Life is all about timing.
For singer-songwriters Lizzy McAlpine and Ben Kessler, that meant growing up in the Philly suburbs 20 minutes apart from one another physically but only coming together digitally. Though they knew of each other through SoundCloud and Instagram, McAlpine and Kessler pursued their music separately, each outgrowing the suburbs to attend school.
For McAlpine, it was a songwriting program at Berklee College of Music — “I actually, like a week ago, decided that I am dropping out,” she shares — while Kessler went to study at Vanderbilt University to soak in the Nashville scene.
Navigating their own paths, Kessler launched a DIY label to house his ambitions: his one-off releases have attracted hundreds of thousands of streams and shout-outs from tastemaking blogs like Earmilk and Ones to Watch.
A prolific poster, McAlpine (@lizzymcalpine) saw her TikTok catch on after her break-up ballad, “you ruined the 1975,” took off this past summer. A breezy vocal showcase, she cheekily accuses an ex for her newfound distaste of the British pop band, soundtrack providers to many a heartbreak.
After Kessler reached out and an initial session last December, they came back together to create “False Art” this past summer. A track that touches on “perfect on paper” relationships and “getting rid of the bullshit,” it’s also a culmination of two journeys that have orbited one another for years.
Today, they’re oceans apart and back in their own worlds. McAlpine is dialing in from London, while Kessler is calling from a kayak floating off the coast of Hawaii, to chat about their upcoming projects, breakthroughs even in quarantine, and their collaboration years in the making.
You both mentioned that you found out about one another in high school through SoundCloud and Instagram. What was your first impression of one another?
Kessler: Lizzy’s voice is obviously just so dope — it’s angelic. And also her writing. I didn’t produce at all, so I was just really lyric-focused.
McAlpine: I heard some of your music on Spotify. I think it was “Even When You’re Home.” I’m really into smart pop writing right now — Lennon Stella, JP Saxe, people like that — and that’s what Ben writes. I love the hooks and the melodies. You listen to one of the songs and it just makes sense.
Kessler: I went through some weird phases, but I was really into Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens — and John Mayer. I didn’t write that kind of stuff, but I was starting to get into songs where artists have production as more of the focal point.
Eventually, you both left Philly to pursue music in school. How do you feel your sound has developed from those experiences?
McAlpine: My writing is very conversational. Before, it was me trying to say all these cool words and use all these cool images. But now I just write like I’m talking.
Kessler: I tried really, really hard in high school to be cool. Music-wise, I wanted to write stuff that was cool and could be respected by music communities or whatever. And then, in Nashville, you kind of have to take away a lot of the bullshit. People see through what doesn’t actually mean anything. Just trying to fit into a mold or be the thing that would get the industry’s attention, it just takes a lot of energy. It was only when I stopped doing that, that I solved that validation. I’ve landed in a place where I’m a lot more confident in trusting my gut a little more.
Before you wrote “False Art”, you met for a writing session in December. Given that you two hadn’t known each other that well, how did you start talking?
Kessler: I slid into Lizzy’s DMs and was like, “Hey, I really think we should write.” I made it my mission; I really wanted to find a way. It just makes too much sense for us not to have a song together.
McAlpine: If I’m honest, I thought you hated me after that first session we did together.
Kessler: No way, that’s hilarious.
McAlpine: I was just like, “We didn’t vibe. You weren’t having a good time.”
Kessler: I was having a great time! I think I was stressed because it was New Year’s [Eve] and my friends and I were trying to figure out if we were going to a party or something. Logistics stress me out.
That’s so funny, though. I don’t hate you, Lizzy. Let the record show.
When you came together for “False Art,” what had changed to the point that you were able to get in sync with one another?
Kessler: Something I learned from doing a lot of sessions is that writing with someone for the first time is just awkward. It’s always super bizarre to be vulnerable with someone you’ve never met outside of Instagram most of the time. So I don’t think either of us went into that expecting to get something that was really gonna click.
When did the video take shape? How did you arrive at the video concept? How do you even make a video during quarantine?
Kessler: We did it in my family’s garage outside Philly. I rented a camera and my little brother — who doesn’t know shit about photography — helped me. [The concept] in the living room was out of necessity. Those were the only three “sets” we could build.
We were really restricted. The song wasn’t even done; the final vocals weren’t done. Lizzie was leaving for London the next day. And I don’t know any creative people in Philly. It seemed like it would be expensive and a lot of work. So I was like, “Let’s just try this ourselves.”
And luckily it worked.
Between the two of you, you’ve seen a lot of growth in a moment when the music industry is on pause. How have you maintained that momentum when so much else is on hold?
McAlpine: It’s hard. Especially to stay motivated. I just write all the time. Every time I write something new, I’ll post it on Instagram. I post all the time, too. But sometimes I go through dry spells, just being really creatively blocked.
I just don’t force it. If I force myself to write, nothing good happens.
Kessler: The benefit for both of us, too, is I don’t think either of our respective career growth thus far is dependent on live stuff. That’s been a big hit for a lot of people and it would be great to be playing shows, but for me, it helps having releases to work around. I feel like I have a little room to breathe and I’m appreciative of having the time, that everything is a little slowed down.
Lizzy McAlpine and Ben Kessler’s latest, “False Art” — out now via Level.
This interview has been condensed and edited.