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McAlpine more than ‘Ceilings’

Singer-songwriter proves she’s ‘Older,’ wiser on tour

By Malia Mendez, Los Angeles Times
Published: May 23, 2024, 6:24am

LOS ANGELES — Thousands of fans sway in sync, phone flashlights raised high, anticipating the crescendo.

“But it’s not real,” Lizzy McAlpine sings as members of the Red Rocks Amphitheatre crowd join in. They belt with the conviction of Broadway stars, some crumpling from the emotional catharsis.

It’s the second show of McAlpine’s “Older” tour and “Ceilings” is far from the last song on the set list. But when the viral hit ends, an exodus ensues. For so many of the fans, the show’s essentially over.

“It’s super disheartening as an artist,” McAlpine says, recounting the episode from her L.A. home two weeks later. “People will come to the shows just to see that one song, to see the one snippet of that song that they know from TikTok, and then they’ll leave.”

From now on, she says, “Ceilings” will be an encore. “They’re gonna have to really wait the whole show if they wanna see that one song.”

That will apply to her concerts at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. The dates follow one of the short breaks the singer-songwriter is taking between shows to preserve her energy. On previous tours, she exhausted herself to the point of physical illness: pneumonia, laryngitis, influenza and more.

“Every tour I would go on, my body would literally reject it,” she says.

She’s also visiting fewer cities and forgoing an opening act so she can start her show sooner.

McAlpine didn’t expect “Ceilings” to be the breakout track from her 2022 album, “Five Seconds Flat.” It wasn’t even a single.

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Nonetheless, a sped-up version of the song she posted on TikTok in January 2023 has spurred nearly 665,000 posts, with many users (Victoria Justice and Jimmy Fallon among them) lip-dubbing to the song while running, dancing or both.

“Ceilings” peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has amassed more than 523 million streams on Spotify. Following its success, McAlpine signed to RCA Records.

“That moment allowed me to get here, and I’m obviously super grateful for it,” McAlpine says. “But it’s also hard to see people only care, seemingly, about one song, especially after I’ve just released this new album that feels the most like me I’ve ever felt.”

A highly confessional record built on wandering folk melodies and soft layered vocals, McAlpine’s third studio album, “Older,” was released April 5 after three years of work. She calls it a “second- or third-listen album,” one that grows on you the more time and attention you give it.

Writing the songs was easy, like it usually is, McAlpine says. “Making them sound good,” though, “that was the part that took forever.” She recorded with a slew of producers in a trial-and-error manner, never quite realizing the vision she had in her head.

By fall 2023, she had a version of an album that she couldn’t bear to release and a mission to find a producer who could fix it.

Instead, she found a six-man band.

Assembled by Pasadena-based guitarist Mason Stoops for a Marcus Mumford tour in 2022, the band took its final form, Stoops says, after he and a few other members were recruited to record a live version of L.A. singer Ryan Beatty’s 2023 album, “Calico.” They subsequently supported Beatty on his “California in Every Color” and “Calico” tours.

When McAlpine saw the band performing with Beatty at the Ford in Hollywood last September, she was mesmerized.

“I can’t really explain it,” she says. “I was just so blown away by the band and their playing, and it really was such a focal point of that show.

“It felt so human to me, and that’s what I felt like I’d been missing.”

As luck would have it, McAlpine knew the brother of a band member, steel guitarist Tyler Nuffer. She reached out the next week.

“Lizzy called me and she was just like, ‘I have this record that I hate, basically, and I think I can produce it myself with the right band, and I heard you guys play and I just felt like, this is exactly the sound that I want,’ ” Stoops says.

The band didn’t take much convincing. In two weeks, they rerecorded nearly half of McAlpine’s album in Nuffer’s home studio in Pasadena, Nuffer Ranch.

Stoops didn’t think McAlpine actually needed their help, but seeing how disheartened she was after years of working on her album, he hoped to restore her confidence.

“I think she felt the pressure that a lot of artists feel where, after they have a hit or they have a following — they’re known for something — it’s like, ‘Well, I have to live up to that’ or ‘I have to give people more of that,’ ” he says. “This record became the mission of helping Lizzy find truly only herself in these songs and giving her some kind of platform so that she could go forward as her own artist.”

Sometimes, that meant leaving the songs untouched. Track 10, “You Forced Me to,” is the original demo McAlpine made alone in her apartment. It became the “North Star” for the record, pianist Taylor Mackall says.

Up until Stoops heard that demo, he says, “I didn’t know that Lizzie was this, like, savant-level arranger and composer.”

“That’s kind of what’s wrong with production,” he says. “It hides or covers up so much of the musicality of the artists that we’re working with.”

The stage design for the “Older” tour, essentially a replica of Nuffer Ranch, does the opposite. There’s no track, no clicker, no spectacle — nothing to detract from the raw performance.

Stoops believes the intimacy of it is registering with McAlpine’s audience.

“I think it’s helped encourage people to just, like, take a moment and listen and be there with her instead of seeing her as an external object on the stage that you can just scream at,” he says.