"Since we’ve met Alyson, there hasn’t been one birthday that we’ve missed, one anniversary that we’ve missed or one holiday we’ve missed spending together and celebrating."
by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
You've probably never seen or heard anything like BETTY. The trio – sisters Amy Ziff and Elizabeth Ziff and longtime bandmate Alyson Palmer – blends music and humor and theatrics in ways that no one has ever considered before. From their early days in Washington,DC performing at the ADD Arts Festival and the Adams Morgan Day Festival, as well as the legendary DC Space venue, to their worldwide success via their recordings and appearances on television, BETTY rules. Perhaps best known for their theme song to The L Word, BETTY performs in Chicago at City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, on Dec. 19. (Event Details) I spoke with Amy Ziff about Betty in November 2012.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Amy, did you ever imagine that more than 25 years after BETTY made its debut in Washington DC that the band would still be going strong?
AZ: (Amy Ziff) I think we did imagine that. I don't think we imagined that our career would have as many ups and downs and twist and turns. As independent musicians who have created this cottage industry, I think why it has stayed as long as it has, is because it's more than just a band for us. We're very politically active. We're best friends and family. Since we've met Alyson, there hasn't been one birthday that we've missed, one anniversary that we've missed or one holiday we've missed spending together and celebrating. We've seen each other through personal triumphs and tragedies, the death of our parents, the birth of children, fighting major illness. Through it all we still have something to say, musically.
GS: How would you say that BETTY has evolved from your perspective?
AZ: You saw us in the ‘80s, so we were very theatrical and very unconventional as far as music is concerned. I think we're still that way. We started with the three of us with different augmentation and, of course, a lot of different theatrics - spoken word, characters and things like that. We added different instruments as we went along, but we always had the freedom to take away instruments. If we wanted the song with just cello and vocals, if we wanted a song a cappella, if we wanted a song with bass and vocals or bass and some cool electronics – we always had that freedom. We also had a band that we played with.
(Recently) we've been touring in Europe, the three of us, with electric cello, bass and guitar which Elizabeth plays and some tracks that we add too, which means it's much more accessible in Europe to be traveling like that and some of the sounds we are doing are really easily recreated that way. The weird thing, Gregg, is that I don't think we ever thought, "Okay, what are we doing? How are we doing this?" I think the new record that we have coming out, maybe in the Spring, is some of the best work that we've done yet. (The previous disc) Bright and Dark was a big departure for us. It was very commercial. We certainly had a lot of success with and it was placed on a lot of television shows, a couple movies and it seems like our most accessible ones to date.
Also, it was just a great feeling to record that because Elizabeth was battling cancer. She was doing a lot of horrific chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
So, it was amazing to go into the studio and have this destination for her to look at. She was really ill at the time with breast cancer, like so many are affected in our community. I think for her to go to the studio and have that as a goal to finish it was very rewarding. I think anybody who is ill that looks to a long term project or something they really want to accomplish - so that CD is really special to us.
GS: I'm glad that you mentioned TV because BETTY has a long history with television, beginning with 1989's HBO children's series Encyclopedia and continuing with The L Word and Weeds. Why do you think that TV was such a good medium for BETTY?
AZ: When we were hired to do the first television show, to write it and to perform for television for children on HBO – that is how we started really – we were a little bit larger than life, very charactery. I think the children and parents identified with us and were receptive to the music we were doing on television and also how we looked. It was kind of engaging – it was cartoony almost. Now, we started recirculating some of those videos and it's fun because people are turning their children on to it. It was kind of subversive the things we were talking about or how we were presenting it, but also informative. So we were used to people identifying us with that crazy show on HBO, then doing other things from there. We did a lot of other television before we did The L Word. At the time we were doing The L Word, we had like nine or ten television theme songs running on TV at the same time – for Discovery Channel, Discovery Health, Animal Planet, HBO for Real Sex, What Not To Wear on TLC and a Comedy Central show we had a theme song on. But The L Word, for some reason, because it was so in your face and anthemic and because of the nature of the show, it became much more visible for us.
GS: I'm glad you mentioned children's music because in a lot of ways BETTY was sort of ahead of the curve in that realm. Now there are so many acts, such as They Might Be Giants, Farmer Jason and Ralph's World. Do you ever think about going back and doing an all kids album?
AZ: We have been asked to do that. It's funny because every year we do at least one or two shows for Alyson's kids' schools. Most of them have been benefits for the schools or different drives that they're doing that are school- related or things that her kids are involved in. Some parents ask us "Would you please do something?" But a lot of the shows that we do in the simmer are art festivals and children come to that. If we're not necessarily doing a kids' song they can still relate to the music. That's in the works for us. That's definitely something we enjoy doing and they seem to be receptive, so yeah.
GS: You mentioned the most recent BETTY disc, Bright & Dark, which features the songs "Jesus" and "Linda Blair." Is there a correlation?
AZ: Oh no, that's funny [laughs]. "Jesus" was a song that we wrote before we recorded it, we recorded it a different way. It was featured on The L Word. "Linda Blair" I wrote right before we recorded it. The producer really liked it and had some ideas about how he wanted to do it. It's a really hard song to do live, but we have done it and it becomes very theatrical [laughs] as you can imagine. In New York, we did it once where I had a doll whose head twisted around. I remember we did it a couple of times in Europe and we had to explain who Linda Blair was because she's not as iconic as she is here from The Exorcist movies. Really, "Linda Blair" is a love song about survival. I think most those songs on that record are mostly about love or treachery.
GS: (The song) "Honey West," too.
AZ: Yeah, right. That's kind of a love song, too, but it's about coming out on top I guess, but hopeful, everything is going to be okay. The refrain on the third song A Fix of You is kind of a redemption (song), especially for Elizabeth as she was writing it and it is about her cancer.
GS: Kate Pierson of the B52's can be heard on the song "King Kong," How did that come about?
AZ: We've been friends with her for a really long time. At one point we were spending every Christmas with her in Woodstock (NY), which is really fun because she has a great big house up there and it would be a great big sing-a-long. I think Elizabeth was just up there before she left New York for a little bit. We've toured with the B52's, also. We've done some great shows together and it's a really fun match. Kate was in town and we asked if she wanted to sing on a couple of songs and she was thrilled to do it. She performed at some of our Christmas shows as a guest star, as well as Jane Siberry. We are friends with a lot of people that have been doing music for a long time. I think that Kate can really relate to our story, too, although they are more mainstream than BETTY is, commercially. They've been together longer. They've had that intense relationship that only people in a band really only understand. It's just so intense, the most intense relationship you can ever possibly have. She related to that. They all came to see us when we were doing our show BETTY Rules about our life story, which we toured.
GS: BETTY is performing in Chicago during December. Does that mean that songs from the holiday-themed Snowbiz disc will be included in the show?
AZ: Yes, we are going to - "Miracles Can Happen" and "Happy Holidays From Me to Me." We'll also do some new songs. We've been writing. Right before we come to you we will have come back from Argentina. We were asked by the U.S. Embassy to art envoys and do a series of concerts for diversity, tolerance, appreciation and getting that message out through concerts and talks and appearances and universities.
We did a whole tour through the Balkans. It was amazing - Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia. Some of these countries have been so besieged and under rule by different people - but with a renewed patriotism there's a resurgence of intolerance and nationalist hatred for other people, which is really frightening as an agenda for nationalism, in general. So we've been asked to come and be a part of some of these series.
Most people didn't realize there was an agenda with it at all – our concerts are our concerts. But we saw people that had never been proud to be out as gay people come to the concerts. Men were holding hands and said they've never been able to do that before at any place. It was just a really satisfying thing. Now we're going to be doing the same thing in Latin American and then come back and head over to you (in Chicago).