2016 started off badly for Lizzie Hillesdon. In the January, she fell very ill indeed after weeks of unexplained tiredness and lethargy. Struck down with a mystery illness doctors couldn’t get to the bottom of, she was forced to spend a month in hospital, some of it in isolation.
“First of all, they thought it was meningitis,” she explains. “Then, it was you haven’t got meningitis but we think you’ve had a brain haemorrhage. They said, ‘try not to panic because your brain haemorrhage might get worse,’ so I’m like, OK…” Good news was, there was no bleed on the brain but instead she was suffering from a particularly nasty viral infection. “When I came out I was just under seven stone. I couldn’t eat anything, couldn’t walk for a while, I was so weak.”
But out of bad circumstances, positivity often emerges unexpectedly, and, ironically it was these after effects that led to the singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer finding her music-making groove. As Lizzie convalesced, she explored and experimented with the Ableton production software her father had bought her but she’d never used. “I had all this spare time so I thought I might as well start writing some music, so I did. My first song was Psychodelic. I sent if off to Sean McGinty [at Radio Lancashire’s BBC Introducing] and he really liked it and he was like, ‘have you got any more, send us some more!’ I wrote Young on the day of my [on air] interview with him and sent that off to Radio Merseyside. Dave Monks played it as well, and it spiralled from there.”
Taking on the moniker of PIXEY (“my mum was saying, ‘if you want to do well, you mustn’t use your real name’. She was dead adamant about it!”), the Radio 1 Introducing playlist took Young’s catchy pop hook and joyful sentiments to its heart and enthusiastically championed the song. Pixey was swiftly snatched up by new northern record label ModernSky, also home to Liverpool’s Sugarmen and FUSS. Pixey’s singles Hometown and Birthday were released earlier this year, and she has an EP out this month.
“I’d still be writing if BBC Introducing didn’t put me forward but it’s given me so many opportunities, I couldn’t ask for anything more. There’s no way ModernSky would have heard about me if I hadn’t been broadcast on Radio 1. Young’s just been put on [music publisher] Sentric, and some US TV shows are looking as if they’re going to use it.”
She’s tested the water with live gigs including The Cavern Club’s 60th birthday celebrations, BBC Introducing Merseyside Presents, Getintothis’ Deep Cuts, and the Sound City Emerging Talent showcase. With playing live, she admits being “still on a learning curve because it was all so quick. When Young was played on Radio 1, I hadn’t even played as a band or anything. It was just me.”
From Parbold in Lancashire, “slightly out of Wigan, very country. Not many people there. It’s nice, and kind of secluded. Good for writing because you go for a walk around the fields and get to mull stuff over in my head,” Pixey studies English at university in Liverpool. “I did A Level Creative Writing, constantly being told in class ‘write a poem now. Write a story now. Write a monologue.’ I found that quite difficult, to write on the spot in front of everyone. So then when I started to write music I really took my time with it. I enjoyed that much more. It was a lot easier for me to write.”
Poetry is very different from lyrics. People often confuse the two, or seek to bolster the status of lyrics by calling them poetry when they’re anything but.
“It’s completely different,” Pixey nods in agreement. “With lyrics, it’s like you’re speaking to someone directly, they’re hearing your exact voice as it is and it’s going to the beat of the music, and to the melody of the music. It you strip lyrics and put them down as a poem and read them as a poem, a lot of them wouldn’t sound half as good as they do to music. You can have a poem and it can have sad content, and you read it and it’s sad, but you can write a song and have the exact words, put it to a happy beat and it completely changes the way you perceive it.”
Well, Pixey’s music is happy pop music. Sometimes it feels like pop is a dirty word to many people.
“A lot of my songs are feel good. Young was just written for fun really. I didn’t want to have to perform my music kind of moody, cos that’s not me.” She cites George Harrison’s “beautiful, well-constructed, upbeat” 1970 album All Things Must Pass as a treasured influence on her work. “I’m not the most sociable of people but at the same time I’m not sitting in my room in the dark doing nothing. I love to get out there and do as much as I can. I want to reflect that in the music. Because, sometimes, if you take it mega seriously it taints it. That’s also why I love Mac Demarco, I think he’s brilliant. He doesn’t take it too seriously but he really cares about the music he’s making.
“I love anything 80s, anything a bit weird as well in terms of aesthetics and stuff. I love Grimes. She’s incredible, [she] pushes the boundaries of what a female pop artist can be portrayed as. You see everyone in the charts at the moment and they all look the same, wearing the same clothes, but I feel like Grimes isn’t like that. She really is just herself and she’ll do anything that’s weird and wacky. I like that. Even though I’m not as out there as her, I’m inspired by what she does.”
Have you always wanted to be a musician?
“I used to dream about it when I was younger. I wanted to be Ed Sheeran basically!”
Oh dear. That’s not good is it, Pixey?
“Tell me about it. It was on trend in college. Everybody wanted to be an acoustic singer-songwriter. I think I went along on the wave.”
Why don’t you want to be Ed Sheeran anymore? Is it because he looks like he works behind the counter in PC World?
“I fell out of love with that kind of music. I’ve come to hate it now! There were three sides of me struggling [at college]: me wanting to be a singer-songwriter in the middle then to the left my dad brought me up on Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy, AC/DC and I do enjoy a bit of that, then on this side there was The Beatles and George Harrison as a separate entity. I like to think I’ve come away from them and done something different. It’s upbeat and poppy.”
Pixey plays piano, keyboard, a bit of trumpet and the “tiniest bit of flute”. Her mother is a piano teacher and her brother is a classical singer, which makes for an interesting arrangement at home. “My brother will be upstairs blaring out Mozart and god-knows-what and I’m singing some strange song I’ve heard on the radio, we’re completely different.” Learning to play acoustic guitar, she says, “took me forever. I’m severely dyslexic and have dyspraxia so picking up instruments for me has always been quite hard. I found learning the acoustic guitar especially hard. Electric was much easier. I took to it really quickly.”
Pixey’s been told that her way of writing is unorthodox, and her production style and process as well. She mixes tracks as she goes along, to see where the song is going, instead of finishing up and going through it all from the beginning. “When you’re dyslexic it’s incredibly hard to do what your brain’s telling you to. With Young, a lot of mixing and producing was a complete accident, chance. I didn’t mix it to sound lo-fi, it’s just the way it sounded. In my head I wanted it to sound different. Because of my dyslexia, what I wanted to put down wasn’t what I was getting back, but I liked the end result anyway.”
Pixey taught herself to play piano and guitar, and learned production skills on her own too, as she worked on Young. Her approach sounds quite – dare I say it – punk?
“I sat down, recorded and dragged random effects on to see which ones I liked, and that’s what Young came to sound like! Complete random effects dragged on. I think if I had all the resources available to me to make it sound amazing, it wouldn’t have the same character and would be completely clean. I think sometimes when people have too much to work with, it can make it not unique, in a way. So, when you’ve only got something basic to work with you can do something different.
“The singles I’ve put out [Hometown and Birthday] have been the original demos. They’re not bad quality but they’re not my ideas as I want them to be. Hometown was put out pretty quickly so I didn’t have too much time to fiddle around with it.”
Pixey’s debut EP is slated for later this month and she’s mad keen on one track from it, Supersonic – baggy, electronic indie pop with a distinctly eastern flavour. “Supersonic is the one I enjoy the most from the EP,” she smiles. “I want it to be the leading song. I want to go all-out on it.” But Pixey is staying schtum about further releases. “I’m not sure what I’m doing for a first album yet. Obviously I’d love to release an album, that’d be incredible. But at the moment I’m thinking about my EP. I want it to be as good as it can be.”
Once the EP is out, then it’s time for festival appearances at Sound City, The Great Escape, and Live At Leeds. “I’m looking forward to it. I’ve had a break since March, to get the EP right. I’ve been working on a few other songs as well. But I can’t wait to get into the swing of doing festivals. It’s all new to me. I’ve never done anything like this before. Hopefully I can pull it off!”
Pixey’s self-titled debut EP is released in May on ModernSky UK. Pixey plays Sound City on Saturday 27th May.