totally different person, I feel like I’m 15 again,” and it’s because your different parts absorb different lessons and take on different roles for you.

I think Cognitive Behavioral Therapy didn’t work for me because I was not actually interested in never feeling anxious or sad again. I don’t necessarily have things I want to fix, but I want to make things feel a little more harmonious and a little more understood. The idea behind internal family systems is that every part of you has a positive intention. So, for example, if you have a part of you that makes you run away from relationships and abandon things, it’s because you were once in a situation where running away was a skill that was required, that saved you at some point, and now it’s becoming a little challenging because it’s not always necessary. It’s almost like the Buddhist idea of like an eternal self, an energy to help connect these parts of you to each other.

I don’t know if that makes sense. I don’t have an elevator pitch for this yet. The idea of having a dialogue between different parts of oneself was very interesting to me. And not to be like, “Music is my therapy,” because it’s not, I have actual therapy. But “16” for example, you were saying it’s like watching a creature writhe around on the floor. When I wrote that song, I was basically sitting with this part of me like, “Okay, tell me how you feel.”

I’ve found that so helpful, particularly in songwriting, because there are some parts that stand in front of other parts — the anger or the rage is often covering up something else. I think the most compelling songs are those that involve multiple types of emotional experience, and that’s what this system of thinking about the mind as multiplicitous allows you to do.

Like in “Mythologize Me,” what’s coming out in front is “Fuck you, you could never understand” — this rash, angry, and sort of, like, conceding, “Well, fine, I’m just gonna be what you want me to be.” But what’s standing behind that is pain, and this idea of, wow, maybe all this suffering was actually for nothing and it didn’t even make me interesting. You get hints of that, but more so, you see what’s stepping out in front of that other emotion to protect it.

People get so caught up in “Am I a good person? Am I an anxious person? Am I a depressed person? Am I a happy person? Am I whatever?” — and it’s like, you’re kind of everything. God help you if you think that every moment you’re constantly expressing the same version of yourself.

Yeah, that sounds boring as fuck.

MCLAMB: I think that also reveals a really strong ineptitude of like, understanding your own emotional experiences. That’s another reason why — and even this talking point is overplayed — but I hate the sad girls archetype. Even the most depressed bitches know how to turn up every once in a while! People have many sides to them. But of course, if you talk about the multiplicitous mind as it applies to women, that idea has historically meant that women are conniving and scheming and fake.

It’s always “She’s crazy.” It’s never “She’s multifaceted.”

MCLAMB: It’s never “She’s multifaceted!” [laughs] It’s also like, there’s something about constantly being encouraged to commodify yourself. You can’t win, of course, but there are ways to kind of game the system a little bit. You get a certain haircut and people start treating you differently and you’re like, hang on! Hang on, I think I did something here. And you’re kind of figuring out how to be rewarded for these little things. You check a specific box, and you feel a little more in control, and I think that’s what “Mythologize Me” is about, too — being at this place where you feel so whipped around by the world. You can’t control what people want from you, you can’t control your emotions.

But you can — because you’ve been trained really well by the world — learn to embody this idea of a person that gets a predictable response. It’s not even about the type of response, just a predictable response. Like, I know that if I’m acting like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that men will pay attention to me, and certain men will develop this fascination or whatever. And that’s one of the few things that women feel they have control over in such an overwhelming situation.

I’ve been thinking about this too, going into writing my second record. There’s a lot of pressure to really zone in and find your sound, and that’s probably true. It’s been funny seeing reviews of like, “Eliza’s bedroom pop record, Eliza’s rock record, Eliza’s indie folk record.” I needed all these sounds to help me express what I meant. I needed the scream in “Modern Woman” as much as I needed that fucky, soft guitar. I love making records because they’re a complete picture of something and you can tell a real story. Especially — not to be all “old man yells at cloud” — in the age of singles and TikTok and all that. So it feels right to me, to kind of bounce around between sounds and genres. And if that means I can’t easily categorize myself, that’s okay. If you’re going to get on the Eliza McLamb Train, you’re going to be jerked around a little bit, you know?

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