No ‘Ceilings’: Lizzy McAlpine Is Folk-Pop’s Rising Dealer of Devastation
With one of the early year's most viral breakout hits -- and far greater ambitions ahead of her -- McAlpine is solidifying herself as one of 2023's singer-songwriters to watch.
Lizzy McAlpine’s bucket list is a thing to behold. On Zoom from her L.A. home, the ascendant singer-songwriter holds her Notes app to the camera and begins scrolling. And scrolling.
This is no scatterbrained cluster of “maybe someday”s. No, this is a meticulously plotted ledger of life goals, dozens of lines deep. The achievements she’s yet to check off vary in prestige, from playing Coachella and winning a Grammy to creating a special Lizzy McAlpine taco at HomeState, the Los Angeles chain where Phoebe Bridgers concocted her own vegan dish last year.
A handful of goals have already been accomplished, courtesy of the tireless 23-year-old artist’s ascendence on social media and her arresting sophomore album, Five Seconds Flat. The 2022 LP corralled droves of new fans with its subtle folk-pop devastations, speckled with touches of jazz, R&B and notable features from FINNEAS and Jacob Collier. (It also broke her to a new level on streaming, with her catalog having now earned 245.6 million official on-demand U.S. streams, according to Luminate.)
Among the doleful tracks was “Ceilings,” a plot-twisty ballad of heart-stomping hallucinations, which has taken off on TikTok these last three months and proven the singer’s biggest breakout hit so far. Tens of thousands of videos using a sped-up version of “Ceilings” have amassed more than 235 million views, and translated to more than 30 million official on-demand U.S. streams.
While soaring numbers online are no guarantee for real-life ticket sales, McAlpine has had little trouble developing a devout IRL audience. Last fall, she knocked “headline a tour” off her list, playing mid-size clubs like The Troubadour in Hollywood and Webster Hall in New York. Now, her new roadshow kicking off in April is sold-out across the U.S. and filling the biggest rooms of her career so far — among them Terminal 5 and Brooklyn Steel in NY, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and two nights at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C.
“It’s a level up from the last tour in terms of venue size and also just production-wise, we’re kind of elevating everything, which is very exciting,” McAlpine says. “It becomes more of a theatrical production at this level, and that is very fun for me.”
“Theatrical” is apt for McAlpine, as her stark songwriting style merges the hyper-specific, heartrending lyrics of Bridgers or Olivia Rodrigo — stolen glances over 7-Eleven Slurpees, visions of McAlpine’s suburban Philadelphia-area upbringing — with the sweeping crests and falls of a Sara Bareilles Broadway score.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bridgers and Bareilles are both admirers of McAlpine; each has DMed the newcomer, singing her praises. Bareilles tells Billboard she messaged McAlpine after watching McAlpine cover her tune “When He Sees Me,” from Broadway’s Waitress.
“As a writer, she has a great capacity to make very mundane experiences interesting and has an exceptionally detailed perspective,” Bareilles says. “It’s the great trick of great writing; specificity is universal.”
McAlpine has had plenty of practice, beginning to write songs on piano at age 12 and picking up the guitar a year or two later. She attended Berklee College of Music for two years — “a huge growing period for me as an artist and also as a human,” she says — before dropping out to pursue her career.
Her soft-treading debut LP Give Me a Minute was a promising start, but her career didn’t truly gain steam until the pandemic forced everyone inside. While some homebound musicians took time to regroup, McAlpine kept working, regularly live-streaming on Instagram, dropping singles and cultivating a committed audience on TikTok. It was there that a snippet of an unfinished song, called “You Ruined the 1975” — a relatable ode to exes who tarnish the bands we love, performed sitting on her bathroom floor — was launched to viral heights in summer 2020, notching more than 8 million views and spurring countless covers.
“I couldn’t quite understand fully the gravity of it,” she says of her social media success. “I was just in my room alone. All I could see was a screen with a bunch of people saying, ‘Oh, this is so good.’ It didn’t really hit me until I toured for the first time, because I could actually see the people.”
Though McAlpine still regularly uses the app, she’s wary of associating herself too closely with the platform.
“I have a love/hate relationship with TikTok,” she says. “I feel like I can see the benefits of it, which is why I post. But if I didn’t have to post, I would not be posting on TikTok.”
Yet she cannot avoid the recent TikTok trend of mostly young women running down dark streets, wildly lip-syncing to the bridge of “Ceilings” as though their lives depend on it. The clips’ exaggerated drama contrasts with the understated desperation of tracks like “Erase Me” and “Hate to be Lame,” the latter track being short for a tragic apology: “Hate to be lame but I might love you.”
In terms of visuals to pair with her music, the artist much prefers longform treatments to bite-size morsels. Ever ambitious, McAlpine wrote a screenplay to accompany the release of Five Seconds Flat last April, which birthed the half-hour short film Five Seconds Flat, The Film, directed by Gus Black (Joshua Bassett, Deftones, Eels). In the film, which gracefully interweaves five songs from the album with dialogue, McAlpine stars as her younger self: anxious, lovelorn, searching for passion and identity. She’s excellent in the dramatic role, floundering through young romance’s brutal volatility, like a character from a Sally Rooney novel.
“[The film] was based on my first real relationship in high school,” she says. “And every time he would break up with me — like every other week — I felt like I was literally dying, like my soul was being ripped out of my body. So I just kind of channeled that.”
Sam Bailey, founder and managing director of Harbour Artists & Music and McAlpine’s manager, says he’s never worked with an artist so driven.
“She’s incredibly ambitious, proactive and prolific,” he says. “You can be the most talented artist in the world and never get out of bed in the morning, but she does. She wants to do a million things all at once – and wants to do them now.”
Naturally, McAlpine is already working on her next album. While no hard details are available, she’s happy to tease its direction.
“I feel like [Give Me a Minute] was close to what I think that I actually sound like. And then [Five Seconds Flat], I was trying to go as far away from that as possible, just to differentiate myself and not get stuck in the genre. … This [new] album won’t sound like the first album, but it’s definitely closer to what I think I actually sound like as an artist. It feels like the most authentic music I’ve ever written.”
While McAlpine hopes not to be pigeonholed, she doesn’t mind falling under the “sad girl” label, however, often assigned to her slightly older constituents like Bridgers and Julien Baker, and more recently Gracie Abrams and Holly Humberstone.
“I mean, it is sad — I write sad music,” she assures. “I don’t see that as a bad thing. I think that’s a powerful thing.”