Let’s time warp back to April, back when it was just over a year of lockdowns, restrictions, fear (and loathing), and a sense of exhaustion reigned globally. It was glum, in short. But in the bleakness, Liz Stringer released her sixth album, First Time Really Feeling. On it, she revealed the newfound sobriety that it took until her late 30s to embrace. It is a confessional album, her most honest to date by her own admission in multiple interviews. The country, rockin’ folk vibe sonically is warm and lush and the straight-talking lyrics are unvarnished and untarnished by a haze of alcohol and hangovers. It marked two years since she’d been feted at Woodford Folk Festival in 2019 by fellow performers Catherine MacLellan, Tim Levinson, Jessie Lloyd and Jeff Lang, who paid tribute to her catalogue to date by covering their favourite Stringer songs.
In October the same year, Stringer joined fellow musos Jen Cloher and Mia Dyson for the second time since releasing a 2013 tour EP to record their debut Dyson Stringer Cloher LP. The album was a celebration of some of Melbourne’s finest songwriters, voices and guitar talent, though Stringer had moved to Toronto a year earlier to avoid the party scene she’d become prey to in Melbourne. As she told Conor Lochrie at Tone Deaf: “For me there was a lot of grief in getting sober, against all the amazing stuff. There was a period of having to mourn my life that I had been living for around 20 years. That was a big reason why I left and moved to Canada in 2018 because I couldn’t be around here, it was too triggering. Everywhere I went I remembered getting shitfaced there or hanging out there or going to the party there. It was constant!”
Melbourne has welcomed her back with open arms, though – her album received praise widely in media and she’s got tours booked through the end of 2021 and early 2022. She had been touring with Dyson and Cloher in 2019 until the borders closed and she found herself inadvertently but willingly back home.
Stringer’s sisterhood of songwriters did not begin and end with Dyson and Cloher. In 2008, she’d been invited by the esteemed singer-songwriter Deborah Conway to take part in the Broad Festival project. The Australia-wide tour was a vehicle for Stringer, Laura Jean, Dianna Corcoran and Elana Stone to perform their own work and reinterpret each other’s songs on stage. It has never been lost on her industry cohorts that in Stringer, the strength of her songwriting and performing – travelling the country-roots-folk route – are a phenomenon and have been since Soon, her 2006 debut. That was followed by Pendulum in 2008, Tides of Time in 2010, Warm in the Darkness in 2012, Live at the Yarra in 2014, and All the Bridges in 2016.
It was fortuitous and fitting that Cloher’s Milk! Records (founded with Courtney Barnett) signed Stringer in February, merely two months before she dropped First Time Really Feeling – easily her most raw, real album to date. The album, as much as it is about Melbourne and the weight of addiction on her mind and body, was recorded in Toronto in 2018.
“When I made the record, it took so long to bring out, because I didn’t have anyone,” she told Lochrie. “I was totally on my own, I had no money, I was in Toronto working as a session musician. And I just knew instinctively that either I put this album out well or I just don’t. I thought maybe that’s it, maybe I’m done. Then ironically during the pandemic it came together.”
First Time Really Feeling had to arrive when it arrived, which sounds obvious, but really – it is nigh on impossible to dig into the hurt, the grief, the true depths you’ve plunged into as an addict when you are still an addict. Stringer did not make the album all about herself though. As with her prior work, her songs are the collected stories of creatives who have nurtured their craft in ways that are self-destructive, no matter how necessary they feel at the time.
The title track is a percussive, country-inflected ballad in which Stringer’s earthy, plaintive storytelling comes to the front. “Don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me!” she croons early on. Later: “It feels like I’m always leaving, and love, it ain’t a conscious thing/My body is still reeling/The fear of losing everything/When it’s the first time you’re really feeling.”
On “Metrologist,” she channels the Liz Stringer of old: propping up the bar. “I’ve never seen you here before, have you got time for just one more?” is her opening line to the metrologist she meets. An expert in measurement, her newfound friend prompts her to consider the distance between her bar stool and the table, the weight of alcohol, and inevitably the lyrics get darker and the mood more threatening as she begins to probe deeper into weights and worthiness.
“Can you tell me how long before I disappear? What’s the point look like at which I am no longer here? If my body’s too heavy and my list’s too long, have I failed as a woman ’cause my measurements are wrong?”
Then: “What’s the unit for the negative shit in my head that only drowns when I down a solid litre before bed?”
Her voice is a sturdy, weathered, rootsy creature that is delivered in a defiant, captivating, shamelessly Australian accent. There’s a reckless, almost breathless urgency to her realisations that being a woman musician might not measure up to much that is crushing to listen to, let alone to write – I imagine.
On “Victoria”, she sums up the juxtaposing love-and-fear relationship she maintains with the state she has lived most of her adult life in. “Bluestone lane, brick wall and gutter/Every house I got fucked up in ’til they all looked like any other/Informs it all since I could crawl/You taught me all I know, Victoria, Victoria.”
For the most part, tracks are pared back to rocksy, rootsy guitar, vocals and a steady, complementary drum. If it needed to be classified, it wouldn’t be astray in the Alt-Country box. There’s something of the dramatic, frank delivery of Brandi Carlisle and the deep, soul-moving realness of Linda Perry’s voice in Stringer’s sound.
The thrum of guitars creates waves upon which Stringer lands her serene, resolute ode to “Little Fears, Little Loves.” It’s anthemic, without trumpeting its arrival. “When we see who we are/Every secret, every scar/It’s only that moment that we’ll feel love,” comes the rousing, poignant and subtly sentimental message.
Like love, like addiction, like finding a sense of home, this album is the eye of the storm: the peaceful calm within the noise of living. Find your own solace with Stringer’s voice, so close to you, and really feel it.