"I didn’t think I was going to live past 20 years old," recounts Liz Vice. It's a surprising revelation considering the vitality and energy she exudes onstage, but it brings context to the utter joy and gratefulness and humility and magic that imbues her soulful voice throughout There's A Light, her debut album. Vice is an unlikely breakout artist—she'll be the first to tell you that she never intended to share her singing voice with anyone—but she's overcome the odds with a survivor's spirit, discovering that sometimes we have to travel dark roads and long nights before the sun can illuminate our true path.
Born the middle of 5 children and raised by a single mother, Vice grew up in Oregon with dreams of becoming a filmmaker. She faced an unthinkable plot twist at the age of 15, though, when she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and her kidneys began to fail. By 19, she'd begun what would turn into three-and-a-half years of dialysis, during which time she faced down congestive heart failure, dangerous weight loss, and a series of hospital-borne infections that could have proved fatal to someone in her condition. "Instead of praying that I would be healed, I was just so tired that I would pray for death every day," she confesses. "But every day I woke up, I decided to live that day to the fullest."
When well enough to work, she put herself through medical assisting school and was blessed with a much-needed kidney transplant. The new lease on life encouraged her to pursue her dream of filmmaking, long-since put on hold in the face of her struggle to survive. "I decided I was going to make films and put people of color in them with no stereotypes attached," Vice explains. "I wanted to make movies that encouraged people to go out and do something in their lives, that wouldn't make them feel limited because they grew up in a certain neighborhood or family situation."
While working in film, she began attending a new church in Portland and inexplicably found herself compelled to audition for the worship team, a small group of singers and musicians who led the young congregation in contemplative, folk-inspired songs. Overcoming her intense stage fright, she auditioned for Josh White, the pastor of the church and who wrote much of the material for the worship team, and their connection was immediate. Vice began singing in smaller, laid back services during the week, until one Sunday, Vice was called to sing solo in front of the full congregation of nearly 400 parishioners.
"I remember as I was singing, it felt like every pore in my body opened up, and I was just covered in sweat like I had water poured on top of my head," she says. "I was so overwhelmed with the adrenaline of singing a song of that magnitude by myself in front of that many people. It felt like I just went to a new place and everyone disappeared, and then the song was over. There was so much emotion happening I had to sit down. My friend walked onstage in tears and she said, 'What was that?' I looked at her and started crying and said, 'I don’t know.'"
It was a life-changing performance. White decided to give Vice songs he intended for his own solo project. After just one rehearsal, she and the band headed into Jackpot Studios to record all of the instrumentation live to tape. The buzz about the music they were creating was so strong that when they announced a local release show, it sold out almost instantly. Her riveting performance led to dates with Cody Chesnutt and St. Paul & The Broken Bones, as well as a slot at the prestigious Blues Fest, and now, an international release for the album on Ramseur Records.
There's A Light opens with the funky R&B of "Abide," Vice's voice sounding like something straight out of the Stax vault over top of a slinky bass and drum groove. On "Empty Me Out," the keyboards take over front and center as Vice's voice grows in rich, expansive layers of harmony. It was hearing the recording of the slow-burning "Entrance" for the first time, though, that convinced her she was creating something special with White.
"When I first listened to the final mix, as soon as it gets to the first 'ooohs,' I couldn't believe that voice was mine," she remembers. "It was the first time I ever heard the things that people kept saying they heard when I sang. I started tearing up and had this moment of, 'Can I cry to my own song?'" she laughs. "It felt like an out of body experience." The wailing vocals on "The Source" are the stuff that goosebumps are made of, while Vice found herself channeling Michael Jackson on "Everything Is Yours" and pushing deep into the kind of questions about faith and spirituality that one rarely has the courage to ask in church on "Enclosed By You."
Though it's not filmmaking like she originally dreamed of, Vice has found music to be a vehicle for the same type of positive social influence she hoped to have as a director. She imagines the up-tempo gospel of "Pure Religion" as the kind of song a mother might sing to her children to keep them on the right track, and "All Must Be Well" is a message of resilience and survival through hard times. It's perhaps on the title track, though, that we hear the purest expression of love and hope, with Vice joyfully singing "There's a light shining over me" throughout the two-minute, feel-good album closer.
There is indeed a light shining over Liz Vice. It saved her all those years ago just when she thought her life was ending, and it shone down upon a new calling, one in which she gets up onstage every night and shares that light with the world. Come what may, Liz Vice is gonna let it shine.