Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

Try different paths

Lizzy Ellison moved to L.A. and then came home to Portland. Now, with Cardioid, she's making her mark again.

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In 2017, Lizzy Ellison moved away from Portland, seemingly for good. Though she had spent the previous decade living in Oregon, she felt the pull to relocate following the dual breakup of her band, the glittery indie rock ensemble Radiation City, and her relationship with Cameron Spies, the musician with whom she formed the group in 2010. 

cardioid lizzy ellison
Lizzy Ellison.

“I wasn’t maturing as a person,” Ellison told ArtsWatch, describing that time of personal and creative upheaval. “My identity was so wrapped up in Radiation City and the partnership I had that I got lost. I don’t feel like I had any reality going on—of autonomy and understanding what I want in life. I knew I needed to get away, to, in a cliched sense, figure out who I was.”

And where Ellison chose to relocate has a touch of cliche to it: Los Angeles. But Ellison told us it wasn’t with a mind toward becoming a star of stage and screen, but “to exist on my own.” The transition didn’t take long. Ellison quickly found a day job at an organic grocery store and was soon playing gigs around the region and releasing her music as Cardioid, named after a particularly sensitive type of microphone.

“And the process of that,” she says, “making the music that I’ve made in the past few years, I think it’s all integral in the discovery of my independence not only as a musician but as a woman.” 

Ellison told us all this while sitting at a picnic table outside Atlas Pizza on Southeast Division Street in Portland. Though she had come back to Portland frequently to record, she returned for good at the end of 2020. Not with her tail between her legs nor humbled by the experience of living in the sprawl of Southern California, but with a renewed sense of purpose and vision for what she wants to accomplish as an artist. 

Her growing resolve and strengthening musical muscles are easy to track by listening to her first two solo releases. 2017’s Parts Dept. is a creative shedding of the tough skin she built up over the previous seven years, as heard through slashing rock, downtempo psychedelia, and dusky R&B. The follow-up EP from 2020, Fantasy Metal, is equally eclectic, but bursting with barely contained energy and moments of romantic rapture and teeth-clenched fury. 

The latest Cardioid release, Crystal Lattice Lullabies, slots in between those two. Though released this past February, the material was written and recorded in the build-up to Fantasy Metal, and while the music isn’t quite as distinct, she was starting to direct many of her lyrics outward toward some unnamed figures in her life, urging them to join her in letting go and moving on. “I’ll give you everything you need,” Ellison sings over a temperamental pool of synth eddies and hard strummed guitar on the song “Sake,” “So please be good to you/for I’ll be good to me.”

Getting to that point herself took some doing. While Ellison doesn’t regret her time in Radiation City, the experience took its toll on her. The band started as just a duo with Ellison and Spies but eventually ballooned into a quintet by the time of the group’s final album Synesthetica. That growth mirrored the expansion of Radiation City’s fanbase and the expectations that were placed on the band, especially after signing with the larger indie label Polyvinyl. 

“I’m willing to fight my ass off and work hard,” Ellison remembers, “but I have a breaking point where I’m like, ‘This is too hard. It shouldn’t be this hard.’ There were times when I was afraid to write a song because I didn’t think it would be good enough. Just to come from that to where I am now, I’m so glad I removed myself from that situation. I feel bad that it hurt anybody along the way, but I think we’re all in a better place, individually.”

Remaining an independent artist has relieved Ellison of any creative pressure. She’s currently sitting on a wealth of material in various states of completion that she’s considering releasing as stylistically themed EPs. “One’s upbeat rock, one’s kind of shoegaze-y, then one acoustic EP,” she says. 

Ellison is also tapping into the years of experience she has amassed in the music industry to help mentor budding songwriters through a series of workshops that she leads. The classes cover everything from creating a song from scratch to choosing the right engineer and studio to distributing the finished product. 

“I never felt comfortable teaching in a technical manner, like piano lessons,” Ellison says, “but I can teach confidence. I can teach belief in oneself.” 

Another critical lesson that Ellison wants to impart is flexibility. The week that she and I sat down to talk, all of her students had hit a creative wall in their respective projects. It was a moment that Ellison knew was coming but didn’t warn anyone about, the idea being that these artists needed to learn how to step back and find a path around that mental roadblock. 

“I talk about the universe a lot, which, I guess, for me is the unknowing thing that seems to be in charge,” Ellison says. “I tell them, ‘That’s the universe telling you, ‘If you try different paths, you will find your answer.’”

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Cascadia Composers Music Concert Portland State University Lincoln Hall Portland Oregon

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Robert Ham is a critic and journalist living in Portland, Oregon’s outer reaches. During his time in the Rose City, he has contributed to The OregonianWillamette WeekPortland Mercury, and Portland Monthly, while also amassing a healthy amount of clips for print and online publications including PitchforkDownBeatBandcamp, and Village Voice. In 2019, he was the recipient of the SPJ Award for Best Sports Feature. In addition, Robert produces and hosts Double Bummer, a radio show focusing on new and newly reissued experimental music from around the world that airs every Tuesday night at 11pm PT on XRAY-FM. To read more of his work, visit his portfolio site or follow him on Twitter at @roberthamwriter.

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