Lizzy McAlpine Is Done Playing the TikTok Game

TikTok brought the Lower Merion High School grad lots of success. But now, she says she's over it.

Lizzy McAlpine

Lizzy McAlpine / Photograph by baeth

Critically acclaimed multi-instrumentalist Lizzy McAlpine is just 24 years old. She’s seen viral success on TikTok. She’s collaborated with the likes of Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas. Her new album, Older, is getting rave reviews. And now she’s coming home to play two shows at the Met, right after a stint at Radio City Music Hall. But it doesn’t sound like the Lower Merion High School grad has any interest in being the next Taylor Swift. Far from it.

Hi, Lizzy. It’s 2 p.m. here and 11 a.m. at your home in L.A. How long have you been up?
I woke up like an hour ago. And after I wake up, I kind of lie in bed for at least an hour. I like when I don’t have to set an alarm and can just wake up whenever I feel like it.

So wish I could do that. Alas, I could have absolutely nothing to do in a given day, and I’m up when the sun rises. Invariably. Anyway, your publicist told me you have a busy day today and that you’re headed to rehearsal right after this interview. How is rehearsal for this new tour going?
It’s a lot better than it used to be, because now, I have a band. I’m not bound to tracks. I had been singing to tracks since I started touring, in 2022. I was told that’s what everyone does. It’s just what you do. But I didn’t like it. That’s just not me.

Well, as a professional musician who finds it distressing how many performers just sing to tracks these days, I certainly appreciate you employing actual, you know, musicians.
It’s so much better this way. It’s the only way to do it. I can’t speak to other people, but this is true for me.

I’ve interviewed some youngish people in this section, but at 24, you’re officially the youngest. I have to ask: What’s it like being a 24-year-old woman in America right now?
It’s definitely weird. There’s lots of weird energy. It’s interesting, though. I don’t feel “young.” I know I don’t know everything, but at the same time, I know a lot. It’s fine and weird. Every year of my 20s has been weird for different reasons. So much change.

That’s why they tell you to never get married in your 20s — because you’ll be a completely different person in your 30s.

I mean, it’s worked out okay for me. So far.
[Laughs] That’s good!

I’d love to rewind a bit. Let’s go back a decade. It’s 2014. President Obama is still in the White House, and you’re still six years from voting age. Where are you, and what are you doing? Eighth grade. Bala Cynwyd. Ugh. It was awful for me. I hated middle school. But I was already writing music, which was good for me. I started when I was 12. Back then, I wanted to be on Broadway. Never thought even once about touring with my own songs. But, yeah, eighth grade. I was dealing with boys being annoying.

We have a tendency to be that way. And from middle school, you went to Lower Merion High. Was that better? Yes. I did everything musical there. I was in the general choir. And I was in the chamber choir, which you had to audition for. I did a cappella, theater. And high school is also when I started posting my own music on SoundCloud, plus covers of Taylor Swift, Vampire Weekend, and a lot of random artists no one knows. Lower Merion definitely wasn’t the best time of my life, but it was fun when I was doing theater. I didn’t have a solid group of friends, I was lonely and weird, and I was in a relationship that was horrible.

My wife keeps telling me she wants to move to Narberth, where you grew up. We live in West Philly. Is Narberth really all that?
I love it there. You can just walk around. It’s adorable in Narberth. A cheese shop, a wine store, a French bakery. It’s so nice.

Ooooh … that French bakery has such amazing croissants. Did you work at any of those places during your teen years? Or maybe the Narberth movie theater? A pizza place?
No. I’ve only had one “real job” in my life, and that was not really a real job. I was a counselor at this summer camp in Virginia.

Lizzy McAlpine

Lizzy McAlpine performing at SAP Center in San Jose in December 2022 / Photograph by Steve Jennings/WireImage/Getty Images

Where did all this talent come from? Did you grow up in a musical household?
No. I think my mom can sing, but she sings so quietly that it’s impossible to know. But my mom’s mom would take us to Broadway shows every year, and that really started my love for Broadway. And my mom would play Wicked in the car all the time.

You’ve mentioned Broadway a couple times. Do you still have those aspirations?
Very much so. It’s a bucket-list item for me. Post-this tour, I want to work on other people’s art. I don’t want to be writing anymore. This process is difficult for me. I need space and time to live my life and experience things, so I can write about stuff. I have nothing to write about now.

What’s your ideal Broadway role?
I have a whole Broadway bucket list in Notes on my phone.

Well, now that I know you have this in Notes, you gotta look at it.
Okay. Let me go to the note … Veronica in Heathers, Maureen in Rent, Natalie in Next to Normal. I have so many.

I love Veronica for you. What’s on your non-Broadway bucket list?
Hold on, let’s go to that note … well, first is to be on Broadway. [Laughs] Win a Grammy. And I want to voice a video-game character. Oh, and I also want to go to the Met Gala. There’s a lot.

I know some people spend weeks, months or even years writing a song. Others I’ve talked to have written songs in as little as five minutes. You?
If a song takes longer than an hour to write, it’s not meant to be. It needs to just come out naturally.

When you come here to play two sold-out shows in Philly this month, will you have any time to see friends and family?
Absolutely. I have high-school friends coming to the show. My sixth-grade teacher is coming with his daughter and her friend. My choir teacher is coming. And my mom always brings a ton of people. Last time I was in Philly, I think she brought a hundred.

I see you have a VIP experience on your tour, which includes various merch and amenities. But many VIP experiences have meet-and-greets. You don’t. Not a fan?
Short answer? No.

Long answer?
It’s hard for me, especially on tour, to put on that persona. No, not “persona.” I don’t know. I am very sensitive, energetically. [Sound of random piano notes] Sorry, I’m sitting at my piano, and my elbow just hit the keys. … I need to save my energy pre-show so I can give all of myself, and talking to people is hard for me. I have a low social battery already. And I see all these artists doing meet-and-greets post-show?! I can’t do that. I have to sit in a quiet room. What if I’m having a bad day? I have to pretend like I feel fine? Like everything is normal and happy? I wear my heart on my sleeve.

Since you brought all of this up, I note that you canceled the last part of your 2023 tour for what were reported as mental health reasons. Are you in a better place now?
Yes. This tour is so, so much different. In the past, I toured like everyone else. Constant. Night after night. On a tour bus. It’s insane that anyone can do that and not go crazy or get sick. You don’t sleep well. It’s hard to find healthy food, depending on where you are. It’s rough on mind and body. I was also playing this earlier music of mine that felt inauthentic to me. I felt like I had to be running around onstage. It didn’t fit with my personality and soul.

On this tour, there’s no bus. We have hotels with real beds. We have lots of breaks. It feels good. Last tour, I was miserable; I got sick multiple times. I talked to my team and said I just can’t do this — that I couldn’t tour the way people normally tour. This is the season of me teaching the people around me that we can do things in a different way.

Speaking of your old songs and the old “you,” I understand that in January, you deleted all previous Instagram content. And you’ve wiped your first album, Indigo, from most places on the internet. Why?
Instagram? I wanted a clean slate. I felt like this album finally feels like me. And I wanted to reflect that in everything I was doing. I needed to start fresh. As for my original album, it just wasn’t real, and I didn’t record it properly, so it sounds technically bad. I used the wrong mics. I’m evolving and learning and growing, and I didn’t want that to be my “first album.”

I have a very creaky piano bench. And when I first listened to your new album, Older, I wore headphones and could have sworn that I heard a piano bench creaking at one point, as well as some other ambient or accidental sounds that the vast majority of musicians would never have allowed on the final product. Why did you?
The whole goal is just to be authentic and lift up the curtain and not be so “perfect.” I listen to my previous album, and all I hear is the “tuning” on my voice. It sounds so “clean,” so “perfect.” This music now deserves to be heard just as the music is. And I wanted to keep all the creaks and all the sounds. You feel like you’re in the room with us.

Lizzy McAlpine

Lizzy McAlpine / Photograph by baeth

I first heard one of your songs a few years ago, and it was definitely poppy. Older is anything but. It’s like going from Karen Carpenter singing “Please Mr. Postman” to Karen Carpenter singing “Superstar.” And media outlets have, of late, labeled you things like “melancholy” and, my personal favorite, “the queen of sadness and despair.” Do those characterizations bother you?
I don’t know. The album is very sad. It’s very deep, heavy, real. In my last album, I used a lot more metaphor, masking true, meaningful words with pretty words. This album is not that. It’s the realest that lyrics can possibly be. So I get it. They’re telling the truth. The things that bother me are not that. The things that bother me are like when they say I “started on TikTok.” Stuff like that invalidates my experience as an artist.

But social media has been big in your past, at least. That’s where people such as Billie Eilish’s brother, Finneas, discovered you and then collaborated with you as a result. And you did, at one point, go very viral on TikTok, which has become a hugely controversial platform. Your thoughts on it?
I do not like TikTok. I do not like posting on TikTok. And I do not like having to play the TikTok game to get a song noticed. I did it more in the past, because that’s what people were telling me to do. But I am at a place in my career, perhaps because of that virality, that I don’t have to play that TikTok game. TikTok isn’t real, and I’m no longer interested in things that aren’t real or authentic.

So many people are in this business just because they want to be famous, whatever “famous” actually means in this TikTok age. But I’m getting the sense that “famous” is not your goal.
It’s not. For a while, I definitely wanted to be recognized and acknowledged. But with this album, I truly just wanted to make it for the art. I don’t care about anything else. I just want to be true to myself and get what I actually want out of my career, and what I want out of my career has changed a lot, including in the last year. My personality just isn’t fit to be a “celebrity.” I look at some artists who are followed by paparazzi. That seems like it sucks.

Published as “On the Record: Lizzy McAlpine” in the June 2024 issue of Philadelphia magazine.