My first encounter with Lizzy Shell’s album Seed is hard for me to forget.
In beautifully poetic lyrics, each of the nine tracks spoke (and continue to speak) meaning into my late-twenties and beyond. From reflecting on letting go of relationships to letting go of fear, to desiring a heart more open and less guarded, her music expresses a wide range of emotional realities: exultation, reflection, remorse, perseverance, and the joys and pains of simply growing.
I recently sat down with Shell to talk about creativity, and what the process of singing and songwriting means to her.
Lindsey Weishar: Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you express your creativity.
Lizzy Shell: I’m based in Phoenix and grew up here, though I’ve lived a few places around the States in between now and my childhood years. I’ve come to identify with this landscape, the Southwestern desert, the mountains, the massive sky. My faith is a big part of how I frame and navigate this world we’re all moving through.
As far as creative work goes, I play piano and guitar, sing, and can shake a mean tambourine. Writing songs and other forms of prose or poetry is my main outlet for creative expression. I would definitely say that homemaking, conversations, self-expression, and even building relationships are major avenues for expressing my creativity. Ultimately I would say my life is about people and trying to learn how to love and be loved by them.
LW: How has writing and producing music impacted you? What have you learned about yourself and the world through this process?
LS: There’s an endless list of ways I’m still processing the impact of music-making, but a couple things come to mind right away. One is very personal: I remember once in a particularly dark wave of depression when I was speaking to my therapist about my mental loop repeating that I couldn’t do anything, that I’d never figure out how to accomplish even the smallest task. He asked if I’d ever accomplished anything before, and I said, “Making my album.” That was a touchpoint for me, that I instantly knew—no matter how much it felt like everything was futile and nothing I attempted would succeed—I have evidential experience to anchor my own belief in my ability to do something.
I made an album. There’s no disputing that. When I’m drowning in feelings of impotence or incompetence, that is a peg I can hang reality on. I made something. It’s possible. If I did that once, surely I can do something again.
On the other side of that, I’ve been humbled and amazed by the impact that simple work has had. I made it, but it exists outside of me now and is having effect without me. I wonder if that’s a bit how motherhood feels. It’s an undeniable reminder that I’m part of a story bigger than just my own.
LW: What kinds of things and activities inspire your writing?
LS: I see so many contradictions and paradoxes and mysteries, and I need a way to put those next to each other and see them somehow live in harmony. I think I also want to understand or capture the heights and depths, the more intense experiences I get to have, partly so I don’t lose them. The peaks and valleys are what constitute the size of our lives, and they’re difficult to retain. I think art is one way that we take possession of those moments for ourselves in a more permanent way.
Inspiration comes mainly through curiosity, as far as I can tell. When I was writing my song “Armoured Heart,” I was playing around with opening lines and suddenly thought, “I’d fall in love, but who has the time?” I was taken aback—why did that come to my mind? Did I believe that? Why did I think of love firstly as an inconvenience? I got curious about that line.
As I explored my own memories, I began to unpack my experiences that led to my fear, guardedness, or self-defense, but in lyrical form. I think a lot about relationships, a lot about regrets, growth, and why I’ve done what I have. Then I try to get terrifyingly vulnerable about it. I think there’s strangely fertile soil in vulnerability—that by accessing what is most personal, we can express something universal. Artists, more than anyone, let us know we’re not alone in our struggles.
LW: What does your creative process look like?
LS: Well, on a very practical level, I like to write songs on paper. Some people start with either music or words and add the other, but I typically write music and words at the same time. I try really hard to put my analytical head down and get through some kind of creative export without being overly critical.
I can’t get hung up on writing something brilliant at first pass. If I’m not willing to write some rubbish, I’m already blocked. I cross out a lot of lines. If I’m lucky, something lovely will fly out and I’ll keep it just as it is. I can sometimes be surprised by the things I blurt out while I’m mining for songs. I have learned things about myself; it can be a revelatory activity.
On a slightly more transcendent level, I think the writing process is another way to go through the emotional process for me. There are certain emotional spaces about things I’ve gone through that I can only access when I’m writing about them. Reflecting and writing literally continues the unfolding of the actual experience for me. It’s the harvest of the experience. It’s part of taking possession of the experience. I’m reviewing it and, as I’m doing that, it’s giving me more of what it has to give.
Really, the creative process begins (for better or for worse) with authentically experiencing life as it happens. Without that, there’s nothing to draw from that can mean anything.
LW: You have shared that your take on art is that “artistic impulse can be fully expressed outside of the realm of art-making” and that “every woman has a work” of some kind. Can you say more on this topic?
LS: I think the attempt to move through this life must be creative. To me, creativity is a synonym for fruitfulness. We are made to have other new things come out of us. Unless we know that that’s happening in some way, I think life becomes futile and toilsome and wearying and inconclusive. Unless we see that good things come from all that we choose and suffer and see, life is unbearably meaningless. We need a core belief that all these seeds could someday possibly grow into something. Meaning and purpose are non-negotiable human needs. Creative work makes me feel more connected to a sense of meaning and of purpose.
Every single person has a unique work, an irreplaceable and essential contribution. What that work may be is going to differ person to person, and even season to season throughout our lives. Our work is made up of the entirety of our lives, up to and including the work of our dying. It matters that we attempt to do each part of the whole thing well.
Particularly as women, I think our work is beauty, which is obviously a huge factor of artmaking. Part of our work is to be bringers, bearers, generators, reflectors of beauty—to be illuminators and to teach each other how to see beauty. I think that’s an especially feminine genius. For as much courage and tenacity as it takes, we still fight to bring beauty into our work, into the home, into our relationships, into the project of parenting, into art, into politics, into wherever we find ourselves being drawn. Beauty needs fearless advocates. That’s a part of our work. And I’m inclined to agree with Dostoevsky’s claim: “Beauty will save the world.”
LW: How can women harness their creativity and discover their work?
LS: That’s such a personal quest! But I have a few general thoughts, focusing on four important elements of creativity for me:
Augustine of Hippo said, “Love and do what you will.” Anything truly productive needs to come out of a place of love. Love is the driving force that blasts through a thousand obstacles like jealousy, ego, or fear of failure. And in this force I would include any kind of love—love for the world, love for the work, self-love, love for the human experience, love for the mystery, love of beauty. The more we love, the truer our work, in any form, will be.
The first step of creativity, always, is seeing. It’s the first step of love. There’s a lot to say about seeing, and it’s a shockingly difficult task. But the brave keep their eyes open, and might even boldly ask to have any remaining blindness removed. Seeing does not include judging, and to be creative we have to first observe with curiosity. Without that step, we can’t find anything poetic in the world around us.
As C.S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters, true humility consists in one’s freedom “to rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.” If it’s good, go ahead and do it. And be happy about it. The less hung up we are on being received well by others, the more we can get about our business of loving people or making art or tending our gardens. The world needs us to do the work. It’s no use being precious about our vanity.
One of the primary guides toward your unique and particular work is your own sense of delight. I think our weird and wonderful delight is somehow the compass that the divine has placed in each of us. When you follow your sense of wonder and your sense of delight, you will certainly arrive at your work.