Blending a wide array of sounds including folk, jazz, bluegrass, and pop, Frances Eliza exudes her passion for songwriting in her raw vocals and piercing lyrics. The Asheville-based singer-songwriter draws her inspiration from artists such as Amy Winehouse, Lucy Dacus, Alice Phoebe Lou, and First Aid Kit to name a few.
Performing solo since the age of 13 at local fundraisers and open mics, Eliza has now been playing originals and covers locally and regionally for the past seven years. Hopping around North and South Carolina, breweries and coffee houses have been the go to show stops. Having sung with her older sister, Eleanor Mehlenbacher, since four years old, the duo have also made their rounds for events such as Raleigh’s March for Our Lives.
Sleepwalking became Eliza’s first alternative EP, diving into the harsh realities and nuances of different relationships. The heartfelt melodies are sprinkled with a bit of soul throughout the December 2019 release, as the acoustics and relatable storytelling pull you along for the journey.
Eliza’s most recent single release, “Selkirk”, is a pensive yet comforting track where she finds herself running away from someone and towards her childhood to the things that take her back in time. “Yes I know this feeling won’t stay, but I’ll pack my bags and keep running away/Quietly weary of each friend of mine, reminds me to get bolder and wiser in time” are the vulnerable lyrics that fill the second verse, bringing up nostalgia for each of our own lives.
With a new indie-folk pop album underway as she works closely with producer and multi-instrumentalist Cole Covington and Daniel Harris, listeners can be expecting another release in the upcoming summer months.
We got the chance to chat with Eliza to learn more.
So who or what made you fall in love with jazz, folk, and bluegrass?
Growing up in Raleigh, NC, I was exposed to a variety of genres and sounds, initially by my parents’ and older sister’s taste in music. My mom would always blast The Chicks (formally known as the Dixie Chicks), Simon and Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, and Counting Crows, while in contrast my dad played me Lily Allen, La Roux, and Kathleen Edwards. My older sister (and musician) Eleanor taught me how to sing harmonies from grade school, and together we burned around eight CDs of cover and original songs for my Dad. In high school, I attended IBMA (the International Bluegrass Music Awards) every year and tried to attend as many local shows as I could afford, which helped develop my love of bluegrass and folk music.
I am really fortunate for my parents who tried very hard to keep me close to music, helping provide me with a healthy outlet. I began performing live at 13, primarily cover songs, which was key to the development of my own musical style and aesthetic. Until 18, apart from attending Cannon Summer Music Camps at Appalachian State, I didn’t listen to or play a lot of jazz music. I was never regularly exposed to it until I enrolled in UNC-Asheville’s BFA program in Jazz and Contemporary Music (Class of 2022). My college music classes as well as attending and participating in Asheville jazz jams during the pre-Covid era truly opened my eyes to the sound and artistry of jazz, funk, and soul.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to mix my love of storytelling with my appreciation and passion for jazz, indie, folk, and pop music. Over the past two years, I’ve taken a lot of musical and lyrical inspiration from female singer-songwriters and musicians such as Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers, and Alice Phoebe Lou.
What’s your songwriting process normally like, and do you partake in co-writing?
When I’m writing new music, I usually start different fragments and sections of pieces, recording all of them in my Voice Memos app. I am nervous about getting stuck on a piece and not being able to get it to where I want it to be musically and lyrically, so I almost always start at least five different songs in one sitting. Songs like my upcoming single, “Intertwined,” took multiple sittings to write lyrically. Up until recently I wrote my songs alone, but in my recent material my producer Cole Covington and I have been collaborating to rewrite and restructure my songs for the album.
Who produced your debut EP Sleepwalking and your newest single, “Selkirk”?
My friend Nick Brower, a Music Technology graduate from UNC-Asheville, recorded and produced Sleepwalking in Fall of 2019. We recorded the five tracks on Sleepwalking in the span of a couple months in the UNC-Asheville studio. The songs in Sleepwalking mean a lot to me because they were some of the first original songs that I started to gig with consistently.
However, I’m even more excited to share “Selkirk” and my new music with the world because I feel like the production and sound fit the artist that I am today. Cole Covington and Daniel Harris recorded and produced “Selkirk.” Covington focused heavily on layering everything to make the song as full and intense as possible. The wonderful musicianship and craft of Covington, Harris, and Tristan Ferner truly brought the lyrics and music of “Selkirk” to life.
Where did the inspiration for “Selkirk” come from, and how long did it take to write?
I wrote the music and lyrics to “Selkirk” in 2019 after my grandfather passed away from cancer, ten months after his wife of 55 years (my grandmother) also died of cancer, a sequence (wife, husband) I understand is poignantly all too common. The song is named after a small lakeside town in Ontario, Canada, where my native Canadian grandparents had retired with their siblings. As a teenager (pretty much out of necessity), I had written songs about experiences that I hadn’t fully gone through or dealt with. By contrast, “Selkirk” reflects my raw, painful realization about the permanent loss that is death. But also, it brought up a lot of other realizations and changes about getting older that I hadn’t yet begun to acknowledge.
Writing “Selkirk” and the other songs in my album helped provide me with some personal clarity and have helped me grow as a storyteller. “Selkirk” only took me a couple weeks to write, but the recording process took a couple months. Having recorded and tracked “Selkirk” during the pandemic, I also had to limit the amount of people I worked with directly, but this in turn made the recording experience even more intimate and definitely affected the music making process in a positive way.
What kind of messages or feelings are you trying to convey in this song?
When you’re a kid, the reality and inevitability of growing up seems far away and sometimes impossible. “Selkirk” deals with facing the truth—as hard as it may seem—about ourselves and about other people. In the last verse of “Selkirk,” I sing “Old wine reminds me of when I was young,” a line that directly addresses the history of alcoholism and addiction that runs in my family. Then I go on to sing, “The smell of cigarettes and coffee made me tough,” which refers to me growing up exploring local coffee houses in downtown Raleigh as well as hanging out with my dad and grandmothers, all of whom smoked cigarettes. The next line in Selkirk, “Hanging lights remind me of painting suns,” refers to my childhood sunroom in my Dad’s old apartment, after our parents’ split when I was 3.
I really tried to make a lot of the lines in “Selkirk” refer to images and experiences from my childhood, while at the same time leaving the lyrics open-ended enough that a listener can relate to it. As I’ve gotten older and matured, I’ve definitely grown to see myself and the people who surround me in new lights, a theme which runs through a majority of my new material.
What has been a pinnacle moment or two in your music career so far?
Before COVID-19, I had finally begun gigging consistently at 3-4 times per week and at 19 was conceivably going to be able to make a living off of performing. In late 2019, I did a mini-tour around North Carolina, finally playing at some better known emerging artist venues like Local 506 (Chapel Hill) and The Pour House Music Hall (Raleigh). Getting to finally play my own music on bigger stages with a band has definitely been one of the highlights of my music career thus far. Additionally, getting to perform at various rallies and fundraisers in my hometown was also really rewarding. I was fortunate enough to be able to perform at the March for Our Lives Gun Control Rally in 2018 with my sister Eleanor in front of at least 3,000 really understandably pumped-up people, an experience that I will never forget.
What might a dream gig look like for you? (beyond simply playing a gig, which is a dream at this point I’m sure)
Ideally, I’d like to consistently perform shows on bigger stages with a much larger music artist line-up. I’m used to playing more intimate solo gigs around NC and SC and, although I do enjoy playing solo shows, I’d love to get to perform for larger audiences with my current bandmates. My new music coming out is all a lot bigger in sound and production, so getting the chance to actually perform the material with a band would be incredible.
What can listeners expect from your upcoming summer album release?
My album integrates my passion for jazz, indie-folk, and pop music with my love of storytelling, where I’ve tried to infuse an array of sounds and genres with the imagery of human connection, hope, and loss. In my album, I play with producers and multi-instrumentalists Cole Covington (vocals, guitar, bass) and Daniel Harris (drums). Tristan Ferner (keyboard) and AJ Huang (saxophone) are also featured in my new album.
Working with Covington has really changed the perception I had of what I thought my sound could be. I like to use my own music to write about the seemingly small yet pivotal personal experiences that I’ve had, with the hope that listeners can potentially find comfort in my music and writing. As I’ve matured, I’ve definitely grown to see myself and other people in new lights, a theme which runs through my new material. Many of my songs address the emotional abuse that the women in my life and I have experienced.
My upcoming single “Intertwined” explores the tortuous, personal inner battle of disconnecting oneself from a toxic, emotionally abusive partner. The lyrics to “Intertwined” mean a lot to me, because they are part of what helped me regain my strength and power after a seriously gaslighting relationship. I use songwriting as my own form of healing and I look forward to listeners being able to connect and find comfort in the stories I tell in my new album.