Lizzie No is the recording moniker of New York-based songwriter Lizzie Quinlan, and Hard Won is her debut full-length album. Starting out as a harpist, Quinlan incorporates the unconventional instrument into her folk sound to the degree where its important but not necessarily conspicuous, just another colour in the palette used to craft the songs. So, while the inclusion of a harp might be the overriding feature in less competent hands, listeners leave Hard Won focused on the messages it helps convey, the stories it helps tell.

Opener ‘Crying Wolf’ provides an immediate idea of the sense of force and feeling behind the music, a stark momentum that seems to draw energy from its own motion. As we wrote in a preview of the album, “[the] vocals, led by the music or else leading, possess a repetitive cadence which suggests an almost trance-like quality, a gradually dawning delirium from which wisdom is channelled.”

While there’s considerable variation across the record, from the pensive peace of ‘The Mountaineer’ to the warm, country-tinged abandon of ‘Centralia’, the above description gets at something within the core of Lizzie No’s sound. Even within the calmest of songs there’s a keenness to the music, if not anger then something equally intense, some insistent force that drives the words. In ‘Please Don’t Change Your Mind’ and ‘Outlaws’ it’s a desperate kind of love (albeit with a certain irony on the latter), while ‘The Wedge’ explores something more like regret and personal pride, a struggle to communicate adequately in a complex situation. ‘Monuments’ is more dramatic still, a haunting travelling song marked by vistas and faces and built from forward motion, littered with small moments—sights and scenes and snippets of conversation made significant by perhaps nothing more than chance.

“I met a girl back east
who said don’t trust the weatherman
you never know when a southern storm
is gonna consecrate the land.
She said, on nights like these
I can hear the monuments
Just like us they’re drinking poison
singing what they can’t forget”

After the sorrowful restraint of ‘The Killing Season’, where life is devalued and ultimately lost to the persistent racist flattening of people into nothing more than a colour, ‘100 Rooms’ is more playful, the experimental instrumentation bringing to mind Field Report’s excellent Marigolden in it’s willingness to expand on the traditional folk sound without losing any of its essential elements. As if to remind us that she is equally adept working to a more classic formula, the title track closes with a heartfelt ballad of considerable depth. At once seemingly personal and wider in scope. The song uses injustice and suffering as a mode of growth, and anger as a curative force, without ever making light of the costs or consequences the pain incurred.

Indeed, the closer highlights the great strength of Hard Won and Quinlan’s writing as a whole. The ability to write songs where strength and fragility can coexist allows the message to transcend the usual, one-dimensional position often taken, thus hurdling the reductive either/or mentality that frequently permeates music. Lizzie No is not supernaturally strong, nor fatally open-chested, but something between the two. Something a lot more human.

Hard Won is out now and you can grab a copy via the Lizzie No Bandcamp page.

Album Art by Christina Graham