Mustard had the pleasure of speaking with New York’s Elizabeth Winterbourne. Together we discussed their influences, their songwriting process, their EP “Christina’s World”, and so much more!
1. Mustard is thankful to have you join them at Music Shelf. How are you doing?
I’m great, thanks for asking!
2. You’ve been writing music since you were twelve years old. Do you remember the first song you wrote?
The first song I wrote was actually in Spanish. I’m originally from Tucson, which is really steeped in Mexican culture, so even though I’m Irish-Italian, I grew up celebrating Mexican holidays and speaking Spanish. I had extra time in one of my Spanish classes one day, so I decided to write a song. I showed it to my teacher, and she asked if I would perform it at our school’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. I even got on the eight o’clock news and the front page of the local newspaper which was really cool for ten-year-old me.
3. Growing up, who would you say were some of your biggest influences?
Linda Ronstadt was a huge one for me because I grew up in the folk music community playing with her family as well as her old band mate Bobby Kimmel. They were really pivotal in me entering the folk community and getting a lot of the opportunities I did. But also, I was utterly obsessed with Taylor Swift as a kid. I didn’t feel like I saw young songwriters in the industry at the time other than her, so she was kind of this affirmation for me that I could write music and be successful even though I was young.
4. Is there a song or album that had an impact on you? Could you share more about the significance of this song or album?
I mean “Red” was definitely a big one. That was the tour when I finally got to see her, and that was a very cool moment for me as a kid, especially coming from a family that didn’t have a lot of money. I’d never gone to a concert like that before.
5. What is your songwriting process?
Oof that’s a big question. I find it very hard to explain it all that precisely because it’s a very organic process for me. One thing that I’ve tended to do is start with the title of the song. I have a folder in my notes app with hundreds of words and phrases that I’ll reference when I go to write. But I usually write music out of a feeling. It’s very hard to put into words, but essentially, it’s like something inside of me just knows I can write a good song then, and then I just kind of let whatever happens happen. Starting with the title or at least having that as a preliminary step is the way that I put this weird flow state of mine into something more concrete. It gives me the metaphorical and topical framework to make sure the song feels coherent. I also have synesthesia, so when I write, it’s more about what the song looks like than sounds like (which is a very weird sentence if you don’t have synesthesia, but that’s genuinely the best way to describe it).
6. Was it a big cultural shift to go from Arizona to New York? How did studying theatre and vocal performance help you as an artist?
Yes and no. My university was really diverse in terms of where people were from, so there just wasn’t any particular culture there. It made it feel a lot more accepting to just be whoever you were. But at the same time, the East is definitely a lot different from the West in terms of weather, environment, and demographics of people, so it was certainly a shift. Upstate New York has very little Mexican culture or influence, and while that’s not my genealogical ancestry, there are parts of it that were really important to me growing up, so it was kind of sad to not have any place or anyone to celebrate those with once I moved. But I also really wanted to move to the East. I’d loved it here every time I’d visited, and I felt like I’d fit in better with the overall culture.
The first time it really snowed, it was so exciting. It does actually snow in Arizona (which a lot of people I’ve told that to are surprised to hear); in some places, it snows a lot, but I’d never lived in those parts of the state. But oh my gosh, do I love seasons, so that is something that brings me a lot of joy being in the northeast.
Studying the arts helped me so much in ways I didn’t expect. I didn’t go into my studies anticipating that I would train in classical voice, but it just gave me this foundation that I really feel like now is quite invaluable for everything else that I do. I still work with my voice instructor from college, Michael Aiello, who has honestly been probably the best artistic mentor I’ve ever had. I’m also an actor, so studying theater was of course very helpful in the work I do now.
7. If you could turn any play into a concept album, what play would it be and why?
This is such a fun question that no one has asked me before!
I’m not entirely sure how I would do it, but I think I would do a concept album off of the play Stupid F*cking Bird by Aaron Posner. It’s a contemporary adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and it’s one of the best written plays I’ve ever encountered. It deals with so many common life struggles, a lot of which I tend to write about anyways, so I think I could pretty easily be inspired from it.
But ALSO! Funnily enough, my song “Shards of Glass” from my EP is based off of “The Snow Queen”, and at the same time I wrote that, I was acting in the play The Grown-Up by Jordan Harrison which is also based off of “The Snow Queen.” And that was not at all intentional, but it just weirdly happened without me being aware of the coincidence.
8. At the start of this year you released your EP “Christina’s World.” Could you share more about the process of putting this EP together?
I didn’t write any of the songs with the intention of turning them into an EP. I was still in school, and just really busy (as well as quite broke because college), but I’m always writing music, even if I’m not doing as much that is forward-facing, and they were the songs that had come out of the trauma recovery I was dealing with throughout college. They also were all inspired by other works of art or literature, which was a cool, very unintentional coincidence I felt like I just had to lean into. So the summer before my last semester, I just decided I wanted to release an EP with them. It felt like something much different from other songs I’d recorded or released before, and it felt a lot more authentic as opposed to trying to gain approval or fit into molds that, essentially, old white men in the music industry were pressuring me to adhere to.
I worked with another U of R alum, Hannah Jocelyn, to mix and master it, and we just created this combination of bedroom pop, folk, and utter dreaminess that I still really love because I finally just made something for myself and not for anyone else.
9. Is Christina an actual human or a character of your own? What do you hope listeners get from “Christina’s World?”
I LOVE talking about this song because it has the most interesting creation process of any of my songs, at least in my opinion.
So essentially, there is a painting by Andrew Wyeth called “Christina’s World,” and it used to hang on the third floor of MOMA right by the escalators (sadly it is not currently on display), and I think I was seventeen or so the first time I saw it, and it just mesmerized me. I can’t really explain the painting in a way that captivates the essence of it–you just kind of have to see it for yourself–but it’s one of the only pieces of visual art I’ve ever seen that I felt like I personally related to. It felt like it captured so many of the emotions and experiences of trauma, internal fragility, and just a complete sense of being lost in life that I was dealing with. I also just loved the name and how that connected to all those components, so I immediately wrote down the title in my phone notes.
Maybe a year-and-a-half later, I wrote the song off of both the name and what the painting actually looks like. If you look at the painting while listening to the song, you can see the visual components of the painting that I talk about in the song lyrics.
10. Your songs tell stories of life, love, identity, and trauma. Would you say these are common for humans? How does songwriting help you navigate each of these?
First off, I love this question haha.
I mean, the combination of wanting love, dealing trauma, and struggling with identity has been kind of just the story of my life, so it was naturally what was just going to come out in my music. But I also felt like, and I still feel this, that there are not very many songs that talk about the complexities that trauma and mental health struggles can involve. SO many songs out there are about love and relationships, often somewhat in a vacuum. And there is nothing wrong with talking about that–I talk about that–but I just found myself wishing there were more songs that discussed mental health and trauma, or at least that those songs were more visible/being pushed more on the radio, in playlists, etc. I think it could have really helped me if there had been more music in my adolescence that dealt with that stuff.
One of my favorite songs is “Quiet” by MILCK. She wrote it about the sexual abuse and assault she experienced throughout her life and how she refused to stay silent about it any longer. It went viral when she performed it at a women’s march during the height of the #metoo movement. That song helped me SO much, but it also just made me realize how much I wanted more songs like that and how few I saw.
I want to talk about these topics because I think so many people deal with them, and a lot of people deal with them silently. I want to give people a means of processing and understanding these horrible experiences and the immensely challenging processes of recovery that follow.
11. You just released a special dream version of “Evelina.” Out of all the tracks on Christina’s World, what inspired you to do another version of this song?
A lot of it actually had to do with the response I’d gotten from fans! So many people told me this was their favorite song on the EP, and the original version that I have on the EP is also the most acoustic and stripped-down of any of the tracks, so it felt like it just naturally opened itself up for a new, much more atmospheric version.
12. What is next for Elizabeth Winterbourne?
Well, nothing has been officially announced yet, BUT, I’m working with a couple really awesome producers out of Brooklyn for some new things to come in 2023 that I am SO excited for. I’m also planning to do live shows in some places I’ve never played before, so that is also really exciting!
13. Where can readers listen to your music?
Everywhere! My goal is always for my music to be as accessible as possible, so whatever streaming or download service you use, there is a 99.9% chance my music is on there. You can also find me on SoundCloud, YouTube, and Bandcamp!