When it comes to pivotal life moments, having the mighty Nick Cave snatch a balloon out of your hands when you’re seven years old before smirkingly stomping on it is going to make you do one of two things. 1) Run off crying and forever commit to a quiet life or 2) Decide to be just like the big tall man who gets a kick out of scaring little kids. When it happened to Lia Metcalfe, she wisely decided to do the latter.
Still only 20 years old, the Mysterines’ imposing frontwoman melds together more than her lifetime’s worth of experiences with the kind of deep, impassioned vocal you won’t forget in a hurry. In her songs and stagecraft you’ll see and hear everything from PJ Harvey’s raw and ragged stomp to the crazed carnival energy of Tom Waits and eviscerating poetics of Patti Smith. The first great British rock band of the post-pandemic era, the Mysterines let us in on Lia’s unfiltered look at life, the universe and everything, complete with serious riffs and an unflinching honesty.
Though currently based in Manchester, Lia was raised in Liverpool, born to parents only just out of their teens who raised her on the road and in and out of festival VIP areas – hence that unforgettable run-in with Nick Cave. Both were – and still are – music obsessives, bringing her up to the sounds of Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age, The Strokes, Motown classics and Bob Dylan, who remains her songwriting icon.
Lia never remembers not singing. “I didn’t really know any different,” she explains. “Growing up around someone who was always making music and always writing, it just seemed like the natural thing.” Since the start her voice was a cut above, a bassy, deep thing even when she was just a kid. But what really hooked her into making music was lyrics. “I still don’t really see myself as a singer,” she explains. “First and foremost I’m a writer, that’s my main passion.” By her early teens she was already gigging locally. At 16 she decided to throw herself fully into music. “I went to college for a month, but I got kicked out for smoking in the non-smoking area,” she shrugs. A couple of months later she was off on tour anyway with her band the Mysterines. “I never wanted to be solo,” she says. “I knew my songs weren’t gonna be acoustic, they needed to have a big and full sound behind them.” The idea of a band also fitted into a classic set-up that Lia loved. “I wanted to have a gang-like atmosphere,” she says. “I thought it was cool when Blondie and the Pretenders did that – having a woman in charge.”
The rest of the Mysterines naturally coalesced around Lia. George the bass player she met when she was 14, standing outside a branch of Home Bargains. “I thought he looked like a bass player, and he was. So he’s been with me ever since,” she explains. Lead guitarist Callum and drummer Paul she met a few years later at a Psychedelic Porn Crumpets gig in Liverpool. She’d forgotten her ID and the bar refused to serve her, despite the fact that she’d just turned 18. Callum helped her out by offering Lia a warm can of beer from out of his backpack. The rest, of course, is history.
Spending lockdown covering everything from the Waterboys to Radiohead on social media for the Mysterines’ growing fanbase, Lia showed off not just her own incredible vocal range, but also her wildly varied influences, which run the gamut from Captain Beefheart and Dua Lipa to Smokey Robinson and director Alejandro Jodorowsky. It’s the darker side of things though which has always fascinated her. Her nan was the first person to give her a Tom Waits record, sensing that the young Lia would find a kindred spirit in his particular form of sonic voodoo. It almost worked. “I put it on and it scared me to death,” she laughs. “Then I tried again a few years later, and heard ‘Clap Hands’ and fell in love with it. He’s definitely had an impact on the way I execute certain things.” That moody bleakness is deep in the bones of all the writers Lia loves, from Captain Beefheart to beat poet Allen Ginsberg. “I like controversial, almost explicit stuff. People who are always trying to push boundaries and themselves,” she states. “I’m still trying to find the balance, but it’s fun to explore what I can say, stuff that’ll make people think ‘that’s hilarious but also really scary.’”
The Mysterines debut ‘Reeling’ – set for release in early 2022 – was made under the watchful eye of acclaimed producer Catherine Marks (Wolf Alice, The Big Moon, PJ Harvey). Going back and forth from her west London studio, Assault and Battery, over three weeks in between lockdowns, it was recorded live to capture the intensity of the songs. “It’s a pretty ambiguous title for most people, but for me ‘Reeling’ sums up every emotion of the album in just one word,” says Lia. It also reflects the emotionally draining process of making a 13 track record, Lia’s biggest challenge to date. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,” she explains. “But Catherine was fucking great. She turned into one of my best friends and really just believed in me and what I wanted to execute. She was super calm throughout the whole thing. Well, until you piss her off…”
When it comes to lyrics, Lia calls her style of writing “creative divination”. She explains that her meticulously crafted songs are “either predicting something that’s going to happen or about something that already has, but in the way that Tarantino reinvents history in his own films, I’m reinventing what I would have wanted to happen.” Written just two weeks before they went into the studio, the album’s ferocious first single, ‘In My Head’ is a perfect example. “Superficially it’s a love song but really it’s a reflection of me looking at myself like Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ – you think he’s talking about someone who he was with and fell out of love with, but really it’s about himself.”
Grief, self-destruction and heartache run heavy through the record, but all are brought together by the blackest of humour. The dirty desert blues of ‘Life’s A Bitch’ was actually meant to be the first single, “but it turns out I say ‘bitch’ too much on it,” chuckles Lia. Other tracks run the gamut from the grunged-up country of ‘Old Friends, Die Hard’ to the giddy, free-falling ‘On The Run’, Lia’s unique take on the tale of the teenage runaways in Terrence Mallick’s iconic Badlands. Then there’s the creepy, cultish ‘Under Your Skin’, which is The Doors by way of The Manson Family and the Stooges-esque ‘The Bad Thing’, of which Lia says: “It’s the most fun to play, and the words I find really funny as well – I’m digging someone up from the grave that I used to love.”
Somewhat prophetically, Lia has already had a Number 1 album of sorts. When supporting Miles Kane in Brighton, his mate Paul Weller came down to a show. Lia and Paul bonded over the fact he had a daughter called Lia and after fish and chips on the front, he invited The Mysterines to his studio to write. Over lockdown he WhatsApped her and asked for some lyrics. The track, ‘True’, features on ‘Fat Pop’, Weller’s sixth chart-topping album. “I can’t really say it’s my Number 1 album,” offers Lia. “I’ve only got one tune on it, it’s definitely not down to me.” If you ask us, it’s more than a good start.