Lizzo on stage anxiety, her identity theft, Harry Styles' music, and why she can't be defined

Lizzo on stage anxiety, her identity theft, Harry Styles' music, and why she can't be defined

It's the day before Thanksgiving, and Lizzo can barely contain her excitement. The yams, she tells EW over Zoom, are already calling her name.

One can't blame the 34-year-old multihyphenate — rapper, singer, flutist, businesswoman — for wanting to indulge in a relaxing holiday. A few days prior, she wrapped up a run of more than two dozen dates on her Special tour, the last two nights of which were filmed in Los Angeles for the HBO Max special Lizzo: Live in Concert (premiering Dec. 31). It's the culmination of a standout year for her, which also included hosting Saturday Night Live and serving as musical guest, releasing her Emmy-winning reality competition Lizzo's Watch Out for the Big Grrrls, launching her shapewear brand Yitty, releasing her album Special, and unveiling her new documentary Love, Lizzo (now streaming on HBO Max).

The film gives a glimpse into what's made Melissa Jefferson an international star — from her early roots in Detroit and Houston, her dad's death, and living out of her car to her early music career in Minneapolis and her eventual breakthrough. While she's quick to thank her fans, as any respectful artist should, the title may be a message to herself for her tenacity and strength.

Below, Lizzo tells EW about those early years, finding her voice and how she's used it, why she can't be labeled or defined, Harry Styles, identity theft, and her personal breakthroughs from being on tour.

Lizzo recording 'About Damn Time,' as seen in 'Love, Lizzo'
Lizzo recording 'About Damn Time,' as seen in 'Love, Lizzo'

HBO Max Lizzo recording 'About Damn Time,' as seen in 'Love, Lizzo'

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I want to ask first about the Emmys, which we see a tiny but very important bit of in the documentary. Remembering back to watching the awards, it seemed like you might have been having an out-of-body experience. How were you feeling in that moment?

LIZZO: Oh, I was in my body. Every time — and mind you, I'm just getting used to winning awards on stage, on camera — for years I wasn't even a thought to be nominated, and then for years I was nominated but for sure not going to win, and then all of a sudden after the Grammys it was like, "You gotta start accepting awards on stage." So I always want to make sure that I'm saying the best possible thing in that moment. It's not just about me. Like, I have a platform. I always see it as that. So with the Emmy I was like, "Oh gosh, what's the best possible thing I can say right now? What message needs to come out of me to make me feel good about this moment?" And I think that I was probably having a conversation with myself, and maybe my younger self, because I was like, what did this show mean for me? Because the award is incredible, but it's about the show, it's about the girls that were sitting in the crowd that I made sure I got tickets for every single one, even though they wasn't able to get tickets because they weren't nominated for cast things. I was like, "Every girl needs to be in the crowd from the show! Every girl is in a gown!" And I think I was more so thinking about that.

You say in the documentary that during much of your earlier life you were always chasing the music. I think it's safe to say that has happened and you have arrived at that moment. So what is the new goal? What are you chasing now?

I don't think it's ever over. I don't. Music isn't a Grammy. You know what I mean? A Grammy is an award in music, but music is this thing that like, has literally given me my voice, has given me my confidence, has shown me the way to love others and myself. And I think that music will continue to be this source of guidance and therapy in my life that I need to use constructively. So I think that's why I did chase music, because it was so integral to the course of my life and how I feel. And I think that there's a new road being paved now that the special is out, especially after the Grammy nominations came out. Like, ooh, where am I about to go next? And music is calling. It's always calling. And I will always be there to answer the call, no matter what.

Congrats on those Grammy nominations, by the way. Your mom says in the doc that she always knew you were going to use your voice for something. And music, of course, became the avenue for your voice. But do you remember the specific moment when you realized that? Not just as an artist, but as someone with a platform.

Yes, and we touch on that in the doc. There's a specific moment in time, which I think is just very cinematic of me [laughs], but it's true: I wrote a song, "My Skin," and that song really was bigger than me. And I was like, "Oh, this isn't feeding my ego. This is serving a purpose. This is being used to heal — and even if you didn't get to the healing process, to just feel." I didn't want to make music that served my ego anymore. I wanted to make music that served a greater good. And I think it started with that song.

I remember when the video for that came out and it made headlines. It wasn't just a pop culture moment, but something that took on a meaning beyond its entertainment value.

It's sweet that you remember that — it was so long ago to me. But I remember being like, I want to have people that look like me, bigger bodies, and I want us to be in shapewear and I want us to be vulnerable and sitting in this space and having like a real emotional moment with ourselves where we're reflecting. And I don't think that we've had much representation of people that look like me and sort of put that out there, and to be wearing shapewear — and what's so funny, years later I have Yitty, a shapewear brand, and I've always been super into shapewear — but to have us sitting there in our shapewear, this thing that's supposed to keep us hidden but we're exposing ourselves, I thought that was definitely a moment.

Going back to the beginning of your career with the Cornrow Clique, do you consider yourself a rapper first?

I literally was a rapper first. I think that's why it's harder to embrace the title of a singer, because I rejected it for so many years. It's like, if you're not good at singing and people are like, "You're a singer," or if you don't feel like you're good at singing and people are calling you that — one of the scariest things to do is to sing in front of people, for anybody. If I asked you to sing for me right now, you'd be like, "Oh, I'm terrible. I can't," you know what I mean? Like, I've done it — well maybe you could sing, who knows? — but I've seen enough to where that is so scary that when I was first coming out I was like, yeah, I'm a rapper. Rapping was like the thing I could hide behind because it's like, I can't sing.

So I was literally rapping first. And then when I made Coconut Oil, I started singing more and more and more, really singing. And I think that's where I learned how far I could take my singing voice. And when I started gaining more confidence as a singer was well after "Truth Hurts" went No. 1, but I wasn't confident in it for a long time. I'm proud to say that I'm a singer now. All those people on the internet who got something to say about me when I say I'm a rapper and they want to roll their eyes — people are always trying to define me. And it's like, you can't. Just give up. You're not going to. You will lose. [Laughs] I am who I want to be. I'm everything. But I was a rapper first and that's why I'm so good at singing the way that I do, because I already know how to rap percussively. So my singing pocket is off the chain. [Laughs]

You talk about a very rough time in your life when things weren't going well — sleeping on friends' couches, sleeping in your car. You very specifically say you remember sleeping in your car on Thanksgiving. And here we are, at Thanksgiving. Are those moments that you think back to often? What kind of place do they hold for you?

Well, the place it holds is trauma. Traumatic experiences, man. But they also propelled me and got me out of — I didn't want to stay there. I had to evolve, I had to grow, I had to get better. I don't think about it often, but recently I thought about it a lot where I'm having this full-circle moment of like, wow, I'm in my house that I've purchased and I'm watching this documentary about my life, talking about when I was sleeping in my car and on Thanksgiving. It's very cyclical and full-circle. This is also the first time I've owned a house and loved where I've lived. Two years ago I was in a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Echo Park. And then I had like a rental house as of December 2019. But this is really being a grown-up. I feel like I got my big-girl pants on and I feel like this is a new place for me, actually feeling safe in the space that I'm occupying. So it's a big deal. It's something worth celebrating, for sure.

You mentioned your house. Is it true that your house is built on property that Harry Styles used to own?

[Eating a cookie, laughs] No comment.

My understanding is it's not the same house, but just the same property, which is kind of —

Harry's House is a great album.

It is indeed, isn't it? But it's funny because in the doc you play his song "Falling," which I just think is one of his best, certainly one of my favorites — and his vocals are just so vulnerable. But I have to say, I feel like he became an unseen character in this story.

I know. Harry… that was a huge moment because on one end I'm having this really bad emotional day, and on the other end you see the power of music. You really do. And how music has this visceral effect on me. And the funny part in the end where I was like, "Music is so powerful," and my makeup artist Alex was like, "You should really go to a Lizzo show." [Laughs] And I just think that that's like such a real moment, you know? And it's like, I can't, I can never experience a Lizzo show, but just showing how much music is transformative and how the fans may feel about my music is how I felt about that Harry Styles song. I feel it too. I go there too.

Well you're going to experience a Lizzo concert when you're watching that special back during the edits.

I'm gonna love it. [Laughs]

Lizzo in 'Love, Lizzo'
Lizzo in 'Love, Lizzo'

HBO Max Lizzo in 'Love, Lizzo'

Okay, so someone stole your identity? Did you find this thief? Please tell me you did.

I didn't. I don't know who it was. I had two IDs. I don't know what that was all about. I'm scared to even look into it because I've gotten it sorted, but for years I was like, I paid everything off on my driver's license. Why won't they let me…? Because mind you, my side of the identity was kind of dirty too [laughs] — I had to clean that part up too, honey. But once I cleaned that part up, I said, "Wait, what more do I have to do?" And then I found out that there was this whole other Melissa Jefferson that was reckless. So I don't know who it was. Unsolved mystery. [Laughs] But I have a driver's license.

That's a whole other documentary. Now, also in the doc, you talk about backlash over what you were wearing and people saying that you and your music weren't Black enough. Is that a stigma of pop music, because the genre can be so white-feeling that if you have a hit there, then people think you're catering to a specific demographic?

Absolutely. Well, genre's racist inherently. I think if people did any research they would see that there was race music and then there was pop music. And race music was their way of segregating Black artists from being mainstream, because they didn't want their kids listening to music created by Black and brown people because they said it was demonic and yada, yada, yada. So then there were these genres created almost like code words: R&B, and then of course eventually hip-hop and rap was born from that. I think when you think about pop, you think about MTV in the '80s talking about "We can't play rap music" or "We can't put this person on our platform because we're thinking about what people in the middle of America think" — and we all know what that's code for.

So yes, because of that — fast-forward to 2022 — we have this well-oiled pop machine, but remember that it has a racist origin. And I think the coolest thing I've seen is rap and hip-hop artists become pop. Now pop music is really rap in its DNA — rap is running the game, and I think that's so cool. But we forget that in the late '80s and the early '90s, there were these massive pop diva records that were sang by Black women like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey. And I'm giving that same energy. I'm giving that same energy with a little bit of rap, and I think that people just have to get used to me. I think anything that's new, people are going to criticize and feel like it's not for them. But once you know what it is — just like I've got a friend who don't like avocado but she likes guacamole; it don't make no sense — but once you get used to something, it might be for you. So for people who don't like pop music or don't like Black artists that make pop music, they may eventually like me. I might be guacamole to them. You just gotta get used to me because I'm making good s---. You missing out. [Laughs]

Lizzo performs at Radio City Music Hall in 2019, as seen in 'Love, Lizzo'
Lizzo performs at Radio City Music Hall in 2019, as seen in 'Love, Lizzo'

HBO Max Lizzo performs at Radio City Music Hall in 2019, as seen in 'Love, Lizzo'

That's why I can't wait for people to see your concert special, because all the No. 1 hits are there but you do so much more and you put on a show! So the last thing I want to ask you: I think it was toward the end of the show when you were talking to all of us in the audience and said you hope we are taking the positivity and the love we were experiencing right there in the arena and spreading it out into the world. So my question to you is, what are you taking from that tour and that arena out into the world?

Hmm. I think I'm taking… I made huge breakthroughs as a person on this tour, in my personal life. I've dealt with a lot of anxiety, especially when I'm on stage, and I think that I've been actively healing that on stage by having honest discussions with my crowds. And I think the person that I am, the responsibility that I've taken on bettering myself on a personal note, I think is what I've taken from this tour. And this tour has helped support that. There was a lot of things that I was like, "Ooh, I could be doing this better. I could be taking care of my voice better." Let's just start there. Number one, wasn't doing vocal warmups, not doing vocal cooldowns, wasn't thinking about my voice, wasn't drinking tea, wasn't getting on the treadmill to get the blood flow to my vocal cords. None of that. Wasn't thinking about it at all, losing my voice like it was something to do. And I think treasuring my instrument and treating it as well as I treat my flutes has been a huge lesson. So I've had a lot of personal growth that I could talk about all day with this tour, but let's just start with what I've said now. I have taken care of myself much better, and I've really healed myself on this tour.

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