Last winter, four female musicians living in New York City had the idea to decamp to a cabin upstate to write the music for their band Teen’s third album. Kristina (Teeny) Lieberson, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Lieberson, Katherine Lieberson – three sisters raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia – and Boshra Al-Saadi booked a rental in Woodstock, which they hoped would be an idyllic oasis last January.
“We wanted to get out of New York and just be immersed in the writing,” Teeny Lieberson says as she and the rest of the band sip drinks at Crown Victoria, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the cramped but organized shared space where Teen practices five days a week. “You get so self-conscious when you’re in New York. New York is a great city, but there’s a judgmental aspect. You’re judging yourself.”
“We had this idea we’d go for a month and come out with the perfect third record,” says Katherine.
What they got was a frigid, uninspiring place full of dead mice. The driveway froze into a sheet of ice after they arrived, trapping them there.
But they made the most of it – the Liebersons were raised Buddhist and believe the way you set up an environment is important to both your mindset and how you communicate to others. “When we got to that shitty house, it was three days of making the space harmonious,” Teeny says.
They cleaned, baked and drew inspiration from their past experiences, including the death of their father in 2011, which was the basis for Please, a song Lizzie wrote for Love Yes, Teen’s album came out on DC-based indie label Carpark Records.
Please is autobiographical, focuses on the death of their father Peter Lieberson. “What kind of woman did he think that I could be?” Lizzy sings in a way that’s all at once sweet, soulful and sultry. Her sisters sing back a response: “He’d say don’t you see that you’re good and you’re perfect.” It’s a reassuring line, but sung listlessly and over an ominous synth melody in a way that makes it sound ghostly and sad. The song builds to a pileup of trembling strings and warped keyboards before fading out.
“The whole song is basically me wishing I could have a conversation with him,” Lizzie said last month, in an interview with Rookie.
The death of their father was a loss not only for his daughters, but also for the classical music world. Lieberson was a composer who wrote pieces for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma. The New York Times described him as “an eloquent voice in the generation of composers seeking to infuse the thorny rigors of academic music with a more accessible, lyrical sound” in his obituary. Their mother is a mandolin player and singer who once was a member of Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass super group, Old and In the Way – “Her musicial ear is insane,” says Teeny. Their paternal grandfather was the head of Columbia Records and their grandmother (“our goddess”) was a ballerina, further adding to their family’s long line of history in the arts. Lieberson was heavily influenced by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, whose music was often playing in the family’s house when the sisters were children.
They also remember his fondness for jazz and musical theater – the sisters would act out musicals like South Pacific and West Side Story. In a 2008 review of a collection of his works on Broadway, music critic Allan Kozinn described Lieberson’s music as both brainy and atonal, and warm and passionate. Though Teen’s music is a blend of pop and rock rather than classical, there’s a similar collision of weirdness and beauty exists, even as their style has shifted over the course of their three albums. “I like something that has a little bit of juxtaposition. I don’t like anything too literal,” says Teeny. “I can be attracted to really ugly words.”
At a corner booth in Crown Victoria on a Wednesday night, the band members have an easygoing dynamic, with Al-Saadi fitting in comfortably like another member of the family. They laugh a lot, even as they’re arguing over the date they formed (which was roughly fall 2010) and whether they mind being labeled an all-girl family band (“The Kinks were an all-male band and they were family”, yet no one identifies them as such, Teeny argues). They joke that a better moniker would be the “all-brunette band”, since Teeny recently dyed her platinum blonde bob.
After Teen escaped from Woodstock, Teeny headed to eastern Kentucky alone, where the Liebersons’ mother lives. A friend of their mother’s offered Teeny a place to stay for free – a house by a lake with an outhouse, but no dead mice.
“It was spring and it was warmer there,” Teeny said. “It felt like a clean palate. It was nice to be somewhere so vastly different. I could think about what I wanted to make rather than what I should make.” She drove around blasting gospel records by The Clark Sisters (“They’re the best singers”) and attended old time and bluegrass jam sessions.
“I was embracing the senses of expression of spring,” Teeny says. “I personally had been asleep emotionally and personally, and so [the album is] more about waking up.”
By the time the band reunited in August in Nova Scotia at The Old Confidence Lodge, a 1920s music hall that’s now a studio, to record Love Yes, the album was shaping up to be something sleeker than the lo-fi, more guitar-centric songs of their previous efforts.This wasn’t a conscious decision, but something that evolved naturally over the months they were able to devote to the record. “We had time to spread out sonically,” Teeny says.
Though songs such as Animal, which feels like an homage to The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows, carries over their inclination toward psychedelia, many of the other songs (Tokyo, Gone for Good) rely on electronic elements that are reminiscent of more inventive late-70s to mid-80s pop groups, like Kraftwerk (circa Computer World and Electric Café), Tubeway Army and Yellow Magic Orchestra. And yet the vocals remain their strongpoint, sounding warm and imperfect, thanks to their decision to record the harmonies while gathered around one microphone. They solicited guest vocals on Another Man’s Woman from their mom. Push, the last track on Love Yes, begins sounding like 1970s folk, with airy vocals over piano and bass, then shifts into a wall of pop harmonies punctuated by high-pitched synth. It’s a strange and beautiful contrast of moods and genres – simultaneously peaceful and unsettling.
“[Teeny] has a very strong and grounded sound with roots in R&B and soul, but has impressionistic interests,” says Luke Temple, a Brooklyn-based musician who played with Teeny in the band Here We Go Magic before she left to start Teen in 2010. Teeny has been influenced by the phrasing used by the likes of D’Angelo, Outkast and Kendrick Lamar (“It’s a fun way of writing,” she says). “We wanted to just present them in their natural and most core state,” said Daniel Schlett, who produced Love Yes, in addition to Teen’s last album, The Way and Color and their EP, Carolina, about recording the vocals around one mic. This method can be problematic because it’s almost impossible to go back and fix or adjust vocals later – but that wasn’t the problem with Teen. “They are all incredible singers. I suppose the hard part was getting them to stop giggling and focus. We were having a pretty good time up there.” It was a much-welcomed summer after a dreary winter.