Liz Cass readily admits she "took the scenic route" to where she is today: a purveyor of stunning, emotionally literate alternative pop music.
Her new single Shaken is a shimmering synth gem with a fundamentally optimistic message. "It's about getting your spark back," Cass explains. "It touches on some things I went through in a past relationship that was emotionally abusive, but it's really about picking myself up off the floor and getting back to the person I was before all that. For me, it's a really uplifting song."
Shaken continues the upward momentum Cass has built with two previous single releases on Ultra Records. First came Killers, a late-night lament on which she hauntingly recounts her experience with postnatal depression; then came Human, an ethereal ballad that documents the paralysing anxiety she experienced during the UK’s second Covid lockdown. "I'd just started doing some DJ gigs again and felt like I was getting my life back," Cass recalls. "And then suddenly we were back in lockdown and I just thought: 'God, what is the point?' I had no enthusiasm and energy and just felt really isolated and lonely."
Realising that creativity could help her out of her downward spiral, Cass hotfooted it from her London home to the Bath recording studio of regular collaborator Ed Graves. "As soon as we were allowed to be in the same room together, I was there," she recalls. "Human is the first song we wrote and it was literally just me getting everything off my chest." Cass has since been diagnosed with ADHD: something that finally shed some light on her mental health struggles over the years. "So many things that I used to beat myself up about, I now know they're all because of my ADHD," she says. "I decided to try medication which is now really helping, and honestly it's like a weight has been lifted."
At this point, no one could question Cass's resilience, which runs through her "scenic route" of a musical journey like letters through a stick of rock. That journey began as a child when she began singing with the Lincoln Cathedral Choir, one of the best in the country. Cass's impressive voice won her a scholarship to the fee-paying school connected with the choir, something her parents "would never have been able to afford otherwise", and she gained a formidable musical education. "There was a lot of music theory and sightreading, and I'm talking every morning," she recalls. "I was really thrown in at the deep end trying to keep up with other girls who'd been doing it for much longer."
A couple of years later, Cass's stepmother got a job at a boarding school in Kent, which meant she had to leave the Lincoln Cathedral Choir. At her new school, she took advantage of the "really cool drama department" and honed her performing skills by playing Sally Bowles in a production of Cabaret. By this point, Cass knew music was her calling, so she decided to ditch her A-levels – "that really pissed off my parents!" – and moved to London to chase her dream. "I threw myself into networking and making connections in the industry and just following any opportunity that I could find," she says.
Cass's hustle paid off when she booked a session with Fraser T. Smith, the award-winning producer who went on to work with Adele and Stormzy. Though they wrote a song together – the first Cass had ever written – she admits she had yet to find her artistic identity. "Fraser was telling me that if I wanted to be an artist, I should be writing my own songs," she recalls. "But I just felt like I didn't have a lot to write about. Even though I was really into English Literature and poetry at school, I just didn't feel like I knew what I was doing when it came to writing songs. I had no confidence in my abilities as a storyteller."
During this formative period, Cass began getting into classic jazz records by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, which led to another unexpected career break. After she sang with a 40-piece jazz orchestra at a D-Day anniversary concert in Leicester Square – "it was very much a Vera Lynn vibe", she says – Cass had a meeting with legendary record executive Seymour Stein. A good word from Cass's lawyer had got her into a room with the man who signed Madonna. "He told me I had a great voice and great stage presence," she recalls. "But he also asked what kind of music I wanted to make, and I was like: 'I love jazz, I love classical, I love pop.' I think he thought I had absolutely no clue what kind of artist I wanted to be, so I guess I blew it. But at that time, I really wasn't ready."
Still, Stein saw enough potential in Cass to give her his details: soon afterwards, she even got to sing for him at his New York office. For a few years, Cass pinged between songwriting sessions while making a living as a jazz covers singer, before starting a family. It was only when she became pregnant with her first child that she began releasing music. A friend of Cass's then-boyfriend introduced her to producer John Monkman, and together they pitched a track for a Clairol TV advert. It didn't get picked up, but Monkman was so impressed with Cass's voice that they began making house bangers together. One of these tracks, Open Frontier, even got played on Pete Tong's Radio 1 show. "There I was writing music while my baby was asleep on the sofa, and suddenly people were really liking it? That was such boost to my confidence," she says.
Some years later after having her second child and the ultimate breakdown of her relationship with the children’s father, Cass decided it was time to dive back into her music full time. Her confidence grew when DJ-production duo CamelPhat sent her some demos to write over and gave her "really encouraging" feedback. She dived deeper into the dance world, picking up further feature credits along the way, and even learned how to DJ. With her songwriting skills evolving, something finally clicked and she realised, for the first time in her career, that she wanted to make an album. Then fate intervened in a fortuitous way when she connected with producer Ed Graves on the dating app Raya. "He messaged me saying he knew some tracks I'd done with [house producer] Martin Badder and asked me to his studio in Bath to try writing," she recalls. "To be perfectly honest, I thought that was kind of funny and was apprehensive at first, but I gave him a follow on Instagram and saw from his videos that he was incredibly talented. So I hit him up and we decided to give it a go."
Cass's punt paid off so spectacularly that she now describes Graves’ Bath studio as her “happy place”. "I can't explain it, but when we sit down to write, everything falls into place,” she says. “I'm quite an emotional person, so with my songwriting, it either pours out of me or it doesn't. And with Ed, the chords and beats that he plays just seem to make it pour out of me. Honestly, songwriting has never felt this natural to me."
Their songwriting partnership has proved so intuitive and fruitful that it now forms the backbone of Cass's debut album, due later this year. "I could never have written songs like this in my twenties," she says. Cass has also teamed up with revered producer David Wrench (Arlo Parks, Let’s Eat Grandma) for a future single called Confessional, whom she connected with on Instagram after he walked right past her in Hackney’s Broadway Market. "Getting to collaborate with him in his amazing studio in London Fields is one of the most exciting things that has happened to me," says Cass.
At this point in her remarkable career, everything is very much falling into place. "Funnily enough, my mum has always said that I've done everything backwards,” she says with a laugh. “When all my mates were out partying, I was at home having babies; now they're settling down, I'm out DJing and making music. But it feels like everything has come full circle. I have so much to write about and I know exactly where I'm going as an artist."