“I’ll do it better, I’ll do it better, I’ll do it better than anybody else,” sings Teeny Lieberson just 90 seconds into In Limbo, the first proper full-length from TEEN. As it turns out, that line is a feint; the group may open In Limbo with forthrightness, but the rest of In Limbo is full of bewitching misdirection. Just one song later, Teeny is singing “Come back, I don’t wanna sleep another night alone” while her sisters and bassist Jane Herships “shoop-shoop” woozily behind her like a haunted-mansion version of The Crystals. “Charlie,” the song that follows, swoons and moans like the slow dance at a Twin Peaks-themed prom. That spookiness is part of makes the aptly-named In Limbo so alluring. Produced by Sonic Boom of Spaceman 3, the album feels like a 3 a.m. drive down a deserted highway, full of dense fog and strange shadows. There’s a surreal, dreamlike quality to the Liebersons’ harmonies that adds to the feeling of weightlessness, and the songs drift by like odd, spectral apparitions in the evening sky. That Teeny was once the keyboardist for the spry rococo pop group Here We Go Magic just makes In Limbo‘s marvelous moodiness that much more surprising.
eMusic Editor-in-Chief J. Edward Keyes talked with the group about their shared history and their love of Broadway showtunes and wide open spaces.
On Performing at Lieberson Family Cocktail Parties as Children:
Teeny Lieberson: Our grandmother was a ballerina, she had this amazing house in New Mexico and had this beautiful piano, and before dinner â€”
Lizzie Lieberson: – during “cocktail hour” â€”
Teeny: – Mom would get us to sing. She’d be like, “Sing ‘Lost in the Stars’!”
Katherine Lieberson: I would highland dance sometimes, which is like Scottish dancing, and we would sing Broadway songs, and our dad would play piano. We used to sing “People Will Say We’re in Love.”
Teeny: I was always the girl and Katherine was always the guy and Lizzie was always the weirdo. She would play Judd [in Oklahoma!], the strange, creepy handyman.
Katherine: Doesn’t he try to kill her? Or try to rape her?
Lizzie: Yeah, Judd was a bit stalkerish. He’d watch the main girl in Oklahoma. He was the handyman on the farm. There’s this song called “Poor Judd is Deadâ€¦”
Katherine: Because Curly is trying to convince him to kill himself.
Lizzie: [suddenly shocked] Is that what’s happening?
Katherine: Yes! He’s trying to convince him to kill himself so he’d be this martyr.
Teeny: Is that what that’s about?
Katherine: Absolutely that’s what it’s about! So, yeah, we’d sing, and then we would do really weird skits. Like, you know when kids do this? [puffs her cheeks out] We’d do that â€”
Teeny: We called it “The Chubbies.”
Katherine: But Lizzie would stretch her face out instead of puffing her cheeks.
Lizzie: I was the quiet little sister, and there was never a character for me, so I always ended up doing my own thingâ€¦
Teeny: Well, also, I think it didn’t work as well because you were already chubby.
Lizzie: I wasn’t chubby! I had baby fat!
Teeny: And we loved your baby fat.
Lizzie: I was, like, four! Every kid’s chubby at four!
On being a family band:
Katherine: Well, the three of us are sisters, and Jane is like the fourth sister. We are a family, and it feels like family. In a lot of interviews we’ve been talking about the people we’ve been working with, and it all has a family feel to it.
Jane Herships: We had all played in Amazing Baby together. I was the original bass player. My favorite story is that I had been practicing with that band, and we were about to have our first show. And on the record there were all these insane harmonies. And I was like, “Who’s gonna do these harmonies? We have a show, like, tomorrow.” And they’re like, “Oh, the Liebersons will do them,” and I was like, “Who the hell are the Liebersons?” And then they just came in and just blew it out of the water.
Teeny: And I definitely went into this record thinking, “I want them [her sisters and Jane] to be heard on this record a lot.” I definitely wanted singing to be a huge part of it. You can add so much texture and beauty with voices that you don’t need to do with instruments. I think that we try and do that a lot.
Lizzie: You refer to our vocals as being the “fifth member” of the band. It’s an instrument on its own.
Teeny: Sure. I mean, if you listen to the Beach Boys, there’s amazing arrangements everywhere on those records, but you just listen to the vocals, because the vocals are always moving and shifting and there’s so much personality in them. And we definitely wanted to make a pretty psychedelic record.
On the benefits of country life:
Teeny: [Former drummer] Maia [Ibar]‘s family has an amazing converted barn in Waterford, Connecticut, and it’s huge. So we could sleep there and hang out and cook there – it just felt very conducive to making the record. I gravitate toward places like that because I like to have space to think, and I feel like I can’t think here [in New York]. When you’re trying to create, it’s hard to do that in New York. I’m feeling much more drawn to that kind of environment now.
On being in limbo:
Katherine: I feel like my life for the last couple of years has been constantly in limbo – just not being anywhere at all. Before I was doing this, I had a regular full-time job. Then our dad got sick and passed away, and I started playing music. It just felt very groundless.
Teeny: I was still in a working band [Here We Go Magic], and when I left, we needed time to develop. So [In Limbo] is an honest record. I was kind of in a relationship, but not really – it was very back and forth. And not knowing what was going on with Here We Go Magic at the time, and feeling really torn about that, and then our father passed away. I feel like when something like that happens, you’re like, “OK, we don’t get that much time. It’s time to start doing things.” So I knew it was time to make the next step, and I knew I wanted to have people [involved] that I trusted and that I knew closely.
Katherine: We’re really open with each other and we talk things out. It feels really safe creatively. I’m new to my instrument, Jane’s sort of new to her instrument, and it just feels like a safe space to learn.
On the upside of the indirect route:
Jane: People are always asking what we sound like and what kind of music we play. I feel like early on, somebody somewhere used the term “genre-defying,” and that kind of sums it up.
Teeny: Being somewhat mysterious is intentional. I like to make things a little more abstract, because I think it creates a sense of mystery. That’s always my thinking behind it. Because the songs are so simple, and sometimes the ideas are so simple, it always comes back to arrangement – that’s where I feel like we’re trying to take something simple and turn it into something new.
Jane: We actually had a song we ended up not putting on the record because it ended up being too straightforward.
Teeny: Yeah, when things are too straightforward they drive me crazy. “Why Why Why” was difficult, because if it’s played straight – I was listening to Neil Young when I wrote it – it’s almost like a folk tune. We reworked that one a ton before we recorded it. And the song “Charlie” – there’s actually a double meaning to that song. Originally it was written about someone I was dating, but their real name just didn’t work in the song. And then Maia’s boyfriend Charlie passed away a couple of years before that, so it worked as a kind of dedication for him. It became a much more personal thing.