Aside from a 36-hour return home for a gig with her group Grrrl Prty two weeks ago, Lizzo spent the whole month of January in Los Angeles working on another new solo album. Yes, already.
So when she turned up to Zenon Dance Studio in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday to rehearse new choreography for her upcoming tour, the local rapper, singer, mover and shaker was literally and figuratively sweating the work.
“It’s scary being behind and up against a deadline,” she said, referring to her tour kickoff Saturday at First Avenue.
“But I love pushing myself when it comes to dancing. I learn what I’m made of. It’s a big part of how I learned to love my body more.”
As is well-known to anyone who’s seen her viral video for “My Skin” or read any of the enthusiastic record reviews by Spin, NME, Pitchfork and Paste, Lizzo spends a lot of time singing or rapping about how much she loves her body on her new album, “Big GRRRL, Small World” — the album she dropped in mid-December, not the one she just started in January.
“I wear my flaws on my sleeve and my skin like a peacoat,” she raps in “My Skin,” a slow, ethereal highlight of the sonically varied LP produced by local beatmaker Bionik (Stefon Taylor).
“I see someone like me ashamed to be / And honestly, I’m really really / I’m fed up wit’ it, try to send it up like a FedEx / I’m wondering what’s next.”
Opening up about her body image was no small feat for the real-life Melissa Jefferson, who’s 27 and as self-confident these days as Kanye West at an awards show. But she clearly remembers the insecurities she had at age 17 or even 23.
“Women have just been so conditioned to dislike everything about themselves, or to envy something about someone else,” she said, talking out in the hall as her dance crew started rehearsing another of her more meaningful new tunes, “1 Deep.”
“Seldom do they get to hear messages like this, saying ‘Hey, love yourself!’ ”
Lizzo performed “My Skin” for the first time last February at First Ave opening for Sleater-Kinney, part of a monthlong tour with the iconic feminist punk trio that earned her attention from a much wider swath of indie music followers. She continued to deliver the emotional new songs at summer festivals. Notably, she mesmerized a late-night crowd with it at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires festival, around the same time she recorded some of the album at Vernon’s nearby April Base studio.
“My Skin” really caught on when its video debuted online in late November. The gorgeously filmed footage pans the bodies of the singer and other women in their natural states, wearing undergarments and minimal makeup.
“The video explains Lizzo’s motivations further,” wrote the Guardian in England, where her prior album, “Lizzobangers,” earned a wide release on Virgin Records. “But really, the song needs little embroidery. Lizzo sounds fed up and weary, but also proud and resolved.”
Both the video and the song were distinctly influenced by an interview Lizzo did with StyleLikeU’s “What’s Underneath” series, wherein all the subjects disrobed on camera.
“They asked what was my favorite thing about myself, and I said, ‘My personality,’ ” she recalled. “And they said, ‘No, physically.’ I really couldn’t answer.”
The reply she finally settled on was “my skin,” and, she said, “It brought up such an emotional response to me. It felt so good to say that. I thought, ‘I need to make other people feel this.’ ”
The stripped-down approach continues in a newer video for her second album’s other single, “Humanize.” Lizzo has also posted in-the-raw photos of herself on Instagram. Seems ironic, since she proclaims herself “the baddest chick who ain’t naked” in her record’s closing track, “Jang a Lang.”
Turns out, she quite likes taking it off — at least when there’s a good reason to.
“I feel like I have the courage to do anything after this,” she said, letting out a loud but brief laugh before turning serious.
“Yes, you can see me in my bra and panties on YouTube, but if you do you’re also going to hear about the struggles that women like me have to go through to feel comfortable taking our clothes off.”
There’s plenty more to “Big GRRRL, Small World” thematically than just the issues of body image, too.
The rowdy, “Bangers”-like opening track “Ain’t I” — which she performed on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in December — explores her family roots in Detroit, where she grew up before moving to Houston (she didn’t arrive in Minnesota until 2011). “Ride” celebrates her cross-continent travels over the past two years, which she could only long for in her prior single “Paris.”
However, Lizzo said she is fine with “My Skin” getting all the attention with this record. She cited the virtual and/or personal conversations she has shared around the song.
“I’m been so happy getting messages from women who talk about their struggle, their triumph through discovering the music or the message,” she said. “The better ‘My Skin’ does, the more I think it’s going to help somebody. That’s as important to me as anything I’ve ever done.”
Here’s more of what Lizzo discussed before heading back into the dance studio:
On her 2015 tour with Sleater-Kinney: “They just gave me so many priceless memories, but also so much knowledge. I learned a lot without them teaching, just by watching them do what they do. The audiences were so punk — so not an audience I would think would like me — but by the end of every show I could feel the conversion. I wanted to make sure there was no one disappointed Sleater-Kinney chose us.”
On Prince, who enlisted her former band the Chalice to help record his song “Boy Trouble” and had Grrrl Prty perform at Paisley Park: “All I’ll say is I’m honored to have worked with him, and to feel a certain endorsement from him. It’s not just a Minnesota thing, either, he’s said it in New York and L.A., and played our remixes when he’s DJ-ing. It’s an honor to be invited to his house. I feel blessed. But I also feel like it’s not over, so I don’t want to say anything more and risk screwing that up [laughs].”
On the main differences between “Big GRRRL, Small World” and “Lizzobangers,” her prior album: “This one is more varied and more nuanced. There are a couple songs that are close to what ‘Lizzobangers’ sounded like, but even the Lazerbeak-produced song [‘Ride’] is far away from that. It’s a more polished record, and I think with a more polished record I need a more polished live show. I can’t go up there with my flannel around my waist and a sweatshirt that says, ‘[Bleep] Nice.’ I need to treat the performance as special as I did the record.”
On her January writing and recording sessions in Los Angeles for her next album, details of which are still under wraps: “I stopped writing for this record about a year ago, and I feel like I have so much new material I have to get through. Musically, the stuff I’m working on now is deeply connected to Detroit. I feel more soul and gospel coming out of me. I’m working with a lot of new people on it. I’m really excited. I’m working with one person specifically, but I can’t talk about it until everything’s sorted.”
On how she wound up in Minnesota, and why she plans to stay: “I moved here on a whim. My band in Houston had broken up, and I was just devastated. It was a low point for me. I moved to Denver briefly with my mother and sister, and there I met a producer who was moving back home to Minneapolis. He convinced me to come. At first, I thought, ‘I lived in Detroit, I know what it’s like to be cold and I don’t want that anymore.’
“My first show here was at the Varsity Theater, and it was really fun. Spyder Baybie also played that night. I felt more support at that one show than I had in all my years in Houston. The generosity and support between the musicians here is something I never experienced anywhere else.”
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658