By Sara Flanders
This is the final installment of the Finding Yourself in the Music series.
When unsure how to deal with her negative emotions, Elizabeth Harris used what she calls “genre-fluid” music as a therapeutic outlet.
Harris remembers singing all the time as a child and looking up to her Grandpa who was a wedding singer in a polka band. When she was in third grade, her mom signed her up for voice lessons, and she also learned how to play piano and guitar.
One of her first influences was Vanessa Carlton, a bisexual pop-pianist who broke out in the early 2000s with her hit song “A Thousand Miles.” Harris and her mother went to Borders when she was in fifth grade and she bought Vanessa Carlton’s CD, which she listened to over and over again. To this day “A Thousand Miles” is one of Harris’ favorite songs.
“I was like, this is what I want to do,” Harris said. “I want to sing and play and write songs.”
While she was still in highschool, Harris began playing at open mics in Mt. Lebanon, which would become her main gig for some time. Around this time is when she started coming to terms with her sexuality.
She was shocked and confused when she realized she was attracted to both men and women, having come from a very Catholic and conservative household. She didn’t fully understand what it meant to be bisexual and had a lot to work through internally. Her parents were not expecting Harris to come out, and were double surprised when her sister also came out as queer.
Harris, 24, says it was tough because her family didn’t understand bisexuality, and feels if she would have just come out as gay it would have been easier for them to grasp. Without their permission, she decided to come out by sending letters to aunts and uncles. She put together a care package that included a letter, resource list, pamphlet and her first album so they could understand who she was.
“I sent all that and said, ‘This is what [bisexuality] is, this is who I am,’” Harris said. “‘But if you can’t accept it, then deal with it.’”
When she first went to college she had a hard time finding her place. But, by her senior year, she and a friend created support groups for those in the LGBTQIA+ community. The groups would host events on campus and provide a safe place for people to meet up to talk about sexuality and gender, their own experiences and gender in the media.
“What was important to me was making a community where I was,” Harris said. “So instead of seeking out a community, I created it.”
While in college, she also became more involved with her music. Harris began playing shows at City Grows in Lawrenceville, and during her senior year she studied abroad in Rome. That’s where she realized she wanted to travel and decided to really concentrate on her music. When she arrived back in Pittsburgh, she quickly began thinking of a stage name. She eventually landed on Fig.
“This was around the same time I was really coming into my sexuality, so I decided I was going to change my name,” Harris said. “I wanted to separate myself from the art so it didn’t seem so scary.”
Harris says it’s hard to describe her music in terms of traditional genres. It’s folkish and somewhat indie, but she prefers to use adjectives such as soft, floral and passionate instead. On her Facebook page she lists her music as “genre-fluid.”
In terms of writing songs, Harris says her music is for anyone who will listen and is listening for some kind of message.
“The message in my music is just to be honest and open about who you are and what you feel,” Harris said. “That’s literally the hardest thing to do.”
For instance, Harris wrote a song about her bisexuality called “S/he” in which she sings “They told me I couldn’t love you because there was an ‘s’ in front of your ‘he.’ So I kept quiet.”
Whenever she performs she tries to talk to everyone at the show. She wants everyone to feel welcomed and safe. She says while on stage she will sometimes joke around and say “Hey, I’m a person too” and thank the audience for being there. She hopes that whenever people hear a certain chord or a lyric they can relate to and that it will help them describe something they were feeling but couldn’t put into words. She says whenever people connect with her music and tells her how its touched them makes her feel less lonely.
“Turning negative emotions into something beautiful that people can relate to is really a magnificent feeling,” Harris said. “Then to be able to stand on stage in front of people who are receiving that message has been very therapeutic for me and my journey as an artist.”
Writing music has been an incredible outlet for Harris, which she equates to people who journal. She says her mom would always ask her why her music was so sad, and says she would explain that she never consciously wrote sad songs.
“It was more, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this emotion and so I’m expelling it,’” Harris said. “It’s just getting whatever I’m feeling out.”
In her song “Run Free”, Harris explains the process of understanding an emotion and then getting it out with her lyrics: “Invite the ghosts in; call each by name. Play a little trick and then send them away.”
Harris came up with her stage name fig in 2015 after returning from studying abroad. She found inspiration from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. In the book, the main character, Esther, finds herself paralleling her life to a fig tree:
I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree from the story.
From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.
I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, Chapter 7
Harris was always drawn to that quote, with its use of natural imagery and deeper meaning, so she decided it was the perfect name.
“It’s that deep earning for a spectacular life and the worry and sadness of not being able to do that,” Harris said. “But hoping you still do.”
As a performer, Harris feels that Pittsburgh’s music scene is fairly inclusive, but there are a lot aspects that are not inclusive. She says there are a lot of places where you have to know someone to get in, so the same people are playing the same shows every week. She feels there is a lot of opportunity for venues to be more open and welcoming to new people.
In 2017, she moved to Cleveland and says the music scene is much more open there, and there’s less bias. She explains that going to open mics and connecting with people in the community gains a lot of support.
“They are really lifting people up, making sure it’s welcoming and no one is threatened by each other,” Harris said. “Everyone supports each other.”
Harris doesn’t categorize her career in highs and lows. She says she’s been able to play at cool places and perform with people she looks up to, so she can’t pinpoint any specific times. She feels excited anytime she is able to perform and feels it’s been a running score of good times. Eventually she wants to be a touring musician having a good time and not worrying about making a ton of money.
“I just see so many female musicians now, all these bad-ass ladies being like, ‘Here we are,’” Harris said. “That’s what I want to do.”
Besides music, Harris also runs a zine with two friends in Pittsburgh. The zine, “Dog’s Breakfast” had submissions come in from all over the world for the first issue. The zine collects submissions on broad topics.
“We want to be a platform to allow people to express themselves in whatever way they want,” Harris said. “The whole premise of the zine is every person who submits something gets in.”
Harris’ advice to those looking to pursue music is to just start. She feels that is the hardest part of anything you do, but especially for creative endeavors. She says it’s important to meet with people and connect with them to get support, but you only need one person to believe in you to get started.
“The most important thing is to like what you are doing,” Harris said. “If you like what you are doing then everyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter.”
Whether in the LGBTQIA+ community or not, Harris and other musicians in Pittsburgh just want the music to help others as it has helped them.
“The way music has worked in my life, it’s been therapeutic,” Harris said. “I’m hoping that I can give that to other people.”
Harris’ music can be found at fignewtunes.bandcamp.com. Read the full Finding Yourself in the Music series here.