Michele Hewitson interview: Lizzie Marvelly

By Michele Hewitson

Elizabeth Marvelly, a classical cross-over artist at 17, explains why she's become Lizzie, a singer and writer of pop songs

One of Lizzie Marvelly's early career mentors was her relative and fellow citizen of Rotorua, the late Sir Howard Morrison. Photo / Janna Dixon
One of Lizzie Marvelly's early career mentors was her relative and fellow citizen of Rotorua, the late Sir Howard Morrison. Photo / Janna Dixon

The difficulty in writing about the lovely Lizzie Marvelly is that the many things about her that I liked and admired are the very things that could easily make her sound like one of those annoying girls who was a prefect at school and who won all the prizes and was too good to be true. She is all of those things but much more. She has a sweet face and nature, is both good and clever and thoughtful, and has beautiful manners.

She is, she thinks, (this is the really annoying bit) a size eight. She is only 25 but I'd bet the entire "amazing custard and berry cake" she had her eye on — but in the end decided against actually having a piece of — that she'll be a size eight when she's 55. She's too disciplined to get fat.

She is tiny, as already snippily mentioned, and she was wearing skinny jeans (a present; she gets given clothes sometimes which makes her feel "really, really lucky. I'm grateful. I was stoked!") and boots and a wooden peace sign from a Trelise Cooper fashion show goodie bag.

It is actually a logo, but she put it on a chain and loves it. "Oh, that! I'm all about the peace!"

She had her birthday last week and had dinner with friends and then went dancing in Ponsonby. But not (I didn't bother asking) wild, drunken dancing on tables sort of dancing. She thinks 25 feels quite grown up.

"Twenty-five feels like a legitimate age." What did she mean? "I feel like it's more ... mid- 20s now!" Oh, she was born grown up. She has always been very sensible and the proof, I said, is that at 25 she owns her apartment in Parnell. See how sensible she is? "Ha, ha, really? I'm going to have to do something to lose that label!"

To do that she'd have to become a different person and, in a way, and to a point, that's exactly what she's doing — although in a back-to-front way. She is never going to be a wild child or go off the rails, thank goodness, and she couldn't pretend to. Losing the "label" that was being Elizabeth Marvelly, who sang nice classics and opera standards and who seemed older than her tender years, is really about finding out who and what she really wants to be, and do. But there's nothing wobbly about her decision to ditch the Elizabeth and become a Lizzie.

She has just released the first EP of her own songs, Collisions, as Lizzie. She released her first album, of other people's songs, when she was 18. Then she was a singer of the sort known as the classical cross-over artist and at 17 she signed a contract with EMI which is when she became Elizabeth. She travelled the world and sang the national anthem at rugby matches — she still does; the anthem singing pays her food bills.

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She achieved what every young girl who sang along in her bedroom to Top of the Pops could only dream of. She says she is very grateful and has had some amazing experiences (the other thing she is emphatically not, is a complainer.) But, and it grew into a but too big to ignore, she realised she was really quite unhappy. She no longer loved the songs she was singing and she no longer believed in them.

She decided to write her own songs and that they would be pop songs and she changed her name to Lizzie. Actually she changed it back to Lizzie because although of course the name on her birth certificate is Elizabeth nobody (except her father) has ever called her anything but Lizzie.

Is she a Lizzie or an Elizabeth? I couldn't decide. She said: "I think I'm both." But Lizzie feels more honest to her. It might be confusing. "Not for me!" The decision to call her Elizabeth was made by her record label and she remembers sitting in a room with record label executives and "having this discussion, when I was 17: 'What do we call her?' It was the most bizarre thing! I think I'd come straight from school to this meeting and I was going ...'I don't even know what to say to this!' But it was their call."

This time it's her call. If she wasn't just 25 you'd be tempted to think she might have had some sort of mid-life crisis, and actually, given that she is such a "stupid over-achiever", as she once described herself, you never know. If anyone could have a mid-life crisis so early, it might well be her.

What she meant when she described herself as a stupid over-achiever, she said, is that "in hindsight ... I think if I could go back, I think, maybe, I would have taken a bit more time to just, you know, have time to chill with friends. "I was signed when I was 18 and I was touring when I was 16. So every weekend I was on the road, or doing a show, and that was amazing — in its own kind of way. But I missed out on so many birthdays and so many great times with my friends, which I feel like I'm getting to experience now."

She does seem to be rather living her life backwards. When she was very young she was singing songs that you'd imagine would have appealed more to the grandparents of her peers. And now she's writing pop songs.

All of which is a bit topsy-turvy but her life has been that way. For most 17-year-old girls from Rotorua, even preternaturally level-headed ones, having how your young self would be defined by strangers might have done your head in. "People thinking about how they're going to communicate that to people ... That was all a kind of mind bend." What did they think her image should be? "I don't really know, to be honest! The whole trying to define yourself, or having a label define you is just a weird concept in general." It might also have been a damaging one. "I don't feel particularly damaged!"

No, of course she's not. She's too sensible. She's also robust. She said: "I was a feminist at 13!" She's a Rotorua Girls' girl who won a scholarship to King's College for her seventh form year where she was made a prefect and a house captain.

House captains were chosen from leadership camps which she makes sound like some madcap, hard core sort of boot camp reality TV show. She noticed, when given the leadership material, that all the pronouns used to describe leaders and leadership were male. She was horrified, and still is, by this and took a complaint to the deputy headmaster. "I don't know what happened, but I wanted to make the point." Obviously she was at Kings with posh girls; it doesn't seem to have rubbed off on her. "I'm from Rotorua! Let's be honest!" It did change her in one sense. "I was talking to my mum about this. We think it made me more liberal. Ha." No kidding. She ticked me off for letting slip that I'd read something in the Daily Mail. I should, she said, sternly, be reading the Times.

I couldn't read gossip about famous people in the Times. I wondered whether she wanted to be famous and she said she doesn't really and I believe her. But I said: "Don't you hate that Lorde?"

This was a terrible thing to say, worse than admitting to reading the Daily Mail. "No! I think she's amazing!" If I was her, I'd be a bit jealous of her success but of course, being a properly nice person, she's not. "No! She's incredible. Having those sorts of insightful thoughts at 17 ...You think: 'What's she going to be like in her 20s'?"

She's typically modest about her own career and says that she's had almost 10 years of making music and is "really grateful". And, "you can measure it in the sense of: 'Am I surviving'?"

She is, and she might be risking that financial survival. But, "I wanted to be true to myself." Also, she has "fallen in love with writing". The title track of her EP is about a bad relationship because even the most sensible of young things sometimes falls in love with the wrong person.

She does these things thoroughly. "It's actually about one relationship that I kept going back to." How many times? "Oh, three or four. It was just one of those things and it was almost like it was bigger than me and I knew it was a bad idea and I kept going back and it kept exploding in my face. You know. I don't make the same mistake twice. I do it really well and make it four times!"

Which might be another definition of an over-achiever. I said the ex would presumably know the song was about him and she said: "Oh! I suppose so. I hadn't thought about that actually! I'm going to have sleepless nights now."

She lives, very happily, on her own and doesn't have a boyfriend. She said: "I know this is so cliched, but music is kind of my boyfriend at the moment." It wouldn't bother her too much if it always was. "Well, I don't think that would be a bad thing!"

The only whiff of scandal, if you can call it that, in her 10 years of growing up in public was a rumour that she was seeing Richie McCaw. There were supposedly — hold on to your hats! — some "flirtatious" text messages. He was never her boyfriend. "No! No!" How flirty were those texts? "Ha, ha. They were ... friendly. He's a really lovely guy." But did she fancy him? "I think every woman in New Zealand probably fancies him!"

Honestly, she's hopeless at working at this new image of hers. I said I'd better work up a proper scandal for her and she laughed like anything and said: "You come up with something and let me know!"

We had a think and I couldn't and neither could she. So we gave up and had a lovely time talking about Sir Howard Morrison instead.

She is related to him and he gave her a huge amount of support and tough task-mastery and she adored him. She said: "He's such a sweetheart." I adored him too, and we Howie girls stick together.

She gave me a hug as I left and I wished her all the luck in the world with her new songwriting career. I meant it, but not just because she's a Howie girl. She's brave, I think, as well as clever and good — and besides, she really is such a sweetheart.

- NZ Herald

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