Liz Vice Talks “Refugee King,” Songwriting, Advice for Others

Liz Vice had a fast start to her music career, which started in 2012 with the studio album, There’s a Light, that peaked at No. 6 on the Top Gospel Albums chart, and No. 13 on the R&B Albums chart.

For the past four years, her music and performances have continued to build her brand as an artist to watch. She has been praised and featured by NPR’s World Cafe and NPR’s Weekend Edition while playing many events , such as Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival, Moon River, Forecastle, Portland Soundcheck, Soul’d Out Music Festival, Siren Nation Music Festival, Music on Main Street, and more. 

The talented songwriter and performer sat with American Songwriter for an interview and talked about a variety of topic, including her new track, “Refugee King.” Proceeds of which go to: Imm Schools – an immigrant-led non-profit organization that works to ensure immigrant and undocumented students thrive in the K-12 education system.

When and where did you write this song? What inspired the song?

 I was invited to a Christmas songwriting retreat in Grand Rapids, Michigan at Calvin College. We were put in groups to kind of re-write an original with more historical accuracies. The story of Christmas is less about gift under a tree but about Jesus coming to this hot mess of a world to invite us to indulge in heaven on earth (now). But his entrance into the world was humble. Poor parents, a threat to Herod and so when he was around 2 his parents had to flee to protect Jesus from being killed. It’s not a cute story and so how does that change the way we sing during the Christmas season? 

So about five of us got together in one room. My friend Wen is such an amazing guitarist and I remember just sitting down and starting with “away from the manager they ran for their lives…” it just kind of poured out and then we had a song we could barely sing without crying. 

How has your overall experience been collaborating with your co-writers on this song? What’s the dynamic like?  

It was pretty seamless. Writing feels like a miracle to me. I know amazing writers who write 20 hours a week. It takes the perfect blend of safety, space, and vulnerability for me to write, and this retreat happened to create that space for not just our song but for the other groups. We had songs in different languages as well. I just have a tendency to record and release if the song seems to beg for freedom. It took me over a year to finally put it out into the world. 

Step outside the song for a moment. How would you describe the song as a music fan?

Oh man, I would say this song is a story that has been echoed over the years. A story about a family needed to seek refuge for the sake of their child’s life. It’s more than religion. It’s the human experience.

Could you tell us some of the song’s back story? How much or how little did you edit it, during or afterward? Were there any phrases or lyrics you can remember that were especially tough to make a final decision on?

Like I said, when I get into a zone, it just flows. No real second guessing. There were a couple of lines that were hard for me to get through emotionally. “No place for His parents. No country. No tribe. And they ran and they ran and they ran.” And, “and keep us from Herods and all of their lies. I love the LORD Jesus the refugee King,” still chokes me up.

Ever time I write music like this there is a part of me that hopes it won’t be relevant when it’s finally released but alas, it still is.

Did you guys demo it or simply worktape it? How did it wind up getting cut and becoming a single? 

I went on a winter tour with Blind Boys of Alabama and I thought it’d be fitting. For a year, it was like an earworm, and it just played over and over in my head as though it was begging to be released into the ether. The feeling to professionally record and release this song did not go away for a year. I wanted to make sure I honored it.  While visiting family,  I produced Refugee King in Portland, Oregon at Singing Sands recording studio.  I was purposefully with having a more stripped down sound. I wanted the words not to be overpowered by instrumentation and so I called in my talented ex roommates from back in the day and recorded the song.

Who was the biggest cheerleader of the song, besides the writers?

Haha, I guess my fans on social media. I would get inquiries from people asking for a professional recording or if I had chord charts and I had nothing on a video my friends and I recorded in the lobby of the venue we were opening for Blind Boys. In the video you can hear the elevator open and close and right as I sing “and keep us from Herods and all of their lies.” You hear a siren. Pretty nuts. 

What do you enjoy most about writing songs in general? 

Hmm. Well, for the first hour I wrestle with myself. Literally have to convince myself that I can do this and the songs are out there…I just gotta reach up and grab one. I work best with people I feel safe with. It keeps me from being to nit picky and questioning everything I write. 

What are the challenges and hurdles – both the creative process and the business end?

The business part is probably 90% of the work I do. It’s hard so I have to make space to create. I can hop on stage and sing a song but I don’t often get to Finesse my performances because, like I said, I’m my own manager and book flights, hotels, rental cars, work with my booking agent to sign contracts, approve performances, find the right players for shows, try to rest and do everyday life task like laundry, grocery shop, pay bills. It’s pretty overwhelming but I’ve been getting invited to retreats where I make space to go off the grid and write and play and process. It’s been amazing but it’s rare. 

Is there a particular period or moment in your career when you were faced with adversity or doubt and had to dig deep to stay the course? 

Uh, is there any other way to be an artist? I have a white flag hanging in my back pocket at all times. I don’t think it’s a good thing but it’s still work and because it’s also a gift, my mind is on 24/7. 

Could you offer a nugget of any advice for aspiring or newly professional songwriters? 

If it’s in you and those around you, those who know you and those who meet you in passing are telling you there’s something special, move towards it. Don’t be afraid. The right people will find you or you’ll draw people in with what you’re doing. I’m only speaking from my experience. I could totally be wrong. 

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