For Liska Steele, music was always written in the stars. The Chicago-based artist comes from a line of accomplished musicians, producers and composers. She took guitar lessons with her grandfather, borrowed vocal techniques from her aunt and continues to regularly record with her father. Liska’s cosmic pop consistently reaches celestial heights, and her latest is no exception.
Jupiter (ILYSM) is a planetary appeal for luck, a terrestrial surrender to reality and a four-song ode to authenticity and trust. The 26-year-old vocalist channels countless pop superstars from the better half of the past century with expertise and grace. Following a string of exemplary covers and 2018’s breakthrough Crusher, Liska takes a chance with fate on Jupiter, shaking away fear and self-doubt along the way.
While working on her latest EP, the singer made a point to write, record and collaborate on Thursdays — Jupiter’s day — in order to work directly with the planet’s fortuitous energy. Ears to Feed spoke with Liska on a Thursday, but the timing of the interview was pure happenstance, Jupiter’s unearthly karmic luck already kicking in.
Liska spent the past year, well, you know. By last winter, pandemic life started to take its toll. “Not to be corny, I think I was holding onto this idea of Jupiter for dear life,” she said over Zoom. Jupiter finds Liska trading apprehension for conviction, anxiety for calm. With comfortability, knowhow and ease, she sounds as confident as ever in her efforts to exchange newfound self-assurance for good fortune. “It’s an ode and experiment,” she explained, “to see if something crazy actually happens.”
The songs on Jupiter are filled with cleverly detailed pop modules that balance subtly impactful songwriting with the mass appeal of a Top 40 hit. As far as arrangements go, Liska opts for whittling left-field blueprints into something more approachable. “I don’t want to make something that sounds exactly like something else. Usually when I hear a song I’m like, ‘I want to recreate that.’ So I’ll do it in the most absurd way possible.”
While Liska’s influence is clear, her execution remains singular as her voice, style and production become more idiosyncratic upon each release. With Jupiter, Liska combines glam rock, disco and chamber pop with the vocal techniques of Gwen Stefani, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears and more. The EP performs a full orbit, achieving lift off with the declarative title track and touching down on the transcendent finale “Ascending.” Jupiter navigates uncertainty and destiny, happily accepting the creative help of friends and family along the way.
Working in tandem with her father, Ron Steele Jr., Liska’s process is a running familial exchange between a studio purist and a determined songwriter. “It’s definitely a back and forth,” she explained. “I’ll usually make something and send it to him. In terms of songs I end up using, it’s about 50/50.”
All of Liska’s songs are handed off to her father for additional production, mixing and mastering. He produced and titled “Ascending,” Jupiter’s soaring closer, mixing a new wave backing track with Liska’s ambitious, Bjork-inspired vocal melodies.
But with kinship comes contention. Back in March, the pair became embroiled in a five day drum battle for “I don’t know her.” “I really wanted those ‘Amy Winehouse drums,’” mentioned Liska. “That’s how I made my demo, but because I used sampled drums, my dad was like, ‘Well, I can’t make that sound good.’ He changed the drums at least five times and eventually we came to a compromise.”
And a compromise has never sounded so good. “I don’t know her” is the perfect combination of top notch songwriting, razor sharp production and a first rate vocal performance. Liska deliberately creates tension with space and pacing, masterfully plugging lyrics into winding vocal melodies for one grand earworm. “That song, specifically, I did the melody first,” she noted. “For the chorus, I had been singing the melody to myself for weeks because I just had a little track I made to listen to. So I fit the words into the melody.”
No stranger to unorthodox songwriting approaches, Liska often strikes gold in the most unlikely of places. She posted on Instagram asking for words or phrases as prompts for one minute songs. Two of those phrases turned into “Na Na Na Na,” a charming slow burner about the bummer that is pandemic romance. Liska spins a hit out of the pits, singing, “Love in the city that is asleep/Ain’t nothing pretty, just kind of weak.”
As the Windy City begins to stir, Jupiter’s arrival feels nothing short of serendipitous. There’s an unmistakable sense of gratefulness as gigs return, and it feels the pandemic has reminded everyone what’s important. For Liska, it’s staying grounded and true. Jupiter dismisses uncertainty and fends off the inner-critic. It’s a successful and authentic “fuck it” moment, one that marks a turning point for the DIY pop singer’s craft and mindset. Liska’s otherworldly request and earthly acceptance is a chance worth taking and a vision seen through.