Wandering on from neon-lit synths and pop culture shapeshifting, Liam Brown’s effervescent musical vehicle has found that acceptance is the best form of sincere expression. In the world of Pizzagirl, nobody needs to hide.
Liam Brown unpacks two outfits from his bag as the finishing touches are applied to today’s makeshift studio. The wall covering is evenly spaced and the first roll of film is tightly wound into the camera. All is in place, but PIZZAGIRL is still yet to arrive. Setting aside his coffee, Brown removes a heavy leather trench coat, freeing the shoulders and torso. Here the first iridescent flickers of his alter ego begin to shine through. He smoothly swivels with an outfit in each hand: “Shall we start with the Yeezy workwear number – big PlayStation One vibes – or the aggressive V neck and blazer?”
The metallic grey work suit is chosen and emerald green make-up is smudged into each eyelid. He bounces towards the navy blue backdrop and turns to face the camera. As the midday sun spills in through the Victorian windows, it catches the right of Brown’s face, tilting his head on an angle like a barber’s gentle nudge, although you suspect this face doesn’t rely on the natural elements to initiate a pose. It’s as though he’s directing the camera himself. His eyes cut into the lens staring back, while his cheekbones roll between waves of natural light. The film starts to snap and the veil on this Pizzagirl performance is gracefully pulled back.
Just like the blue backdrop he’s cavorting in front of, the setting was equally as makeshift for Brown when announcing his debut album to the world. First Timer, a seemingly innocent collection of songs crafted within his bedroom studio, features artwork just as telling as the album name itself. On the cover, Brown is lying atop a scrunched bedsheet in a white tank top and hooped earrings, his eyeliner matching the colour of small dumbbell placed beside. “That was just there to keep it weighed down,” he attests. A happy accident if anything, but one that’s a central part of the subconscious make-up of the record. The pose is completed by both hands reaching for his head. It’s unsure if he’s signalling anguish or ecstasy. Possibly both. “First Timer has a billion meanings which you can probably latch onto,” he starts, when asked if the title signals a consistent undercurrent to the record. But the one that shines through most pertinently is his questioning of masculinity – a feeling that subconsciously wired itself into the aesthetic of the album.
Cosmetically, at first, the First Timer joyously floats like a sun drenched Lilo bumping the contours of the poolside. Album opener Ball’s Gonna Keep On Rollin’ is a slick shopping mall ballad. You can envisage Pizzagirl proclaiming the lyrics from atop St John’s food court water feature in its 80s heyday. Following from the Ariel Pink-inspired Daytrip comes the operatic absurdity of Body Biology, complete with pompous vocal hooks and rolling falsettos. The jovial Dennis is essential Pizzagirl, with its charming luminosity and tongue-in-cheek rhyme scheme. But from there the Lilo deflates. Shades of early 2000s pop punk creep in and the eternal vibrancy of 1980s pop culture fades from the music. Ugly, Cut And Paste and Thispartysux display an aching introspection that seeps through the colours of Pizzagirl. The latter’s lyrics, “Now I’m crying all my make-up off tonight / because you didn’t even notice me”, signals a closer presence of Brown hidden behind the pin-up of Pizzagirl. A small scratch of the surface and you see the album is fundamentally his. Less so a continuum of the retro pop culture reflection that has defined his output to date.
“I had a problem with being known as an artist that makes one sound. Or becomes known for a certain thing, or shtick, due to the character,” he says, when asked if he saw the album as his most personal account of songwriting. “It really scared me when I could see that creeping in over the course of the first releases. Even now, when people get in touch, they’re always like, ‘I love the 80s sound’, which sometimes could feel a little bit limiting.”
Dropping his former Lumen moniker, a name that, he says, lent itself to music that was a bit too serious, paved the way to Pizzagirl – an artistic persona that melded George Michael star power with the neon dusk of 1980s Los Angeles. “The first EP [An Extended Play] was just me making my own version of the music I was listening to at the time,” he admits. “When I started Pizzagirl, I made this conscious decision to try and be this retro, vapourwave style of character, with sort of tacky imagery.” The new assortment of light-hearted synths and gated ambience drew in a strong following. Seabirds, taken from the EP, has now reached close to three million plays on Spotify. But the pop culture collage of the 1980s was only ever the entry point, he asserts. Not the defining artistic statement that much of his online fanbase and journalistic assessment came to expect. “It got boring and started to wear off. It became too sickly. Sickly sweet. It left a bit of a bitter taste for me, so I didn’t feel like I had to serve a fan of the EP. With First Timer, I was making a conscious, exciting effort to do something different.”
It starts to unravel that First Timer was the product of new headspace for Brown. In his view, the EPs that preceded the album were “much more water-tight”, whereas he was happy for the First Timer to be a little bit more “rough around the edges”. He points towards a separation between the online, on stage persona of Pizzagirl and the 21-year-old writing the songs in the freedom of his bedroom. It’s through this the record is granted its more relaxed approach. Not the hyper-real character that’s taken centre stage until now. “I don’t feel like when I’m making music I’m in Pizzagirl mode. I’m very much Liam when I’m doing it. When I’m on social media or onstage, I’m very much this fluid persona. It’s definitely the version of me that I’d like to be all of the time.
“Although, I’m not turning a switch in my head and that I’m a sad person most of the time,” he quickly asserts, so as not to suggest Pizzagirl is his emotive compass and solace. “But I think the pressure of people looking at you and taking an interest definitely makes you want to be fun. When I did the first EP I was really conscious of it being straight and narrow. Playing under the guise of Pizzagirl gave me the chance to be a little bit of a contortionist and try different things. If I was Liam Brown, people would probably expect me to be a folk singer.”
Pizzagirl is in full flow as Brown changes into a yellow Lacoste sweater complete with “aggressive V neck”. With tweed jacket added and umbrella in hand, Pizzagirl has morphed into a 1970s late-night talk show host, which he proceeds to imitate in an American accent as he reclines in a Swedish armchair. He’s every ounce a performer and forthcoming personality, although this approachability and exuberance hasn’t always been so apparent. It’s something that’s stewed in a world of suppression, now springing forth in the freedom of his open musical life.
Liam Brown grew up in north Liverpool, along the boundary of Aintree and Old Roan. He still lives there today, with his mum, happy in the comfort of his bedroom recording studio where the Pizzagirl elixir is brewed on a daily basis. Although it hasn’t always been such a free territory, he tells me. It’s telling the extent this landscape shaped the character-based exterior of his artistry.
“School in north Liverpool, or school in general,” he begins, “they can be quite oppressive places. I wasn’t too shy, but I existed to a certain threshold. After school, I was also a little bit hidden. iPad demos, GarageBand: it was a world that I never showed to anyone.” I tell him it’s a feeling I resonate with, a sort internal questioning, like taking a piercing out before crossing into the territory of judgemental eyes. “Creativity is muted. You spend so much of your time not wanting to get bullied, so much that I could never have been Pizzagirl in school.”
Brown’s assessment is condemnatory, but one that will undoubtedly ring true for many males tentatively following interests beyond football and the dominant teenage lad culture. “Once I left, I felt quite free to do whatever I want,” he adds, alluding to the moment Pizzagirl emerged from a secretive passion to public-facing expression of self, rich with all its camp traits, loud outfits and dashes of make-up. “I didn’t need to worry about facing people in school the next day. Most of the time I’m making a fool out of myself online and on Instagram, but I don’t have to face up to those who would call it out anymore.” Here he points towards the hard-edged male personas so prevalent within his educational upbringing. “I love the freedom of realising school was juvenile. I still feel juvenile, but I’ve got nobody to answer to now.”
As Brown suggests, the restrained personalities of the contemporary era have often found solace on the internet. Here, Brown’s new social geography was explored and built. In the life of teenage boy, it’s a world removed from the feudal-esque system topped by those who can kick a football dead hard and those, at the bottom, who get hit dead hard with said football – or other choice projectiles. It is here where Pizzagirl was able to take its form. Maybe it was the only place it could have taken form: the only space where Brown could freely shift into the shape of his own depiction of masculinity.
While Brown argues that Pizzagirl is an outlet to challenge the mundane, the foundations of its character remain an integral signifier of its artistic statement. We return to the album cover, one of the more obvious statements on the record and one less masked by the bubble-gum Pizzagirl bouquet. “For me, it’s masculine to claim yourself in a way that is not necessarily generic. If you’re comfortable with yourself, then that’s the most masculine way you can be. I wasn’t afraid to put that album cover out and take the backlash of people saying it’s camp. The entire project lives and dies by being camp. Pizzagirl is like camp men in the Titanic boiler room, feeding camp into the fire. It’s not something I want to avoid.”
For Brown, the album cover is at odds with the societal expectation for males growing up in Liverpool. Yet, even through this free expression, binary limitations still arise. Brown’s depiction of Pizzagirl on Instagram has led to regular questionings of his sexuality, with occasional fans’ messages curious to reveal if he, too, is homosexual. “I’ve always replied and said that I’m a big ally. I love the LGBTQ+ community,” he starts. “But I find it really sad that you have to have this sexuality attached to your artistic character. I feel like Pizzagirl is this fluid person who is doing what they want, simply because they want to do it.”
Brown’s frustration is born out of the limitless world in which he envisages Pizzagirl. Societal impressions of gay or straight do not necessitate a full eclipse of one or the other, but the non-binary fluidity is ultimately shaded by the two dominant conceptions of sexuality.
Listening back through the record, the autobiographical prints of Brown are found in the freedom the music wishes to convey. Brown’s music sidesteps overt sentimentality and parades through a liberated world of his own design. One where he initially was hidden in safety. One from where he has emerged brandishing his own riposte to masculine suppression. Acceptance has proved his most powerful form of communication. “I want everyone to be able to look at Pizzagirl and say, ‘That could be me’,” he assures, as we edge towards the end of our conversation. “Whether online or playing to a live audience, I want to show the reserved personalities that if I’m able to do this, they can be who they want, too.”