Smile Politely

Elizabeth Allen of Mermaid Heaven talks new EP and new beginnings

We met in Downtown Champaign at Café Kopi on a windy Wednesday night. Elizabeth Allen had just gotten done practicing music after being at work all day and said that she was feeling good when I asked. I thanked her for coming and then our conversation began.

Smile Politely: First things first, I’ve known you for a while [Elizabeth and I have been good friends since we met at Parkland last fall semester] and some people may know you from your previous project, Sleeping Okami, but some people may not know you at all, so let’s just cover some basics. Who are you? Where are you from?

Elizabeth Allen: [laughs] My name is Elizabeth, I am from Mahomet, but I live in Champaign right now, and I sing and play guitar in a band called Mermaid Heaven.

SP: Where do you go to school, or where did you go to school?

Allen: I went to Uni for high school and I did some years at the University of Illinois and Parkland.

SP: Did some years? [I thought that was an interesting way to say it.] So you were imprisoned?

We both chuckled. She explained that she did, in fact, hate studying Material Science Engineering for 2 years at the U of I, at which point she dropped out — but is now considering going back to study a different engineering field.

SP: Did you do anything music related at the U of I?

Allen: No. None at all. I was rebelling against my classical, strict upbringing and I hated music from when I was 18 to 21. [she said this with a firm response]

SP: What made you hate music so much back then?

Allen: It sounds silly, but I was pressured into doing youth orchestra and a lot of classical training and I just really didn’t like the culture and the vibe. I didn’t like how strict it was, I didn’t like the limitations, I didn’t like the people. It was just a bad experience overall, even though I definitely learned a lot and still use a lot of that musical background today. I just needed a break from music after that.

SP: That makes sense, but you met your bandmate, Sam, and other members of Sleeping Okami, at the U of I, correct? How was that?

Sam Srajer, a longtime friend of Elizabeth’s, is Mermaid Heaven’s keyboardist.

Allen: Yes. It was an incredible experience. It was really hard, at times, but we were all extremely close and got along really well and we had a shared vision that we wanted to realize. It was the first time I explored musical ideas with people outside of myself and so, articulating my needs and artistic vision in that way was a huge learning experience for me. I still use a lot of those skills to this day and it deepened Sam and I’s musical bond and our shared language that we use to communicate about music.

SP: Sleeping Okami seemed, at least from my point of view, to be well liked in the community. You guys played a lot of shows around town and even got a spot on PYGMALION a few years back, so why did that project come to an end?

Elizabeth took a few moments to think about how she was going to answer my question.

Allen: Because, ultimately, what we made didn’t line up with what we envisioned, and that wasn’t anyone’s fault in particular. In music, or anything that requires a lot of work, there’s always going to be a little bit of a crap-shoot on how it’s going to go, even if everyone has the best of intentions. We recorded a bunch of material and there were parts of it that Sam and I really loved, but there were also parts that we really didn’t love at all. When you record music, it forces you to hear yourself in a new light, a florescent light, that illuminates everything wrong with what you’re doing. Sometimes that leads to growth and sometimes it doesn’t, and in this case, it didn’t.

SP: Interesting. So, after that, you and Sam stuck together—

Allen: —Well, we lived together.

SP: Right, yeah, so how did Mermaid Heaven form after all that?

Allen: Well, James Treichler was originally going to mix the material Sleeping Okami had recorded at Earth Analog and as we got into the mixing stage of that record, he let me know that he would be open to collaborating if I wanted to.

At the time, I was starting to realize that I didn’t want to release what we had recorded and so it was just a natural transition, not even a transition really, just, this thing ended and this thing popped up at the same time.

SP: Well, I’m glad that change went well for you guys.

Allen: And James has a lot of skills that I don’t have. So, of course I wanted to work with him because I knew I would learn a lot just by being in the same room with him.

SP: How is working with James?

Allen: He is very easy to work with. I think he and I bring completely opposite things to the table, which means we have to communicate more, but I think it ends up filling each other’s deficits. James is very good at looking at the big picture and both Sam and I are very good at getting lost in the details, so having him there to kind of push us in that way is really helpful. He’s been playing devil’s advocate with our ideas, which is exactly what we needed. Part of the reason Sleeping Okami ended was that we realized we weren’t learning anything anymore from finishing that record. We needed someone who would push against us and that’s what James does.

SP: How would you describe your sound to someone who hasn’t heard Mermaid Heaven before?

Elizabeth smiled, halfway wincing. Many musicians hate getting asked this question, even if it is an important one to answer.

Allen: On the surface it’s electronic pop music… [she paused for a moment.] …It’s electronic pop music. [both laugh]

SP: So, you guys played a show with zzo and OHHME in April at The Iron Post, which was your first show as a full band. How do you feel that went?

Allen: It was awesome. I really enjoyed it. It was also really last minute for us. We were still in the process of figuring out what the songs were going to sound like, which was about 85 percent of the way done already, but being forced to play them live introduced a new method of hearing ourselves that informs us now as we’re finishing the EP. Both James and Sam are capable of doing more than one thing instrumentally, so James is playing drums and also sampling things and Sam is often covering a synth part and a bass part at the same time, so everyone is multitasking a little bit and I really enjoy the chaos that can come with that, especially in a live environment.

And going back to actually making the EP — one thing that James did, that kind of surprised me, was that he pushed us in a more simplified pop direction. He always advocated to simplify and break down what was and wasn’t necessary in each part. That process really, really grew on me. In a way, that was kind of a reaction to Sleeping Okami because we were throwing everything at the wall all the time instrumentally, sonically, and songwriting wise, so taking that chaotic seed and reforming it created something that I never really expected, but turned out to be really fun.

SP: It sounds like he was very helpful.

Allen: He really was.

SP: Going off on a tangent, recently you won some money to start your own business. Tell me a little bit about that.

Allen: [laughs] At the beginning of last semester at Parkland I got involved in an incubator program called CobraVenture where I got to develop a business idea that I had been thinking about for a while. I competed against others to win some seed money and I won. I learned a lot and everyone was super helpful. It was a great experience. So, I’ll potentially be starting a small run, lathe-cut vinyl record company soon.

SP: That’s very exciting. That’s going to give smaller artists a chance to get their music on vinyl for a more affordable price, right?

Allen: Yeah, absolutely.

SP: Great. So, as you mentioned before, you guys are finishing up your EP right now. Is there a release date solidified for it yet?

Allen: We’ve picked mid-June. Every time you pick a release date you basically have to add two months, which happens like four times and then you’re good.

SP: You have to make sure everything is how you want it.

Allen: Yeah. Having a deadline is important, but every time we’ve extended it has been for a good reason. We’re a new band so no one is expecting or anticipating anything, so why not take our time, you know. We’re actually very close now, so I think this is the final deadline.

SP: Awesome. I’m excited. Would you care to elaborate on what the EP is about or what kind of themes it encompasses?

She took some time to think.

Allen: The name of it is I Only Love You More Now That You’ve Hurt Me, which I think represents each song pretty well. Each one is about loving someone, and a part of loving someone is getting hurt by them and internalizing that, so the songs deal with how that effects a relationship and other things around you.

SP: Interesting. Do you guys have any shows lined up for the future?

Allen: The only show we have confirmed right now is our set at PYGMALION later this year. I’m sure that once we release the EP, we’ll start booking more shows, but we’re all pretty okay with not doing shows right now and just focusing on mixing and releasing videos.”

SP: You don’t want to stretch yourself too thin.

Allen: Yeah, you can only really only focus on one major thing at a time and do it well, at least that’s how I work, so if we’re playing shows then I’d rather just focus on that, otherwise my attention is just too split.

SP: Is a music video in the works?

Allen: We’re planning on doing a video for each of the songs eventually.

SP: [surprised] That’s a lot of work, but it’ll be good for promotion, and it’ll be really fun. I’m glad things are going well for you guys. I can’t wait.

Allen said that she was very excited for the future, and that makes the two of us. Be sure to be on the lookout for Mermaid Heaven’s I Only Love You More Now That You’ve Hurt Me in June and catch them at PYGMALION this September.

Photo by Anna Longworth

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