Growing up, LiV Warfield's friends and family had no inkling that the track athlete could sing and write songs. But when she moved away from home, the artist inside her came out.
That hidden talent now has her in the spotlight; recently she's been on stage at the Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Her sound has been described as edgy and soulful. And her lyrical prowess has landed her support from music luminaries like Prince.
Host Michel Martin sat down with LiV Warfield to talk about and perform a few songs from her album The Unexpected.
On what keeps her going
I'm super thankful, but it was always those things that I sacrificed that kind of kept me going, because I knew there was something else if I just never gave up on it. You know, of course there were times that I wanted to. ... It's just the inside voice that tells you not to, the spirit that tells you not to, that you have something to give, you have more lyrics to write, you have more songs to write with amazing musicians and artists and stuff.
On winning over her parents
[Mom] wanted to come to Portland [Warfield's college town] and snatch me up so bad, and was like, "You what? You're not going to class?" But now they understand it. They understood how serious I was about it. They didn't come to my first show until I moved out to Portland, and they were like, "What's going on? Are you really doing this?" And it took her a while, but she loves it, she's excited about it. ... And they're very, very supportive. I mean, very supportive, and I'm so thankful that they're in my corner like that.
How Prince helped her grow musically
He's influenced me first and foremost, as a performer. Just kind of like taking chances first. It took me a while. Like I thought I was a good performer, but when I got part of the new power generation, I was like, "Whoa this is a whole new world for me." And even in the writing and arranging, and him just teaching me how to really listen to the music. Listen to every instrument, give space, and I wasn't really thinking about those things. I just wanted to hear everything. I thought, "If everybody plays, it's good." ... Sometimes it could sound like noise, but he just really kind of developed my ear.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. There are times in everybody's life when things seem routine, predictable, blah. But our next guest says you should always expect the unexpected.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE UNEXPECTED")
MARTIN: That was the title cut "The Unexpected" from singer-songwriter LiV Warfield's latest album. With an edgy, eclectic, soulful sound, she's been described as the new face of R&B.
And that fresh take has earned her the support of legends like Prince, who wrote the title track, and late-night host Jimmy Fallon who gave her her first national TV debut. So how excited are we that LiV Warfield was able to stop by NPR's performance studios, Studio One, to chat a little bit and share some songs from that new album. Welcome.
LIV WARFIELD: Thank you.
WARFIELD: Thank you.
MARTIN: Thanks for coming.
WARFIELD: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: I read someplace that people didn't even know you could sing until you were, what, a teenager, an adult?
MARTIN: Young adult? Twenty - young adult.
MARTIN: A young adult.
MARTIN: You'd never sang in church, unlike a lot of artists.
MARTIN: And you were not allowed to listen to secular music.
MARTIN: So how did you start singing?
WARFIELD: You know, it was hiding away from the parents, closing the door when they left. I got it in. I sang a lot of Whitney songs.
Just - I kind of kept it inside. I knew I could sing when I was about 7 years old. But since athletics was very much the forefront of my life and I was kind of doing that a lot, I don't think anybody was caring or looking for me to be singing anything. So, yeah, I just kept it hidden from everyone.
MARTIN: Why, though? Why do you think you did?
WARFIELD: I don't think anybody was checking for an athlete to be singing anytime soon. So, yeah, I was shy.
MARTIN: What do you think finally made you let it out?
WARFIELD: When I got away from home, and I got away from people's opinions or people's thoughts of what I should be. I kind of knew for myself what I wanted to do. But when I moved away from home, (unintelligible), 2,000 miles away, I got some strength to kind of, like, do what I wanted to do, you know, and sing. And that kind of started in the karaoke bars and...
MARTIN: Really? Karaoke?
WARFIELD: Yeah, it did. It did. It did.
MARTIN: A good reason to go. You don't know. There might be a diamond in the rough in there.
WARFIELD: Hey. Yeah, I was - I really - it's funny 'cause I really, really took it serious. And that was kind of like - actually my teammate - I actually got a track scholarship at Portland State University.
And my teammate was like, you know they have these bars where you can go and sing. And I was like are you kidding me? What? Seriously? And that just opened up a door for me and then on. And Portland really embraced me and kind of brought me up singing.
MARTIN: You know, to that end, you just killed this performance on Jimmy Fallon's late-night show earlier this year...
WARFIELD: Thank you.
MARTIN: ...To the point where he almost, like, fell on the floor. He goes that's how you do it. That's how you do it.
WARFIELD: That was so cool.
MARTIN: And then that clip got passed around. And I was reading some of the comments. I don't know if you do. One of them was, used to run track with her in high school and she had all this voice, who knew? Do that Olivia.
WARFIELD: That's crazy.
MARTIN: From one of your - yes.
WARFIELD: Wow. Wow.
MARTIN: Did you know that some of your fans from back in the day were following you?
WARFIELD: I didn't.
MARTIN: So track was supposed to be your thing, right? That was your thing.
WARFIELD: Yeah, I really wanted to go to the Olympics. Like, that was my goal was I really wanted to go to the Olympics. But that changed. And your life turns, and I kind of went with it. So...
MARTIN: As I mentioned, the title track "The Unexpected" was written by Prince.
MARTIN: How did you end up meeting him? And how has he influenced your sound, your work?
WARFIELD: Well, I met him actually - there's a friend of mine that said at the time - I think about, yeah, five years ago - Prince was looking for a singer. And I had a couple of clips on YouTube of me singing like, "Give Me Shelter." He was like you should send it and, you know, you should send the YouTube clip. And I'm like, are you crazy? I'm not going to send that. He's not going to, like - I'm never going to get a call but whatever. So he sent it in.
You know, I didn't know that he did. Three or four months later, I get a call - Paisley - that totally changed my world. I tell people I remember the first day when I walked into Paisley, I kind of referred to, like, Spike Lee. I'm just kind of, like, sitting there and everything is moving - the hallway, everything is moving. I'm just kind of, like, I'm not touching anything. I don't want to, you know - but he was really, really welcome and - welcoming. And Prince has just really, really taught me just...
MARTIN: And warm - you were saying how warm he is.
MARTIN: And I - forgive me, but this is - I think this will be a surprise to many people who are used to seeing him as anything but. How do you think he's influenced you? You've mentioned on a couple of occasions that he's influenced both your in-studio performance...
MARTIN: ...And your stage performance.
WARFIELD: He's influenced me, first and foremost, I can think as a performer, just kind of like taking chances first. And even in the writing and arranging, and him just teaching me how to really listen to the music. You know, he developed my ear. He really did. So...
MARTIN: So let's hear something. Let's see, I think the first song you would like to sing for us is "Blackbird." And I'm told that your accompanying guitar player wrote it. Is this true?
MARTIN: And so why don't you introduce him, and he or you can, in the spirit of sharing...
WARFIELD: Yes, absolutely.
MARTIN: ...He can tell us about it.
WARFIELD: This is the amazing, wonderful Ryan Waters. And, yeah, he's an amazing, amazing guitar player.
RYAN WATERS: Oh, why thank you.
WARFIELD: Yeah, you're welcome.
MARTIN: Well, tell us about it.
WATERS: Boy, how do I even...
MARTIN: What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
WATERS: Yeah, it started by just kind of observing a blackbird while walking down the street. And immediately, being a musician, the first thing that comes to mind is the Beatles song. You kind of just start singing that in your head.
And looking at this struggling bird just kind of getting through his day, scratching and kicking to survive, I thought what McCartney was writing about had nothing to do with this bird's experience. So that sort of gave me a starting place. And it - Paul McCartney got it wrong. That was...
MARTIN: OK, well.
WATERS: That's really how it started.
MARTIN: That's another title, too.
WATERS: Yeah, yeah.
MARTIN: Paul McCartney got it wrong. I like it.
WATERS: And that's the first lyric of the song. And that sort of opened up a whole story for me, and I just took it from there. And then LiV gave - brought it to life - and what you're about to hear now.
MARTIN: All right. Let's hear it. This is "Blackbird." This is from LiV Warfield's latest album "The Unexpected."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKBIRD")
MARTIN: Like the man said, do that, Olivia. And Ryan, thank you. Well, you've come out of your shell...
MARTIN: ...A little bit.
WARFIELD: I have.
MARTIN: A little bit. Well, you have quite an imposing - in person, I could see why you say that you're shy. I would not have guessed that from your onstage persona, right...
MARTIN: ...'Cause you're quite, you know, commanding. You're tall. You have an amazing look.
WARFIELD: Thank you.
MARTIN: And I just wondered, does it divide up that way? Are you kind of a different person on stage?
WARFIELD: Yeah, definitely. I think there's a, you know, certain kind of freedom for me when I get on stage. Maybe it's because I've held it back for so long that it's made me a little bit of angst inside. It's kind of like this energy needs to come out. And there's a certain sense, you know, of freedom when I get on that stage.
MARTIN: Is there some anger, too?
MARTIN: Is there a little bit of anger?
WARFIELD: Yeah, a little bit.
MARTIN: I mean, that performance of "Why Do You Lie," which we're not going to do here because it requires a lot of horns...
MARTIN: ...A lot of horns. But in a way, it's kind of you're like letting people know what is up...
MARTIN: ...And will not be tolerated. And I just wonder, is there a little anger there?
WARFIELD: Yeah. I mean, I guess I just kind of really want to put myself into my songs. Lyrically, I just want to feel every lyric. Maybe it comes across a little angry, brash at times, but, you know, it's in a good way. I think I just want to display that emotion in the music.
MARTIN: So what's fueling you now as an artist?
WARFIELD: I really think I've found me finally in the music. You know, I had put an album out before, "Embrace Me," and it's been seven years since that. So I was discovering who I was. And I still am discovering, but I think now I know a little bit more of who I am. So that's what's pushing me.
I'm like, OK, what else do you want to do. You know, Working with Prince, it's kind of, like, he's opened up this whole new world, especially with the horn players. And I'm like, man, only if I had strings on this album, too. And I'm like, I wish I had an orchestra. So I just, you know - I just wonder what's next, you know. I just want to constantly push myself for more.
MARTIN: Well, we want more, too. So I think...
WARFIELD: Thank you.
MARTIN: I think you're going to give us one more. I think it's called "Catch Me If You Can."
MARTIN: You want to tell us about what inspired this one?
WARFIELD: Well, I like to watch some old blaxploitation movies, and my favorite is Cleopatra Jones. And I was very inspired by the chase scene. I love muscle cars. And I was at home on the table and I think my husband was cooking or something, and I was beating on the table or whatever.
And I was like, OK, I need to press record. Press record now, start singing these vocals 'cause it just came, you know. That's how the songs come. It just came. And I'm like, catch me if you can, which I'm not going to ruin it now but - and then I sent it to Ryan. And I'm like, Ryan, what do you think would be cool over this? And then Ryan sent this cool guitar rift, which you will hear. And just - it birthed this amazing, amazing song. So I love it.
MARTIN: All right. Let's hear it - "Catch Me If You Can."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CATCH ME IF YOU CAN")
MARTIN: Well, thank you. That was fun. I hope you don't mind my mentioning, this was not the easy road to getting here. That you...
MARTIN: It was not. I mean, there were points at which you were living out of your car.
MARTIN: Is that OK for my to say?
WARFIELD: Yeah, I mean, yeah. I mean, it's a reality, you know. And I'm super thankful, but it was always those things that I sacrificed that kind of kept me going because I knew there was something else if I just never gave up on it. You know, of course there were times I wanted to.
MARTIN: Why do you think you didn't?
WARFIELD: It's just the inside voice that tells you not to, the spirit that tells you not to that you have something to give. You have more lyrics to write. You have more songs to write with amazing musicians and artists and stuff. So I think it keeps me going. It does.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, coming from such a strict background where you weren't even supposed to listen to secular music, let alone perform it, how is your family with what you're doing now? Have they made peace with it?
WARFIELD: Oh, yeah. Before - before - I'm not going to bust her out, but it was really hard for her to take.
MARTIN: You mean your mom?
WARFIELD: Oh, yeah. Oh, man. She wanted to come to Portland and snatch me up so bad and was like, you - what? You're not going to class? But now they understand it. They understood how serious I was about it.
They didn't come to my first show 'til I moved out to Portland, and they were like what's going on? Like, are you really even doing this? And it took her a while, but she loves it. I mean, she's excited about it, very excited about it. So...
MARTIN: That's great.
WARFIELD: They're very, very supportive, I mean, very supportive. And I'm so thankful that they're in my corner like that. So...
MARTIN: Well, that's great.
WARFIELD: Thank you.
MARTIN: Well, congratulations.
WARFIELD: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: Thank you for bringing Mr. Ryan.
WARFIELD: Yes, thank you.
MARTIN: LiV Warfield is a singer and songwriter. Her latest album, "The Unexpected," is available now. And she was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. LiV Warfield, thank you so much for joining us.
WARFIELD: Thank you for having me. Thank you. It was fun.
MARTIN: We are sure you want to hear a little more music. So before we go, here is "Soul Lifted" from LiV Warfield's album "The Unexpected." And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOUL LIFTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.