TEEN Grows Up, and Harvests Good Fruit
Six years after they paved paradise and put up a parking lot, Joni Mitchell, by then a prisoner of the white lines of the freeway, happened upon an interloper at her door: a coyote rumored to be Sam Shepard in wild-canine disguise, “too far from the Bay of Fundy, from Appaloosas and eagles and tides.” On the northeast side of the bay, along the headlands of Cape Chicgnecto, a rugged trio of red rhyolite spires dubbed the Three Sisters, sculpted by centuries of volcanic activity, rises from the sea. They’re a popular attraction for kayakers especially, and you can even make out their faces on a clear day.
Fourteen kilometers southwest, at the mouth of Advocate Harbour, another three sisters: Lizzie, Kristina “Teeny” and Katherine Lieberson of TEEN, mermaids with chiseled faces and soulful eyes surfaced from the deep. In the video for “Only Water,” the first single from their fourth album, Good Fruit (Carpark), they stand brave to face the surf towering overhead, float buoyant in the chilly brine and move barefoot upon the gray pebbles scoured smooth by eons of pounding surf. As George Harrison so famously opined, we are just water and molecules here on a visit.
“That’s sort of what it’s about,” Teeny explains. “It’s about that idea, and how that makes us all the same, and then also exploring the feelings after somebody has died. The idea of possession, and how it affects you once somebody is gone. Water as the concept of oneness.”
Water and oneness: the essence of TEEN. From the safety of the harbor to the opposite coast of the province in their original provenance, Halifax, maritime waters have nourished and sustained them from the beginning. Music runs deep within the sisters Lieberson. Their mother, Ellen Kearney, played mandolin in the bluegrass outfit Old & in the Way, one of Jerry Garcia’s many ventures on the Grateful Dead periphery. Their father, Peter Lieberson, memorialized on “Only Water,” was an acclaimed composer. (A notable piece, one he wrote for piano: The Ocean That Has No West and No East.) A devoted practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, he nicknamed Lizzie “Metok” after a county in Tibet. “Growing up and watching him compose, it’s still very mysterious to me,” she admits. “I never really got to pick his brain about his process, which is a shame.”
In youth, TEEN observes, death does not hold proximity. It doesn’t until it does, and in April 2011 it did, when Peter Lieberson succumbed to lymphoma in Tel Aviv. Throughout his personal and artistic life, he made a point of instilling in his daughters important values that inspire them to this day. “It was mostly about being industrious and maintaining your work ethic,” says Teeny. “He talked to me a lot about that: ‘Just keep working, just keep working.’ He worked every single day on music.”
With music rooted in heart and soul, TEEN imbue their songs with a unique set of natural ingredients. We’re as good as the soil we grow out of, and every good tree brings forth good fruit. “Bearing good fruit is sort of a Biblical idea,” contemplates Teeny. “For us, it was also about putting work in and getting older, and what comes of that. Ripening, I suppose.”
And ripening they are, in more ways than one. While Teeny was well versed in the dynamics of writing and performing in the context of a band through her stint as vocalist and keyboardist for Here We Go Magic, it was an entirely new experience for Lizzie. “We were new to our instruments,” she recalls. “It was my first band, playing an instrument in a band.”
“When we first started we were really loose, very freewheeling,” remembers Teeny. “And then as we started making more records, it became much more precise and structured. Precision has become one of our qualities as a band, which is funny because that was not the quality of our music when we started at all.”
For TEEN, the past few years have been a season of change. Drummer Katherine delivered a baby boy in January and remains on maternity leave, and bassist Boshra AlSaddi departed the band to pursue her own creative interests. (In November she reunited with Teeny and Lizzie for Beyond Blue, a Joni Mitchell tribute held in New York, where they now reside.) Out of all of their albums, Good Fruit took them the longest to make, due in part to their more lavish use of electronic elements, multi-tracking and programmed beats. A grant from the Canadian government afforded them the time and the flexibility they needed and alleviated the external pressure of deadlines. All that ripening takes time.
“Usually we would make a record, tour it for a year or longer, and then jump right back into recording,” explains Lizzie. “So we just didn’t stop for many years. This time, we just really just wanted to take our time and approach things in a different way.”
“From an emotional point of view, because we took more time, it has a more reflective quality on my songs,” Teeny says. “I wanted to be more intentional about the emotional part of what I was putting out into the world, rather than just sort of, like, fun and fancy-free like those last records.”
Then again, life isn’t always fun and fancy-free, either, one of the many things that become disappointingly clear when young days dwindle in the rear-view mirror and the years really begin to add up. There was far more fun (and fancy-free) to be had on TEEN’s last album, the stunning Love Yes, with its heavenly vocal harmonies and imaginative instrumentation. For Teeny, it presented “the challenge of me saying ‘yes’ to love. I think it’s mostly what that record is about for me personally, my songs that I wrote. I feel like I was sort of trying to tell myself that. It wasn’t always applicable or successful to some degree.”
Love Yes? Good Fruit may as well be Love, No. “I went through a really big breakup,” Teeny confides. “I’ve learned about letting go in the past couple of years. It’s a process. It’s not like you have this moment where everything is gone and you’re free and you’re moving forward.”
There’s moving forward from loss, and there’s fleeing the scene outright before the next round of mayhem starts. Hence “Runner,” a shot fired off from a starter pistol (“Watch me take off fast when you try to make it last.”) Love Yes had many passionate moments, but some of Good Fruit’s are explicit enough to warrant an NC-17 rating. Set to the sort of bump-and-grind beats that red-light specials are made of, “Putney” assumes the persona of, as Luscious Jackson once put it, a dirty man playing with his kickstand, one who finds the perfect piece of ass only to have his own handed to him. For a group that conjures youthfulness in its name alone, TEEN now navigates a more complex emotional life, discovering wellsprings of inner strength while striving for true intimacy in more meaningful and lasting relationships, particularly on “Luv 2 Luv.” Good Fruit poses the many existential questions we inevitably end up answering, most poignantly on the dreamy “Connection” (“Is this the life you want to live?”) “The challenge with more emotional material and more intentional material,” Teeny asserts, “is that you want to make sure that it’s right.”
And TEEN has, all the while drawing upon familial wisdom in finding the right conditions for their good fruit to grow. They know, above and beyond all else, that sisterhood is powerful.
“There’s this innate trust that you have with each other,” Lizzie reveals. “You have a lifetime of dynamics that you have to get over. It’s taken us a long time to get there, but we’ve figured a way to deal with it and work together. At the end of the day, it’s the most rewarding thing.”
Photo by Hannah Whitaker.